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Of ecstatic ‘dhamaals’ and destructive explosions

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-02-2017 Salil Tripathi

In the parallel universe in which President Donald Trump lives, something horrible happened in Sweden last week. He didn’t say what it was, but for emphasis, he repeated the name of the country—Sweden. Just imagine—the nice Scandinavian country let in a lot of refugees, and look what happened. Sad.

Most Swedes were surprised by this sudden presidential interest, because the curious incident in Sweden at night-time had simply not happened. Something terrible had indeed happened, but elsewhere—a bomb had blasted a shrine, and nearly a hundred people had died. But that was in Sehwan, in Pakistan.

Sweden, Sehwan—they may even sound vaguely similar to an unaccustomed ear. But they are not the same, and these details matter because in the post-truth world, in which the President is most comfortable, what he hears becomes the truth, so what the newspapers report can only be fake.

As the victims of the attack on the mosque in Québec City discovered, Trump’s sympathy extends only to certain victims, and only if the perpetrators are of a certain faith. Those who died in Sehwan were Sufis, brown, and far away. And what happened was Sweden’s fault, since it had let in all those refugees, many of them brown, most of them Muslim, even though nothing had happened.

This is not an aberration—earlier this month, the White House press secretary Sean Spicer referred to a fictional “terroristic” (sic) attack in Atlanta, and he did so thrice, as he listed places where extremist violence had occurred. And before that, White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway had blamed two Iraqi refugees for a massacre in Bowling Green, Kentucky, as evidence backing the President’s executive order that placed restrictions on entry into the US on nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries. Except that there hadn’t been any massacre in Bowling Green.

Three times in a month—that’s not an exception; it reveals a pattern, a pattern of believing anything that fits a master narrative, regardless of truth, because faith trumps truth. Challenge that, question that (as journalists do), and you become an enemy of the people. That phrase—enemy of the people—is popular among strongmen. Maximilien Robespierre, Vladimir Lenin and Juan Perón have used it to describe their opponents. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen turned the epithet into a medal of honour. In Thomas Stockmann, Ibsen created a physician who was troubled by the emergence of a disease spreading from commercially lucrative public baths in a small town, and he fought for the baths’ closure, much to the town’s annoyance, in the play An Enemy Of The People. The play would inspire Satyajit Ray, who, with remarkable prescience, took on Hindu fundamentalism in his 1990 film, Ganashatru, when the Babri Masjid still stood in Ayodhya. In the film, the baths became a Hindu temple.

Trump’s narrative is free of nuance and sees the world in stark, binary terms. The world is more complex, where two statements that are mutually contradictory can both be true, often at the same time. For example, it is perfectly plausible to say that elements of Pakistan’s deep state support terrorism, as well as to recognize that Pakistan is among the five countries with the largest number of terrorist fatalities. In the past week, nearly 120 people died there—in Sehwan, Lahore, Mohmand, Awaran, Quetta, Peshawar and Charsadda.

The Sehwan attack targeted a Sufi shrine that resonates with the song—Ho laal meri pat rakhiyon bala jhoole laalan. Its refrain, dama dam mast qalandar, reverberates through South Asia, through the voices of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri brothers in Pakistan, the Nooran sisters and the Kutle Khan Project in India, and Runa Laila in Bangladesh, and countless others. As William Dalrymple describes in Nine Lives: In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India (2009), the Sehwan shrine personifies the “wildly syncretic” nature of Sufism. Dalrymple presents the scene where, “with the explosion of a thunderflash, the dhamaal began: slow at first, the drumming rapidly gained pace, and long lines of dreadlocked dervishes began to move as they felt the rhythm pound through their bodies. Old men began swaying… mouthing softly murmured prayers. As the dancers turned their eyes to heaven, smiling beatifically… the tempo and the volume both rose steadily…the dancing gradually turned from a meditative and prayerful swaying to something much more wild and frenzied and ecstatic”. A similar dhamaal was about to get under way last Thursday, when a more destructive explosion ripped apart the reverie.

Sain Fakir, a venerable peer and follower of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, told Dalrymple: “The mullahs are always trying to fight a jihad with their swords, without realizing that the real jihad is within, fighting yourself, achieving victory over your desires, and the hell that evil can create within the human heart. Fighting with swords is a low kind of jihad. Fighting yourself is the greater jihad.”

Some Pakistanis are winning that battle—earlier this week, the activist-dancer Sheema Kermani went to the wounded shrine and performed with spirited abandon, underscoring and reclaiming inclusiveness. Talking to Dalrymple, Sain Fakir quoted Sufi master Shah Abdul Latif, who said, “Don’t kill infidels, kill your own ego.”

Ego inflates one’s sense of self. It is an alternate reality. Conquer that, and it may be possible to see the real world as it is—and understand the difference between a truth and a lie.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at Read Salil Tripathi’s previous Mint columns at

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