Smokers’ Corner: Lost in transition
In the late 1960s, an intense public debate erupted between intellectuals belonging to the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and those belonging to various progressive literary movements.
At the time the political and cultural milieu of the country had found itself at a crossroad. With a fierce youth-led movement taking place against a military dictatorship (Ayub Khan), many Pakistanis had begun to ask what it meant to be a Pakistani.
Maoists, Marxists, progressives, provincial autonomists and left-democrats gathered together on platforms erected by political outfits such as the PPP, the NAP, the Bengali nationalist Awami League, and various small Sindhi, Baloch and Pashtun nationalist groups. They began defining the Pakistani culture and polity as a fusion of various ethnic, religious and sectarian expressions which they insisted could be harnessed (to produce collective economic, political and cultural goodwill) only through the imposition of social democracy and the granting of wide-ranging democratic rights to the ethnicities that were not considered to be part of the ruling elite.
The intellectual champions of the progressives and the left wing in this respect were men like the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sindhi nationalist and scholar GM Syed, Pashtun nationalist Bacha Khan, and writer Safdar Mir.
As Faiz authored a detailed study and commentary on what is and should constitute ‘Pakistaniat’, Mir took it upon himself to scholarly rebuke the challenge posed against Faiz’s thesis by Islamic scholar, Abul Ala Maududi.
In his commentary, Faiz declared Pakistani culture to be a pluralistic mixture of cultural rituals and beliefs of the many ethnicities, religions and Muslim sects that resided in the country. He also concluded that each one of these aspects were further influenced by the cultural traditions inherited by Pakistanis from Hindu, Muslim and British regimes in the region over hundreds of years.
But the point that got JI intellectuals fuming the most about Faiz’s thesis was when he declared that Islam was just one aspect of the Pakistani culture and that Pakistanis do not have a monopoly over it.
Maududi and his supporters in the shape of conservative (but pro-West) lawyer and writer, A K. Brohi and Urdu novelist Naseem Hijazi, attacked Faiz’s study and conclusions as being anti-Islam and (thus) against the ‘ideology of Pakistan.’
The term Ideology of Pakistan was first used by Maududi in the late 1960s. This is ironic because he had vehemently opposed the creation of Pakistan in 1947 and thought that the country’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was a deviant Muslim.
Maududi tried to transcend the progressives’ idea of the culture of Pakistan by describing his understanding of Pakistaniat as an ideology. He defined this ideology to be based on a system founded upon so-called Islamic principles, values and laws. Not only did Maududi reject Faiz’s emphasis on ethnic, religious and sectarian pluralism, he also accused the progressives and the leftists for using arts such as music, dance, painting and theatre ‘like a Trojan horse to infiltrate and change Pakistan’s Islamic complexion.’
The fiery debate finally came to a pass when JI and its conservative supporters lost both the intellectual as well as the political battle in the 1970 general elections that were overwhelmingly won by secular parties that had the backing of the progressive intelligentsia.
But just when it seemed that the Islamic narrative regarding the culture of Pakistan had been buried, East Pakistan happened.
With the breaking of Pakistan and defeat of its armed forces at the hands of their Indian counterparts in 1971, power fell into the hands of PPP’s Z A. Bhutto.
As a strategy to lift the remaining part of the country from the despair and humiliation of defeat, Bhutto began formulating cultural and education policies by actually fusing Faiz’s pluralism-friendly and secularist thesis with those of Maududi’s.
For example, folk cultures and the arts of various ethnicities were patronised by the new regime along with constitutionalism as well as a populist emphasis on Islam.
Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war was explained away as a conspiracy by superpowers against Pakistan because it was the ‘bastion of Islam.’
The Bhutto regime continued to harness this narrative by balancing its secular and liberal cultural policies with its somewhat paranoid rhetoric against the many (largely perceived) ‘enemies of Pakistan.’
So in 1977 when the reactionary General Ziaul Haq toppled Bhutto, he simply took the latter’s post-1971 ideological narrative, cut out its secular and pluralistic aspects but retained the Islamic rhetoric.
Not only did Zia further build upon it by imposing draconian and controversial laws and policies, he handed over the right to define Pakistani culture to conservative historians, educationists, politicians, judges and media personnel.
Hence ever since Zia, the doctrinal, judicial and intellectual exercise of defining Pakistaniat has remained in their hands. Over the decades so much has been piled upon in this context that this humongous and largely concocted pile has become the resource for both Pakistanis as well as those on the outside trying to figure out what it means to be a Pakistani.
This pile gives ready-made answers, but the way Pakistan’s politics and society have suffered under the tyranny of this one-dimensional narrative, one can suggest that, more than ever, it is ripe to be politically and intellectually challenged by those who are willing to question its claim to be the sole blueprint of the ideology and culture of Pakistan.