Thursday, 28 January 2016

Fighting the Plague in Education

Camus’ The Plague can be symbolically read as Kashmir’s story, including the story of its Education sector.
In order to solve countless problems in communication that cause divorces, end friendships and alliances, breed enmity and hostility between those who are otherwise co-workers or share ultimate goal, one needs to remember a few things that are defended by the greatest of thinkers and upheld by world religions and saints:
  • “No man is wilfully bad.” Those who seem to be indeed bad don’t really know how they are injuring the soul by evil actions. If they indeed knew – one’s degrees or post doesn’t help here – they would not do evil.
  • Hate the sin and not the sinner.
  • Judge not. 
  •  Ignorance is the root cause of vice. Knowledge is virtue.
  • We need to listen to the other, then true dialogue could ensue.
  • Our perceived enemies are Heaven sent, embodying God’s jalali attributes. In fact it is our Spirit who projects them for its own growth. They are friends in disguise and, in a sense, invited for completing the action of the drama that requires villains. Anyway life is ultimately a drama whose Director is God and our only mandate is to do our assigned role well. 
  • Ego is an illusion. Almost all fights are at bottom ego trips. It is good that ego – the devil – is hurt as it helps one become enlightened. “I was humiliated and I got enlightened.” 
  • As long as man imagines he can forgive someone it implies the ego that may or may not decide to forgive or sense of agency is still there. What is called for is surrender of will and unconditional forgiving.
The following quotes are from the work The Mantle of Initiation  excepting the last one which is from The Book of Spiritual Advice authored by Islam’s Greatest Master of Irfan or gnosis:
  • Do not urge leadership upon anyone.
  • Take no joy in a reputation flattering to yourself spreading among the general public, even if you deserve it.
  • Care nothing for the ignorance of him who does not know your worth; rather, it is not seemly that there be any sense of your worth even in your own eyes.
  • Have no desire that people should listen to your speech.
  • Be not anxious to give answer to anything displeasing said about you.
  • Be content with [God’s] Decree not necessarily with each thing decreed, but, rather, with its Decree itself. And receive with joy whatever may come from Him.
  • Do favors for both friend and foe, treating all alike with humility, gentleness and long-suffering.
  • Pardon the one who has harmed you, that is, do not even defend yourself [from harm].
  • In general, you should hold a good opinion of everyone, and your heart should be at peace with them.
In the light of these maxims let us approach a “crisis” that arose recently, precipitated by perceived victimisation policy of Director Education, whose significant contribution to development of education as District Development Commissioner, Bandipore, whose rapport with teaching community (most of the well meaning teachers supposedly represented by the  Teachers Forum are not just praising him but pray for his long innings), whose skills as educator and not just as administrator have been noticed by some of our best educators (he had the guts to introduce and direct performance of some of Plato’s dialogues that have bearing on education), whose heart being the heart of a poet, reportedly beats faster for the less privileged, are  all well known. He is also known to act unlike dilly dallying bureaucrats and like Corporate bosses speedily and sternly and thus efficiently. I don’t wish to analyse politics and “educational” philosophy  of abuses thrown at the Director– I may remind him of Sir Syed who, while campaigning for what is now AMU was sarcastically greeted by shoes, and he gratefully accepted it saying he can sell it for raising funds for his project – nor call for public audit of the Forum’s policies or its credentials – moral, intellectual and technical – as a representative body  of teachers who are required, by the very nature of the job assigned to them, of soul-fashioning and character building, to love teaching and ideally not to envy or opt for administrative posts, and use the most refined language nor question supposedly hidden agenda in testing teachers or its arbitrary nature that examines Masters or even PhDs leaving undergrads or some apparently inefficient people untouched. Instead, I draw attention of fellow columnists, civil society members and teaching fraternity and authorities in education to one of the greatest works in twentieth century fiction Albert Camus’ The Plague that can by symbolically read as Kashmir’s story including the story of its Education sector. It calls for noticing the plague that is all around us, stinking and need to fight it collectively and the fact that deep consciousness of suffering unites us all, dissolving egos and making us all compassionate. Camus tells about widespread epidemic that afflicted inhabitants of Oran and its hero who is a doctor named Rieux who, by all appearances, shunning all consideration of reward leaves no stone unturned to help the community heal. It tells, among other things, about what ultimately counts and unites us all – solidarity that common suffering calls forth amongst victims. Isn’t it tragic that we don’t notice plague that has consumed so many and we keep building personal empires? Every year faulty education system that has no philosophy or vision, kills souls and minds by killing spark of creativity or critical thinking and produces moral/intellectual cripples is a sort of plague that causes more damage than 2014 floods and yet we show no solidarity. 
      Almost all well-meaning and informed teachers would agree that the most recent attempt to treat plague by authorities seems to have been the most target specific. The doctor appointed to supervise healing programme thinks that some members of his own team appointed for healing bodies and minds need to be first checked against infection and the kits for healing they possess are in order or they are indeed updated regarding the tools they use – a reasonable hypothesis that can easily be verified. Strangely some of the team members refuse the diagnostic test and take to streets leaving plague stricken community shocked and dying. This community asks why it hasn’t the right to be treated by those only who are indeed capable of treating them. 
      Factors that further intensify plague include privatization where it costs too much to be treated and proper healing is made more difficult. The community and members of teachers fraternity as public servants embodying the true spirit of constitution can’t afford neutrality at the time of moral crisis and must fight champions of feudal and capitalist values that have been unnerved by some success of recent radical measures to tackle plague at multiple levels.  Now since community has suffered terribly at the hands of previous regimes of healers, generally speaking, it is becoming increasingly conscious and can’t be taken for a ride this time.
      Let the Teachers Forum publicly argue its case – teachers are trained or expected to politely argue and not to agitate or dictate in democracies – (it looks disgraceful to chant slogans for the cause of education that persuades or does what Socrates called midwifery – a teacher shouting is sacrilege for likes of Plato) and propose a comprehensive policy for treating existing problems including possibly infected lot in its fraternity to prevent further spread of plague.  Our teachers become protestors as if community could learn no other way from dialogue to sacrifice from nation builders. If the only force against failure of communication and politics of confrontation is education and if educators fail themselves, we can only wait for the doom as the plague consumes all. The maxims  quoted above imply we acknowledge our guilt and pain of near and dear ones and proceed to help the dying community. Rationale of this or that decision we can gracefully post-mortem or challenge in court but we can’t lose sight of the objective that we all share which is fighting the plague and not the healer and seek the glory of God and not of ourselves.

Friday, 22 January 2016

We too can Write

Celebrating Writers’ Spaces in Kashmir
Why is the world today suffering spiritual-moral crisis, reeling under countless conflicts and devastated by huge avoidable suffering at all planes?
      The best answer to this can be sought in great writers. However part of the current tragedy is that the best writers/critics are either not heard or not known or not coming forth to make their intervention. One important reason for scarcity of better writers today in Kashmir is that, collectively, we have ignored nurturing those spaces that fashion writers or sharpen critical sense. Now, to some extent, we have been able open up some spaces. Today let us pay attention to one such space that has been active for quite some time in Kashmir. J & K Fiction Writers Guild is an open space in Summer capital of the State where every Saturday afternoon, an open group of writers, critics and people from all walks of life interested in literature, meet, read and critically appraise short stories besides, briefly, informally interacting on any issue any writer or audience is interested in. It is an open space for all to express, to question and debate issues pertaining to everything a writer is interested in (It is everything in life that does  interest a writer and nothing human is alien to him).
      Let us dismiss the perception that Kashmir hasn’t  a great legacy (and its continuity till date) of excellence to guide and inspire its current writers. During Buddhist and Shaivist periods, we have succeeded, unlike, vast majority of similar smaller kingdoms, in gifting the world with whole new schools of philosophy and aesthetics (It is another question and an outstanding irony of academic politics that no Vice Chancellor of Kashmir based universities is interested in establishing Philosophy department in his university. Neither are authorities in education department granting Philosophy the  priority it deserves  as part of general curriculum for sharpening critical intelligence and helping in encountering crisis in values or nihilism or fundamentalism – of both religious and secularist varieties – sponsored violence.) During the Islamic period we have produced great philosophy for the masses in the form of mystic poetry besides first rate literary figures and scholars of various disciplines. Lalla is a class in itself who can find place in any great anthology of world poetry. Shaikh-al-Alam is an incomparable genius who revitalized the whole Reshi tradition and thus in a way almost all that is spiritually or morally significant in indigenous history of culture. 
      Even though politically not autonomous for centuries, Kashmir hasn’t relinquished its freedom, even a sort of leadership, in the world of art, craft and culture. Kashmiri’s mystic poets have, at least occasionally or in scattered manner, moments or flashes of genius that are comparable to the best of world poetry including masterpieces of Persian and German mystico-romantic poetry. Modern Kashmir has the likes of Rahi who can rub shoulders with the first rate poets of any country. It has Urdu poets and critics who seem to have carved for themselves permanent place in the history of Urdu literature and criticism. It has a world class genius humourist Qazi Ghulam Muhammad whom every Kashmiri should be reading. It has first rate Iqbal scholars like Prof. G R. Malik. There is a poet in almost every village for whom it could be claimed that he/she has been indeed touched by the Muse (modern post-Zargar Sufi poets, only few of whom can be charged of repetition or (un?)conscious plagiarism, are in thousands in Kashmir which is a record that we need to be more conscious about). We have some short stories that constitute the proud heritage of world literature.
      We have novelists and memoir writers and immensely talented journalists whose pen is indeed much mightier than the sword that can be countered by any power. It has world class translations or adaptations of many great classics by poets and translators. (See, for instance, Rashid Nazki’s translation of Qaseedai Burda, G. N. Khayal’s translation of Umar Khayyam and Mumin Saheb’s rendering of Mantiq-ut-Taer).
      A Kashmiri has every reason to feel proud and claim great inheritance and thus have faith in its power to liberate himself and larger humankind which shares in its current fate that is best described by Dostovesky’s phrase “souls on hire.” We have reasons to hope that writers in younger generation rediscover their great past and, and thanks to the great suffering they have witnessed, act as conscience keepers of the world of the “ the wretched of the earth” - silenced or marginalized classes/communities.
      J &K Fiction Writers Guild is contributing its share to providing the necessary moisture to make our soil more fertile (zara num ho to yeh miti badi zarkhaez hae saqi) by inviting most of the well-known writers (including some mentioned here) to preside and contribute. Eager learners and upcoming writers are awaiting their mentors and accomplished writers every week and one can feel that the ice is thawing and we can smell the fragrance of spring flowers. Nothing can stand between the birth of self consciousness of people mediated by great writers and the beautiful dream of azadi that all oppressed people, everywhere are seeking to realize.
      Azadi, like Derrida’s Justice or Sufi’s Beloved God in His full glory, never comes but must be ceaselessly sought or approximated as a limit or ideal state. Leaders dream  dreams, while writers provide the reality check by testing them and interpreting them in the furnace of life with all its contradictions. Let us learn, with fiction writers, that art is a way of transfiguring and healing and celebrating life  despite misdeeds of the “Other” or our crooked hearts that weave illusions or construct idols. Art and Religion are evidences that  our spirit can never be enslaved though our bodies or lanes can be temporarily.
      Life’s great challenge to which great leaders do respond is to model life on art and that is salvation or felicity. Let our politics approximate art or artists guide us so that we could better interpret the symbol and dream of azadi or freedom that all political philosophies and people seek.
      For artists like Faiz and Mantoo India or Pakistan have yet to win freedom (Kashmir ki bari keb aayae gi, one can imagine). However there can be no curfewed nights for dreams and we can, even though haltingly, say Bol ki lab azad hae teray and make winds testify aes kel ti gawaan aes.
      If you have ever felt that there is a creative writer in you or you have been unsure regarding the merit of your work or you have been irresistibly driven to announce that you have the right to write and get your work known and appraised  the local literary elite, it might be worth exploring  certain spaces around you including that of this Guild. It is a truly democratic space, professionally maintained by voluntary work force which organizes, advertises and maintains profiles and introduces authors or their work to the world. This space needs to involve more of first rate writers and critics and discuss more of classics in creative fiction to chisel tastes.
      So far only a handful of highly satisfactory short stories have been presented and much of the critical commentary has been arcane because our standards have been rather poor. I hope the standard of these Saturdays keeps improving and give us, on the pattern of classic Tuesdays with Morrie, great lessons in the Craft of Recreating Meaning of Life through Literature.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Reading Meaning in History

The question of time is the vital question of life and death for Muslims, as Iqbal noted.
Time is terribly real. So is history. The question of time is the vital question of life and death for Muslims, as Iqbal noted. Semitic traditions have been especially concerned with linearity of time and exigencies of history. On this fateful moment in history when the “clash” of civilizations has been brought up, how do we approach the vital question? What is the meaning of history if we find it a “huge slaughterhouse” of people and find the will to power ruling the roost? How is it possible to say goodbye to another fateful year that precipitated the debate on meaning of Muslim understanding of history and allied conceptions of Islamic State and Khilafah that, self avowedly, seek to redirect history with a value based  paradigm. The problem of evil especially presents itself with all its horror today as we recall groans and sighs and tears from violence and alienation that seems to have increased last year as capitalism invests in newer conflicts. How do we engage with the issue? We need a philosophy of history and understanding of time vis-a-vis eternity, of which it is “a moving image.”
      Before any endeavour to change the world that Marx proposed as the point so far missed by philosophers, the challenge is to understand the world we seek to change as Heidegger retorted. And it is in understanding the world that philosophers  help us. The point of changing it then could better follow. Stalin and Hitler tried to change it and we know the disasters that accompanied their work. The same is true of so many movements that envisioned better worlds without having done enough homework for first understanding the world.
      The world isn’t divided into warring religions but religions that fundamentally share an orientation towards Transcendence and an attempt to understand history or temporality in the light of the eternal. The world isn’t neatly divided into forces of good and forces of evil but complementary and competing visions of the good. Ultimately there is no evil or no enduring evil as it is Haqq or Truth that has the final word and that works its way through and with the evil, apparent or real. God seeks to arrange (with cooperation of humans as "co-creators" ). Believers posit a God of providence that moves all things to perfection, to God to whom is the final return as the Quran asserts."How rough hewn our ends, there is a providence that shapes our ends." Evil or accident in history is both a means to the good and a tragic consequence of misuse of freedom that itself however is such a supreme virtue that none of us is ready to exchange freedom for all the riches of the world (Who will accept the offer of great salary or pension for life and riches on the condition that one has to be an animal or a machine?!). There is no absolute division between classes, genders, nations – everywhere we see certain softening of exclusivist claims or blunting of the edges of binary opposites. No country is purely capitalist, nor purely socialist, nor purely “Islamic” or  democratic. No tradition can claim a record in which there are no regrettable elements. No political ideology alone has cured all the ills. Great religions have all recognized certain inevitability of limitations or imperfections in any human interpretation of the Word. Great philosophies are philosophies of transcendence recognizing that full meaning or whole or absolute truth can’t be actualized in immanent history. Islamic Vision is not a vision claiming that Islam has been fully realized in all its glory and beauty at particular point in time or will necessarily be realized as Satan hasn’t been suspended ever or will be suspended till the Doomsday. There are better examples in the past but no golden age of which we have perfect record.

      Islamic doctrine of Divine Names recognizes that there will be strife and unending battle between people who are under the influence of different, even contradictory ends. Aren’t the Names of divine beauty and majesty of opposite import when it comes to battleground of history where they seek to be manifested? One way of saying this is that hell has to be populated. And the most mature wisdom is seeing all this grand battle of ideas and even humanly interpreted ideals with God’s Eye and understanding that ultimately God is the real creator or ground of both us and our actions. The world is indeed a stage and we are best advised to be actors letting the Tao or the Other or Universal will direct our ends. "I will not to will" or carry out God's will, declare prophets, saints and artists with one voice. That is the best action called actionless action ( wu wei wei).
      Nobody, and thus no movement run by people can be purely and exclusively evil because the movement towards the Good (conscious or unconscious or inadequately understood in concrete applications) is instinctual in us as creatures made in divine image. No man is wilfully bad, declared Socrates (and religions agree seeing in ignorance the source of evil).
      None of us has been consulted before birth or will be consulted at the time of death, as Kahlil Jibran notes. Momentous decisions in our lives and history still belong to higher powers we don’t fully comprehend. We are all frail creatures struggling with forces that we don’t fully comprehend. None can claim to have been given the secret (in the sense that could be concretely communicated to us) of unfolding of history in all its detail. We all wrestle with questions of meaning of particular events that have happened to us or around us. All we know is that somehow God is directing everything to the desired end because Omnipotence can't be foiled and Omniscience can’t be tricked or fooled. However, it is in metaphysical terms as All-Possibility that we need to understand the verse “God has power over all things.” God sees but waits as Tolstoy tried to show in one of his famous short stories. History moves in certain direction with God as the Omega point, as epilogue of War and Peace argues. Or Providence does create a creative minority that, according to Toynbee, pushes history towards more humane and divine ends than dialectical materialism would have us believe.
      The record of evil due to the rise of the West is well known but it will take pages to only list the beautiful things that have come in its wake including explosion of knowledge, freedom of expression, shortening of distances, softening of exclusivist narratives and more conscious awareness of the grandeur and misery of man caught up in a world of contradictions grounded in God, who is “coincidentia oppositorum” or unity of opposites (majmaul azdaad) . We need to read such works as God in History, and Hughe's work Transcendence and History: the search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity, that show how God is working or the Good is getting manifest, despite horrendous evil .