Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Cinema of Politics

The following is my article published in Dawn Images on Sunday, January 16, 2011.
How did the New Year arrive thirty years ago? It was 1981. The interest-free banking got introduced that day. The new Islamic century had also started a few weeks earlier, and the media was abuzz with relevant content. Since the state-controlled PTV was the only available television channel, the nation had no choice except to watch the faith-strengthening programs – along with some very entertaining ones, such as the hilarious Fifty Fifty (and Show-Sha, the debut stage show of the host Anwar Maqsood, starting a few days after the New Year).

Then, of course, there was form of diversion that would happen when a rented VCR – a prohibited item at that time – was sneaked into a household, and the entire neighborhood might gather around it for watching some illegally imported movie. The pious and the innocent had started turning their backs on the national film industry, in favor of Indian movies.

This winter of our discontent was warmed up a bit by the “summer of ’42”. Nahin Abhi Nahin, directed by the progressive Pakistani filmmaker Nazrul Islam, had been released a few weeks earlier. It had introduced newcomers Faisal Rehman (known by the screen-name “Armaan” at that time), Ayaz and Fauzia Ahmad (known by the screen-name “Aarzoo”). These kids were the talk of the town, and a tie-in advertisement of a certain paan masala had popularized them even among those who had not seen the movie. The movie itself was not perceived to be anything but a coming-of-age comedy at that time, but was it just that? Or did it have some political connotations that were missed by the suspecting censors and may only be discovered in retrospect?

The story begins with the Aligarh syndrome of a poor couple from a village wanting higher education for their son, Armaan (literally meaning aspiration, and apparently an allusion to the 1966 blockbuster movie of that title).

The son grows up, is sent to live in a hostel in the city and accompanies his street-smart roommate Bobby (Ayaz) to a park where the authorities have prohibited the plucking of flowers. “These excessive prohibitions are conspiracy hatched against us by a few fanatics," says Bobby. An old gentleman interrupts him compassionately, "No, my son. This is how we, who are your elders, are offering you guidance." When Armaan takes sides with the old man, Bobby responds by singing a song which, at least in retrospect, can be taken as the most poignant criticism of General Zia's version of "Islamization" to come out during that period: “Kuchh bhi karo yeh rokayn…” (“Whatever we do, they stop us; and object to each and everything; they have got nothing else to do; but they are from a time bygone, and this is a new age, so you better salute it!”). Armaan actually “salutes” the “new age” and is chastised by the memory of a beating from his father (perhaps reminiscent of the famous lashing of the rebels in the earlier days of the martial law regime?).

Armaan wears a burqa while Bobby dons a shirwani and false moustaches so that they may look older and be allowed entry to a theater where the famously tantalizing movie from the Hollywood, Summer of ’42, is being shown “for adults only”. Likewise, the innocent-looking schoolgirl Aarzoo, who develops a liking for Armaan, has very little appetite for the hardcover books handed down to her by her moralizing father, and prefers the thrillers written by James Hadley Chase (the Corgi editions published in those days used to come with notoriously revealing pictures on their covers). In her dream she sings to Armaan, “Bun jao tum filmstar…” (“Become a filmstar…”) but wakes up with a disturbed mind when, in the same dream, she envisions his later years filled with problems stereotypically related with showbiz fame: alcohol, women and loss of true love.

Did these confused fantasies not foreshadow what was actually going to happen soon after the end of the 11-year-long Islamization of General Zia? The schoolgirls of the early 1980s have grown up pretty much the way Aarzoo would have: they are the middle class women of today who patronize Indian soap serials and “permissive” reality shows, while complaining at the same time that the media is corrupting the morals.

Shabnam, the great legend of our silver screen, was presented as herself – in a manner of speaking. As the most popular living legend of our silver screen, she may well deserve to be remembered as the nearest female equivalent of Waheed Murad. In Nahin Abhi Nahin, she is given her own name – “Ms. Shabnam”. Her personal life is depicted, not necessarily as it was in reality, but almost certainly as the cine-goers of the period would have fantasized about it. She is shown to be living independently in a luxury apartment, painting pictures for a living and hanging out in posh restaurants with her female friends. She is easily moved, and has a kind heart, but also possesses a well-developed sense of moral responsibility.

This is the older woman whose gestures of kindness are misinterpreted by Armaan, apparently because the boy’s head is filled with fantasies borrowed from the Hollywood and he cannot help imagining Shabnam as “Dorothy” of Summer of ’42. Armaan’s quest after her – with haunting lyrics from Suroor Barabankvi and music from Robin Ghosh, ‘Saman who khwab sa saman’ – may well mirror the anxieties of the generation growing up under rigid laws and finding its personal space in permissive fantasies. The struggle of Armaan and Bobby to grow up “before their time” (a recurring motif in the film) was remarkably in sync with an era when unrest was boiling up in colleges and universities, mainly over political matters that were not usually seen as the legitimate concerns for students.

Regrettably, just as Armaan fails to realize that Shabnam is not Dorothy, we may have failed to see the difference between our filmmakers and their foreign counterparts. Despite its superb entertainment value and a liberal attitude towards life, Nahin Abhi Nahin is a moral agenda rooted in the vision of the founding fathers of the country. Rather than sounding out of place, Armaan seems to be truly presenting the essence of the whole movie when he speaks his last lines to Aarzoo: “Our elders are right. Flowers that bloom before their time also die premature. I shall eat this fruit but no, not just now (nahin abhi nahin).”

Friday, 14 January 2011

Cornelius of Pakistan

The following is my article published as Friday Feature, 'Cornelius and Sharia Law', in today's Dawn, p.6.

When America was a new nation, foreign observers usually remarked on the widespread popularity of the legal profession in the new state.

In 1968, American political scientist Ralph Braibanti observed a similar phenomenon in new states like Pakistan and India: a remarkably large number of people seemed to be involved in the legal profession and the “legal mode of thought” seemed to be a distinguishing feature of the new nations. Braibanti also noticed a difference. While most studies about the United States in its early days had paid attention to the role of the legal profession in shaping society, “the study of legal institutions and the legal community [had] been neglected in analyses of the political development of new states” (such as Pakistan). Unfortunately, this area remains conspicuously absent from our studies even today: except for a few politically significant events, we seldom bother to learn about how our legal institutions have developed and affected our society.

Understandably, the “legal mode of thought” in the first 20 years was dominated by two opposite currents: pro-secular and pro-Islamic. A peaceful co-existence of these two currents is precisely what distinguishes the first 20 years (1947 to 1966) from the next twenty (1967-1987), when the two currents became increasingly divergent in Pakistan.

The pro-secular tendency was apparently inherited from the colonial past, and was widespread among the intelligentsia and the educated. For a number of reasons it has been epitomised by Justice Muhammad Munir (1895-1979), who was the main author of the Munir Report (1954) about the anti-Ahmedi riots in Punjab. The report has long been hailed as a masterpiece of secular values.

Therefore, it is often seen as a matter of surprise that the same judge, after being promoted as the Chief Justice of Pakistan, upheld the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly by Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad soon thereafter. Yet, it might help to remember that Munir`s argument in favour of dictatorship — his famous `Doctrine of Necessity` that provided excuse to all subsequent dictators — was also rooted in his western learning just like his secularism (he supported his argument on a maxim of the 13th century British jurist Henry de Bracton).

That it was left to a Christian to present the case of Islam at the highest ladder of jurisprudence in the formative phase of the Pakistan would be regarded by some as a paradox, and by others as corroboration of Quaid-i-Azam`s dream. Alvin Robert Cornelius (1903-1991), Chief Justice of Pakistan from 1960 to 1968, was a relentless defender of Sharia, and arguably played the most important role in inculcating some Islamic values in the legal institutions of Pakistan.

The cornerstones of his legal philosophy may be summarised in three points: (a) Law has a moral function in society; (b) Law should be culture-sensitive; and (c) Islam is a valid foundation for a universal society. How he built upon these simple ideas in his 57 speeches and papers, and how he demonstrated them through his judgments, is what makes him arguably one of the greatest legal philosophers.

In 1954, when the bench headed by Chief Justice Munir upheld the decision of the Governor-General to dissolve the constituent assembly, Cornelius was the only judge to write a note of dissent. Four years later, when the same court upheld the case of Dosso against the martial law authorities, Cornelius wrote a concurrent judgment (i.e. he agreed with the decision but felt the need to explain himself separately). He observed that fundamental human rights are inalienable, and cannot be suspended even by martial law. This point of view was so different from the rest that it was later seen as a “note of dissent”.

However, Cornelius` concept of inalienable rights seems to be slightly different from how the issue is usually projected. He was of the opinion that the people deserved to feel secure that law shall safeguard their cherished values and norms. In `Crime and Punishment of Crime`, the paper which he read at an international conference in Sydney in August 1965, he mentioned several cases to indicate “the extent to which the law supports the indigenous disciplines operating in our society, through the authority of the elders.” For similar reasons, he defended the indigenous institution of jirga as well as the punishments prescribed by Sharia for crimes like theft and robbery.

Acutely aware of the tendency to treat each individual as an island, Cornelius offered a few words of caution to his international audience, and his words reflected the ethos of his new nation that had come into being with the specific goal of rediscovering society as an organic unity. “It must be recognised that crime is a biological fact of society, whether ancient or modern,” he said. “It grows out of social condition and is not to be contained without the most careful examination of its etiology… In that process, it would be well not to reject, out of hand as being out-dated, the principles and techniques laid down and applied by the ancients, for dealing with the problem in their times. They may have their uses, and certainly in eastern countries, they still possess validity.”

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Why Islamic State

If certain features of “Islamic state” (as conceived by the founding fathers of Pakistan) overlap variously with theocracy, secularism and socialism, why not start with one of those? Many answers to this pertinent question are scattered throughout the writings and statements of Allama Iqbal, Quaid-i-Azam, Liaquat Ali Khan and other leaders of the Pakistan movement. Here, we may look at three of the simplest answers.

Firstly, the founding fathers believed that Western democracy (of which secularism is a corollary) played a very important role in history but had failed by the early decades of the twentieth century (Iqbal’s observations about the “reaction against democracy in England and France” have already been shared in some recent posts of this newsletter. Quaid was of the same opinion as will be seen here).

Secondly, if Western democracy had failed, obviously the world needed fresh input for the sake of freedom, equality and liberty. This fresh input, according to the founding fathers, was an “Islamic state”.

The following is one of the dozens of statements of Quaid which can be used for understanding the two above-mentioned points:

In Pakistan we shall have a state which will be run according to the principles of Islam. It will have its cultural, political and economic structure based on the principles of Islam. The non-Muslims need not fear because of this, for fullest justice will be done to them, they will have their full cultural, religious, political and economic rights safeguarded. As a matter of fact they will be more safeguarded than in the present-day so-called democratic parliamentary form of Government. (Bombay, February 1, 1943; quoted in Secular Jinnah and Pakistan by Saleena Karim on p.136).
The third reason was that the people wanted it (minus, perhaps, “the intelligentsia and the so-called educated”). Liaquat Ali Khan stated it best when he told an American audience in 1950:

We do not have to present this ideology to our people as a new manifesto. The principles I have stated are part and parcel of Islam and when we say that we want to follow the Islamic way of life what we mean is that we could not possibly do otherwise. (N.B. This quote is not from Saleena Karim's book).
By the way, if one thinks that only Muslim masses wanted this “Islamic state”, one is in for some surprise in Saleena Karim’s book – especially in Appendix II, ‘Non-Muslims on Jinnah and Pakistan’. The letters written to Quaid by a Lahore-based native Christian woman and from a Hindu in Darjeeling are eye-openers.

Just to check how much you know about Pakistan, try making a guess which prominent Pakistani Christian wrote the following words – as late as November 1977:

If you have looked at the basic doctrine of Islam, its truth and strength-in-simplicity, the potencies for growth, spiritual integrity for the individual, outward and visible power through unity for the community, that are built into its rituals of namaz [prayer], the fast and the pilgrimage, which are still being extensively practiced, the reason for the current of Islamicization [“Islamization”] in Muslim countries, that have re-sensed their identity and place in the World, will become apparent.
Yes, these words were written by a Pakistani Christian who was one of the most prominent public figures in our history. Turn to pp.261-2 of the book to find out who was he (and hopefully, there will be more about him in some future post of this newsletter).

Friday, 7 January 2011

Islamic State (2)

Presented in the previous post were a few salient features of an “Islamic state” as conceived by the founding fathers of Pakistan – especially Iqbal, Quaid-i-Azam and Liaquat Ali Khan. Looking at these features, we find that some of these overlap with secularism, some with theocracy and some with socialism.

This could be one of the three major reasons why the founding fathers’ vision was seldom understood by the intelligentsia. Already by 1947, the Muslim intelligentsia of the sub-continent had become sharply divided between secularist, conservative and socialist positions. Each of these groups saw only what it wanted to see in the statements of Iqbal and Quaid-i-Azam (and very often disregarding Liaquat Ali Khan altogether).

To say that the founding fathers of Pakistan wanted it to be a secular, theocratic or socialist state was equally wrong. Such a statement could only border on intellectual dishonesty. Secular Jinnah and Pakistan by Saleena Karim furnishes ample examples of such intellectual dishonesty – most famously committed by none less than a chief justice of Pakistan who attributed a “fake” quote to Quaid-i-Azam.

The Quaid may have foreseen this too. “Corruption is a curse in India and amongst Muslims, especially the so-called educated and intelligentsia,” he had written to his friend M. A. H. Ispahani in 1945. “Unfortunately, it is this class that is selfish and morally and intellectually corrupt.” (Quoted by Saleena Karim on p.133; emphasis is mine). This seems to be the second reason why the founding fathers’ concept of “Islamic State” got thrown into oblivion.

A third reason could be that this was a vision of the Islamic state as constantly developing through history – through “deed” of the masses rather than “ideas” of the elite. Grasping an ever-changing concept is a difficult thing, especially when it also requires us to be non-judgmental towards the less privileged.

This series of review will be concluded in the next post.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Islamic State (1)

Allama Iqbal, Qauid-i-Azam and Liaquat Ali Khan believed that the features of an Islamic state in modern times would include the following.

  1. SOVEREIGNTY: Sovereignty belongs to God, which means that the people as well as the state must treat the entire humanity as family and cannot adopt policies that refute this organic unity of the humankind.
  2. DEMOCRACY: Democracy is the most important aspect of Islam regarded as a political ideal, and therefore the state must be ruled by representatives chosen by the people.
  3. EQUALITY BEFORE LAW: Non-Muslims can also become executive heads (such as prime ministers) as long as they get themselves duly elected. However, the state may restrict the office of the ceremonial head (such as President without any real power) exclusively to Muslims.
  4. SOCIAL JUSTICE: Not only illegal means of acquiring wealth should be outlawed but also all forms of economic exploitation: the state must ensure economic equality through “Islamic socialism”.
  5. INNOVATION: Islamic state is constantly evolving through history, and it may take some other form in future (possibly where government is not needed anymore). However, the development can only be towards more empowerment of the people, and greater democracy, rather than the other way around.
Is this really Islam? Did Iqbal, Quaid and Liaquat Ali Khan actually believe this? If so, why didn’t we know? These are the most common questions that come up whenever I discuss these ideas.

Usually, I do not answer the first question. I believe that every Muslim has the right to interpret religion in their own way, and also has the right to consult a religious scholar out of free will. I am not a “religious scholar” as such, and my role as a historian ends on telling whether or not a certain idea was shared by some people in the past.

I know it as a historical fact that Iqbal, Quaid and Liaquat Ali Khan were unanimous on the above-mentioned concepts but whether they were right or wrong is not for me to judge.

The good news is that all three questions (and many, many, more) have been answered – elegantly and at length, with all the supporting evidence needed for the discussion – in Secular Jinnah and Pakistan: What the Nation Doesn’t Know by the distinguished researcher, Saleena Karim.

In the previous post I shared my observation that contrary to some other interesting studies about the Quaid, this one doesn’t make a painful reading for an average Pakistani. You may or may not agree with the author, but nowhere shall you feel as if she is unsympathetic to your religious sentiments, or trying to impose her views. Besides, the enormous amount of archival material presented here is valuable for its own sake. This includes excerpts from the writings, speeches and statements of the founding fathers; passages from parliamentary debates; arguments from Quran, and much else beside.

In the presence of this book, it shall become increasingly difficult for anyone to prove that the above-mentioned five points about an Islamic state were not shared by the founding fathers of Pakistan (just for record: the statements here are worded by me, but I hope that I was correct in inferring them from the book).

So, let’s move on to the last question: if this was the founding fathers’ idea of an Islamic state, why didn’t we know? This shall be discussed in the next post, but here is a hint: the answer is in the five statements themselves. Look again.