The way it was: Let a thousand flowers bloom---Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Absolute truths are a matter of faith and cannot be resolved through debate and discussion, through give and take, through consensus or compromise. They are by their very nature mostly established through force

Last week I was in Islamabad at the invitation of Raja Changez Sultan, Director General of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts for a ‘Dialogue on Art’. This is a programme organised by Gulzar Afaqi. They put a person in the dock and ask him to talk about his work and the field of his primary pursuit. Since painting is my passion it was not easy to find words to describe my concerns — words are such harlots they refuse to keep your company when you most need them. But why complain; it is a private affair the less said the better. None said is best. The best I could do was to show the audience about thirty bad transparencies spanning a period of four decades. Some of the questions, which were posed to me later, helped me to discover insights into my own work. I regard social interaction pivotal to my nature and work.

A former ambassador who works rather hard at golf, more than he should, was practising at the range when Muneer, a club wit, shouted at him, “Keep practising! You will definitely improve when you grow up!” The ambassador looks much younger than seventy. Credit goes to him as he kept his cool and brushed off the remark and continued driving with his trusted old woods. The other day when our flight was waiting our turn to tee-off he walked up to me and pleasantly enquired, “Dear! How are you doing with your painting?”

I couldn’t think of anything better so I pompously ventured to announce, “Painting is a passion with me. Today is the time of anger. Anger is precious so I try not to trivialise it.” “Dear! You express yourself so well but why can’t you pursue better politics?” “In order to address this issue we must first have politics,” I pleaded. He was not convinced.

I feel considerably involved with the PNCA because I was one of the founding members of its Governing Body and a member of the Committee, which formulated a cultural policy in the early seventies. The policy recognised the need to decentralise culture in order to end the hegemony of anyone culture, language and literature. While Urdu remained the national language, the languages and cultures that were denigrated as provincial or regional were acknowledged as integral components of the national culture. The concept of unity in diversity replaced the monolithic assertion that viewed the medley of languages and cultures of various ethnic groups and nationalities residing in Pakistan as a divisive force. That cultural policy viewed erstwhile ‘divisiveness’ as diversity, which contrary to weakening lent strength and multiplicity to Pakistan culture.

The concept was based on the recognition of the unique and distinctive expressions of our people from rugged and forested mountain ranges to green and fruity valleys, from the alluvial plains to settlements in the deserts to the banks of rivers and shores of the Arabian Sea. The cultural policy was based on a democratic and secular conception, where all citizens were equal and worthy. Historically it conceived Pakistan as a rich repository of a melange of art and ideas of many races and civilisations. These traditions mingled with indigenous traditions to form a culture of great diversity and tolerance.

Sibte Hassan and Aitzaz Ahsan have described the process in a learned and engaging manner in their works, Pakistan Mein Tehzeeb Ka Irtaqa and The Indus Saga, respectively. It is so ironic that the forces, which have in the past tried to impose a static, monolithic concept of culture from above, are today either terribly divided or isolated. It is amazing that while regarding the Muslims of the world as one Millat, the various languages spoken in Pakistan were considered a threat to our nationhood. The attempt to confect a culture on a bias for one language and its affiliated traditions nurtured by the elite was treacherous, which as we now all know, had tragic consequences for Pakistan.

In reality the question of the ‘National Language’ was a political one. A hypocritical attitude was adopted for political and economic gains. If one looks at the question of language in class perspective there are three striking aspects and groupings. First there are those who are Urdu speaking but English medium who would like their children to speak English, study in English schools and proceed to be educated in universities abroad.

Second are the Urdu Medium citizens who in spite of their best efforts miserably falter in acquiring English language and manners. And then there is the third group of illiterates who are deprived of even an elementary education. This vast majority of the poor, comprising the creative Sindhis, the valiant Baloch, the resourceful Pakhtuns, the hardy Punjabis, the urbane Urdu Speaking and others of even greater talent, acquire a tongue and practical knowledge from their unlettered parents and trials of life. The sad and tragic process of the poor children growing up to adolescence is faithfully observed and described by Shaukat Sadiqqui in his famous novel, Khuda Ki Basti. In reality the contradictions arising from linguistic policies are similar to the provincial and class contradictions, which have ravaged our beloved country. They all arise from the nature of economic contradictions.

Absolute truths are a matter of faith and cannot be resolved through debate and discussion, through give and take, through consensus or compromise. They are by their very nature mostly established through force. Fortunately for Ziaul Haq, General Sher Ali Khan had already fabricated the concept of Islamic Ideology during his stint as General Yahya’s information minister. Sher Khan buttressed the concept by the notion of ‘Ideological Frontiers’. All dictators and their disciples have upheld this myth which has empowered the State to call every citizen’s conscience and faith into question ever since. This was part of the strategy to suppress any social change. Anyone who spoke of peace and the rights of the provinces was declared an Indian agent, anyone who demanded economic and social rights for the people was a Soviet agent and anyone who spoke for the rights of women was a Zionist agent.

Being an American agent was kosher (halal). Most religious organisations were hand in glove with Zia in fighting for the United States of Islam against the infidel Soviet Union. What was being introduced was not Islam, but the violence of Gali, Goli and Thappar. Islamic ideology is a handy stick for flogging the people on to ‘sirat ul mustaqeem’, the straight path set by the dictators and usurpers of the people’s voice and their rights. They were not concerned with our welfare but wanted to deceive us into accepting them as their saviours — by hook or by crook, through violent repression or devious referendums.

When Zia held his referendum he declared himself synonymous with Islam. The few innocent voters who went to cast their votes went under fear of being apprehended and flogged for being anti Islamic.

It boggles the mind that in a country where Muslims are in a vast majority, Islam should be under constant threat. If the Palestinians or Kashmiris feel threatened, it is understandable. But Islam is certainly under no threat here. If anyone is constantly threatened and needs protection, it is the poor, the minorities, the women, the children and our environment. Good Muslims should share the virtues and benefits of their faith instead of threatening others.

Why should Islam hang like the sword of Democles on our head instead of being a benign umbrella for the needy and the less able? ‘Which of the bounties of your God will thou deny?’ asks God more than once in Sura e Rehman. Who are the culprits keeping God’s endless bounties from God’s own men, women and children?

There is today a new and a most rapacious ideology being advocated, the ideology that asserts that there should be no ideologies. This is a crass fascist imposition. It is everyone’s right to hold a view as long as it is not forced on others. A pluralistic culture is the very essence of democracy where every individual can uphold a faith according to his belief, express ideas which best express his mind, freely defend values and actions, which are closest to his heart, without prejudice to anyone else.

A mind that tries to impose itself on others is of the lowest kind. Let a thousand flowers bloom, but let minds not be inhibited from freely expressing themselves. Instead of upholding static and absolute values, we should let diversity of ideas and free creative expression and economic justice be the guiding principles for our culture, our ideology and our national unity.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist