Of Disillusioned Men And Their Existentialist Nihilism
"It is a fantasy of an ageing man, disillusioned by evolutionary political processes and instruments. He sees them as meaningless and useless. Maybe this is how he has begun to see himself as well," writes Nadeem Farooq Paracha
During a recent appearance on a TV show, controversial journalist and ‘intellectual’ Hassan Nisar stated that the country needed a dictatorship which should rule uninterrupted for 15 years. He then went on to say that anyone mentioning democracy should be executed by a firing squad and their relatives should pay for the bullets.
Nisar is already infamous for his outbursts against the country’s two large political parties, the PML-N and the PPP. But his wrathful tirades are mostly reserved for the PML-N. He has often attributed his enraged style of speaking to high blood pressure. He certainly doesn’t seem to mind it, though. It makes him what he is: a very angry old man.
Nisar graduated with a BA degree in Economics from the Punjab University (PU) in 1971. He came from a well-to-do family. He was associated with a progressive student outfit at PU, and also became an admirer of Z.A. Bhutto. He began writing columns for Urdu-language monthlies, before becoming the co-editor of a popular lifestyle magazine, Dhanak. The magazine was banned by the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship.
Nisar was a staunch opponent of the Zia regime. He remained a sympathiser of Bhutto’s PPP, till he became a regular columnist for the country’s largest Urdu daily, Jang. Nisar really came into his own during the General Musharraf dictatorship (1999-2008). He began to appear on TV, where he was often heard launching into religious parties, clerics and so-called ulema. His vast knowledge of Muslim history aided him in successfully deconstructing their theories and ideas.
Now he had become an admirer of Musharraf. His diatribes against the Islamists were stemming from his deep-seated abhorrence of the reactionary Zia regime, and from his dislike of those who were criticising Musharraf’s doctrine of ‘enlightened moderation.’ Nisar also supported the secular Mohajir nationalist party, the MQM, when it became an ally of the Musharraf regime. Nisar is Punjabi.
Livid when Musharraf was forced to resign in early 2008, Nisar blamed PML-N and the PPP for this, and developed intense hatred for democracy. As a way to express this, he publicly hailed the rise of Imran Khan’s PTI in 2014. More than championing Khan, he was actually signalling his support for the military establishment, which was allegedly propping up PTI as a viable challenge to PML-N and the PPP.
By now Nisar’s attacks against democracy – and especially the third PML-N regime – had become outright rants. He was applauded by PTI supporters but severely criticised by others who accused him of using foul language that should not be used by a public intellectual. As Khan’s government, that had come to power in 2018, began to disintegrate into farce, Nisar confessed that he had made a mistake by supporting PTI.
But his demonisation of politicians and democracy only intensified. He was rightly denounced on social media after his most recent tirade went viral. But he is not the first to suggest a rigid authoritarian set-up and public executions as a solution. Such ideas became ingrained in a lot of people of the Subcontinent decades ago. And the irony is: these ideas are not exactly indigenous. Their origins are European. Let me explain.
Even though Nisar did not mention Hitler or Mussolini, the imagery that his rant sketched was very close to dictatorships that these two gentlemen enacted in Germany and Italy. And as I mentioned, Nisar isn’t the first in this region to do so. Often, one comes across a statement made by a Pakistani or an Indian praising the former German Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s regime (1933-1945) was responsible for the systematic state-sanctioned murder of millions of people considered to be of the ‘inferior race.’ So it is odd to hear praise for him coming from folk who would also have been sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz along with men, women and children of the so-called ‘non-Aryan races.’
Livid when Musharraf was forced to resign in early 2008, Nisar blamed PML-N and the PPP for this, and developed intense hatred for democracy. As a way to express this, he publicly hailed the rise of Imran Khan’s PTI in 2014. More than championing Khan, he was actually signalling his support for the military establishment
The phenomenon of some South Asians romanticising Hitler could be the result of the region’s recent shift to the populist right. But there are many other possibilities. The idealisation of Hitler among some sections in India and Pakistan could also be due to the residual impact of a clever propaganda campaign that the Nazis unleashed upon certain segments of India’s Hindu and Muslim polities in the 1930s. This fact has been largely forgotten by mainstream history. However, even a brief recap of this can aid us in better understanding the ironic spectacle of a ‘brown’ Muslim or a Hindu fawning over a mass murderer who would have thrown them in one of his many death camps at the drop of a hat.
In his essay for the May/June 2000 issue of the academic journal Social Scientist, Eugene J. D’Souza writes that Nazi German propaganda made its way into India when mainstream Hindu and Muslim leadership in the region had become disoriented after the gradual collapse of two major anti-British movements in the 1920s: the Khilafat Movement and the ‘Non-cooperation Movement’.
D’Souza writes that this is when German business interests in the region were first activated by Nazi Germany to contact the more radical elements within the Hindu and Muslim political, social and media outlets. The campaign in this regard began from Bengal, where ‘communal’ and ‘revolutionary’ anti-British sentiment was the strongest. To Nazi Germany, the British were enemies, even before the start of the Second World War.
Nazi agents (largely recruited from German businesses in India) preyed on the fears of Bengal’s landed and business elites, telling them that their lands and businesses were under threat due to the ‘socialist’ bent of the Indian National Congress (INC). Hitler’s notorious biography Mein Kampf was then translated into various languages of India — including Hindi, Urdu and Bengali. These translations were distributed free of cost, especially among the editors and staff of various Hindi and Urdu newspapers.
D’Souza writes that Nazi agents began to infiltrate various Muslim and Hindu social and cultural organisations. The 8 September 1939 issue of the English daily The Times of India quoted Jewish and socialist refugees from Germany in India as saying that Indian employees working in German companies were being used to spy on the refugees.
The idealisation of Hitler among some sections in India and Pakistan could also be due to the residual impact of a clever propaganda campaign that the Nazis unleashed upon certain segments of India’s Hindu and Muslim polities in the 1930s
Apart from utilising the ‘services’ of India-based German businesses, Nazi Germany also sent agents to India disguised as technicians, tourists, salesmen, musicians and photographers. According to D’Souza, German businesses would frequently give advertisements to Indian newspapers that were willing to facilitate Nazi propaganda.
Even though the main intention of Nazi Germany was to ferment unrest in India against the British colonialists, its plans never looked to unite the anti-British Hindu and Muslim segments. Maybe the Germans had noted the volatility of such a move. Hindus and Muslims had collaborated with each other against the British during the Khilafat and Non-cooperation movements; but both the movements had eventually mutated into becoming communal, giving the British the space to crush them.
Instead, and as noted in the files kept by the British colonial government’s Home Department (File number 8301, 1939), Nazi agents in India applied a two-pronged strategy in which they approached radical Hindu and Muslim leaderships with entirely separate sets of rhetoric and propaganda.
For example, when the agents managed to get a foothold in newspapers funded and run by the Hindu nationalist organisation the Hindu Mahasabha, they constantly informed the Mahasabha that Hitler considered the Hindus of India as the real custodians of the Indian nation, while the Muslims and other non-Hindu communities in the region were ‘aliens’ just like the Jews were in Germany.
It is thus not surprising to note similar sentiments in the works of the period’s celebrated Hindu nationalists such as V.D. Savarkar and M.S. Golwalker. Both weren’t very secretive about their admiration of Nazi Germany. However, during their interactions with radical Muslim groups, the Nazi agents completely flipped their message. The agents glorified the ‘martial tendencies’ of the Muslims and claimed to be major supporters of the religious and territorial interests of the Muslims, especially in the Middle East.
For Nisar, the unabashedly authoritarian set-up that he keeps peddling is the subjective meaning and purpose that he has created for himself. It is a fantasy of an ageing man, disillusioned by evolutionary political processes and instruments. He sees them as meaningless and useless. Maybe this is how he has begun to see himself as well
According to the Home Department’s files, Nazi Germany funded various established and small newspapers as long as they continued to publish pro-Germany articles and propaganda. Hindi newspapers in this circle would carry anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish and anti-British articles; whereas the Muslim-owned Urdu papers, that received advertisements and funds from German companies would produce anti-Hindu, anti-Jewish and anti-British material.
According to the Home Department’s files dated 18 October, 1939, the German wife of a Muslim professor at the famous Aligarh University received funds from Germany to publish a daily called Spirit of the Times through which she tried to prove that “Nazi ideals approximate to the tenants of Islam.”
In his detailed study of India’s pre-Partition Muslim and Hindu middle-class milieu, German historian Marcus Daechsel, in his book The Politics of Self-Expression, writes that middle-class political culture in interwar India was “haunted by fascistic resonances.” Activists from various political camps believed in Social-Darwinism, worshipped violence and war and focused their political action on public spectacles and paramilitary organisations. Marcus identifies various Muslim and Hindu personalities and organisations that did this. And, as D’Souza demonstrates, almost each one of them was shaped, influenced and, at times, funded by Nazi propaganda in India between 1933 and 1940.
D’Souza laments that the origin of Nazi propaganda still echoes in India, especially in the politics and rhetoric of Hindu nationalists. In Pakistan, these rudiments largely emerge during discourses involving talk of Israel and the idea of nationalism held by certain radical right-wing elements. The fascinating thing is that in both cases, the language is almost the same as it was in the 1930s. The narrative, its tone and language are quite similar.
According to Marcus, despite their enthusiasm for Nazi Germany and Hitler, most radical Hindu and Muslim ideologues never fully comprehended the Nazi ideology. That is why they largely sound contradictory. And since the narrative, imagery and language in this context has not changed much since the 1930s, the same is the case today when a Hindu or Muslim politician glorifies Hitler. The results are always ironic.
But I believe there is another set of roots in this context, at least in Pakistan. These roots lie in the impact that the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran had in Pakistan. A report in a 1984 issue of the Urdu daily Jang quoted a despondent taxi driver in Karachi hoping that Pakistan would witness an Iran-like revolution in which thousands would be publicly executed. “Only this can solve our problems of corruption, ethnic violence and the injustices faced by the poor,” he said.
The taxi driver was driving a rented cab, but could not save the money to acquire his own vehicle. He was struggling to retain his small rented apartment in which he lived with his wife and four children. When the reporter told him about the horrific situation in Iran, plagued by international isolation, a collapsing economy, severe internal conflicts and a brutal war with neighboring Iraq, the taxi driver called it “American propaganda.”
He refused to consider slightly more reasonable solutions to his economic problems other than wishing for mass executions. This nihilistic mindset would continue to swell, even when the romance with the Iranian model receded. The mindset was eventually addressed by the equally nihilistic Islamist organisations. They did not offer a better life experience in this world but in the other, or the one that begins after death. However, for that, these organisations claimed, just being pious wasn’t enough. There was greater piety in the act of slaughtering enemies of the faith in this life so that one could enjoy a better afterlife.
This is not to suggest that Hassan Nisar is a sympathiser of militant Islamists. He is quite the opposite, really. Yet, in his own way, and unfortunately, he too has become a nihilist of sorts. I would describe his condition as ‘Existentialist Nihilism’ (EN).
EN refuses to attribute any meaningful significance to the human race nor any purpose. To EN every person is an isolated being born into this world and is forever unable to understand why he or she is here. Therefore, EN suggests that one can potentially create their own subjective meaning and or purpose.
For Nisar, the unabashedly authoritarian set-up that he keeps peddling is the subjective meaning and purpose that he has created for himself. It is a fantasy of an ageing man, disillusioned by evolutionary political processes and instruments. He sees them as meaningless and useless. Maybe this is how he has begun to see himself as well. The kind of regime that he envisions, he believes, will add purpose and meaning to politics. His politics. What he is suggesting is a fantasy. Not a solution.
This is also what has happened to the man he once supported, who is now the PM of the country. Conventional institutions and issues of the country have lost all meaning to him. He has thus created his own meaning and purpose for his existence: to save society through spirituality.