In Pakistan, those citizens who feel concerned about the rapid deterioration happening in almost every walk of life, are casually reminded by the prime minister time and again: “Look, you shouldn’t worry.” Maybe that is what he actually means, but this is what I hear: “Look, you shouldn’t think.”

To be fair, it is not just about the incumbents in power. For long, the elite-captured state of Pakistan has actively encouraged ignorance and bigotry among the masses. Consequently, in our society we observe an intellectual drought, a lack of a sense of history, and a cultural barrenness and lopsidedness that is not only firmly rooted, but is growing.

This was not the case 30 years ago. Today, there are fewer and fewer individuals whom you can look up to for guidance and wisdom, irrespective of whatever field you belong to. There are still some exceptional academics and writers across Pakistan and in the diaspora, but critical intellectual mass could never be achieved. There was never any official or national desire to attain academic or theoretical excellence. Both ‘power’ and ‘resistance’ failed us in this matter. By ‘education’, we meant producing superlative technicians, clerks, accountants and medics, not physicists, philosophers, historians and sociologists. Even in journalism, the downfall in quality of both product and individuals is glaring.

In this unfortunate intellectual landscape, you must feel fortunate if you have access to some truly erudite and seasoned people — those who can guide and mentor you; persuade you to read more; urge you to challenge the status quo; answer your questions which can be, at times, silly; teach you to respectfully tolerate difference of opinion and encourage you to think. The inimitable Ibn Abdur Rehman, renowned as I.A. Rehman, is perhaps the only renaissance man of his age and stature who remains among us. From art and literature to cinema and theatre, from politics and economy to human rights and social concerns, Rehman’s encyclopaedic knowledge and perceptive analysis continues to enrich generation after generation. Besides, his most rational conversations are laced with a sharp wit.

Rehman is a relentless democrat and federalist, who passionately believes in an egalitarian society. Even in the most hostile of times, he has stood his ground. His career, spanning seven decades, has seen him be a film critic, parliamentary reporter, newspaper editor, op-ed columnist, trade unionist and a frontline human rights defender. He has been a mentor to so many in the past and remains a friend, philosopher and guide to so many of us now. I see it as an absolute privilege to know him. He turned 90 on the first of this month. I wish and pray that he lives for another 90 years to help us fight the intellectual drought and cultural barrenness in our society and polity, for there is no one to replace him.

Instead of me presenting Rehman Sahib something for his birthday, I received an old book from him as a gift a few days ago. Jinnah as a Parliamentarian is compiled and edited by Malik Mohammad Jafar, Ghani Jafar and I.A. Rehman. First published in 1977, the book collects and analyses the speeches, interventions and exchanges of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah as a member of the Indian legislature under the British, and as the president of the first constituent assembly of Pakistan after independence. There are useful editorial notes and sufficiently detailed remarks that explain the context of each debate and intervention. The editors argue that Jinnah remained a parliamentarian for 39 years — from 1909 to 1948 — and made outstanding contributions in legal and constitutional terms, influencing the polity of the Indian Subcontinent like few have done. However, this aspect of his life has not received sufficient scholarly attention.

The book confirms that Jinnah as a parliamentarian was astute, aware, prepared and forceful. Not only that, he argued on every important aspect of Indian life — from the Muslim Waqf Law to the Hindu Marriage Bill — and made incisive speeches on different rules and laws promulgated by the British from time to time. Be it the draconian Rowlatt Act or the resolution he moved in 1924 on imports on government account, Jinnah’s commitment to the material benefit of the local population vis-à-vis colonial government was conspicuous and concrete. The resolution begins by saying: “This Assembly recommends to the Governor-General in Council that, in future, tenders for any article required for any department of the Central Government should be called for in India and in rupees...”

Today, when we see an increased effort to curb the voices of dissent and shackle the freedom of media in our country, it will be appropriate and timely to remind the powers-that-be the views of Quaid-i-Azam on press freedom. In his speech to the legislature in 1918, he said: “... protect those journalists who are doing their duty and who are serving both the public and the government by criticising the government freely, independently, honestly — which is an education to any government.” Eighteen years later, in the same legislature, he debated for long on another issue regarding press freedom. He categorically said: “If you give me the freedom of speech, I have the freedom to publish it, otherwise the privilege is useless.”

The last speech in the book is preceded by insightful commentary on the inaugural session of the first constituent assembly of Pakistan on Aug 10 and 11, 1947. Not only was Jogendra Nath Mandal elected as chair of the session, an important speech in the session was made by the Congress party representative Kiran Sankar Roy. The editors of the book observe that the speech Quaid-i-Azam made on August 11, 1947, has received strange treatment by those for whose guidance it was delivered.

I believe that, at a time when leading historians such as Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed are offering scholarly critique of Quaid-i-Azam’s role in Indian politics, Jinnah as a Parliamentarian is an important book to be reread for furthering this important debate about his life and times.

The columnist is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 6th, 2020