By striking out ‘Hira’ from ‘Hira Mandi’ in Saadat Hasan Manto’s famous short story “Naya Qanoon”, the editors at the Sindh Textbook Board have joined the prominent literary critics of Urdu for whom Manto’s politics is as intolerable as it is for these worthy gentlemen. This masterful deletion is clearly in line with the state of denial in which we, as citizens of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, are supposed to perpetually live. Our cultural decision-makers have a firm belief in their miraculous power to make troublesome, unpleasant facts disappear just by denying their existence or blacking them out from public discourse.
There are several interesting examples of this attitude. Since we are an Islamic nation, and Islam does not permit promiscuity, there can be no question of the existence of AIDS in our country — hence, no need to conduct a survey to find out if there are any unfortunate people out there who might be urgently needing medical attention and social help.
One striking example of recent times is how the public perception has been moulded about the events that took place in July 2007 in Islamabad — the well known Lal Masjid case. Nobody is supposed to remember how the two sons of a deceased peshimam of the Masjid had considered it their family inheritance and then gone on to illegally occupy huge tracts of Capital Development Authority land — five times its original area — to build a huge complex housing not only the madrasa, but also family residences of the two brothers, of which one had been dismissed by his appointing department from his inherited job. No one is required to recall how the Masjid had been turned into a den of heavily armed criminals during the 18 months before the illegal possession was finally vacated by the army’s Special Services Group commandos. We are expected to forget how armed young men and women belonging to the two madrasas attached to the Masjid created an atmosphere of absolute terror in the neighbourhood surrounding the Masjid — burning and tearing down CD and barbershops and threatening their owners and workers for weeks leading to the notorious siege and operation.
No one should remember how a gang of stick-wielding, burqa-clad female madrasa students had forcibly occupied the nearby children’s library and reading room. Not a word is to be uttered any longer about how another such gang of female students — aided and abetted by their male accomplices carrying firearms — had abducted a female citizen Shamim belonging to the minority Shia sect, brought her to face an illegal, shameful mock-trial in a ‘court’ consisting of sectarian fanatics and forced her to publicly confess to ‘crimes’ that she later denied she had been involved in. The nation’s free media covered the statement forcibly extracted from the helpless woman but — faithfully following the dictates of our national habit of self-censorship — ignored the statement that she made after her release from unlawful detention. (Her abduction was followed by the kidnapping of people from a Chinese healthcare establishment, which put tremendous pressure on the administration to put an end to this religious bigotry and hooliganism.)
No commentator mentions any longer the heavy presence of roguish young men around and on the rooftop of the Masjid — their faces covered with large checkered handkerchiefs and automatic rifles in their raised hands — that the nation watched on TV screens for several days in a row. No one recalls how the self-appointed Ghazi Abdul Rasheed — later declared a shaheed after being killed during the operation — had arrogantly and openly bragged on the electronic media about the presence of as many as 250 would-be suicide bombers inside the Masjid; how he allowed only some female students to escape before the crackdown, while in a cowardly act, kept some others around him as a human shield; how he refused to surrender and tried to blackmail the administration into providing him a ‘safe passage’ and so on. Meanwhile, the memory of his elder brother — the dismissed peshimam of the Masjid — disgracefully escaping through the barricade wearing his wife’s burqa, survives only in the line mulla nasya wich hijab ai of the endlessly naughty, courageous, hard-hitting and popular YouTube song called “Aloo Anday”.
Barring that, what has been allowed to remain in public memory is an entirely distorted version of the whole thing, according to which none of the aforementioned events ever took place. What is supposed to have actually taken place — given the summary marvelously manufactured and repeated ad nauseam by a number of Urdu newspaper columnists and ghairatmand TV anchors — was an unprovoked invasion and killing of hundreds — thousands — of innocent little girls peacefully reciting the holy scripture.
This is a mind-boggling example of how false history is created and standardised just in front of our eyes. Those who strive to keep unpleasant, disturbing facets of past and present reality alive — Manto being a prime example of such precious individuals we have been blessed with — are, therefore, to be dealt with in several ways by their ‘critics’: preventing them from occupying centre stage in the nation’s intellectual discourse; censoring their works to make them ineffective and sanitised; misrepresent them to confuse their readers, etc. In Manto’s case, all these and other tricks have been employed by his detractors for whom his message — both in its form and content — was impossible to tolerate.
The most blatant form of criticism that Manto had to face during his lifetime were the court cases, both under colonial and Pakistani dispensations, in which his stories were found obscene and against public morals. However, he was able to defend himself impressively and produce a luminous list of defence witnesses — Faiz and other progressive writers among them — to demolish the prosecution’s case.
An Urdu critic Muzaffar Ali Syed — not so politically perceptive and clearheaded otherwise — once rightly said that although the charges Manto faced in these court cases were related to obscenity, the real reason for the rage of his detractors was his political viewpoint.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 31st, 2012.
More in OpinionNo legs to stand on