Friday, 31 December 2010

Secular Jinnah

Never judge a book by its cover, they say. Imagine a child who is interested in Yeti, comes upon a tantalizing title such as Yeti: the Abominable Snowman, and excitedly reads cover to cover only to find out that the book contains evidence to show that the abonimable snowman is a myth, and no such creature actually exists.

Remember this the next time you hear someone talk about Saleena Karim’s book, Secular Jinnah and Pakistan: What the Nation Doesn’t Know. Contrary to the title, the book is actually a well-researched and convincing study to show that “secular Jinnah” is a myth (and abonimable like the snowman: some readers might conclude)!

In my opinion, it is a book that must be read. I shall try to explain from a personal point of view why I think so.

The founder of Pakistan was the hero of those who wanted Pakistan, and therefore a villain to those who didn’t. The latter included the Western media, the Israel Lobby and Indian nationalists. Against the enormous influence of this school, the pro-Quaid point of view was bound to lose. It got buried by the early 1980s (the historical fiction, Gandhi, released on the big screen around that time, may also have contributed).

When it became too difficult to defend Pakistan and the Quaid at the same time, a new trend emerged among the pro-Quaid: never mind Pakistan, just defend Jinnah. The most well-known classics of this school include The Sole Spokesman (1984) by Ayesha Jalal; Jinnah of Pakistan (1984) by Stanley Wolpert; and the belated attempt by Jaswant Singh last year. In order to defend Jinnah internationally, some of these writers suggested that Jinnah didn’t actually want Pakistan.

Back in the 1980s, such writers were received like a breeze of fresh air. Compared to the homebred defenders of the Quaid, their work seemed to be presented with more elegance and better research. Hence, rasing the standards of research and widening the horizons was the permanent contribution of these writers, but there were drawbacks.

One of the drawbacks was the myth of “secular Jinnah”. Healthy debates are good for society, but unfortunately “some” secularists resorted to unfair means, such as a "fake" quote attributed to Jinnah by a former secularist Chief Justice of Pakistan – a "hoax" exposed by Saleena Karim in her previous work, and further explained here.

Coming out in the year 2010 – almost twenty years after Wolpert’s book got reprinted locally – Secular Jinnah and Pakistan brings things to full circle, in some ways. It gives back to the people of Pakistan their familiar Quaid-i-Azam: the father of the nation who shared their ideals and beliefs. He had been away for twenty years, but like the hero of Arthur Jones' play Silver King, he has come back more elegant and well-equipped than before. A must-read, and you may like to visit the book’s website too.

To be continued

Thursday, 30 December 2010

National anthem: fact and fiction

For some time now, some secularists in Pakistan have been suggesting that (a) Jinnah was in favor of secularism, and therefore (b) he commissioned a Hindu poet to write the national anthem of Pakistan but it was replaced by the present anthem after Jinnah’s death.

Therefore, it is rather serendipitous that two well-researched books should come out at the same time, each addressing a different half of this statement separately (and both having long titles, but that is beside the point):
  • Secular Jinnah and Pakistan: What the Nation Doesn’t Know by the British Pakistani writer Saleena Karim is a 317-page study about whether Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah wanted Pakistan to be a secular state.
  • Pakistan Ka Qaumi Tarana: Kiya Hai Haqeeqat, Kya Hai Fasana by Aqeel Abbas Jafri is a 104-page analytical presentation of archival resources about the national anthem of Pakistan. 
The first book is in English, and the second is in Urdu, and let’s begin with the second. Although he is little known abroad, Jafri ‘s name has become synonymous with archival research in Pakistan. One of his most recent crowning achievements is the Urdu Chronicle of Pakistan, which presents a chronological illustrated history of the country since 1947.

In Qaumi Tarana (allow me to refer to the book by this short title), Jafri shows with conclusive documentary evidence that:
  1. Pakistan did not have a national anthem in the lifetime of Jinnah.
  2. The present national anthem was the first to be officially adopted by the state.
  3. There is no evidence to show that any poem by Jagan Nath Azad was played from radio on 14 or 15 August at all.
Some of the findings of this book were earlier shared by Jafri in his curtain-raiser article in Urdu press (covered here in a previous post, ‘Jafri reveals the truth). The book offers much – much – more: a fantastic trip of time travelling to the early days of Pakistan, and inside the secret vaults of classified information, all in a light and refreshing manner.

I strongly recommend it to everybody. Being a basic document about a key symbol of our sovereignty, i.e. our national anthem, it should be kept in every household (Imagine losing your domicile certificate, passport, identity card and personal documents?). The book is modestly priced at Rs.200, which is roughly the same as a full plate of Biryani plus cold drink (and minus the TIP) – so, please do not “starve” your souls.

Now, very interestingly, while explaining that his purpose is just to keep the record straight, Jafri clarifies in the preface that it would not have been unexpected if the Quaid had actually got the national anthem written by a Hindu poet, but facts are facts and history needs to be respected. In the same vein he admits: “I do not have any doubts about Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah being secular, liberal and enlightened… Since Islam is the very name of tolerance.”

This brings us to the second book, which addresses the question: Did Quaid-i-Azam want Pakistan to be a secular state (and is secularism the same thing as the “tolerance” preached by Islam)? In the next post we shall see what Saleena Karim has to say about this in Secular Jinnah and Pakistan: What the Nation Doesn’t Know.
Next: Secular Jinnah

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Secular Jinnah and the National Anthem

On the right you see the titles of two new publications that have just hit the stalls in Pakistan:
  • پاکستان کا قومی ترانہ از عقیل عباس جعفری
  • Secular Jinnah and Pakistan by Slaeena Karim
On the face value they may not seem to have anything in common, since one is just about the national anthem of Pakistan whereas the other seems to have a broader scope as it might be telling us all about Quaid-i-Azam’s vision of Pakistan. Personally, however, I see these two books as interconnected (but I am not suggesting in any way that the authors would also agree with this). This will be discussed in the next post.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Learn from experience

2006: Female cadets at the Quaid's tomb
The following is my article published as Friday Feature in Dawn on December 24, 2010. Some of the wording may vary from the printed version.
The year 1987 was memorable because even those segments of the population who had not been much interested in politics during the various struggles for the restoration of democracy earlier in the decade were now feeling restless. This presumption was corroborated by the historic turnout during the elections that followed a year later. The elections of 1988 were the second occasion in the history of Pakistan where the results, however rigged they may have been, were at least accepted by all major contestants (the first such occasion were the elections of 1970).

In the light of the ideals indigenously developed since 1887, and the goals achieved through them, there are reasons to believe that the new goal that had appeared before the nation in 1988 was actually “emancipation” rather than anything else. This goal had to be achieved through the “inner synthesis” of diverse political experiments carried out in the previous twenty years. The ideal of to be pursued whilst in quest of the goal was “Learn through experience.”

Emancipation was the new goal. This may be concluded from the fact that according to the generally accepted views, conventional democracy (i.e. Western democracy) pre-requires a high literacy rate, which did not exist in Pakistan at that time (nor does it now). If so, then the masses had less reason to care for such democracy and more to care for the other, indigenous, variety that had already been idealized by them: it had been taught to them by the most influential teachers, preachers, poets and artists for more than a thousand years. It was the spiritual democracy, envisioned by the more genuine schools of Sufism in the past, and more recently turned into a political idea by the likes of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Shah Waliullah, Waris Shah, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Ali Brothers and Allama Iqbal. (For a detailed outline of this development, see the previous articles by the present writer published in this newspaper).

In The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930-34), Iqbal stated that for a Muslim, this idea was “a matter of convic¬tion for which even the least enlightened man among us can easily lay down his life.” Hence, the indigenous conception of democracy does not pre-require literacy or formal education, but only spiritual emancipation. Does it not seem natural that the true aspiration of the masses can only be this indigenous variety of democracy? It does not degrade them because of poor literacy rate. It has been ingrained into their consciousness by the best-loved poets and teachers in more than a thousand years.

Just as conventional democracy pre-requires literacy and education, the indigenous variety calls for spiritual emancipation (in the above-mentioned passage, Iqbal goes on to say, “in view of the basic idea of Islam that there can be no further revelation binding on man, we ought to be spiritually one of the most emancipated peoples on earth”).

Spiritual emancipation, in this sense, means emancipation in all spheres of life rather than just one. Artistic and literary, social and political, religious and legal, education and psychological emancipations collectively amount to spiritual emancipation.

In retrospect, we may recognize that we started pursuing this goal in 1987. Unlike some of the earlier goals, such as Muslim nationhood, separate electorates and Muslim homeland, the goal was not clearly stated on this occasion. Beginning with the election of a woman prime minister ahead of any other Muslim nation, the journey towards emancipation was carried out, perhaps, unknowingly for the most part. The quarrels between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, the work of the human rights activists and the feminists, the so-called enlightened moderation at the turn of the millennium, the emergence of an all-powerful media with its good and bad influences, and the uneasy alliances with the Western powers may all have contributed towards the achieving of our goal. The strongest factor, however, was undoubtedly the “inner synthesis” of the diverse political ideologies that had been tried out since 1967.

In the absence of a well-stated ideal, the only ideal to be pursued was to learn from experience. This was also important because the emancipation that we were trying to achieve was unprecedented. It was a long-cherished goal that had never become a reality for our society during the long centuries of tyrants and despots. Therefore, the best way forward was to learn from experience.

The benchmark came in 2006, when judicial activism of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry, prevailed upon the combined whim of a native military ruler and the sole super power on earth, and made them answerable in a court of law for “the missing persons”, most of whom were not only insignificant citizens, but also disfavored citizens.

As if to symbolize the ethos of the past twenty years, six women cadets and a Sikh gentleman cadet were seen among the contingent that took over guard duties on the mausoleum of the Quaid-i-Azam on 25 December 2006. The 130th birth anniversary of the founder of Pakistan was indeed a good day to mark the end of a stage in the history of the nation, and to start preparation of the next stage. “Emancipation”, which was the goal achieved in the past twenty years, was soon going to become a tool for achieving the next goal, and a new ideal would then be pursued.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

From Pakistan, with Love

The following article of mine was published in Dawn, Books & Authors today.
Ibne Safi goes international, again. In a way, he was always international since his books used to be published simultaneously from India and Pakistan. Yet his work was not available in English. Random House, India, has now started publishing Imran Series translated by Bilal Tanweer. Titled The House of Fear, the collected volume containing the first two novels is already out. Blaft Publications is coming up with some novels of Jasoosi Duniya translated by the renowned Shamsur Rehman Faruqui.

The Hindi editions are being published by Harper Collins, India. Unlike the earlier Hindi versions of the 1950s and 60s, the names of the heroes Ahmad Kamal Faridi and Ali Imran have not been changed to Vinod and Rajesh. Perhaps it is the right moment to reconsider how much was lost when the society failed to locate Safi in its literary current in the early years of independence.

He was born Asrar Ahmad in April 1928 in Nara, a small town near Allahabad. One of the earliest influences on him was Talism-i-Hoshruba, the gigantic Urdu classic (currently being translated into English with the first volume already available). The next most important influence was Rider Haggard, whose romances She and The Return of She he read soon after moving to Allahabad for higher education.

When he stared writing fiction and poetry, for a while he followed the literary trends of those days, such as the Progressive Writers’ Movement, but became disillusioned with them sometime around 1942. It seems that he had come to believe that purely speculative theories did not provide a very sound basis for collective development of societies – at least that is the impression one gets from his autobiographical essays such as ‘How Did I Start Writing’ (‘Mien Nay Likhna Kaisay Shuroo Kiya’) and ‘Baqalam Khud’ (In My Own Hand). However, he kept the company of the leading progressive writers of the area as long as he stayed in India, which was till August 1952.

The catastrophic pillage and massacre of 1947 confirmed, at least to him, his doubts about the ability of pure speculation to prevent social tragedies. “I kept thinking and thinking, and arrived at the conclusion that such things will keep happening until the human being learns to respect the law,” he later wrote.

In the late 1951, a comment by someone to the effect that only sexual stuff could sell in Urdu provoked Asrar to launch a movement against the contemporary trends of high literature. He picked up Ironsides’ Lone Hand, a detective story by Victor Gunn and adapted it according to the tastes of the reading public of Urdu, adding some literary flavor of his own and remodeling the two main characters to represent his ideals. Dilair Mujrim, published by Nakhat Publications, Allahabad, and distributed by A.H. Wheeler & Co. in March 1952, sold like hot cake. Asrar Ahmad, now using the penname “Ibne Safi” (“the Son of Safi”, since Safiullah was the name of his father) had proven his point.

He migrated to Pakistan in August the same year and spent the rest of his life in Karachi. By the time he died on July 26, 1980, he had written 246 mystery novels on stock characters Faridi, Hameed and Ali Imran. All except eight adaptations were based on original plots (by his own account), and almost all had been published simultaneously from Allahabad and Karachi, since the author remained equally popular on both sides of the border.

Literary critics labeled him a mere “popular writer” and his fiction as “pulp”. This was to overlook the fact that writers of pulp fiction seldom have explicitly reformist agendas: Ian Fleming once justified the promiscuity of James Bond by saying something to the effect that he was catering to an age where courtship was being replaced with seduction.

Not so with Ibne Safi. He was reinforcing the messages of commonly respected reformers, such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Ali Brothers and Allama Iqbal, while, ironically, the writers of “high literature” were trying to outdo each other in selling sex and sadism. Also, his work touched upon a wider range of contemporary issues – and his literary allusions covered a more diverse range of art, literature and philosophy – than any other writer who ever wrote fiction in Urdu. That does not sound very “pulp” either.

These happen to be a few of the questions brushed under the carpet by the gatekeepers of the literary establishment long ago. More questions can be raised, and they are likely to be raised now that interest in the work of Ibne Safi is about to scale new heights.

Note: Online information about the life and works of Ibne Safi can be found at and, both non-profit websites supported by his family, which also maintains a Face Book page at