BY HARRIS KHALIQUE
Zainul Abedin’s columns on the life and times of Bhagat Singh – well-researched and aptly articulated – published in this newspaper recently, call for immediate attention by those intellectuals, members of the intelligentsia, political workers and social activists who continue to believe in bringing about a radical change in the way our states and societies are organised and the manner in which they function in South Asia.
The writer challenges the selective appropriation of Bhagat Singh’s ideals by the liberal sections of society, both in Pakistan where we want to name a square in Lahore after him and in India where films are made about him but stop short of conveying his true socialist ideals. They present him simply as a secular, non-communal nationalist, not a proponent of a socialist revolution that liberates us all from the oppressive political and economic order. The name of the very party he led, Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, brings home the point Abedin wants to make.
There is also a need for us to understand that the efforts of the leadership we cherish as our founders – liberal like Pandit Nehru and Quaid-e-Azam or religious figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad – were limited to the freedom of the Indian Subcontinent from the clutches of British imperialism.
There is no reason to undermine this effort either as people and their actions must be judged in the context of the constraints enforced upon them by their contemporary social conditions. Also, personal limitations of larger-than-life people affect history in unique ways. Nevertheless, the question remains that the real freedom for the majority of the people of this region from the yoke of poverty, destitution, wretchedness, ignorance, inequality and injustice is yet to be achieved.
Discrimination on the basis of caste, class, creed, colour, faith and sex continues unabated in the lands liberated by Gandhi, Nehru, Azad, Jinnah – and much later by Mujib in the form of Bangladesh. People like Bhagat Singh, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah, M N Roy, Maulvi Barkatullah and Maulana Hasrat Mohani may have roads and parks, schools and colleges named after them, but their views are not granted the importance they deserve for the true liberation of our people. Consequently, while people are generally impressed by their struggle, these great individuals occupy a limited space in popular political and social imagination.
The colonial masters were replaced by local elites after 1947. The middle class has grown in all these countries but it serves the elites in the classical sense rather than siding with the weak and the oppressed. Undoubtedly, the setback to the socialist experiment in erstwhile Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe – mostly due to their political authoritarianism and failure to manage the economy – and the reconfiguration of the Chinese economy on capitalist lines over the last 30 years under a party that is still called the Communist Party, have made it harder for left-wing political thinkers, platforms and workers anywhere to further their political ideas and wage an impressive and strong struggle.
Militant struggles in the name of socialism in parts of South Asia will remain limited in producing a wider pro-people impact due to a lack of solid theoretical basis and because of the means they employ. The rise and fall of the Maoist movement in Nepal is a case in point. The monarchy has ended but the same old republicans have come to power.
In South Asia in general and in Pakistan in particular, since our Left desperately needs a thorough understanding of where we stand today in terms of our political economy and social structures, we lack a comprehensive analysis of the situation and as a result do not possess a local narrative to support the working classes and struggling peoples in our countries and across the region.
People change when their material conditions change. Society changes when the relations of production change. The state is compelled to transform when society progresses. To give one example, the laws related to blasphemy in the UK were repealed as late as in 2008. But the British society had largely rejected their use for a very long time before that.
In Pakistan, on the other hand, the amendments to the blasphemy law (making it much stricter) were made about 20 years ago. While about 1600 people have been charged since, at least half of them Muslims, only a few have been sentenced. On the other hand, there are people in our society who are out there to lynch those who have allegedly committed blasphemy, without even bothering to see if the allegation was right or wrong, the person sane or not, or if there was any other motive behind the allegation. One’s life is threatened – not by the state but by powerful segments within the society – even on opposing the way the law is drafted and the way it is put to use.
There are many other examples where our prevalent cultural and religious traditions make our society less modern in its thinking and practices and conservative towards the realisation of individual rights, particularly those of women and marginalised groups, than what is provided for in the constitution in the form of fundamental rights.
The state could have acted differently towards society and guided its transformation over the past 66 years but it hasn’t. Therefore, to the dismay of some of our liberal friends, there is also a need to understand that in today’s Pakistan – for a host of historic and political reasons – a complete separation of faith from polity and society is not possible. The debates about secularism, pluralism, rationalism and equal citizenship have to be pursued without confronting religion. From within the texts and history of Muslim societies, traditions of enlightenment, inquiry and oneness of humanity can be traced and worked upon besides finding ways to seek the realisation of fundamental rights of all citizens.
The relevance of the politics of Maulana Hasrat Mohani has become greater for those who believe in creating a just and egalitarian society in a Muslim majority state. Maulana Mohani was a devout Muslim, a true dervish, a refined poet, a powerful prose writer, an ardent democrat and a committed revolutionary.
He was among the founders of the Communist Party of India. His was the first house in Kanpur where the red flag was hoisted in 1925. Maulana’s politics rolled democracy, secularism, socialism and minority rights together into the universal values of Islam.
In other words, he saw socialism as the contemporary political manifestation of his religious values. He spent many years in jail and was among the first who demanded complete freedom (Azadi-e-Kaamil) from the British – unlike Mahatma Gandhi and others. All his life he stood for the weak and the oppressed, the poor and the downtrodden, the labour and the peasants, the minorities and the marginalised.
For him, that is what Islam taught. Being a socialist in his times was being a true Muslim who believed in equality, justice and oneness of humankind. His desire for peaceful coexistence and his active cooperative politics with religious and political leaders of other faiths in India for freedom from colonisation remain unparalleled.
An exceptional man who performed the Hajj pilgrimage more than any other political or religious leader of his stature, he also wrote eulogies for Krishna in verse and attended his birth celebrations many times. After Partition, he decided to stay in India and championed the rights of minorities including Muslims in the new Indian union. He passed away in 1951. There is so much for us to learn from his life, his works and his politics.
-the writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad
-courtesy: The News International