LAW: BURNING BOOKS, PUNJAB STYLE

Published August 16, 2020
Composed by Samiah Bilal
Composed by Samiah Bilal

On July 23, the Punjab Assembly passed the Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill 2020, which laid bare the readiness of legislators in Punjab to go to any extent when it comes to appeasing religious forces.

Moved first in the assembly by PML-Q legislator Hafiz Ammar Yasir and pushed vehemently by Punjab Assembly speaker Pervez Elahi, the bill echoes an oft-repeated political phenomenon — of seeking refuge in religion whenever political ascent and relevance becomes difficult otherwise.

One cannot, however, critique PML-Q and PTI, its partner in the Punjab Assembly, without also critiquing the opposition parties, as the bill is a classic example of the convergence of appeasing forces across the spectrum.

Later, the bill eventually went back to the Assembly on July 27, in response to the backlash (principally from Shia ulemas), but since it is likely to resurface with minor amendments, it is important to unveil the design behind this onslaught on freedom of expression and religious liberty.

The bill, after laying out definitions, starts with section 3, comprising provisions copied from section 5 of the Press, Newspapers, News Agencies and Books Registration Ordinance, 2002, with one difference. It replaces section 5(c) of the 2002 Ordinance [prohibiting publication of any work defaming “the Head of State, or members of the Armed Forces or executive, judicial or legislative organs of the State”] with its section 3(f), proscribing the same for the Holy Prophet (PBUH), his family and descendants, Khulafa-i-Rashideen and the As’haab-i-Rasul. Similarly, sections 4, 5 and 6 on ‘memoranda of books’, ‘gratis copies of books’ and ‘disposal of copies’ are copied from different sections of the 2002 Ordinance with minor changes.

Punjab’s Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill 2020 seems designed to prosecute dissent and is a reflection of a decades-long project of hegemonic cultural domination

It’s only after the bill gives a bureaucrat, the Director General Public Relations (DGPR), unbridled powers in section 7 that its novelty and the underlying character starts to become evident. The DGPR will have the powers to raid a publishing house, bookstore or printing press and confiscate copies of material the authorities deem “violatory.” The bureaucrat or his/her authorised officers will also have the power to “inquire into, investigate, assess or ascertain any act or omission.”

The censorial and confiscatory spirit of the bill is reflected more openly in section 8 on “Regulation of national and foreign books”. Sections 8(1) and 8(2), for instance, in an unprecedented manner make it mandatory for all books (first editions or reprints) to seek the approval of the DGPR before they can see the light of the day.

What sub-section 8(1) also means is that any arrangement made by a publisher in Punjab with a foreign publisher, in the pursuit of re-publishing a foreign book, will have to pass the scan of the DGPR. This also applies to books imported from any of the non-Punjab territories in the world, meaning that bookstore shelves in Punjab will soon be devoid of a vast range of critical literature.

Bookstores in Punjab will also not be stocking, as sub-section 8(12) binds, any foreign book without the word Khatim-un-Nabiyyeen as a prefix to Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) name. Since the suggested word is not a legally mandatory prefix anywhere in the world, none of the books — religious or otherwise —that mention the Prophet will be able to make it to Punjab.

Sub-section 8(3) further clarifies that the DGPR has the power to “refuse permission to import, print or publish a book” if it is “prejudicial to the national interest, culture, religious and sectarian harmony.” The same powers will be exercised by the Muttahida Ulema Board (MUB) for books concerning religion, according to sub-section 8(4).

The DGPR-MUB duo, in other words, will act as a grand book publisher ,to whom writers will submit their manuscripts for approval, with publishers acting as mere email forwarders. Unlike real publishers, who evaluate a manuscript on varying grounds depending, broadly, on their own focus, political position and the desired market, this grand illusory publisher will only have two yardsticks to employ: first, whether or not the submitted manuscript conforms to the national security narrative.

The vocabulary employed in the draft of the bill may seem unclear to some, but vague, contestable phrases such as “ideology of Pakistan”, “national interest” and “culture”, ironically, give a precise indication of the narrative being imposed.

Moreover, the fact that there have been calls from politicians, lawyers, academics and activists (from all provinces) to rethink the meaning of ‘national interest’ indicates not only that the connotation is contested, but that there exists an active resistance to the state-imposed narrow meaning revolving around a perpetual state of siege and persecution. Since the historic application of the term in the non-publishing sphere has mostly resulted in engineered sedition charges and anti-state references (against politicians, teachers and activists), it is easy to foresee how the meaning of ‘national interest’ will unfold in the publishing realm.

Some examples of the printed word that may not be able to make it to Punjab will include books critiquing the perilous civil-military imbalance in Pakistan, stories unpacking the designs behind enforced disappearances, monographs exploring social movements in Pakistan and history volumes challenging the lies characterising textbooks. Seen in the light of section 8(12), a vast array of rich Islamic literature from across the world will also not see book shelves in Punjab.

The second yardstick to be at the disposal of the DGPR-MUB duo is a measure of conformity to sections 8(5) to 8(11), together making it binding to use the suggested prefixes and suffixes to the names of the Holy Prophet, his family and descendants, the Khulafa-i-Rashideen and the As’haab-i-Rasul) in all publications produced and imported in Punjab.

As there exist fundamental divergences on the usage of some of these prefixes and suffixes between two of the largest branches of Muslims, the bill clearly indicates an intent to politically and intellectually marginalise the already-marginalised Shia community in Pakistan. Imposing the dominant strand of Islam in Punjab over the minority one, the bill also contradicts Article 227 of the constitution, which enunciates that “the personal law of any Muslim sect” will be interpreted in accordance with their interpretation of “Quran and Sunnah.”

Against this foreground presenting a two-fold restriction on critical thinking and Shia Islam, let’s bring into focus Pakistan’s book publishing industry, of which Punjab is a major part. According to the Department of Libraries, Pakistan published 3811 books in 2012 against 72,871 by Iran and 15,354 by Malaysia in 2014 and 2015 respectively, let alone China (440,000) and India (90,000) around the same period. Even tiny geographies like Singapore (12,000), Taiwan (28,084) and Sri Lanka (4,115) produce greater number of books every year.

Moreover, a typical Pakistani print-run (number of copies of a book printed in an edition) of a non-textbook comprises only 1000-2000 copies, decreasing to as low as 500 in several cases. Likewise, bookstores in Punjab are shrinking in number, converting fast into stationery shops. That no city beyond Lahore, Rawalpindi and Multan has a single dedicated non-textbook store speaks volumes about the decreasing size of the bookselling market in Punjab.

How would such a small and struggling industry pose a threat to the ‘national interest’ and, in terms of the title of the bill, the ‘foundations of Islam’? Viewing it in context of the fact that there is hardly a handful of books produced critiquing the custodians of national interest and close to none harming the foundations of Islam, one can infer that there can only be one of the two designs at play: either the intent is to prosecute progressive (as well as non-Sunni) writers and publishers, or the bill is a brazen attempt to ride the wave of Khatm-i-Nabuwwat politics, which saw an incredible reception in Punjab in recent elections and a positive nod from the establishment. Or both.

What’s more worrying is that the bill is a reflection of the view that the decades-long project of militarisation and ‘Islamisation’ of Pakistan’s collective imagination remains an incomplete process.

In the context of Pakistan Penal Code’s sections 295-C, 298-A and 298-C, in addition to the Objectives Resolution as preamble to the 1973 Constitution, one fails to identify ‘incompleteness’ and wonders how much further this project can really go.

Sociologist Christopher Wilkes argues that “repression is never enough” for dictatorial states. Borrowing from the works of Gramsci and Poulantzas, the author develops his modern state theory in A Biography of the State, arguing that besides repression, “a hegemonic and cultural domination” to implement “a commonly-agreed national project” is also necessary.

In the case of Pakistan’s hybrid regime, the ruling elite in Punjab seem to view the existing stockpile of repressive materials in the constitutional inventory as not yet sufficient to carry out the national project, and feels that more is needed to achieve complete hegemony over people’s collective imagination.

Bilal Zahoor is the editorial director of Folio Books, a Lahore-based independent publishing house, and co-editor of Rethinking Pakistan: A 21st Century Perspective. He can be reached at bilalzahoor71@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 16th, 2020

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