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Herald Exclusive: In conversation with Raza Kazim

Updated Sep 29, 2014 03:25pm
Photo credit: Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts/Facebook
Photo credit: Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts/Facebook

Raza Kazim is a lawyer, philosopher and political activist. He is also the inventor of a musical instrument called Saagar Veena and a photographer of international standards. He is a lapsed Marxist — he prefers to call himself a post-Marxist. One of the top lawyers in the country, Kazim has handled many seminal cases in his long legal career.

Most importantly, perhaps, Kazim is a witness. He is a witness to the history of this country — its political and social history. His political career started when he organised a protest in his school during the Quit India Movement in 1942. He later joined the Communist Party of Pakistan but left it soon. He went to prison several times for opposing the government of the day, most famously on the allegations of trying to overthrow General Ziaul Haq’s military regime.

Kazim divides his time between his legal practice, supervising Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts, which he has set up in his home in Lahore, developing his philosophy of “mentology” and doing many other things.

Here he talks about his life which, in his own words, is “a journey of rejecting ugliness and pursuing human happiness.”


Saroop Ijaz: What do you consider your primary identity — a lawyer, an innovator, an artist, a philosopher or a political activist?

Raza Kazim: I identify myself as a person, as an individual; being a human being is certainly a sufficient canvas for one to find an identity within that. Had I lived a hundred years ago, perhaps, I would have known what it was to be a human being in the Darwinian sense. This is a time for a man to rediscover what it is to be a human.

In the context I grew up – in pre-partitioned India – a man was defined as someone who grew up, got a good job (preferably in government service), got married and perhaps added some frills to it, and that was it. That is no longer relevant. Now, don’t you think that we need to rethink the human dimension?

We are still in the yippee period. We have agreed that it was not enough to be hippies.

 Photo credit: Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts/Facebook
Photo credit: Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts/Facebook

SI: To phrase it differently, a standard and tempting way of referring to people in Pakistan (and the world over) is that “Raza Kazim is a lawyer, who also delves into many other fields, such as music and philosophy etc.” In that sense, what is your true calling?

RK: [Being a lawyer] is not enough to satisfy my curiosity or sensitivity. Being a lawyer is not a pursuit of an ideal but the pursuit of a means to enable the pursuit of ideals. Calling my feelings, actually I prefer sensitivities instead of feelings as feelings can sometimes be impulses, is that I did not let my environment (including my family) know what my sensitivities were. I was a cultural dropout. I have always had the confidence ever since I was a young boy to choose for myself what I consider to be ugly or beautiful, right or wrong.

SI: Your profile at the website of Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts describes your life as a journey “to reject ugliness”. Isn’t that too vague and broad an aim in life?

RK: I cannot consent to ugliness. You can put me in solitary confinement and threaten to hang me. It does not make me consent to ugliness or stop being true to my natural dimensions.

SI: Do you identify yourself under one political category/label, for example as a leftist, Marxist or Conservative?

RK: The kind of life that I have lived I expect to be misunderstood. It is part of the ticket that I bought. As [Edith] Piaf would say, “I have no regrets”. The first people to misunderstand me were my leftist/communist friends who thought I had walked out of politics. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As far back as 1970, after much reconsideration, I decided that I finally had to part company with Marxism. It was not done reactively. It was simply that I had, in the course of my experience, observation and ten years of examination, come to the conclusion that Marxism was limited to the knowledge fund of the end of the 18th century.

Re-examination was needed. Marx was simply dated. I found serious gaps and flaws in Marxism, as are to be found in all other/previous ideologies. History of ideas has value, not as a building block, [but as a] raw material. I wrote a 50-page article on gaps in facts and reasoning in dialectical and historical materialism. In Moscow, I met the South Asian Committee of the Politburo, which gave me an insight into the working of the political government based on Marxism. I disagreed, fundamentally. So I walked out.

The question is what I was walking into. So I looked around. I was looking for a post-Marxist body of thought, truly contemporary in terms of objective knowledge plain and quality of reasoning, and found that no macro ideological construct was available to which I could [attach] my heart (or mind, if you think I have one). I was conversant with quite a few religions. All religions are philosophical constructs. Philosophers deal with man in society. The prophet philosophers engage themselves with man in nature. I look up to both and see them as my benefactors.

At the end of my fascination for Marxism, I reached the conclusion that unless we can deal with man intelligently and chart out a course of action, we shall be unable to get a sense of direction. What we have been told by Freud, Marx, Darwin and their successors is not sufficient. What we have been told by medical science is not sufficient. We have to reach a post-biological stage. The mental process (not the brain process) is the most complex part of a man. Human nature is a counterpoint to understanding man by himself. I am too much of a monkey to leave human nature alone.

I coined the term “mentology”, embarking on discovering the products of brain and the mental genes. Mental processes are products of biology. They are, however, post-biological, not cellular in nature. They are a new formation. It is not only about intellectual process but the emotive processes. I come back to family, society, mankind as a whole, once I have dealt with myself at this level. I do not have a peg to deal with life, not ideology, not religion.

 The Marxist revolutionary, Che Ernesto Guevara, standing along side Pakistan’s first military dictator, Ayub Khan
The Marxist revolutionary, Che Ernesto Guevara, standing along side Pakistan’s first military dictator, Ayub Khan

SI: You also seem to deal with politics at the theoretical, abstract level? Does it make it difficult for you to engage in the mundane everyday political happenings?

RK: No, it does not. Let me give you an example. After General Pervez Musharraf took over, I wrote an article on the matter. I argued that it was not a “coup” or any such thing. It had been the modus operandi of us, as a people, for centuries. Our people have always been “proactive” qua authority; their methods have been unique though.

There was always a “political contract” between the king and the people. The king had to provide water, roads, markets, grain reserves and was not to be too cruel. If these terms were violated, the people would look around at a good neighbouring king. They (the people) would then send a delegation to the good neighbouring king through panchayats (local councils) and invited him, assuring him of guides, logistical support and the promise that on the battleground the forces of the oppressor king would defect to the good king.

In the case of Musharraf, his predecessor violated the political contract of minimum good governance, and the army acted as an echo of the consensus of the people in line with past practice. I also said ‘Musharraf better watch out’, if he violates the political contract, he will face the same fate. The lawyers’ movement and subsequent agitation was a reflection of that.

SI: It seems that you are taking the old line of “we are not ready for democracy”?

RK: Let us not make an ideology of democracy otherwise we will fall perilously close to Marxism. I have had enough of ideologies. Democracy has preconditions. Firstly, there has to be a need for democracy and, secondly, a consensus for fulfillment of that need. Democracy is not a natural order. The preconditions of democracy have not yet arisen here. We are [a product of] Section 3 of the Indian Independence Act, 1947, which is a British Parliament act. Are there sufficient conditions for democracy? Give me a break!

 Since Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf launched its protest against the current leadership on August 14, 2014, Pakistan
Since Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf launched its protest against the current leadership on August 14, 2014, Pakistan's seventh attempt at democracy remains on shaky ground. Rueters Photo shows riot police clash with protesters outside the Parliament house as they march towards Prime Minister’s house on August 30

I was doing my BA in 1947 and was highly politically aware. I was caned for the first time during the the Quit India Movement in my school, in 1942. There was no movement or struggle for Pakistan till 1946. [Even afterwards it] was not a movement for Pakistan. By then, clearly, the vision was that the Hindus and Sikhs will be chased out of this place. Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore at that time had only two shops owned by Muslims. The other shops were to be had. That was true of the whole land. It was a movement for the properties of Hindus and Sikhs here, and for the properties of Muslims there. Heads of children were smashed all over India, all for properties.

It is premature to say that we are democrats. Have we not lived as a people for 8,000-9,000 years before the Indian Independence Act was passed? If a people do not want democracy, you cannot give it to them. All you could do is connect and engage with them at this point. Democracy is something people arrive at. You can’t have democracy at the cheap.

SI: Is this resignation to fate and history? Is this an excuse for not engaging with real politics?

RK: I have never thought of living outside the country. I have been offered citizenships in US, UK and France. My friends there did not want to see me hanging from the end of a rope. I never left. I joined the Communist Party of Pakistan in 1948 and left it in 1951. I have not joined any political party since then. Yet, I have been to prison five times, without being a member of any political party or contesting any elections or accepting any official position ever. Can I be accused of being non-political?

SI: You certainly participate in politics in the original Greek sense of engaging with the world of ideas. However, dealing with it at an elevated level can be seen as an abdication of day-to-day business of politics?

RK: What biased and loaded terms you use, Saroop. On the same day when I set up Sanjan Nagar 20 years ago, I also set up a school in Kot Lakhpat industrial area [in Lahore] for girls from the working class. The school provides free books, free tuition, free breakfast and its medium of instruction is English.

It does not teach the Holy Quran because that can be taught at home. I asked the workers (parents) to teach their girls Quran at home, and asked the girls to teach their parents English in return. At present, the school has more than 1,000 students. Half a dozen of them have won scholarships to the US and have come back intact as patriotic, concerned Pakistanis. Several others have received admissions here in all the top universities.

 Second Session on Education and Learning for the 21st century at  the Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy in Lahore
Second Session on Education and Learning for the 21st century at the Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy in Lahore

Is this political or not? I put 45 million rupees of my own money, which was my unpaid tax, in setting this up. I announced it publicly and was ready to go to prison for tax evasion, but was determined to set up this school. I have given my house to Sanjan Nagar. I have no property to myself.

Sanjan Nagar is a school for producing cadres which will be able to take responsibility for democracy. You don’t have those cadres. All we have [in this country right now] is bureaucrats and miscellaneous intellectuals.

Twice, I have gone to prison for declining to be a minister. First in Ayub Khan’s time and then in [Zulfikar Ali] Bhutto’s time. I agreed to join the Constitution Committee of Bhutto; all members of the committee except me became ministers. I had no problems with Bhutto as an individual. We, however, were poles apart politically. So I told Bhutto, “If we come any closer than we are, as acquaintances, it will end up very badly, so I rather keep this acquaintance than try and convert it into something which will be untenable.” He put me in C Class prison.

SI: For a top lawyer, you seem to have very little faith in the law as a vehicle of meaningful change. Is that correct?

RK: Yes. Law cannot possibly bring about or be relevant to real social change.

SI: Why?

RK: Because it is bound by the constitution, precedent and authorities.

SI: Do you see a contradiction in your life — between being a phenomenally successful corporate lawyer and your political philosophy?

RK: Law is part-time intellectual prostitution. In mitigation, I am willing to give an account of my earnings. I keep no more than 10 per cent for myself. I have spent 210 million rupees of my own money on Sanjan Nagar.

SI: Law is simply a means to subsidise your politics and philosophy…

RK: Yes.

SI: Are you content with your practice of law?

RK: Indeed, I am. Law is and has been my only livelihood. I did not receive a penny from my father. I have been practising as a lawyer since 1953. On his deathbed, my father told me to sign a paper. So I signed it. He said, “You have not read it”. I said, “Sir, you didn’t ask me to read it”. He said, “Well, it says that you will not get a penny of my property”. I said, “Yes sir”. I have made all that I have through the practice of law.

Law has allowed me to make money on my terms. What other profession allows me to go in and out of prison and then simply resume again? The last time I came out of prison after 19 months, I had no cases, no clients. Ziaul Haq had said that Raza Kazim was a smuggler of Indian arms and should be hanged. I had no clients but I did not despair. I love sports cars and engines; so at that point I thought of setting up an auto-repair shop but then someone came with a legal case. And I was back.

SI: Why did you set up Sanjan Nagar?

Noor Zehra Kazim, daughter of Raza Kazim, plays the Sagar Veena, which her father created. Photo courtesy: Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts/Facebook
Noor Zehra Kazim, daughter of Raza Kazim, plays the Sagar Veena, which her father created. Photo courtesy: Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts/Facebook

RK: Sanjan Nagar is my engagement with the post-Marxist world. I bought this house in 1972 for the purposes of setting up the institution. A former chief justice living in the neighborhood called the landlord and said, “This is a neighbourhood for sharif people so you should not sell the house to Raza”.

SI: It seems you have more than your fair share of enemies. Is that true, and if so why?

RK: Yes. [The reason is] sheer insecurity. [My enemies] are afraid that if my life does not end in a complete failure they will have a serious problem with their children because of the things that I have been saying and doing. I do not speak loudly, yet I have been heard because I have been saying those things since I walked out of my father’s house in 1948 and joined the Communist Party as a whole timer. Since then, they have been hearing me.

SI: You mention your last prison term, which was in relation to the Attock conspiracy to overthrow the Ziaul Haq government. What happened in 1984? What was your role?

RK: I was in complete sympathy with the conspirators. It started when some people in August 1982 came to me saying they were army officers who were planning a coup against Zia. I took them at face value. I had written about Ziaul Haq a few months ago. I wrote, he prays, fasts and has done the Haj so he can’t be a Kafir and, of course, he is not a Muslim so he can only be a Munafiq — that’s the only logical conclusion. That is what prompted those officers to approach me, I think.

I told them I could not work with them nor could I have any organisational linkage. [I told them] I sympathised with them and wished them success. They asked me for money. I gave them 20,000 rupees initially and then gave some more. From August to December 1982, I gave them 100,000 rupees.

By December 1982, I started having second thoughts. They asked me to attend some meetings and lecture on history, philosophy and economics. I realised that they were not from my tribe. So, I stopped giving them money. A few days later, they contacted me and said that they have decided to formally disconnect me from their plans.

Subsequently, at the trial in Attock, I found out that my money was spent on buying some property and a Volkswagen car. The rest of it was spent on whiskey. Mustafa Khar was backing them. They wrote to Khar saying that Raza Kazim was trying to convert them into commies. Khar wrote back, “Raza is a good man; he just has one flaw that he has read too much. Despite that, we will give him a high post when we come into power.” I found that sweet and endearing.

SI: The Ziaul Haq government portrayed you as the mastermind behind the conspiracy.

RK: Yes, it was General Akhtar Abdur Rahman [who served as the head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) under Zia] who did it. He told me that I would be the first one to be hanged. I said okay. That made him furious and he shouted, “You don’t take me seriously”. I said, “General sahib, who will I take seriously if not you.”

 General Ziaul Haq and Major General Akhtar Abdur Rehman with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Murree, 1976
General Ziaul Haq and Major General Akhtar Abdur Rehman with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Murree, 1976

He wasn’t convinced. I told him that I just hoped that hanging went ahead swiftly, and the rope did not malfunction or anything like that. He kept insisting that I should take him seriously. It was funny. So later I wrote in my book, “in Attock, I met god, his name was Akhtar Abdur Rahman”. And yet, Saroop, you say I am non-political.

SI: Why were you framed?

RK: General Akhtar Abdur Rahman got three extensions [in his tenure in the military] out of me, and made a lot of money through the extensions.

SI: Did the Attock trial shape your politics for the future?

RK: It did not shape my politics, however it did contribute enormously. It was like I did a 19-month military course. I remained a student in the army’s custody. I observed the army from close quarters. I had a worm’s eye view of the army. I met around 1,200-1,300 army officers. From three star generals to sepoys. I had no personal enmity with anyone.

Through me, Akhtar Abdur Rahman wanted to (falsely) implicate Faiz Ahmed Faiz, [former air force chief] Air Marshal Zulfiqar Ali Khan, Brigadier Luqman and General Shamsur Rehman Kallu [who later became the head of the ISI under Benazir Bhutto’s first government]. That was simply not going to happen.

Akhtar Abdur Rahman wanted to blow this thing up and he did. He made it into the biggest case of his career. He interrogated around 500 army officers in Attock conspiracy case.

I was framed because, firstly, I was a Muhajir that made me an Indian agent. Secondly, in their understanding, I was a “commie” and hence a KGB operative. Lastly, I was a lawyer and (according to the then vice chief of the army staff General K M Arif) a pseudo-intellectual.

Those were the pegs. The other senior generals were opposed to Akhtar Abdur Rahman’s extensions, so he got his extension largely through my good offices.

Akhtar Abdur Rahman and the General Headquarters (GHQ) twice sent me to a psychiatric ward, to soften up my mind — first for five weeks and then for three weeks. I was administered 18 psychotropic drugs in a day. I would be wobbly. It felt that my brain would fall out of my skull. The second time the doctors said that it had to stop or else I would become a complete loony. Fortunately, soon afterwards, the trial started.

 Visitors from New York-based Spin magazine photograph Raza Kazim. Photo credit: Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts/Facebook
Visitors from New York-based Spin magazine photograph Raza Kazim. Photo credit: Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts/Facebook

SI: How did the long solitary confinement during the trial impact you?

RK: I understood the army. It was an education about how it works. I did a lot of work on mentology during the solitary confinement. I had nothing to read or write with. That gave me a lot of time to think. The only luxury available was that I could get a lit cigarette when the sentry chose to give it to me.

After four months, in an attempt to spite me, they gave me the Quran. I loved it. I had read it earlier and I read it again.

I treat it as a part of the history of human thought. I believe all prophets were philosophers. Then they gave me biographies of the Prophet (pbuh) and commentaries to the Quran. They wanted to make a Muslim out of me. Little did they know that my mother had already made me a Muslim when I was 13. I was thinking about mentology since 1970. Solitary imprisonment helped me to think about it more. I also understood Islam much better.

I expected to be hanged. There were five people in the court martial committee, five generals — K M Arif, Akhtar Abdur Rahman, Ziaul Haq, Ghulam Jillani and Awan. The two who voted against me were K M Arif and Akhtar Abdur Rahman. Akhtar Abdur Rahman kept bleating that the whole case would be ruined if I wasn’t convicted. The case was ruined and he was removed as the intelligence chief.

SI: Coming to the recent past, you seemed skeptical of the lawyers’ movement. Is that correct?

RK: I never stood against the lawyers’ movement or opposed it. I thought silence was my proper position. I agreed with the principled position. I disagreed with the movement.

SI: Why?

RK: I have serious dissatisfactions about my community — the lawyers. I have six generation of lawyers in my family, from my great-grandfather to my grandson. From the time of Queen Victoria, we have done nothing but practise law.

My grandfather and my father never wrote Syed with their name. when I asked my grandfather why, he said, “My caste is lawyer and that is enough.” In my ancestors, there are no government servants; we are fiercely independent individuals. Law is an extremely serious matter to me.

SI: I thought it was “part-time intellectual prostitution” to you?

RK: Yes, it is. However, one can be serious with one’s mistress if it is a serious mistress. Law is a mistress, but a bloody good mistress; I have not found a better one. So when I see law being misused and short-changed, it hurts me. My profession within my lifetime has degenerated greatly. When I was younger, all the luminaries on the horizon in India were lawyers. The level of skill and craft and the stature that they commanded, that was and is my point of reference.

SI: Would you elaborate on the disagreements that you have with the present lawyer community?

RK: I adore the criteria of being a lawyer that my grandfather and father espoused and I see all of those standards being abused one by one by my colleagues now. If the occasion requires, I can charge sheet the lawyers item by item.

I have never met a judge outside of court. Even when my junior associates have been elevated to the Supreme Court and High Court, I have never even congratulated them. That is what ethics require. The size of the signboard for lawyers has a regulation; it has to be 10 inches by 4 inches.

Now lawyers have almost billboards, and that is why I have never had a signboard. It is no longer a profession; it is an occupation. There is no future for the legal profession if it continues in the same way. A clean break is needed — an intelligent designer discontinuity.

Law is in my blood, I love it. I have never gotten along with my wives; I got along only with the law.

 Punjab was the epicentre of the lawyers movement. Photo Courtesy: Dawn Archives
Punjab was the epicentre of the lawyers movement. Photo Courtesy: Dawn Archives

SI: Do you not consider the lawyers’ movement, with all its faults, as a break from the past?

RK: I do. It had its good point. Recently in the Supreme Court, one of the judges said to me, “Raza Sahib you were against the lawyers’ movement?” I said quite right; I did not support it. I am, however, willing to accept publicly that the lawyers’ movement has done some good things and I owe a thank you to it. Maybe I was wrong in my judgment. I, however, have never been a part of it either.

SI: If you had to pick legal cases closest to your heart which will be the few that come to mind? RK: Riba (interest) and Reko Diq, from the recent past. I did both these cases without charging any professional fee. In the Riba review case, the finance ministry wanted to pay me. I love money, God knows, I love it. But since I had used the name of the Almighty and the Prophet (PBUH) so many times while arguing that case, I wrote a letter saying that I cannot accept payment.

Reko Diq was also like that. I felt strongly about it. Reko Diq was the hardest that I had ever worked on a case. It was, however, a labour of love.

SI: When do you plan on retiring, if ever?

RK: I bought some land in Gwadar for peanuts some time ago. If the Chinese come to Gwadar, I will sell it and retire. However, even then if a good case comes to me and if I am up and about, I will do it. All my intellectual training is due to my legal practice. I am happy when I am being a lawyer. I owe nothing to any school or college, and owe my intellectual discipline and objective reasoning and objective observation only to law. It has taught me that objectivity alone is not sufficient; it has to be a dynamic objectivity.

You have to prioritise what you love over your success. That is happiness. I have no problem with pleasures, provided the pleasures can be reconciled with happiness. What you need to live with is happiness. Pleasure is an item, and happiness is the architecture. If you can integrate pleasures with happiness, that is wonderful. If not, you have to let go of some pleasures. My life is a journey in pursuit of happiness.