Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In his book Uncensored, the former general manager of Pakistan Television (PTV) late Burhanuddin Hasan writes that, the former Pakistani dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-88) was a keen TV viewer. According to Hasan, Zia would call various high ranking PTV employees to discuss with them a show or a teleplay he had watched. He would share in detail his observations.

Hasan writes that the producers and playwrights that Zia often called, wondered whether the head of state and military chief spent all his evenings watching TV. Zia never threatened to put a stop to anything on TV that he disliked. But his ‘observations’ in this regard usually materialised in the shape of ‘advice’ issued to PTV by the ministry of information.

Shoaib Mansoor, the producer of PTV’s famous comedy show Fifty-Fifty (1978-84) was someone Zia called on a regular basis. The show was penned by the satirist Anwar Maqsood, who had a penchant for tricking the intense gaze of the censor board by using subtle wit to critique the dictatorship. But Zia often picked what the members of the censor board had missed. In a 1979 skit, a cloth merchant is seen selling a cream. His shop has been raided by the police for selling smuggled clothes. To allude that he had been flogged by a regime which, till 1980, took great delighted in holding public-flogging extravaganzas, the merchant is shown selling a cream used to heal marks on a person’s body. He says these days this cream sold more than clothes.

Soon Mansoor was at the receiving end of the dictator’s phone, being lectured on why flogging was necessary. Interestingly, as if to neutralise the dictator’s annoyance, the show would also slip in skits that its creators knew would please him. For instance, a skit mocked women’s rights organisations that, at the time, were Zia’s loudest critics. In the skit, a group of women are shown holding placards demanding gender equality. Seeing this, a shopkeeper immediately puts up a ‘sale’ sign outside his shop. As soon as the sign goes up, the women throw down their placards and rush inside the shop.

Read: How Zia redefined Pakistan

To maintain a public perception of an Islamic society, governments sweep certain socio-cultural products and spaces under the carpet, making them difficult to regulate, and thereby create a social psychosis

The late PTV director, Shahzad Khalil once told me that Zia would often give producers suggestions. If the suggestions were ignored, these would reappear from the information ministry as must-dos. For example, right in the middle of a popular multi-episode TV serial Ankahi (1982), all male characters suddenly began to appear in shalwar-kameez. According to Khalil, the ‘advice’ was to always show ‘good characters’ in shalwar-kameez. Only ‘bad men’ were allowed to be shown in western clothes. Women, of course, were to always appear in ‘eastern clothes.’

But producers would gradually begin to ignore the advice, and things would go back to being ‘normal’ again. Yet, if we keep in mind what Khalil said, ‘advice’ from the information ministry such as, to never show a double bed in a scene, or avoid showing women licking ice cream or blowing a chewing gum bubble, must have all come from Zia.

In 1990, Azam Sheikh, a former CEO of Wings advertising agency which, in the 1980s, was one of the largest in the country, told me that “there was always a cat and mouse game going on between the ad agencies and the Zia government.” He said that the ‘most absurd’ demands, such as a TV commercial ‘could only give 30 percent of its time to female models,’ would be made, and the agencies would then try to cleverly work around such asks.

A cat and mouse routine it was. But exactly what was Zia trying to achieve by constantly going back and forth between being a strict moralist to someone who often seemed to forget about his own decrees? Well, at least in this context?

In their 2005 book The Right Nation, J. Micklethwait and A. Wooldridge write that after the 1960s, many among those supporting capitalism began to turn towards social conservatism to regulate ‘behavioural excesses,’ which are a by-product of the free-market. This gave them a sense of control by re-instilling ‘bourgeoise values of self-discipline.’ Micklethwait and Woolridge demonstrate that American ‘neo-conservatives’ used this formula to safeguard American capitalism from the impact of some of its own devices which can also end up threatening the politics attached to the free-market system.

Many of Zia’s manoeuvres can be understood through such lens. As he went about deregulating Pakistan’s economy, he shielded his moves from certain social consequences in public inherent in the dynamics of the free-market system. He did this by encouraging social conservatism (through so-called ‘Islamic’ policies) in the public sphere. It is important to note this. Because he was only interested in maintaining a public perception of an ‘Islamic’ society. That is all what mattered, not what happened in the private sphere. That’s why, whereas ban after ban was imposed on cultural and social products and spaces on the basis of morality in public sphere, a blind eye was turned to what people did in their private spaces.

All that was banned in public, shifted in private spaces. Also, sources providing banned products to private spaces were allowed to operate, as long as they did not threaten the public perception of a pious society that Zia was trying to project to safeguard his economic policies. Such products included smuggled Bollywood films, alcoholic beverages, drugs, guns, sex workers, etc.

Read: General Ziaul Haq — The man to answer for a lot that went wrong with Pakistan

This paradigm has survived. Every time a private event or occurrence involving banned activities or products becomes public, a plethora of people appear from various quarters, wagging their fingers and asking, ‘is this Islamic Republic of Pakistan?’ Now more than before because of internet and social media. The idea is still to maintain a perception of conservatism in the public sphere.

But the ‘Pakistani culture,’ social conservatism, faith, etc., that all post-Zia conservatives including the present government of Pakistan headed by Imran Khan claim to be safeguarding, are still largely perceptions. What is more disconcerting is when a government actually tries to fortify this perception through legislation. We saw how this created huge problems during the Zia dictatorship when such legislation and ordinances pushed certain activities and products further down until they became parts of an underbelly that is almost impossible to regulate.

Psychologically speaking, it’s like when repressed impulses cause neurosis, some of which may also transform into becoming psychosis. Social psychosis in this context can and have appeared in the shape of increasing cases of sexual and domestic violence against women and children, religious militancy, drug addiction, and a lot more.

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 18th, 2021

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