The government’s decision to posthumously award the Nishan-e-Imtiaz to Saadat Hasan Manto — a literary giant whose short stories transcended the genre — gives off a whiff of opportunism. However, both the government and the people should not use the award to gloss over the fact that Manto’s Pakistan and today’s Pakistan bear a lot of resemblances. Manto was put on trial three times by the government for spreading obscenity through his short story “Thanda Gosht” and was penalised for writing something that may have been violent and explicit but served a valuable function by holding up a mirror to the brutal and senseless violence during partition.
Lest we think that Pakistan is different and more enlightened now, keep in mind that just a few days ago, the Supreme Court hauled the Pemra chairman and asked him why there was so much vulgarity on television. The government, too, has been involved in moral policing and has been trying to dictate to citizens what they can or cannot surf on the web. Such censorship would have been anathema to Manto and would most likely have led him to reject any award from the government. It is commendable that the PPP is trying to show its softer and more progressive side by honouring Manto; now it needs to live up to his ideals of freedom and liberty.
There is also a danger that government recognition of Manto’s achievements will end up diluting their impact. This has already happened to some extent in the case of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. A radical poet who existed on the margins of political thought and found much in Pakistan to be angry about has now been turned into a safe, ultra-patriotic figure, who can be loved by a country that often shunned him when he was imprisoned. The same should not happen with Manto, who documented the insanity of the time and place in which he lived. His patriotism was not one of mindless devotion to the country. Rather, he was harshly and brutally critical. Let that not be forgotten.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 16th, 2012.