Intellectual Discourse in Pakistan

Ignoring Social Reality

During his visit to Pakistan, publicist Yoginder Sikand, a Muslim from India, had the impression that education is not withheld from the people due to a lack of means, but instead as a deliberate ploy

On the bus from Delhi to Lahore early this year, I chatted with an elderly Muslim man from Delhi who was travelling to Pakistan to visit his relatives. He identified himself as a socialist.

"I don't want to go to Lahore but my wife insists I should," he said to me frankly. "I get so bored there. I can hardly find any like-minded people to talk to," he went on. "You'll soon discover," he warned me, "that the level of intellectual discourse is so limited in Pakistan. Quite awful actually."

I thought the man was exaggerating, but I was soon to discover that he was not entirely wrong.

In my interactions with a wide cross-section of people in various places that I visited in Pakistan during my one-month visit I was shocked at the pathetic state of intellectual discourse that seemed to pervade the country, which I often unconsciously contrasted with the situation in India.

There are, I discovered, less than half a dozen good bookshops in the whole of Lahore, once considered to be the intellectual capital of India, that stock books in English. The vast majority of these books are, curiously enough, published in India, a few in the West and the rest, a very small proportion, are local Pakistani publications.

Books on the "Ideology of Pakistan"

Books on Pakistani society, based on empirical realities, are almost impossible to find, although the number of titles on the so-called "Two-Nation Theory" and the history of the Muslim League, as well as on elite politics in Pakistan, run into the hundreds. So do books on Jinnah and Iqbal, the two major ideological heroes of Pakistan, after whom a vast number of public institutions throughout the country are named.

As a Lahori friend of mine quipped, "The intellectual scene in Pakistan is so bad that our rulers think we have almost no one else to name our institutions after."

Even on Islam and Kashmir, two issues that are central to the way in which the Pakistani state has sought to construct the notion of Pakistani national identity, I discovered hardly any decent literature in English in the numerous bookshops that I visited.

Many of the few English books on Islam I came across were actually published in India. A few others were by Western writers, while the rest, not more than three dozen titles, many of these being were poorly-researched and ideologically-driven propaganda tracts of the Pakistani Jamaat i Islami and its associated publishing houses.

Many of the relatively few English books on sale in Lahore's bookshops are textbooks, and several of these, particularly those on the hard sciences, are published in India. The school texts that I glanced through are carefully tailored to reproduce what is officially called the "Ideology of Pakistan", with Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies being compulsory subjects in the school curriculum. The Islamic Studies texts present Islam as the only true religion.

Few books

The Urdu publishing scene in Pakistan is somewhat different, although I found it almost as uninspiring as its English counterpart. Lahore's famed Urdu Bazaar, located in a chaotic, run-down part of the old town, consists of several narrow lanes lined with filth-clogged drains, almost impossible to wade through.

I made it a point to spend two entire days in the bazaar and to visit every of the dozens of small bookshops that it boasts of. On the lookout for literature on lived social realities in Pakistan, I was sorely disappointed.

The vast majority of the titles on display were about Islamic rituals and theology, hagiographic accounts of the Prophet, early Muslim warriors, saints, rulers and ulama, treatises on the ideological founders of Pakistan and on the "Two-Nation Theory", tomes on the history of the Muslim League and the alleged perfidy of the Hindus, accounts of Pakistani rulers by their supporters and critics, besides hundreds of texts containing gems of Urdu literature.

Although important as sources of Pakistani history and national identity, they had little to reveal about the actual social realities of Pakistan today that I was keen on knowing more about, a telling reminder, once again, of the poverty of intellectual discourse in the country.

No equivalent of the Indian Islamic scholars

As a student of Islamic history, I was particularly interested in procuring books by socially engaged Pakistani scholars articulating progressive positions on various issues through engaging creatively with the Islamic scholarly tradition.

However, wading through the books on display in the shops in the Urdu Bazaar, I found that few such texts are actually available. This starkly suggested to me that there appears to be no counterpart in Pakistan to the numerous Indian Islamic scholars that have sought to creatively engage with the Islamic intellectual tradition and the myriad challenges posed by the pressures and demands of contemporary life.

There is simply no Pakistani equivalent of the Indian Islamic scholars Asghar Ali Engineer and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (incidentally, both of whose books are widely read and published in Pakistan), a sad commentary on the state of Islamic intellectual discourse in a country that was created ostensibly in the name of Islam and in order to protect Muslims from "upper caste" Hindu domination.

The only noted socially engaged Islamic public intellectual that Pakistan has produced, the scholar Fazlur Rahman, was forced to flee Pakistan in the 1960s and seek refuge in Canada because of the vociferous opposition that he faced from the Jamaat-i Islami and various ulama groups for his progressive utterances.

The task of offering socially progressive responses from within the broadly defined Islamic tradition to the challenges of modernity and to the lived realities of widespread poverty and exploitation has hardly begun in Pakistan.

Hence, today certain radical Islamist as well as conservative ulama groups and their propagandists are able to powerfully assert their claims to speak for Islam quite unchallenged, offering responses that are, overall, decidedly distasteful: fanning sectarian rivalries, promoting hatred against the country's religious minorities, condemning moves to promote gender and economic justice and redress ethnic imbalances, pronouncing communism and leftists as "enemies of Islam" and as allegedly conspiring to divide Muslims, and lambasting the West and India as the very epitome of evil.

A combination of Marx and Muhammad

Some of the publishing houses in the Urdu Bazaar are run precisely by such groups, and their magazines, I was told, have hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

"We urgently need a combination of Marx and Muhammad today," said a friend, a well-known leftist activist, who accompanied me to the Urdu Bazaar and who was pained at my disappointment with the market that had failed to yield up the treasures I had been dreaming of procuring.

"Because religion is so deeply-rooted in people's lives," he continued, "we cannot ignore it. We need to articulate socially progressive interpretations of religion in order to make appeal to people and to prevent radical Islamists and conservative ulama as well as the state from monopolising the terrain of Islamic discourse."

"But, as you can see from the books sold in this market," he added, "the Pakistani Left has almost completely ignored this vital task."

The warning of the elderly Muslim man from Delhi whom I had met in the bus to Lahore swirled in my mind almost each time I entered a bookshop or research institute or even in meetings with NGO activists during my stay in Pakistan, in all the several places I visited.

Punjab University in Lahore, the largest university in the country, I discovered, does not possess a single bookshop, and the only students organisation that is legally allowed to function on campus, or so I was told, is the Islami Jamiat-i Tulaba, the students' wing of the Jamaat-i Islami.

The day I visited the university, one day after the anniversary of the fall of East Pakistan to the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini, the campus was splattered with posters put up by the Jamiat denouncing what it termed as "Indian Imperialism". I saw a few other posters pasted on notice boards in the university, but most of these were about forthcoming religious events.

I could not help contrast this to what I had been reared on in the five years that I spent at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where almost every day we were treated to a talk or a seminar by intellectuals, politicians, journalists and social activists on a whole range of pressing social issues, almost none of these being on theological niceties.

Dissent not loud enough

Notable exceptions apart, my limited conversations with students and teachers in Punjab University proved to be hardly inspiring. A friend suggested that I speak to the students of the Sociology department on some aspect of Indian society, but the head of the department was clearly reluctant. "Speak on the importance of studying Sociology instead," he suggested, and, of course, I politely declined.

It appeared that an unwritten rule was in force in the university to prevent any dissenting views being expressed that might challenge the official line of the state from intruding.

All over the university were boards painted with quotations from the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet, stressing the importance of knowledge as well as, at the same time, pious behaviour, this probably being also envisaged as a means to ensure obedience to the authorities. The Vice-Chancellor of the University, I was told, was a retired senior Army officer.

The correlation of education and protest

The pathetic state of intellectual discourse in Pakistan has much to do with the country's political economy. Pakistan has the dubious distinction of being among the countries that spend the least per capita on education. The Pakistani public education system is said to be in a state of complete shambles, even worse than in India, if that can be imagined.

As in India, mass education of an emancipatory sort, is seen as a potent challenge to ruling authorities. In Larkana district in Sindh, I was informed by an officer in the local education department when I visited the area, half of the government schools do not function because the landlords are afraid that education might help provoke pathetically poor peasants and labourers to protest and revolt. A similar situation is said to prevail in several other parts of the country.

"What both India and Pakistan desperately need," a Lahori friend told me while talking about the state of intellectual discourse in our part of the world, "are organically rooted public intellectuals that articulate the lived realities and concerns of the masses. Only then can the radical transformations that we desire ever come about."

"But," he sombrely added, "given the pathetic state of intellectual discourse in Pakistan, that will probably take decades to happen."

I told him that he was probably right about Pakistan, but, I quickly added, the same was true for India as well.

Yoginder Sikand

© 2006

Literature in Pakistan
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Even though Indian culture is officially unacceptable, it is India's film industry in particular that already dominates everyday life in Pakistan. Claudia Kramatschek about the popularity of Indian popular culture in Pakistan

Across Continents
During her last visit to Pakistan, Berlin-based author and journalist Charlotte Wiedemann met Ghazala Irfan, Associate Professor at Lahore University of Management Science. In their dialogue, they discuss the role of women in the Pakistani society and the clash of globalization and traditional society

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