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Demise of the Liberal Left


By Shahzad Raza

07 Nov 2014

Pakistan’s liberal elite may fool itself by claiming that it is left leaning or liberal, but it actually represents a highly conservative capitalist society with a fake veneer of liberalism. Known leftist Abid Hassan Minto describes it as the “burgerization” of the society.

The demise of progressive ideology was a gradual phenomenon in Pakistan with successive military governments. The final nails in the coffin were the fall of Soviet Union and shift in China’s economic policy to rule the world. The dark years of Gen Zia’s Martial Law and rise of reactionary forces after 9/11 left no room for ideological freedom.

New narratives have been written which promoted a sheer sense of conservatism and intolerance.

Generally, in Pakistan, the communists are considered non-Muslims or atheists. Socialists are normally ignored. People with secular mindset are labeled as agents of the West. Liberals are those who are violating the sanctity of the “true Islamic norms.” The religious right is the new currency that has made deep inroads in the society. The political parties that claim to be liberal are rely heavily on these new narratives.

It is much easier to claim that secular India is becoming saffron India under Narendra Modi than having a dispassionate analysis of the fall of the liberal left in Pakistan.

Who is Mian Iftikharuddin of modern day politics? Can someone be really called a true scion of Sadat Hassan Manto or Syed Sajjad Zaheer? And gone are the days of Sibte Hassan and Mazhar Ali Khan in Pakistani journalism.

It was none other than our non-elected Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan who adopted the conservative philosophy. On March 12, 1949, just five months after the demise of Quaid-e-Azam, the rest of ‘founding fathers’ defied the principles that Muhammad Ali Jinnah had advocated in his lifetime.

In 1950, more than 11 million of total 76 million Pakistanis were non-Muslims. Now when the population has crossed the mark of 180 million, less than seven million non-Muslims live in Pakistan. For its movers, which included Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, the Objectives Resolution was a great success.

“You can’t mix religion with politics if you want to have a progressive society,” said Abid Minto, who heads the Awami Workers Party.

The ‘founding fathers’ had got the Objectives Resolution passed from the Constituent Assembly. In 1985, Gen Zia made it an operative part of the Constitution deleting word “freely” from the clause that originally read: “Minorities can freely profess and practice their religion.”

During a heated debate in March 1949, several members of the first Constituent Assembly rightly feared that religious conservatism and extremism would rise in Pakistan in the years to come.

“My fear is real, as these concepts will everywhere be interpreted by much less enlightened men,” said opposition member Bhupendra Kumar Datta.

Another member Prof Raj Kumar Chakravarty said: “It has one of my principles of life that religion is a matter personal to everybody. If we drag in religion or some other force or power in our everyday life, it may lead to endless complications and difficulties.”

Begum Shaista Ikramullah said: “Is it such a tremendous achievement to have declared that the sovereignty of this universe belongs to God alone… I do not think mere declaration of it is such a great achievement justifies and orgy of praise we have been giving to ourselves.”

A comparative analysis would demonstrate the founding fathers of the United States had correctly realized the danger of mixing religion with politics. “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries,” wrote the 4th US President James Madison.

The first main progressive party was undoubtedly established by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1967. However, over the years the People’s Party has strayed far from the ideology its founder perceived 47 years ago.

“Mr Bhutto raised the slogan of socialism, but he himself deviated from the path he claimed to have chosen for himself and his followers. Look what sort of people with feudalistic mentality had surrounded him,” said Mr Minto.

The ghost of Gen Zia still haunts us. The religious parties, whose mentors or ancestors opposed the creation of Pakistan, always claimed to be the genuine representatives of the people. In 2002, an alliance of religious parties formed its government in NWFP. They contested the election with “Book” as their election symbol asking people to vote for the Holy Quran.

The so-called ‘enlightened moderation’ by Gen Musharraf, a concept reportedly borrowed from Hennery Kissinger, failed to leave any significant impact on the society because of its hollowness and lack of ownership by genuine public representatives. Gen Musharraf relied on the political leaders who were deeply conservative and loved the status quo.

The People’s Party, the MQM and the ANP are three mainstream political parties that align themselves with the liberal left. The factions of Pakistan Muslim League are conservatives. And Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, the so-called third force, is somewhere in between.

The PTI’s assertion of being a revolutionary party can be dismissed on classic as well as apparent grounds. The recent decision of the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to delete chapters about liberal philosophers and non-Muslim rulers of the subcontinent from textbooks was seen with a sense of shock and awe.

“Liberals are not leftists at all. The left wing parties are the progressive parties. Our party is the only one in Pakistan which falls in that category,” Mr Minto asserted.

A majority of political leaders are not well versed with the essence of their political ideology. The meaning of liberalism, secularism, idealism, conservatism, etc are often misunderstood and taken out of context.

A recent fight between the MQM and People’s Party involving accusations of blasphemy was surprising. “I doubt if I could ever believe that a secular or even ‘liberal’ party exists in Pakistan. It is all about dirty and vulgar opportunism. Shame on me, to ever have thought this trio (ANP, PPP, and MQM) is secular liberal,” wrote rights activist Marvi Sirmid.

Hegelians believed that intellectual progress explains the advancement of government, culture and the other forms of social life. Therefore, the study of consciousness is the key to the understanding of society and history is the stage on which institutions and ideas battle for hegemony. It is hard to figure out how that applies to the highly polarized Pakistani society.

Shahzad Raza is an Islamabad-based journalist