No Country for our Finest

Parvez Mahmood reminds us of how Pakistan has consistently persecuted critical minds

No Country for our Finest
It is an essential pre-requisite for a progressive society that its citizens have the freedom to pursue their interests without constraints and express their ideas without fear. This freedom implies that some of the political views, religious beliefs, technological developments, literary expressions and personal behaviours may be too radical, eccentric and non-conformist for certain sections of society. A balanced society has a fair distribution of liberal and conservative elements. Tolerance for opposing views creates a vibrant society and results in social as well as technical development.

Pakistan, however, has been hounded by intolerance. Liberal ideology – advocating freedom, secularism and individual choices – has been eschewed and frowned upon by the state and the people. Powerful vested interests feel intimidated by ideas that threaten the established order of entitlements. Those who espouse and propagate progressive ideas have been and continue to be persecuted, vilified and hounded. This article is a tale of persecution in various spheres of life.

Educationists in Pakistan come out against Malala

Literature is one area where our greatest minds have faced severe state high-handedness. One of the earliest sufferers was the great poet Sahir Ludhianvi, who chose to stay in Lahore after independence as a 26-year-old young man. He had leftist leanings that are clearly reflected in his poetry, as is evident in his poignant poem about the Taj Mahal. Within three years of independence, his arrest warrants were issued for being a member of the Communist Party. He defied state oppression by crossing the border and settling in India, where he went on to write some of the finest film lyrics and where he was showered with respect, awards and wealth. Pakistan’s loss was India’s gain.

Sahir was not the only one who chose to return to India due to stifling of right of expression. Sajjad Zaheer was a communist activist and one of the founders of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. He migrated to Pakistan but was embroiled in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951 and imprisoned. After spending five years in jail, he left for India.

The tradition of disowning and expulsion of our brightest was taking hold. In 1961, we lost another literary star in Qurrat-ul-Ain Haider, the daughter of Sajjad Haider Yildrim, himself an illustrious writer and freedom fighter. Qurrat-ul-Ain couldn’t stand the criticism that followed her seminal novel Aag ka Darya meaning “River of Fire”, certainly one of the best novels in Urdu to date. She too migrated to India in 1961 where she was showered with several awards for her literary works.

Habib Jalib at a protest during the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq

Subsequently, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who would be a source of pride for any nation, was also forced into self-exile in 1979. Faiz was first imprisoned in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in early 1951 for four years. He was released when his defence lawyer, Hussain Suhrawardi, became the Prime Minister. He was again arrested by the martial law regime of Iskander Mirza but was released two years later on the intercession of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Belatedly, a long time after his death, he was awarded the Nishan-e-Imtiaz by the Benazi Bhutto government. In his lifetime, he didn’t find favour with successive governments. It may be added that he was honoured in his life by foreign nations, being bestowed an MBE by the UK, the Lenin Peace Prize by the USSR, the Avicenna Prize by UNESCO and a nomination for a Nobel. Nothing from Pakistan as long as he lived.

The incorruptible Habib Jalib has the unique distinction of being put to prison for his critical poetry by all three martial law regimes that he faced in his life. His first arrest in 1964 was by the Nawab of Kalabagh, the tyrannical governor of West Pakistan, who could not think of a more ludicrous charge than that the gentle poet had ripped someone’s arm with a dagger! Jalib, however, didn’t relent and continued to criticise inequality and injustice in society till his death. He has been called a “poet of the people” because he never found favour with the state and was banned from official media. Even Benazir was not happy with him when he wrote a poem criticizing her first government for not being poor-friendly.

Saadat Hassan Manto came face to face with the reality of his character Mango Kochwan of his Naya Qanun. He was tried thrice for obscenity during colonial rule and thrice after independence. For him and his literary style, the law had not changed with independence. Sadly, he was brought before Lahore High Justice Muhammad Munir in 1950 for obscenity for his short story Thanda Gosht (Cold Meat). The Justice ruled that the story was indeed obscene. Three years later, the justice went on to deliver the infamous Maulvi Tamizzuddin Khan Case verdict relying on the Doctrine of Necessity. However, for Justice Munir and the Pakistani judiciary, both cases are equally and perpetually incriminating. One pertained to the right of speech and the other to democratic institutions. The good Justice failed on both counts and set the tone for a dismal state of human rights and democracy in this hapless nation.

Decades later journalist Saleem Shahzad would be murdered in custody for his investigative book and articles that fell afoul of some state authorities.

We are a dead-loving nation. There is now across-the-board acclaim for Faiz, Jalib and Manto. They are, after all, safely dead.

But sadly we failed to own up to them or value them when they were living amongst us. Now that both Faiz and Jalib have transitioned to the next world, their rebellious verses have found popularity with liberals and conservatives alike; even with those who, in the poets’ lifetime, couldn’t tolerate their vision of a free, tolerant and equitable society.

Another tragic victim of intolerance and suffocation is Qandeel Baloch; a young woman who only wanted to be herself and live her life on her own terms. She got killed for breaking some social norms. Her sole crime was to expose the duplicity and hypocrisy that has permeated our social fabric.

From the very inception of our country, liberal intellectuals were disillusioned with the tilt towards religiosity. Some lost hope and left while many others led a melancholy life. Some, like Faiz and Jalib, fought against the system; others gave up and led a grim life. Saghir Saddiqui was one of those who became completely disillusioned. His poetry reflects the bitterness that he felt in the country. He resorted to hard drinking and opiates, dying a tragic death on a Lahore footpath. Some of his verses and poems are a true heritage for Urdu but in his lifetime, the poet was a broken man in a directionless society.

We reached a new national nadir in rejection of Dr Abdus Salaam and Malala Yusufzai, who should have been considered as the pinnacle of our scientific and social achievements. The international community chose them for the highest award of the Nobel Prize but we chose to disown them on frivolous and ludicrous grounds.

Pakistan has dangerously drifted to conservatism. Voices of liberalism have either been silenced or lost the courage to speak. It was not too long ago that Salman Taseer, Shahbaz Bhatti, lawyer Rashid Rehman, Sabeen Mahmud, Dr Ghulam Murtaza and many others were gunned down for preaching sanity. Ghamdi Sahib has been forced to a life of self-exile, or he too might have lost his life. Our society accepts only extremist ultra-conservative stands on social issues. We view the world in binary terms of right and wrong, halal and haram, Islamic and un-Islamic, legitimate and illegitimate, etc. Anyone who tries to navigate the people through complex and multi-faceted questions is at the risk of public vilification and bodily harm. We are already adrift yet there is a perception amongst a vast majority of our people that the nation is still not sufficiently religious.

The fact is that we can expect little in the way of technical or social development in this suffocating environment.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on historical and social issues. He can be reached at

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: