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Hullabaloo over the Hitler picture
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23 Jun 2010
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Mahir Ali
Wednesday, 23 Jun, 2010

Apparently it was a phone call from the esteemed director Mahesh Bhatt’s German mother-in-law that clinched the issue for Indian actor Anupam Kher and prompted him to turn down the title role in Dear Friend Hitler, a projected Bollywood take on the Nazi dictator.

According to a report in The Times of India, she told him: “It’s not just the Jews who suffered because of Hitler. The Germans, too, suffered … Please don’t do anything to further the name of that blot from history.”

Then there was Sister Dolores, who works with autistic children alongside Kher. “These two women decided the issue for me,” says the versatile actor, who had earlier described his casting as a challenge. First-time director Rakesh Ranjan Kumar is said to have picked Kher because of his resemblance to Adolf Hitler — which is surely a bit of a stretch. But then, so is the idea of a Hindi-spouting German tyrant.

Portrayals of Adolf Hitler on the big screen are, of course, hardly a novelty. And they are seldom particularly controversial. A few years ago, the German film Downfall did excite comment for its purported attempt to humanise a mass murderer, but the criticism was largely misguided.

The movie depicts Hitler’s last days in his elaborate Berlin bunker and suggests that he was to the very end a thoroughly deluded human being. But a human being all the same. That clashes with the popular idea of him as a monster. There can, of course, be no doubt whatsoever that he was responsible for monstrous acts that have few parallels in modern history. But does the monumental cruelty he presided over automatically disqualify him from membership of the human race? If only.

The value of the lessons that can be derived from the Nazi experience would markedly be diminished were it to be determined that Hitler was somehow completely distinct from the remainder of humanity. That he embodied some of the worst aspects of human nature is difficult to dispute. But it was human nature — and therein lies the historical value of the Hitler years as a cautionary tale.

That does not justify bandying about the Hitler analogy with abandon, as western propagandists — among others — are all too frequently inclined to do. While the Second World War was still fresh in the public consciousness, it was absurdly applied, for instance to Gamal Abdel Nasser — but, remarkably, not to Francisco Franco.

More recently, the likes of Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic have been tarred with the same brush. From a somewhat different point view, so has George W. Bush. Now, however bereft these three may be of redeeming features on the political plane, comparisons with Hitler nonetheless seem outlandish and, arguably, outrageous.

On the other hand, it is even more ridiculous — and dangerous — to look for redeeming qualities in the Fuhrer. It would be unfair to allege that this is what Kumar has in mind, although his purported press statements did provide cause for concern. “As a leader, he was successful,” he has been quoted as saying. “Why did he lose as a human being, what were the problems, what were the issues, what were his intentions, this is what we want to show.”

That’s certainly an ambitious intention, but not necessarily deplorable. But then, as The Guardian reported it, “Kumar also said he hoped to show Hitler’s ‘love for India’ and how the Nazi leader indirectly contributed to independence in the subcontinent”.

The would-be director has subsequently claimed that he was misquoted, but the attribution inevitably stirred the ire not just of Indian Jews but of historians as well. There can, after all, be no question whatsoever that Hitler was a racist, and if he did not specifically denigrate the denizens of the subcontinent, that’s only because they were on the fringes of his worldview — he is known, after all, to have expressed the view that British imperialism was too benign, and it is surely unlikely that non-violent non-cooperation of the Gandhian variety would have cut much ice with Nazi storm troopers.

It’s true that Hitler’s government did accept the radical Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose as an ally — as did the Japanese subsequently — and helped him raise an anti-British army from among Indian prisoners of war, but the willingness of the Axis powers to do whatever they could to undermine British power can hardly be construed as concern for Indian freedom.

Of course, a film about Bose’s meeting with Hitler and broader relationship with the Nazis would be interesting. (Not having seen Shyam Benegal’s Bose biopic from five years ago, I’m unable to say how far it delves into this aspect of Netaji’s struggle — although Benegal did at least get a German actor to portray the Fuhrer.)

A BBC report last week, hinged on the projected movie by Kumar, paints a disturbing picture of a growing fascination among young Indians with the Hitler phenomenon. It cites instances of fascination with the Fuhrer on account of his mesmerising power and his ‘patriotism’.

Such misconceptions of Hitler are not restricted to India, of course. Steady or growing sales of Mein Kampf have also been reported from Turkey, the Palestinian territories and the US. There is cause to fear that all too often it serves to reinforce notions of anti-Semitism. That’s a travesty. It’s far more pertinent to point out, as a number of Israelis periodically do, that the tactics of the Israeli security forces against Palestinians are sometimes reminiscent of Nazi actions against Jews.

It may be the case that a few Indians are fooled by Hitler’s appropriation of a Hindu symbol, the swastika. Others may be taken by the fascist tendencies of Bal Thackeray and his ilk. But if anyone is keen on an illuminating cinematic portrayal of Hitler, it would help them to revisit The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s inimitable 1940 satire, in which he plays a Jewish barber who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Fuhrer.

In his final speech, Chaplin exhorts the masses: “Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie … Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people … Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.” To that one could indeed say ‘amen’.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

What’s wrong with this picture?
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16 Jun 2010
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The vehement denials that have lately been pouring out of Islamabad with reference to Matt Waldman’s controversial discussion paper on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate’s embroilment with the Afghan Taliban offer little cause for surprise.

Even a relatively milder indictment of the ISI’s role in Afghanistan would have been greeted with a dismissive counter-offensive.

At the same time, however, even a cursory perusal of the report demonstrates that what’s disconcerting about it goes well beyond the striking allegation that President Asif Zardari (whose name is consistently misspelt as ‘Zadari’ in the discussion paper) actually visited incarcerated Afghan Taliban in a Pakistani prison and harangued dozens of them for half an hour.

Even his most vociferous foes would concede that Zardari is adept at covering his tracks. How could he conceivably hope to make such an appearance and then expect it to remain secret? It is not entirely inconceivable, of course, that the ISI could use its powers or persuasion to place him in a compromising position. But it’s nonetheless highly unlikely. As Ahmed Rashid was quoted as saying by The Guardian on Monday, “The last person the Taliban would want to see is Asif Zardari.”

It’s intriguing all the same that Waldman’s allegation, based on an interview with a Taliban source who wasn’t there but is supposed to be in the know, is supplemented in a report in this week’s The Sunday Times by Miles Ammore, who cites “a Taliban leader in jail at the time” as saying that the attitude of the prison authorities changed five days before the presidential visit in early April. It quotes Zardari as saying, “You are our people, we are friends, and after your release we will of course support you to do your operations.”

The same quote appears in Waldman’s paper, citing “a Talib who has regular contact with the Quetta shura”. Both reports say Zardari assured the prisoners that the less well known among them would be released shortly, to be followed in due course by those who were better known. The Times’ source goes on to allege that during this visit Zardari also met Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the reported second-in-command to Mullah Omar, who was arrested in Karachi last February.

Reports at the time said Baradar’s capture was the result of a cooperative effort between the ISI and the CIA — even though it apparently disrupted negotiations between the Taliban and the Karzai government in Kabul. The latest take on this episode paints it as an attempt by the ISI to forestall any such discussions that did not enjoy its imprimatur.

The second most damaging charge in the Waldman indictment is the allegation that the ISI actually has seats on the so-called Quetta shura that ostensibly directs the Afghan insurgency — although the report’s author appears to be uncertain as to whether this means the intelligence agency has a direct say in operational plans or operates as an observer. He also seems to be unclear on whether the ISI participation refers to actual agents monitoring the proceedings, or to Taliban henchmen who obey the ISI because it happens to be their primary paymaster.

Provided the Quetta shura is not a mythical entity, it can more or less be taken for granted that the ISI keeps a close watch on its activities, and the agency’s direct involvement in the shura’s affairs would be unsurprising. But Waldman’s paper can hardly be construed as independent confirmation on this score.

For one thing, it is remarkable that Waldman appears to be unfazed by the fact that all of his anonymous sources appear to be singing from the same hymn sheet. At least two of them cite the clarity of “the sun in the sky” as a simile for the ISI’s involvement, and almost all of them claim that the Taliban’s most heinous excesses — terrorist attacks against schools for girls, for instance — are prompted by the ISI, whereas the nationalists among them are motivated mainly by the urge to rid their nation of Nato occupation.

Waldman concedes that such statements could be an attempt to blame the worst Taliban crimes on the ISI. He also casts doubt on the allegation that the United States, through its military aid to Pakistan, is indirectly paying for a range of atrocities. And although he cites one interviewee as saying that “the only people [the Taliban] hate more than the Americans are the ISI”, notably because the latter is determined to disrupt prospects of peace in Afghanistan, he appears to ignore the motivation of his informants.

Hamid Karzai has lately indicated that he’s more inclined to negotiate a peace through Pakistan auspices than to trust the American military strategy. Waldman’s paper and The Sunday Times report could be part of a concerted effort to undermine Karzai’s efforts. On the other hand, there is much to be said for his assertion that Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan is aimed chiefly at undermining India’s investments in the Great Game.

Which makes it all the more vital that efforts should be made to restore relations between India and Pakistan to an even keel. It’s not easy, but it could all the difference as far as Afghanistan is concerned.

At the same time, even if half of what the Waldman report alleges is close to the truth, the American assumption that Pakistan is on its side would need to be reassessed.

It has lately been amply reiterated that Pakistan has profound problems of its own, not least in the obscurantist reaction to Nawaz Sharif’s somewhat belated response to the terrorist attack late last month on two houses of worship in Lahore, that “Ahmadi brothers and sisters are an asset” to the nation. The subdued reaction to the massacre at the houses of worship, that claimed almost 100 lives, is as incriminating an indictment as any of the state of the nation 63 years after Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared that matters of faith would be no business of the state.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Unanswered question: who killed BB?
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21 Apr 2010
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Mahir Ali
Wednesday, 21 Apr, 2010

Given that the mandate of the United Nations commission of inquiry into the assassination of Benazir Bhutto did not extend to identifying the culprits, its value depends ultimately on the extent to which it brings us closer to that goal.

Although the shrill defensiveness of spokesmen for former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and the PPP government’s exuberance in expressing its sense of vindication suggest otherwise, the UN report does not in fact reveal much that wasn’t already known.

The inadequacy of official as well as party-initiated security arrangements on that fateful day in December 2007 is hardly a revelation — although it’s not hard to understand the PPP’s stance that similar conclusions by a domestic inquiry would have been greeted with accusations of political motivation.

On the other hand, whereas the UN panel may have genuinely been shocked by the contrast between the level of security provided to pro-Musharraf ex-prime ministers Shaukat Aziz and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, and that offered to Bhutto, such discrepancies are pretty much par for the course in Pakistan’s political culture.

By December 2007, the tentative agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto had kind of crumbled, although they were both keeping their options open. The PML faction that ruled Punjab, meanwhile, had been bitterly opposed to that understanding anyway; it is not particularly surprising, then, that its administrative machinery stopped well short of offering Bhutto a cordon sanitaire in Rawalpindi.

It is arguably more curious why, in view of these circumstances, the PPP did not step up its own security arrangements, given that there was no dearth of death threats.

The UN panel makes allowance for the fact that the PPP is a political party rather than a security organisation and goes relatively easy on the lack of clarity that surrounded its arrangements. But its report does not help to resolve the mystery of why the bullet-proof black Mercedes that was supposed to serve as Bhutto’s back-up transport disappeared in such a rush. Nor does it clarify whether Benazir emerged from her vehicle’s escape hatch of her own accord, or was persuaded to do so.

On the other hand, while she may have escaped serious injury had she not exposed her head and shoulders, that hardly excuses the fact that a teenage assassin was able to get so close to her vehicle.

The plethora of outright lies and half-truths subsequently offered by the police is certainly suspicious but not necessarily self-incriminating. The UN panel attributes it in part to the police’s reluctance to irritate Pakistan’s all-powerful intelligence agencies, whose possible involvement in the assassination has inevitably been the subject of speculation.

It’s hardly controversial to claim that there was a cover-up. The crucial question is, was it intuitive — that is to say, based on the unproven assumption of involvement by state actors from the murky depths of the military-intelligence networks — or the consequence of clear instructions from the powers-that-be?

The UN sheets home the blame for the refusal to permit an autopsy to city police officer Saud Aziz, who evidently turned down requests from doctors, rather than to Asif Ali Zardari. The latter exculpation is one of the more dubious aspects of the report, though: Zardari could surely have requested an autopsy even after his estranged wife’s body had been taken from the hospital to Chaklala airport. The absence of a post-mortem makes it impossible to tell whether there were any bullet wounds, for instance.

The report does note, however, that the Musharraf administration was much too hasty in announcing that a lever on the escape hatch accounted for Bhutto’s fatal injury and that the suicide bombing was ordered by Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. And then there’s the fact that the assassination site was hosed down after only 23 pieces of forensic evidence had been collected, in circumstances that ought to have yielded thousands of clues.

The clean-up is reminiscent of the actions that followed the assassination of Murtaza Bhutto outside his Clifton home in Karachi a decade earlier — and in that particular case the city police’s culpability is beyond reasonable doubt.

Although Fatima’s recently published memoir, Songs of Blood and Sword, is unfortunately peppered with inaccuracies about circumstances of which her knowledge is inevitably second-hand, there is plenty of poignancy in her recollections about her father and, in particular, the circumstances in which he was eliminated. Then, too, the police version of events was layered with lies.

Fatima’s efforts in seeking to formulate the story of her father’s life are commendable, but she apparently fails to realise that, in speaking to her, former friends, acquaintances and lovers of her father are unlikely to cough up the whole truth, not least because of the tragic circumstances in which he met his end. That makes it a flawed memoir, but it’s nonetheless more readable than the ghostwritten PR publications of the woman she adored as Wadi Bua, but subsequently grew to detest.

Fatima castigates her grandfather for putting his sons in an invidious position by declaring that they would avenge his murder, perhaps not realising the extent to which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was given to rhetorical flights of fancy. It’s possible he would have avoided politics altogether had he any inkling that three of his four children would die prematurely by unnatural means on account of their paternity.

The Zardari government, meanwhile, has acted against some of those accused of obfuscation in the UN report, but it remains far from clear whether fresh investigations will meaningfully resolve the question of who killed Benazir Bhutto. There can be little question. however, that those who love to claim that democracy is the best revenge would acquire a lot more credibility if they could be bothered to introduce it into the party that thrives on laying claim to the Bhutto legacy.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Gulami, Sewa Do
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15 Nov 2008
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Sui Gas Ki Qeemet Aur
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17 Jul 2008
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