Dr Mehdi Hasan walks us through the political history of Pakistan
By Sehyr Mirza
“The Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba shouted slogans against me, threatened me, called me Rajpal, declared me Wajib-ul-Qatal and continued to harass me during my teaching career at the Punjab University. I fought against all odds. Concerned about my security, when the Vice Chancellor asked me to go on leave, I told him they can’t do me any harm because their constituency ends at the gate of the campus but that is where my constituency begins,” says Dr Mehdi Hasan.
We are sitting in his office at the Mass Communication Department at Beaconhouse National University (BNU) on Lahore’s Zafar Ali Road.
The constituency of the martial law dictators, meanwhile, has spread throughout the country. Gone are the days when intellectuals and academics enjoyed considerable respect and influence in public institutions like colleges, universities and media.
“We are reaping what Zia ul Haq had sown in collaboration with the United States during the eleven years of his tyrannical regime,” he says.
Zia ul Haq’s authoritarian brand of Islam curbed the democratic culture and secular values in Pakistan. The victims of persecution included political activists, intellectuals, teachers, journalists and artists. Among them was one of the most eminent intellectuals of Pakistan, Dr Mehdi Hasan, whose contribution in the fields of academia and journalism is worth applauding.
Dismissed from his teaching job at the Punjab University thrice, faced by severe expulsion for his secular views and criticism of martial law, he continued his struggle for an open rational dialogue in a non-intellectual environment created by the dictatorship. “I openly criticised the martial law because it was my duty to make my students aware,” he says.
An excellent conversationalist, Dr Hasan relates well to elderly scholars as well as the groovy denim-clad youngsters by sharing their passions, aspirations and dreams. Completely dazzled by the modern world of technology, he says his generation was a product of a radio set. But the young people are only a few clicks away from oodles of information available to them on the internet. Being profoundly optimistic, he sees a bright future of Pakistan if the young people make correct and informed decisions.
Born in Panipat, he migrated to Pakistan along with his family in August 1947 at the age of nine. His family settled in Montgomery (now Sahiwal) where he received his school and college education. It was for his Masters in Journalism that he travelled to Lahore. During the same time, he started working as a sub-editor, reporter and news bureau chief at Pakistan Press International (PPI) from 1961-67.
He acquired a PhD in Mass Communication from the Punjab University. Later as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Colorado, he conducted research on ‘Coverage of Third World Countries in the American Mass Media’. His papers have been published in America and Pakistan. Author of 16 books, Dr Hasan is widely recognised for his academic contributions. His book ‘Political History of Pakistan’ is an extensively-used source of reference for students and journalists. He has contributed more than 5000 articles in English and Urdu on various subjects in all the Pakistani newspapers.
Dr Hasan, one of the few prominent media historians of Pakistan, is a regular commentator and panelist for news channels and radio stations where he brings his academic research into the social context.
During the forty six years of his teaching career, he has also served as visiting professor at Kinnaird College, UET, Civil Services Academy, NIPA and various other academic institutions across the country. Holding the office of Dean, Media Communication Department at BNU since 2003, he thinks teaching at BNU has been a fulfilling experience in terms of academic freedom which he missed in the 31 years of teaching at PU.
“At the Punjab University, the Jamiat created an atmosphere where free debate wasn’t possible. Jamiat was supported by various dictators beginning from 1972. I was dismissed from my job for criticising the martial law regime of Yahya Khan. I challenged that decision in the LHC and after 10 months I won the case and was reinstated,” he says.
In 1983, during the historic Movement for Restoration of Democracy, the armed forces opened machine guns and showered bullets on innocent civilians in a small village called Moro in Nawabshah district of Sindh. Fifty nine intellectuals, teachers, journalists and artists signed a memorandum against this barbaric incident. Dr Mehdi Hasan, the only teacher signing the memorandum from Punjab University, was again dismissed. He challenged the unlawful decision in the Lahore High Court. On the very day of his hearing, his lawyer, the famous barrister Raza Kazim, was arrested and sentenced to a long prison term in Lahore Fort.
Dr Hasan contested his case himself. The then Chief Justice Mujadid Mirza said: “Look professor, the conditions are not good in Pakistan. Why do you practice politics? Put your salary in your pocket and just leave silently.”
Dr Hasan stood up and replied: “This is not politics that I am doing. If I don’t tell my students that martial law is harmful for Pakistan, I would be failing in my duty as a teacher.”
“I was given a stay order by the chief justice. The case continued for 18 years and it was during the same period that I got two promotions and retirement too,” he says.
In 1984, Dr Hasan was charged for blasphemy by the Jamiat. The campus walls were pasted with posters shouting ‘Mehdi Hasan bhagao, mulk bachao’. “The Jamiat had put up Arabic verses on my nameplate. I removed them. The very next day the Jamiat accused me of blasphemy. Upon my inquiry, they told me that removing Arabic verses is considered blasphemous. I replied, ‘it’s you who have actually committed blasphemy by putting them up in an inappropriate place’. The Jamiat guys once again entered my class room, hurled abuses at me and threatened me. When I went to the Vice Chancellor’s office to report, they followed me and repeated all those words of disgust. I continued to teach because I wanted to set an example for the people that escape is not a solution.”
He feels that religious extremism has been promoted by all political parties. It has created a negative image of Pakistan. Pakistan is considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world.
“There are 54 political parties that do politics in the name of religion. The founding fathers of Pakistan had visualised a democratic, progressive and modern state for the Muslims, not a theocratic state. In Jinnah’s first speech on August 11, 1947, he clearly declared the separation of religion from the state politics. Starting from the Objectives Resolution, enforced by the first Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan, to the imposition of ‘jihad movement’ by Zia ul Haq, Pakistan, in its entirety, has been devoured by the termites of religiosity.”
Regarding the Balochistan issue, he retorts that it’s incessant. As a council member of HRCP, he had a discussion with militants in Quetta. He asked them to compare their situation with former East Pakistan. The creation of Bangladesh was supported by the whole democratic world. In the 1970s elections, Awami League won all the seats except two. The Balochistan assembly has never passed a resolution for a separate state. They should contest elections and prove their majority for the demand of an independent state. They can’t achieve independence through an armed struggle, he told them.
“Dr Hasan, we highly respect your point of view but only 80 per cent of what you said has convinced us,” was the militants’ reply.
“It is a very good percentage as I never give more than 80 per cent marks to any of my students,” Dr Hasan had said, talking to the militants as a teacher.
The distortion of the history of Pakistan and the hate content in textbooks make him very angry. “We teach hatred, religious extremism and desires of writers in the name of history. We don’t teach history to our students; instead, we teach them a shandar maazi (glorious past), clichés and slogans.”
He strongly believes that history needs to be re-written and correct knowledge of history would help solve half of our problems. “All our history is distorted and false. Unfortunately the speech by Jinnah was censored the same day by the civil administration and that censored version is provided in our history books. No government has been able to include the uncensored version of the speech.”
He suggests the youth to read the 12 volumes of a book written by a senior journalist, Zahid Chaudhry ‘Pakistan ki Siyasi Tareekh’ to get an authentic account of the history. He also recommends two books by K.K. Aziz ‘Murder of History’ and ‘Creation of Pakistan’ which can give a real and objective picture of our history. “The students of Mass Communication are fortunate to have role models like I.A. Rehman, Nisar Usmani, Hussain Naqi and Zameer Niazi to follow their struggle and works.”
Would Pakistan become a secular democratic state one day? He replies if Pakistan has to survive, it will have to adopt secular policies. “It’s difficult to explain to the rigid-minded mullahs that secularism is not atheism. Secularism calls for separation of religion from state affairs since it is a personal matter for every individual. Pakistan is not a failed state but on the verge of becoming a failed state. Only good governance, rule of law, equal opportunities and sovereignty of the parliament would take it on the road to success.”
The writer can be reached at [email protected]