Dr. Mehdi Hasan is the Vice Chairperson (Punjab) of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the Dean of School of Media & Communication at Beaconhouse National University.
Talking Faith - Dr Mehdi Hassan [Video]
Giving Way to Intolerance by Dr. Mehdi Hasan, Dated, September 14, 1998
During the last many years, religious intolerance and sectarian fanaticism have created a war-like situation in Pakistan. The amount of freedom available to the forces of obscurantism to spit venom against each other and tobrandish sophisticated lethal weapons in public is in contrast to the general condition of individual freedom and liberty in Pakistani society after the post-independence period.
Extremist religious and sectarian tendencies surfaced for the first time as early as November 1947, when one of the religious parties of pre-independence days, the Majlis-i-Ahrar, decided to revive itself. Since then it has been a story of turning a blind eye and a deaf ear, and in certain cases offering government patronage and pampering towards the dangerous and harmful activities of these elements.
During the dark age of General Zia-ul-Haq, small religio-political groups, with little or no suport from the public, were able to assume a militant posture through state patronage, as the unconstitutional and authoritarian regime nurtured these groups for its own benefit. The military dictator had decided to use the slogan of 'Islam', or rather his own brand of the religion, to prolong his period of power. To do so, he halted all activities that could lead to people demanding democracy and the establishment of an enlightened and liberal society. The vacuum created by the absence of healthy political activities was filled by the forces of obscurantism and fanaticism.
How these militant religio-political groups were allowed to preach hatred and practice violence to an extent that led to a point of no return in a society where freedom of expression and the concept of individual liberty had always been an illusion, is an interesting, but painful, study.
At the time of independence, the newly constituted government of the All India Muslim League that adopted the name of the Pakistan Muslim League, inherited British colonial laws and ran the newly independent state of Pakistan according to these. The ruling elite, being faithful and obedient servants of the British colonialists, followed these laws faithfully including laws restricting the freedom to print, publish and express certain views.
These primitive colonial laws had originated in 1799, in the days of the East India company, and were updated from time to time. They were frequently used by the governments against political opponents and publications which challenged their right to power, including works of fiction and literature. The custodians of law were specially quick to pounce on the work of writers, poets, and scholars who were in line with the ideology of the Progressive Writers Movement, founded in 1936. The writers belonging to this movement had contributed considerably to the formation of progressive and enlightened public opinion in South Asia.
The government of Pakistan decided to follow the policy of the West, to become an important ally of the West at the height of the cold war, and to act as the front-line state to check communist expansion. In line with this policy, the freedom of dozens of progressive political workers was restricted. Publication of progressive thoughts and opinions was banned, and declared as 'Communist Literature'. In the Punjab alone, 31 newspapers and magazines were banned to their political difference with the administration, including the cancellation of the declaration of the daily Nawa-i-Waqt, during the first seven years of independence. Mr. Z.A. Suleri's paper was also closed down and he was arrested and prosecuted. The greatest short story writer of Urdu, Saadat Hassan Manto, was charged with obscenity five times. At the same time newspapers, magazines and wall chalkings were full of advertisements for products to enhance sexual abilities. Scores of political workers of the Communist Party of Pakistan, the Democratic Students Federation and various trade unions were constantly harassed by the intelligence agencies, even after these organisations were banned in 1953 and 1954 respectively.
The government, on the one hand, was extremely careful in ensuring that the ideas and opinions communicated to the people were meticulously filtered, while on the other hand religious groups and individuals exploiting the religious sentiments of the masses were given full freedom and liberty to poison through their vicious attitudes, the society in the newly established state of Pakistan, the creation of which they had so vehemently opposed in the recent past.
The first crisis of a religious nature was created in November 1947, when the Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Hind announced its revival as a party in Pakistan. The Majlis-i-Ahrar, organised in 1931, had opposed all other religious organisations aof Muslims, and the separatist politics of All India Muslim League. And in doing so, the leaders of this organisation had abused and maligned Quaid-e-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah and other prominent leaders of the Pakistan movement.
According to intelligence reports dating back to pre-independence and post independence days and governor punjab Sardar Abdur Rab Nashtar, obscene and filthy language was the trademark of the Ahraris.
When they announced their revival at a Karachi convention on November 18, 1947, they stuck to these traditions and abused the Quaid-i-Azam, and held him responsible for the abduction and rape of 50,000 Muslim women at the time of independence. They alleged that "Jinnah was in a hurry to become the Governor General of Pakistan and sacrificed the lives and honour of millions of Muslims for the purpose." The Ahrar leaders also abused foreign minister Chaudhri Zafarullah and the prime minister's wife, Begum Raana Liaquat Ali.
This was to be the beginning of a prolonged, slanderous and violent campaign in the name of religion that ultimately resulted in the worst kind of law and order situation. Localised martial law had to be imposed in parts of the Punjab. In 1950-51, an emergency was formally imposed but the violent campaign continued unabated. On August 11, 1948, during a public meeting of Ahrar in Quetta, the audience lynched a serving major, Dr. Mehmud Ahmad, whose car had broken down neat the venue of the meeting. No action was taken.
Interestingly, almost everyone in the administration seemed convinced that the religious provocateurs were against the creation of a peaceful, democratic society, and were out to exploit religious sentiments to rehabilitate their lost prestige and credibility - but no serious effort was made to curb these dangerous tendencies. As a result the violence reached a point where martial law had to be imposed in March 1953 in some parts of Punjab after large-scale riots and arson. In Lahore, those who called themselves religious leaders declared their own 'government' with Masjid Wazir Khan as the government headquarters. The army, called in to restore the authority of the government, succeeded in controlling the situation within six hours. About 20 persons were killed and 60 wounded.
Although the explosive situation created in the name of religion had been brought under control temporarily, the religious pressure groups had gathered momentum after being completely washed out during the struggle for Pakistan. The separate state for Muslims was created as a result of a constitutional struggle and political movement based on modern democratic principles led by an enlightened, progressive and forward looking leadership. The revival of the religious pressure groups had been possible through the exploitation of religious, sectarian and communal feelings in violation of all democratic norms and values. It seemed strange that the rulers of the newly independent Pakistan had come to power through a democratic process, but succumbed, wittingly or unwittingly, to fascist tendencies and tactics at the initial stage of the democratic era.
After the religio-political crisis had been forced to subside temporarily, another small religion based party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, emerged on the political scene and declared Pakistan a 'laboratory' in which it would experiment on Islam according to its own interpretation. Interestingly, the same group of 'scholars in Islamic thought' had opposed the establishment of this 'laboratory' a few years previously. The ruling elite of Pakistan, who had lost touch with the masses soon after coming to power, made no attempt to counter the misinterpretation of recent historical events, and remained engaged in intrigues to gain power and in search for shortcuts and back door routes to the corridors of power.
During military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan, the use of all the restrictive and oppressive laws of the past, as well as new ones imposed by the authoritarian regime, continued against all enlightened and progressive forces of society. The prestigious establishment of Mian Iftikharuddin, the Progressive Papers Limited, was confiscated by the military junta at the beginning of this era of naked authoritarianism. Ayub Khan had a team of civil bureaucrats who were fond of being called intellectuals. This team of pseudo-intellectuals helped him in thwarting liberalism and enlightenment, while obscurantism flourished unchecked and the 'laboratory attendants' discreetly infiltrated all important and strategic spheres of national life.
The second martial Law of General Agha Mohammad Yahya continued the same policy of officially patronising religious fascist groups, and oppressing progressive thought. During an unusually prolonged and aggressive election campaign in politically anarchic conditions, the mushroom growth of political groups unleashed a violent religious propaganda campaign against democratic and nationalist forces. All these political parties and personalities were declared 'kafirs', 'anti-Pakistan' or 'agents of the enemy', although they stood for the solution of the various economic, social and political problems of the masses.
The politico-religious groups coined a new term, 'Nazaria-e-Pakistan' (Ideology of Pakistan), and distorted the history of the struggle for Pakistan in an attempt to fit themselves into the course of events. The verdict of the people once again went against the exploiters of religious emotions, and the enemies of democracy and enlightenment were defeated. After the 1966 elections, the 1970 elections once again proved beyond doubt that Pakistan was created, and must exist, as a modern, progressive democratic state. However, the usurpers created a political crisis by refusing to honour the verdict of the people.
The anti-democracy elements exploited the situation and tried to enter the corridors of power through the back door on one pretext or the other. The people of East Pakistan were forced to a point of no return. The newly coined term of 'Nazaria-i-Pakistan Kay Dushman' (Enemies of the ideology of Pakistan) was used against the majority of the country's population and military action was resorted to with the active participation of the defeated religious forces. After much bloodshed and political victimization of the worst kind, the military rulers were defeated in the battlefield and Bangladesh was created.
After the surrender of the Pakistani armed forces in Dhaka, in the remaining part of Pakistan people were totally demoralized and uncertain of their future. At that critical juncture, the self-styled custodians of Islam also vanished from the political horizon. The Pakistan People's Party and Z.A. Bhutto were chosen by the defeated military junta, who had realised that it was not possible for them to remain in power after the debacle in the eastern wing, and some strategic bungling of the western front. General Yahya was cast as a scapegoat, and Bhutto was given the uphill task of rebuilding a smashed nation.
Bhutto, through his untiring efforts, popular support from the downtrodden, and the selfless contribution from a team of sincere and honest comrades, was able to revive the nation in a very short time. But once the confidence of the nation was restored and it had taken the right path to progress and prosperity by establishing a society free of exploitation, the anti-people forces again reappeared. Moreover, Bhutto also fell a victim to obscurantism, and a large number of the traditionally corrupt ruling elite of the past jumped on to the PPP bandwagon.
The large scale influx of people with a totally different approach to politics changed the complexion of the party so much that the founding fathers of the party were elbowed out by persons like Kausar Niazi, Sadiq Hussain Qureshi and other of the same creed. Consequently, the party was unable to counter the violent agitation of the defeated opposition alliance of nine parties of conflicting political ideologies. Bhutto, surrounded by political opportunists, tried to tackle the violent movement started in the name of religion, using their tactics, and through half-hearted religious actions.
After he had declared 'Ahmadis' as non-Muslims in the Constitution, thus authorising the state to decide about the faith and belief of its subjects, he considered himself to be an upholder of the ideology of Islam like any other bearded maulana. Perhaps he made a mistake by not recognising the real reason for the inherent enmity of the political monopolists towards the Pakistan People's Party, which stood for the cause of the common man. As a result, after a war-like agitation which lasted five months, and in which 212 persons were killed and public and private property worth billions of rupees was looted and destroyed, yet another military adventurist appeared on the scene and imposed the country's third martial law.
Since General Zia was helped into power by the PNA on a violent religious campaign, he decided to use the slogan of Islam to justify his unconstitutional rule. Like other dictators he had to divert the attention of people from the real issues, He tried, and succeeded to a great extent, in wooing the otherwise unknown and uncared for 'religious leaders' into his fold by creating a vested interest group of such elements through state patronage. The politics of plots, permits, bank loans and even television appearances was introduced, and General Zia took upon himself the all important task of Islamisation of a society that had been Islamic for the last many centuries.
During eleven years of oppression and totalitarianism, the anti-democracy, intolerant religious fanatics completely dominated national life Zia made sure that all political and social activities that could lead people to demand democratic and fundamental rights and freedoms were curbed. In turn he encouraged all activities based on sectarian, tribal, cast and religious differences.
The natural consequence of this policy was the revival of centuries old conflicts and controversies over the interpretations of religious beliefs. Since the social fabric of the society had already been destroyed because of the long years of fascism and the absence of political institutions, the war of words soon assumed a state of open war among various factions armed to the teeth.
Although religious political parties and pressure groups have never enjoyed popular support in Pakistan, for a variety of reasons all successive governments have pampered and patronised these elements - at the cost of progress, enlightenment and liberalism.