KARACHI, Oct 31: If one wants to see the intellectual poverty of a country, one should look at how Pakistanis define secularism — la deeniyat, or lacking religion.
This thought was articulated by Dr Jaffar Ahmed, director of the Pakistan Study Centre, at the launch of Voices of Reason, Articles by Iqbal Haider and Tributes of his Contemporaries compiled by Zulfiqar Halepoto at the Karachi Press Club on Thursday.
He said an ordinary person in Pakistan could not challenge such a loaded definition. “For instance, take the term ideology of Islam that one often hears in a normal discussion but people don’t challenge the fact that Islam came into being 1,400 years ago whereas the origin of the word ideology came into use much later in the 17th century,” he said.
“Secularism began when there was a debate on the ownership of lands at a time when the Church was the largest landowner. The lands not owned by the Church were said to be within the secular domain. Thereon all scientific developments were known as secular. This definition then encompassed religion in which it was made very clear that secularism will not mean to crush religion. Moreover a state could not appear to be favouring one religion over the other and thus the state should distance itself from religion and be neutral.”
For the citizens secularism means having a pluralistic society in which people mentally accept one another’s diversity and societies that celebrate diversity are more tolerant and beautiful.
Former chief election commissioner Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim recalled the time he spent with Iqbal Haider, calling him a radical humanist. “Once BB called me up and told me that she was making me governor. I didn’t want to be one but she insisted and the first person I called up was Iqbal asking him what should I do as I had no idea about governorship. Iqbal suggested that the first thing I must do should relate to the building [Governor House]. I should make it an open house, where anybody could walk in. Another suggestion was to renovate a wing where the Quaid-i-Azam had stayed for a while and invite schools and schoolchildren once a week to visit it.” He also mentioned that when he became election commissioner of Pakistan, calling it as the most difficult assignment of his life, then too he called up Iqbal Haider, who helped him in every possible way.
Indian parliamentarian and journalist Shahid Siddiqui said that democracy is not merely a vote-giving exercise adding that it should also be a struggle for a just society. “Democracy is pointless without justice. Everyone should have a level playing field.” He called for the redefinition of South Asia having foundations of justice, equality and secularism.
Karamat Ali, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (Piler), recalled the indefatigable spirit of Iqbal Haider especially in securing the freedom of jailed Indian and Pakistani fishermen. “There were 450 poor Indian fishermen languishing mostly in Malir Jail. Piler and Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum filed a petition on behalf of the fishermen in the Supreme Court and Iqbal fought their cases. He fought the cases so passionately that the Chief Justice was compelled to ask him what relief he wanted for the fishermen. Iqbal said that those men who had completed their sentences should be released immediately and those who had no case pending against them should also be set free. All those fishermen were subsequently released in three groups at the Wagah border and were personally seen off by Iqbal at the border.” He made similar such efforts in India where, according to Mr Ali, the Indian interior ministry had prepared a list of only 25 Pakistani fishermen to be released. “Iqbal went to the Indian interior ministry and sat there for four hours with the Indian officials till they came up with a revised list that had names of 75 Pakistani fishermen that were to be released before Eid.”
B. M. Kutty of Piler and general secretary of the Pakistan Peace Council recollected the time when he and Mr Haider travelled to South India as part of a 15-member peace delegation to clear the air about Pakistanis following the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. “It was a difficult task to convince university students, traders, media and ordinary Indian citizens that ordinary Pakistanis wanted genuine peace and friendship with India. Those were hectic nine days but Iqbal despite his health problems would talk from eight in the morning till midnight, often facing hostile questions.”
The book launch ceremony ended with PPP MNA and Mr Haider’s daughter Alizeh Haider, who gave an emotional and heartfelt speech and pledged to carry on her father’s work. “I am hopeful that the new generation will take his work forward.”