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Modernism in Pakistani context

A rejoinder to a reader’s critique

Modernism in Pakistani context

It is my rare privilege to have a reader like Sarvan Minhas. His comments and responses to any of my articles are extremely enlightening. His critique is invested with theoretical profundity, erudition and intellectual maturity. Such a reader as Mr. Minhas is undoubtedly ‘a friend, philosopher and guide’ for the writer.

However, despite my best efforts, I could not get to know him other than finding out that he is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Punjabi University, Patiala in Indian Punjab. He has also been commenting on articles in various Pakistani newspapers, carrying themes pertaining to the Punjab and Punjabi culture. Another clue that I could extract from his brief but pithy response to last week’s column is his intellectual orientation which has a visible Marxist inflection. I wish I could read more of his writings. The position Prof. Minhas holds is typical of Indian academics since the days of Nehru. Then, the Indian nationalist narrative was steeped in plurality interspersed with socialist ideology. Now with BJP’s ascendancy, Nationalist/Marxist position faces stiff challenge by Hindutva scholarship.

This piece is in fact a sort of rejoinder to his critique on my last week’s column entitled ‘New Forms of Knowledge’. I write these lines after confessing that I probably did not provide a proper context to my last week’s assertions. I did not mean to engage in critiquing modernism nor did I mean to prioritise postmodernism over the former. My critique aimed more at the practical manifestation of modernism than at its thought content. A newspaper article in general is not supposed to carry such a theoretically subtle and multilayered debate in which the theoretical critique of postmodernism advanced by luminaries like David Harvey, Terry Eagleton, Alex Callinicos or Perry Anderson, the reference of whom along with a few others was furnished by Prof. Minhas, is invoked without any immediacy of the locale that the writer intends to bring into focus. The omission of that immediacy of the locale (or in other words context) was a faux pas on my part.

The argument I made in the article was geared at some of the vexed issues plaguing higher education in Pakistan. I should have underscored it in a more lucid manner. To my reckoning, higher education in Pakistan is stuck in a framework that is static, hackneyed and riddled with sweeping generalisations, loaded concepts and stereotypes. The cognitive tools usually employed by Pakistani academics deal in binary opposites in a blatant manner. Thus, the nuts and bolts of the whole structure of higher education cannot be described in any other way but as ‘modernist’.

That static structure underpinned by conceptualisations that are embedded in Modernism is in dire need of a shakeup is what I pleaded in the previous column. I think modernism has several incarnations, as capitalism and socialism may have antithetical strands of thought but both fall within the purview of modernism.A nation-state founded for the Muslims with a peculiar ideology can have no other designation but that of a ‘modern’ state. But with higher education becoming stagnant in Pakistan, what is needed is some decisive push so that it stirs up. For that very purpose, ‘theory’ must be re-enforced in the Pakistani academic milieu. Sadly, it is theory that is starkly missing.

In social sciences and humanities departments in Pakistani higher education institutions, theory does not generally exist. In public sector universities at least, I am not aware of anyone who may lay claim to mastering Marx and his dialectical materialism. I will also go on to re-assert that modernism that goes static tends to become simplistic. The concept of ‘Ideology of Pakistan’ which lies at the very heart of Pakistan’s national narrative is one such example. The word ‘ideology’ is a modernist construction which is equally simplistic. It sums up the entire debate of the raison detre for Pakistan’s creation by emphasising the exclusionary and incongruent tendencies between the believers of two religions — Hinduism and Islam.

I call this simplistic because this construction excludes an explanation of why Pakistan faces sectarian violence. The rise of Deobandi extremism has destabilised society, forcing the Barelvis and Shias to follow suit and become militarised. The exponents of these denominations denounce the other as kafirs. They do not bother to take into account the interstitial positions that these sects share.

As the work of several scholars has shown, and as I have written in many articles, all these sects emerged when modernity was re-defining the social realities in India. It will be pertinent to underline that modernity not only created social fissures in the subcontinent but went on to crystalise them through various technologies of control that the colonial regime exercised over the colonised. Those people are not off the mark who assert the tripartite division of the subcontinent was in fact a practical outcome of modernism as it played out in this part of the world.

This was the background that I did not mention in the previous article because of space constraints and because I have written on these issues in this space repeatedly. In an academic milieu where tests and examinations are conducted through MCQs and short questions, rote learning simplistic and factual information that can easily be committed to memory become the recurring practice.

The Pakistani education system has gone down that route which spells disaster. The methods of instruction leading to independent thinking and critical analysis have been jettisoned. The graduates that the local universities are producing lack the competitive edge required for value addition. The academic engagement with ‘fact’ and producing ‘simplistic’ answers to the questions of vital importance has created an intellectual myopia that needs to be addressed at the earliest.

Now I turn to modernism, its attendant ideologies and notions that usually move from one phase of evolution to the next, but eventually end up in a meta-narrative which does not have a potential to grow any further. When modernism gets stuck and does not grow, it no longer remains modern, and such mega ideologies take shape. The only plausible way ahead is its deconstruction.

Prof. Minhas has objected to my problematising of these various strands of thought, and says that I “even conflate postmodernism, post-structuralism (deconstruction) and postcolonialism.” I stand guilty as charged, and believe that only by deconstructing modernism and postmodernism can we reform our particular academic milieu. I am actually going to conflate this further by adding that Marxist thought needs to be similarly added to this process of deconstructing thought structures. Most of the scholars associated with Subaltern Schools were initiated in Marxism to start with. It was much later that they branched off, to postmodernism.

I must finally thank Sarvan Minhas for pointing out that my argument last time was not as lucid as I would have liked. However, I do believe that such academic debates between professors are healthy and desirable. That is precisely why I have written these two pieces: higher education in Pakistan does not allow for such debates because of the stagnant state of modernist thought.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.


  • I profusely thank Prof Tahir Kamran for his response to my ‘critique’. I have always admired his elegant writing and clear thinking, both reflective of a rare sense of proportion. I felt sorry that I had to take exception to his article “New forms of knowledge”. What I have just said is surely not a quid pro quo for his laudatory comments on me, which, in fact, I find a little exaggerated. I have some knowledge of social theory and sociology of religion because I taught them to post-graduate classes for long and kept abreast of the latest developments in these fields. One of the topics in the social theory curriculum was ‘postmodernism and post-structuralism’ including such thinkers as Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, and Bourdieu. Way back in 1983, I wrote a paper called “Three responses to modernity: Goethe, Marx and Gandhi”. I was young then and it was very ambitious on my part to write it, but that shows I had some familiarity with the problems afflicting modernity/modernism. I had presented Marx both as a critic of modernity and capitalism. I don’t have a copy of the article in my machine or else I would email a copy to Prof Kamran. It was published in the Journal of Religious Studies (Pbi Varsity).
    I am now an old man and unwell. Sometimes I tend to feel that the time for me to quit is near. Excuse me, therefore, if I make only one or two brief comments on Prof Kamran’s response.
    Postmodernism came very early to East Punjab, but unfortunately, it played a very negative role; it lent support to what is called communalism in the subcontinent and separatism at least in our province. (I am for unity, particularly of East and West Punjab, not for separatism). I hope you understand what I mean. Postmodernism is not anti-modernism, but both a critique and a continuation of modernism. Any people or society can appreciate some of the positive aspects of postmodernism only if they are already modernised to a certain degree and know what ails modernity/modernism. We Punjabis haven’t really passed through modernism.
    Postmodernism, at least initially, was an attack on Marxism led by Lyotard and it was able to convert some well-known Marxists to its perspective. Hence the critiques had to come chiefly from Marxist scholars. Many schools of Marxist thought — from Frankfurt School to post-Marxism — were influenced by postmodernism. So, let’s keep in mind that Marxism has internal variety and is not to be confused with its Soviet version. My personal view of Marx is also complex, but I admire him for his life and thought.
    It is all right for Prof Kamran to highlight postmodernism, but he should also be fully aware of its critiques for a balanced judgement. That perhaps was the main thrust of my ‘critique’.
    [Thanks again for your response, Prof Tahir. I'll be happy f you have any further points/comments to make.]

  • Tahir Kamran sb is among the ones in Pakistan who try to ignite some useful debates in a milieu where thinking has stopped and theorizing fled from our academic arena. I always wait for his articles. The News On Sunday deserves much laud as it carries some pieces on deep thought.

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