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The human condition
“In an age where the powers assumed by the state against its citizens... far exceed even the most gross abuses of the colonial system, Bhagat Singh’s example is singularly relevant…” Joya Chatterji
Bhagat Singh – the protagonist of our story – must recede in the background and Jinnah – the guest star of the Bhagat Singh saga – must for the moment occupy centre stage. It is his eloquence that provides an objectively distant but sufficiently involved liberal commentary on the whole affair. It is also satisfyingly non-revolutionary for the liberal ear but could still turn out, in essence, to be an embarrassingly secular critique of our secularists.
Yet – in the days of the missing in Fata and Balochistan and in the moment of the arrival of the PPO – we do not begin on the lofty height of liberal abstractions but on the grosser ground of liberal law which, when it is true to itself, is often an irritant for the establishment and all its children – liberal and conservative alike. What they need is not law but a fig-leaf they call the ‘Legal Cover’.
In an afternoon of the September of 1929, Jinnah resounded in the Imperial Legislative Council:
“I will give you a picture as to what will happen under this bill. The government will apply to the magistrate before whom the inquiry is going on and say: ‘Here is a law which we have secured from the legislature…the inquiry will then proceed ex parte before the magistrate. Evidence will be read, oral and documentary, which will go without being tested by cross-examination. The documentary evidence will go without being even seen by the accused…and how will you identity the accused in their absence?... Under this bill the accused will not be there to give any explanation to the magistrate with regard to the evidence that has already been recorded ex parte…I ask… whether that will be a trial or a farce.”
Jinnah was talking to British imperialism in
the assembly where the government had moved a bill seeking legal cover to try Bhagat Singh and his comrades as it saw fit. This, in Jinnah’s words, was a declaration of war on Bhagat and his men, a travesty of law by a power that was pursuing every possible course and method to kill or transport its victims. And even if the farce was given legal cover, “No judge who has got an iota of a judicial mind or a sense of justice can ever be a party to a trial of that character and pass sentence of death without a shudder and a pang of conscience”
Jinnah was not talking then to the state he founded and which the army re-founded, ideologically and physically, in collusion with – in coercion of – the politicians – and in suppression of the people.
But who is Jinnah talking to now?
“Rightly or wrongly, youth today in India is stirred up… however much you deplore them and however much you may say that they are misguided. It is the system, this damnable system of government which is resented by the people.”
If a change of word is necessitated here by the vagaries of time, how many of us will fail to agree that it is certainly not the word ‘damnable’? In certain areas the youth in Pakistan have been driven to damn the system in their own language of bombs and bullets. ‘Rightly or wrongly’ – as Jinnah would say.
Today, Jinnah’s speech must be read in its entirety, and not solely to appreciate that Jinnah defended Bhagat Singh. It must be read to complement the secular and liberal image of Jinnah reflected most beautifully in his speech of August 11. What would be Jinnah’s advice to the serene liberalism of our times whose sensibility is bruised only when the natives behave in strange ways that defy and obstruct the march of Reason?
“You may be a cold-blooded logician. I am a patient, cool-headed man and can calmly go on making speeches here. But, remember, there are thousands of young men outside. This is not the only country where these actions are resorted to. It has happened in other countries. Not youths but grey-bearded men have committed serious offences, moved by patriotic impulses.”
The reference to ‘bearded’ men takes on an amusing yet surreal quality in our country where the beard has almost become a term of abuse in liberal attempts at demolishing dogmas. It is also significant that Jinnah does not find relevant the question of ‘patriotic impulses’ being misguided or otherwise. What concerns him is the root cause. What makes him angry is the inability to see the cause.
“Will you open your eyes? Will you have a little more imagination? Have you got any statesmanship left? Have you got any political wisdom? This is not the way you are going to solve the root cause of the trouble.”
What is the root cause?
“…Is there today in any part of the globe a civilised government that is engaged day in and day out, week in week out, month in month out in prosecuting their people? Do you not realise yourself, if you open your eyes, that there is resentment, universal resentment against your policy, against your programme?”
Words of striking relevance, again, not only to our land of the detention cell and the mutilated body but also to the age of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, of war, rendition and water-boarding.
Much of the local liberal critique of the state of Pakistan can gain some much needed insight by expanding its horizon beyond a province or two and reading the word ‘universal’ as it should be read in the ‘Global Village’ we are constantly reminded of. The government of the Empire in India, as elsewhere, did not see the point then. The Empire of today does not see it now. For this is insight of the inconvenient kind which the Empire can gain only at its peril. Far more profitable has been the imperial midwifery in the birth of a whole layer of intelligentsia without radical conscience and critical intellect.
This layer will not lend its ears to any talk of ‘universal resentment’ against the Empire because that will mean bringing in a lot of old Leftist nonsense such as the plight of the Palestinians, the fight of the Kashmiris, the rape of Africa, coups and assassinations in Latin America, exploitation of the working classes and ruthless destruction of cultures and communities across the continents in an imperial epic of war and genocide. Their peasant-like understanding of a ‘global village’ will not admit that what the Lord of the Manor does will one day stir the villeins whose savage villainy will only accord with their own superstitions and not with the science of sociology. This is a science that never existed for the serfs and has been turned into metaphysics by the liberals who make up a modern Inquisition that cries wolf each time it detects a tendency anywhere to understand savagery in terms other than the ‘Evil’ of this or that religion and its sects of the mountain here and the desert there.
Our secularists shirk from the root causes because confronting them was the sin of the secular radicals of yore. But what does secularism mean if not ‘this worldly’? They remain in the realm of theology with their dreams of tearing down monasteries and their passion for exposing irrational and inhuman dogmas. A critique oriented only to religious institutions, beliefs and practices is woefully inadequate. To end irrationality and unreason, an irrational and unjust society has to be abolished. But our modern obscurantism will not bite the hand that once fed religious obscurantism. It is now the hand that rocks their cradle and it has always ruled the world. Its proponents are ecstatic in mocking religion and, at the same time, excellent at modifying it as need be. In love with peace and moderation, they are enthralled by the possibilities offered by the war on terror of civilising the savages that remain undisciplined by the Empire and its gospel of neo-liberalism.
We leave our liberals asleep in their cradle and listen to Jinnah who – as it were – is speaking through the ages to the army that, among others, is facing the Baloch and pushing the PPO, and to the political government that is missing in the matter of the missing and the mutilated.
“Don’t you think that, instead of trying to proceed with an iron-hand and pursuing the policy of repression against your own subjects, it would be better if your realised the root causes of resentment and of the struggle that the people are carrying on? Try and concentrate your mind on the root cause and the more you concentrate on the root cause the less difficulties and inconvenience there will be for you to face, and thank heaven that the money of the taxpayer will not be wasted in prosecuting men, nay citizens…”
We celebrate the birth of Jinnah on the same date as we celebrate the birth of Jesus. In Dostoevsky’s famous parable ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, Jesus – when he returns to Earth in the days of the Inquisition, is imprisoned, interrogated and threatened with the stake because of the danger he poses to the Christian establishment. Can we see Jinnah posing a certain kind of danger if, one fine evening, he descends on the arid terrain of Balochistan?
As we try to see Jinnah in our mind’s eye, his words reverberate for real. He goes on: “men, nay citizens who are fighting for the freedom of their country”.
Freedom! – the very word jolts us back to Bhagat Singh. For it was he who insisted that freedom – as it was being understood and fought for by reformers, constitutionalists, communalists and pacifists – would be the prelude to a new phase of slavery, oppression and exploitation. It was he who, till the last moment in his death cell, was busy exploring possibilities of a struggle to avoid such an end for his people – for us.
But we are not done with Jinnah yet. We have to see how the constitutionalist was moved by the ‘soul’ of the ‘terrorist’.
This is the fifth part of a series on Bhagat Singh. The previous four parts appeared on March 23, March 24, March 30 and April 13.
To be continued
The writer is editor oped, The News. Email: [email protected]