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Breaking down the literary establishment

Beyond the romance and poetry, literature is no freer from manoeuvring and conspiracies than politics

By Dr Aftab Husain |
PUBLISHED June 13, 2021

Unlike film and stage, the act of literary production is an exercise in isolation. No matter how closely and devotedly a writer is concerned about his or her surroundings, he or she requires a certain degree of distance – seclusion, solitude and even privacy – while being in the process of creation.

This going away, or retreat, if you like, from the surrounding is vital, on the one hand, to concentrate on your subject or object. On the other, it helps you take a dispassionate perspective on the things in and the condition of life.

Put differently, it is this privacy where a writer re-discovers his or her objective reality. Contemporary Urdu poet Ahmad Mushtaq quite succinctly points to this aspect of the creative process:

Jis se guzraa hoon, mere shair hain us aag ki raakh

Jis men liptaa hoon woh chaadar meri tanhaai hay

(My poetry is the ash of the fire I have passed through

The chaddor that I am wrapped in is my solitude)

But right after the moment when the process of literary expression is over, there come the stages of communication, transmission and proliferation. And this is the point from where a renewed relationship between literary text and society comes into existence. That means, if society once catered raw material for the literary production, a writer in return reverts back into the marketplaces of the society with finished literary artefacts.

It is this process of transmission and proliferation that paves way for the reception of a literary text both at critical and popular levels and ultimately for canonisation of the text and its author. The institution or a set of intuitions that does all this is the ‘literary establishment’.

At its fundamental level an establishment can be any organisation, business or otherwise, a public institution, or even a household. At a somewhat broader or wider level, it could be a political establishment, medical establishment or educational establishment.

When evoked in Pakistan, however, the term points, in a sense, to a certain privileged institution of the state that has got almost unlimited power – both hegemonic and coercive – almost a state within a state that can potentially supersede the wills of all other organs of the state. Though the so-called political establishment is more visible, that is, it is generally in the limelight of political business, it mostly works in subordination to the first one. Overall, in Pakistan, the term establishment connotes a queer and inexplicable amalgam of the two though, at times, civil bureaucracy and the top judicial bodies are also included in this formation.

Literary establishment, as the adjective literary signifies it, sees its orbit primarily in the literary domain. Literature, in respect of its social reception, is, like all other social domains, a field, as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls it, and so the literary field does not work in isolation. It has, like any game at given time different players who compete with one another in order to achieve a goal. But, as in the game proper a player plays for the team, if not only for his or her personal achievement, the player in the literary field moves for his or her group whose prestige points or other benefits he or she shares. The moment you produce a piece of literature and put it forward in any means of communication – printed, oral or digital etc., you are already in the game. Winning the game rests not only on obeying rules of the game, but on abiding by the conditions laid down by the literary establishment.

Roughly speaking, there are four pillars of a literary establishment: literary critics, literary magazines, literary bodies/organisations and universities. Literary bodies highlight certain texts and bring into limelight their authors by arranging programmes about them. Awards and prizes conferred by these bodies also serve as means to achieve certain ends. Professors of literature, work in establishing certain texts and their authors in different ways – from making syllabi and teaching, opting out and/or setting aside different texts.

It is interesting to note that the functions and functionaries in these areas most of the time change sides, overlap and/or work in collaboration. Moreover, one functionary is active in more than one area. For example, a literary critic can be seen editing a literary magazine. A university professor is by default a literary critic.

The literary establishment per se does not produce literature; it projects and promotes writers, and/or by extension, their writings, especially of those who are either part of it or the ones who succumb to its demands. Important is this that most of the writers, even at times good ones among them, find themselves constrained to have some sort of association to the literary establishment. Nevertheless, in order to be a member of a literary establishment, you need not to be a good writer. In fact, minor writers are more worthy candidates for and enormously vibrant members of literary establishments and in that capacity they are in a better position to create their positive self-images. The fact, however, remains the latter lot cannot retain this illusion of reality for a long time and as soon as it passes away physically or ceases to be a part of the establishment, the graph of its fake iconicity falls deplorably sharp.

Right after the creation of Pakistan began a battle of legitimacy between two prominent, initially parallel, but subsequently rival groups of writers: the remnants of Halqa-e-Arbaab-Zauq and members of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA). Whereas the progressives stuck to their former creed of Marxism, the writers from the Halqa switched, in the wake of the creation of Pakistan, to a nationalist-ideologist stance. The progressive group comprised the likes of Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Sibte Hassan, Khadija Mastoor and Hajira Masroor. Whereas Muhammad Hassan Askari, Samad Shaheen and Mumtaz Shirin formed the nationalist-ideologist group.

There were instances of changing sides and shifting loyalties as well, particularly from the Progressives to Nationalists. Manto was expelled by PWA whereas poet Dr M D Taseer distanced himself from his comrades, apparently on opportunistic grounds. Manto befriended with Muhammad Hassan Askari, the proponent of the Nationalist group and together they even founded a literary magazine, Pakistani Adab. This was the period when Manto wrote his short story, Yazeed, with religious motifs and a nationalistic stance – almost a counter-narrative to what he offered in his famous Toba Tek Singh.

The nationalist-ideologist group was initially in tune with the ideology of the Muslim League government, but on the other hand, the progressives were critical of its policies and indeed they were soon considered a problem. The nationalist-ideologist group even labelled the rival group as traitors and demanded the regime to ban PWA.

Soon, progressive poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz and his comrade, Marxist ideologue and short fiction writer Sajjad Zaheer, were arrested in a coup attempt against the government of Liaquat Ali Khan, along with some military officers. Both writers, and their 'brothers-in-arms' were convicted. And PWA was, resultantly, banned.

The Pakistan Writers Guild (PWG), founded in 1959, was the outcome of a clear-cut agenda of General Ayub Khan’s regime to entice and thereby control the country's writing community.

Though initiated by a writer, the nationalist-ideologist guild would warmly receive a bureaucrat and presidential secretary to its fold. Some erstwhile progressives, like fiction writer Shaukat Siddiqui, took part in it as well. Under the umbrella of the military and civil bureaucracy, PWG was quite active during Ayub’s regime. It began to lose its vitality during in the period of General Yahya Khan, mainly due to political turmoil in the country. Till Zulifqar Ali Bhutto, the next elected prime minister laid foundation of Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL).

The phenomenon of literary establishment can be understood in terms of literary groups as well, but a literary group is distinct from a literary movement: every movement has a group, but each group is not a movement. Members of a movement share a common intellectual or literary orientation, for example the erstwhile Progressive Movement in our literature. Literary groups are mostly, though not always, free of ideology or idealism. Furthermore, literary groups, at least from what we have witnessed in our literary cultures over the last few decades, are formed around a literary personality who must not be a great or even good writer, but has to be manipulative, manoeuvring, vocal and assertive. To illustrate the point one may remember Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Dr Wazeer Agha from Pakistan and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi and Gopi Chand Narang from India. All four waged wars, which were most of the time quite unholy, against their respective opponents. All four once formed their own literary establishments that had their own critics, poets, fiction writers and reviewers. Three of them: Qasmi, Agha and Faruqi, used to edit their own literary magazines. Narang took another route, that is, of an academician and took a strong hold of literary bodies – he ended up as Chairman, Central Sahitya Akademi India.

Barring Qasmi, the other three were primarily critics, but none of them was as powerful as, say, German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, whose single pronouncement could make a writer famous overnight. They could, however, help their writers get prizes or assist them in gaining a momentum in their recognition, especially in the critical reception.

These rival groups are, or to be more accurate, were, in direct confrontation with one another solely for some personal interests or due to certain personality clashes among their leaders, or for the both. One common strategy of the literary establishment is to count in its fold, or at least own and pay respect to, a few of the really important writers. It seeks, thereby, to attain credibility. A common practice in this connection can be seen in conferring of awards and prizes. After having granted successively and consecutively to non-writers or writers of lesser mettle, it includes names of one or two genuinely significant writers – not only to save face, but also to attempt to establish the credential of those undeserving. The real story of giving awards and prizes to writers/on the books started with PWG. Under the umbrella of the then military regime, it encouraged some industrial groups to come forward with prizes. Prizes that carried their names: Adamjee Award, Daud Adabi Award; the present-day UBL Literary Award may be taken as legacy of that tradition. However, the true successor to this award politics came in the form of the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL), an Islamabad based body of national literature run by the federal government.

All the same, whether under martial law or so-called elected governments, prizes were mostly given not to individual writers but to the literary establishment(s) or, in some cases, to those individuals who could somehow gain direct access to the political or ‘real’ establishment. In 1990s there was a big uproar, indeed a protest, when a petty literary journalist and a poetaster with proved allegations of plagiarism, was given Tamgha-e-Imtiaz in literature. The recipient had more influence than the clamouring voices.

In some instances, the incumbent chairman or director generals were bestowed with awards by the same institution. Former chairman of PAL Qasim Bughio, for example, got this distinction when he was still in the chair. Iftekhar Arif, former DG and later chairman of the PAL bagged all three prestigious awards given by this institution. The first thing that Nazeer Naji did on taking charge as PAL chairman was to manage a Tamgha-e-Imtiaz for his younger brother, a minor poet.

Pakistani literature may have demonstrated its powerful presence in the diaspora, but the same criterion is adopted in this area. You have pen- pushers of utterly low level from Norway to Canada and England in the list, but Saqi Farooqi, arguably one of the most splendid poets of the post-Partition Urdu scene is nowhere to be seen.

Even more pitiable is the political induction of chairmen in the PAL. The institution, as mentioned earlier, was a brainchild of then premier Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, but its first chairman was installed under the regime of Gen Ziaul Haq. The chairman in question, Shafiqur Rahman, was an ex major general. Though he was already a known humourist, his connection to the forces is not without significance, whatever its symbolic value it may be.

The so-called political regimes did not lag behind in sending their favourites to streamline, if not control the national literary field. Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP) coming into power entails the coming of poet Ahmad Faraz as chairman, not only for his ideological leaning to the party, but also because of a very close connection of his family to PPP. Faraz’s brother barrister Kausar Masood has been, in different times, speaker of the provincial assembly, PPP’s provincial president and later governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa when the province was still known as NWFP.

Nazeer Naji, as mentioned before, was installed by the Nawaz Sharif government in paying back to the former’s years-long adulation and sycophancy of Sharif in his political columns. Naji, might have scribbled some stuff in the name of poetry in this youth time, but he was more known as a publicity campaigner in different elections for PML-N.

Fakhar Zaman, a prolific but shallow writer who was once PPP Punjab president, was a two-time PAL chairman. Whether he used the institution to build his own literary image or ran it as a propaganda machine for his party is yet to be seen. First as DG and then chairman of PAL, Iftekhar Arif’s story is of more ambition. He is the only person who has not only been in the both important posts of the PAL, but later even headed The National Language Promotion Department, formerly known as the National Language Authority. Arif had clout in different literary establishments, but he was more known to have direct access to the ‘real’ establishment. Different political governments of diametrically opposite ideologies, even Musharraf’s martial law, came and went, but our poet always managed to secure his seat in Islamabad. Not only with the grace of his powerful patrons, but for containing various visiting cards in his purse, as the more knowledgeable sources claim.

Same sort of anomalies can be seen in the other areas of literary establishment. For example, departments of literature in the universities are responsible not only to inculcate refined taste of literature in the students; they also cater to the consecration of contemporary literary writings and thereby their authors. The overall standard of teaching and research that was already not quite enviable has deplorably deteriorated even to the minimum level of quality, thanks to the mushroom growth of private universities in the country. Most universities are churning out, in the area of literature, degrees, theses and dissertations and not only nepotism, but pecuniary interests too, have become part of the business.

To sum up, literature too aspires to gain power, that is, a literary activity, so far as it is related to its reception pole, that is, its process of insemination and proliferation, is itself an exercise in power politics, though here power might be of symbolic nature. Despite their team spirit, players in different games are filled with a profound sense of competition. Manoeuvring, even hatching conspiracies, is generally considered hallmark of the business of politics, but literature, or for that matter any area of the fine arts, is not free from such politics.

The road to literature does not go just through romance and poetry; it has its downside too.


The writer is a Pakistan-born and Austria-based poet in Urdu and English. He teaches South Asian literature and culture at Vienna University