by Khawer Amir Khan shared via Facebook Note on his profile
Open letter to Ms. Sassui Palijo, Sindh Minister for Culture
I write this open letter to you with a heavy heart. Workers of your party have betrayed the message of Benazir Bhutto, who very recently gave her life but refused to be silenced. No person with a moral compass would question her courage in standing up to the forces of obscurantism and regression.
When her janisar and jiyalas behaved like stormtroopers and destroyed art at a festival that was meant to be about the identity of Pakistanis, they called into question their own understanding of Ms. Bhutto’s sacrifice.
It has been said by many, both supporters of your party and common citizens, that the organizers and curators of the festival are somehow to blame for provoking the sentiments of the people. It is being said that art is fine, but the festival is no place for politics. This proposition not only ignores the rich heritage of festivals as an articulation of resistance, the festivals born of the French revolution come to mind, but also completely ignores the fact that both the “objectionable art” and the festival concerned Pakistan’s identity. Hundreds died because of Ms. Bhutto’s refusal to be silenced, should be blame her then? You will join me in an empathic NO! Only the forces of regression and hate are to be blamed.
It is being said that the festival is fine for art, but no place for partisan statements. Statements divorced from art render the latter impotent and irrelevant. Art is a form of citizenship; to silence heterodox views of our identity ensure the ascendancy of hegemonic ones. Is that what we want to do, silence oppositional readings of our history and identity? Are we that afraid to speak truth to power?
It is being said that the objectionable art denied the common citizens the privilege of attending the festival, that approach is quantitative, mine is qualitative. Why not attend officially state sanctioned events that, have for so long, dictated how we constitute ourselves as a nation then? Why not attend the military parades on the 14th of August and 23rd of March? Why not salute the power of the establishment? Surely more people will attend those festivals, more people see them on TV. Yet they have little relevance to how Pakistanis consider their identity today. What is the point of this festival if not to give a voice to the plebeians?
Maybe South Asian cultures lack a sense of irony. The protests against “Slumdog Millionaire” in India come to mind, and I can’t even recall the Urdu word for irony. Nonetheless it is ironic is that your party jiyalas have validated the message of the piece. The art is from a radical perspective, from which the PPP seems to be in the lap of the establishment now. Can the People’s Party not tolerate the mere articulation of an alternative identity? Who is served when we are sheepish and subdued? Surely not the people.
Is this the promise of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto? To quash the agency of citizens? The Bhutto that showed a despondent Pakistan a way forward from impasse? The Bhutto that enshrined fundamental human rights in a constitution that we could finally agree on? The Bhutto that promised a people that their voices would be heard?
Does his party now seek our acquiesce by a forced silence? Power politics and clampdowns on longmarches are one thing but this, Madam Minister, is art! If a citizen in Pakistan cannot even speak express dissent without the fear of a mob, then your party barters respect for fear.
My friend, your brother Sarmad, suggested to me that it was hypocritical that other parties were not being similarly parodied; does it occur to the PPP leadership and activists that perhaps exclusion simply means that overtly establishment parties have little to do with our identity?
I have put up to so-called offensive art as my profile picture on a social networking website, to this too your brother my friend, objects. But I say this: I put up the picture to remind you of Benazir’s courage and refusal to be silenced. It is said that her death is so recent that it evokes rage and passion uncontrollable. Find your courage to condemn then, without caveat, this crime against the voice of the people. Your silence would dishonor her.
Yours in protest,
Khawer A. Khan