All gone ... Eqbal Ahmed (from left), Hamza Alavi, Sibte Hasan, I.H. Qureshi and Saleem Ahmed in many ways represented the best of Pakistani intellect. -Photos: Dawn Archives
All gone ... Eqbal Ahmed (from left), Hamza Alavi, Sibte Hasan, I.H. Qureshi and Saleem Ahmed in many ways represented the best of Pakistani intellect. -Photos: Dawn Archives

HE importance of intelligentsia in a country cannot be overstated. Intellectuals, by virtue of their role, often become the identity markers of their respective countries. They are listened to across society. They also emerge as the standard-bearers of a nation’s truths to the rest of the world. Societies, in the course of their evolution, draw heavily from the ideas and thoughts of their intellectuals.

Included in the intelligentsia’s role is the understanding of forces that progressively affect the process of change. The intelligentsia forms the critical mass of a society and serves as a catalytic force in the phenomenon of social change. Societies look towards them for guidance during periods of turmoil. They generally face the social and political establishments’ ire, but courageously continue to question the status quo.

It must be said that all educated professionals do not necessarily fulfil the criteria of being considered ‘intellectuals’. The latter are something more than the former. An intellectual is believed to have certain characteristics, like original and independent thinking, having a multidisciplinary knowledge base, having socially relevant ideas and perceptions, being connected to society, and if they are attached with an academic institution, their scholarship should go beyond classrooms and professional research writings, and, finally, they should be steadfast in the face of all social and political odds.

The United States is today regarded as a superpower with extraordinary capacity to impact smaller countries financially and militarily, but it is also known for the anti-establishment voice of Noam Chomsky. Apart from him, there have been Edward Said, Robert Fisk, Angela Davis and numerous others, who throughout history have remained a signpost for societies.

Despite a rapid increase in the number of universities, the quality of Pakistan’s intellectual output has largely remained dismal. The space for dissenting opinions from the intelligentsia is shrinking, dimming the hopes of succeeding generations.

India today is known for its chauvinist shift towards Hindutva, which has made deep inroads into state and society, yet it also has intellectuals like Romilla Thapar, Irfan Habib, Amartya Sen and Arundhati Roy. England has had Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, and a whole group of New Left thinkers. German-American thinker Herbert Marcuse became one of the major apostles of the students’ revolts across the Atlantic in the campus uprisings of 1960s.

It is in this background that one is tempted to speculate if Pakistan has an intelligentsia worth speaking about. If yes, where is it, and what is its role? If not, why is it absent? Needless to say, we have never had a very strong tradition of meaningful and effective intellectual discourse. Whatever we had, seems to have depleted with time. Talking with reference to our universities, is it not paradoxical that their number has multiplied over the years, but their intellectual output has remained, at best, quite meagre?

In our history, a great deal of resistance came from fiction writers and poets. One could also include literary critics among this class. Other than Progressive critics, like Mumtaz Hussain and Mujtaba Hussain, there were those who favoured traditional narratives, like Muhammad Hasan Askari, M.D. Taseer, Mumtaz Shireen and Saleem Ahmed. It was a battle of ideas that was fought in the domain of literature.

We seldom had writers of note hailing from the social sciences, writing about Pakistani socio-historical realities and suggesting ways to take to the country out of its horizontal and vertical conflicts. Such an analysis and vision was never made available for political struggles, which by and large remained short-sighted and temporary, and failed to lead the country towards higher democratic goals.

The absence of socio-economic analysis compelled political movements to rely heavily on poetry to galvanise supporters, but this could not fulfil the objective these movements desperately sought to attain. Renowned sociologist Hamza Alavi opined that in the absence of critical social analysis, poetry tends to serve as opium: giving temporary solace and an ephemeral boost to the common people.

The space for cultural evolution has progressively shrunk. Gone are the days when scholars and intellectuals from different schools of thought had an environment in which they could write and speak freely. A battle of ideas was there and thriving. The ‘coffee house’ culture was in many ways the nerve centre of the national intellect.

Alavi and others — like Eqbal Ahmed, Feroz Ahmed, Sagheer Ahmed, etc. who did write about the socio-economic realities of Pakistan and offered concrete solutions — were almost all based abroad: one reason, perhaps, why they were able to do what they did. Within the country, such work was not very visible, or even feasible.

Sibte Hasan was a scholar of note, who wrote not only about history and the evolution of civilisation in the Pakistani region and the Middle East, but also addressed some fundamental political and ideological issues, like the relationship between the state and religion, and the historical treatment of what was designated as an Islamic state.

Ali Abbas Jalalpuri dealt with philosophical, historical and political issues in a rational manner in his many books. Safdar Mir (Zeno) wrote extensively on cultural issues, highlighting the significance of the country’s diverse cultures. Khawaja Masood was not only a professor of mathematics, but also a learned scholar of history, sociology and cultural affairs. His writings remained a source of guidance for about a quarter of a century. Ibrahim Joyo wrote in both English and Sindhi on the history of ideas and cultural transformations in history.

Moving on, Waris Mir took on the establishment on its authoritarian official narrative, particularly during Gen Ziaul Haq’s martial law. I.A. Rahman had been a persistent writer and speaker on constitutional, political and human rights issues. Mubarak Ali highlighted the shortcomings of the official historiography and introduced to his readers the new and diverse dimensions of historiography, as these have been leading historians and researchers towards fresh conclusions in other countries. Shah Muhammad Marri has written extensively on Baloch history and other historical themes. His Peoples’ History of Balochistan has been published in five volumes; others are in process. This list does not go much beyond these and certain other names. This indicates that we have a paucity of intellectuals and a limited intellectual tradition in the country.

The section of the intelligentsia that draws its prominence for being public scholars is even smaller. Those who can connect with society directly and speak on socioeconomic and political issues have greater influence, but also a more challenging task. They need to speak a language comprehensible to the people and have the communications skills to elucidate difficult themes for the masses. Sibte Hasan, Mubarak Ali, Qazi Javed, Hasan Zafar Arif, Ashfaq Saleem Mirza and Pervez Hoodbhoy have done this.

As to why our universities have produced such little intellectual output and so few intellectuals, a number of reasons can be cited. Public universities have worked under severe official control; their autonomy remains only on paper. The system of education, particularly higher education, is directly and effectively controlled by the central government: so much so that even the curriculum is devised officially. This leaves the majority of the faculty with no option, but to abide by the conditions imposed on it instead of exercising its independence and coming up with original ideas.

Moreover, the system is such that it does not allow a culture of research to take root and flourish. Years of this arrangement have resulted in a demeaning culture of self-censorship, and those who violate this are marked for their ‘disobedience’ by the authorities. It is very difficult for a genuine researcher to do a research that does not fall within the officially approved parameters, as it results in the denial of grants and research funds. If certain people still try to break the shackles and write and speak courageously, they do so while undergoing difficult trials.

In the past, a number of dissenting scholars were either expelled from universities or were elbowed out. This happened more during Zia’s military rule, when teachers were expelled from the Quaid-i-Azam, Punjab and Karachi universities. As a result of the near death of any real culture of critical inquiry and research, while anti-establishment scholarship seems to have come to an end, even traditional and official narratives no longer find professional scholars to sustain themselves. We do not see the likes of, say, I.H. Qureshi in our history departments anymore. Whatever views he had regarding the creation of the country and his overall subjective historiography, he wrote as a trained historian. He was professional in his approach and sincere in his research even if some find his interpretations confused and conclusions flawed.

A cursory glance at the last 75 years is sufficient to shed light on the fact that the space for cultural evolution in the country has progressively shrunk. In its first and second decades, scholars and intellectuals belonging to different schools of thinking had at least been given an environment in which they could write and speak freely about what they thought, and could also get into debates with each other. A battle of ideas was there and thriving. The ‘coffee house’ culture was alive and the Pak Tea House in Lahore was in many ways the nerve centre of the national intellect.

With social media still decades away, it was the national press that carried debates. The trend was alive even in the 1970s and the1980s. One could see debates between Zeno and Mohammad Ali Siddiqui (Ariel) on one side, and Saleem Ahmed on the other. On serious sociological and historic issues, too, debate was possible. In 1973, a debate on the subject of feudalism in Muslim history between Marxist writer Sibte Hasan and an authority on Islamic history, Professor Qamaruddin Khan, was carried by Dawn in its Sunday Magazine.

Similarly, in 1976, Dawn carried another debate on secularism between Sibte Hasan and Advocate Khalid Ishaq, an expert on Islamic law and jurisprudence. While the former highlighted the need for it, the latter thought there was no need in a country like Pakistan. The debate continued in the Sunday Magazine for weeks, and flowed over to the Letters to the Editor (LTE) columns where the lay readers had their say on the subject. Such serious debates receded gradually from the print media. All this activity was, linguistically decent and intellectually cerebral. Now, under the hardships caused by successive governments as well as growing intolerance in society, newspapers do not dare cover subjects of national significance. We do it all on Twitter probably because it doesn’t demand intellectual depth and a sense of history. It does not even demand linguistic capacity.

In a nutshell, social media has replaced professional media, shops have replaced coffee houses, and malls have replaced theatres. There is no dialogue, no debate worth its while. The cultural spaces left provide very little room for ideas that may at some point lead to an exchange of ideas by engaging the contesting points of view.

Anybody with even a rudimentary sense of history would know the worth of critical scholarship and a genuine intelligentsia in a society. But, then, history itself tells us that regardless of the difficulties in its way, it is the very function of the intelligentsia to find space for itself, come up with original, critical ideas, and connect with society. That being so, the ball is definitely in the court of the intelligentsia to rise up to the challenge instead of merely lamenting the adverse circumstances.

The writer is Director, Institute of Historical and Social Research, Karachi, and Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, Sohail University, Karachi.

Opinion

Editorial

Kindness needed
20 Jun, 2024

Kindness needed

TODAY, on World Refugee Day, we pause to reflect on the many challenges faced by refugees across the globe. From...
Fitch’s budget note
20 Jun, 2024

Fitch’s budget note

PAKISTAN’S ongoing economic crisis is multifaceted. At one end, the government must pursue stabilisation policies...
Cruelty to animals
20 Jun, 2024

Cruelty to animals

TWO recent incidents illustrate the immense cruelty many in this country subject voiceless animals to. In the first...
Price bombs
Updated 18 Jun, 2024

Price bombs

It just wants to take the easy route and enjoy the ride for however long it is in power.
Palestine’s plight
Updated 17 Jun, 2024

Palestine’s plight

While the faithful across the world are celebrating with their families, thousands of Palestinian children have either been orphaned, or themselves been killed by the Israeli aggressors.
Profiting off denied visas
Updated 19 Jun, 2024

Profiting off denied visas

The staggering rejection rates underscore systemic biases in the largely non-transparent visa approval process.