Liberals then, and liberals now

Published: January 19, 2011

Liberal thought has not been the 'done' thing in Pakistan.

The lack of pluralism within our society is emblematic of our intolerance in general. I hate to be cynical, but it has always been this way and I fear that it shall remain so.

There has been talk on these pages of a ‘liberal movement’ or ‘liberal activism’ as well as ‘liberal fascists/ liberal extremists’. The fact of the matter remains that left-of-centre social and political thought has never been the ‘done’ thing in this country.

Ghosts of a leftist past

In the early 50’s right up to the 60’s and 70’s, this country had some semblance of leftist thinking. There was the infamous Rawalpindi Conspiracy in 1951, which resulted in severe punitive action taken against the accused including General Akbar Khan, his wife and more prominently, members of (believe it or not) the Communist Party of Pakistan. These included luminaries such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sajjad Zaheer amongst others.

Even earlier than that, Liaquat Ali Khan worked assiduously to align himself with the relatively non-atheistic US rather than the more forthcoming USSR, who invited him on an official tour of the country via their foreign minister. The US visit, on the other hand, was prepared on an altogether lower level. The problem even then for our leaders was to keep up appearances. How could Pakistan, a country founded on the basis of religion, have a close relationship with the godless Soviets – it would have been, in the words of the Persian messenger from 300, “madness – this is blasphemy!”

An extra-judicial murder

Consequently, we aligned ourselves fully to one particular pole, in a bipolar world which dictated that a balance should have been struck. With the advent of dictators such as Ayub Khan, the iron fist around left-leaning political thinking tightened further. An example that perfectly encapsulates the fortunes of leftist movements in Pakistan is the extra-judicial murder of Hassan Nasir.

Nasir was a scion of a prominent family from Hyderabad Deccan and had migrated to Pakistan where he was a leader of the Communist Party of Pakistan. During the crackdown under Ayub Khan, Hassan Nasir went into hiding but was eventually caught and imprisoned in the Lahore Fort where he was mercilessly tortured in a macabre ritual where reportedly all his fingernails were extracted. Much like the ‘Grey lady of Bagram’, he was one of the most famous prisoners of Lahore Fort in 1961. His cries of pain were so resonant and pitiful that his fellow prisoners were unable to bear the horror. Once killed, he was hurriedly buried by the martial law authorities. Upon exhumation of his body when his mother arrived from India to take it home, it was discovered that the body exhumed was not his. In short, even his body was hidden from the rightful kin by the authorities.

Wake up, liberals!

There remains much talk of liberal/secular/communist extremists in the comments section of various articles within this publication but the violence perpetrated by such ‘extremists’ within Pakistan is non-existent compared to the religiously-motivated terrorists we rail against.

I wish the killing of Salmaan Taseer would spark a liberal movement within this country but I remain convinced that it is nothing but pipe dreams. Greater men than him have died for causes as just as his and nothing has changed. Social, religious and cultural conservatism is ingrained within our society and nothing, not even the oft-prescribed panacea of ‘education’ can cure it.


Waqqas Iftikhar

An economist who works in a foreign bank in Karachi. He writes about sports.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Humanity

    “I fear that it shall remain so.”

    Either stop fearing and make a change, no matter how small, or stop writing what you do not find the courage to act upon.Recommend

  • Ali

    That was very much needed. Very well written.
    Yes, there is no such thing as a ‘liberal extremist’!Recommend

  • Usman Ahmad

    Wake up Liberals!…The funniest part of your blog…It is never going to happen!Recommend

  • parvez

    Nicely written and I agree that the position as it stands, is as described by you.
    The consistent failure of the state to provide a decent living standard for the masses has forced a struggling, bitter people to look for comfort elsewhere and this apathy of the state is being exploited.
    It all boils down to mediocre, unintelligent, ill informed, vision less, greedy, self serving leadership over four decades.Recommend

  • Moderate

    Ah where the heck is moderation??. You need to realize this hard fact that liberalism is also an extreme. I must share with you an article recently i came across with you where an author beautifully put his view point and I agree with him.

  • Noni

    Well said, and what a sad and true account of our country. The world may have changed in the past 50 years, but as Pakistanis, we are truly so self involved that, even though we talk about it over coffee and at dinner tables, with our friends and families, when the time comes, we all pretend or maybe are truly asleep.
    One thing should be said for the religious parties, however, conservative their views are, in time of need, when they want to convey their message, they will show up in colossal numbers, while we tend to discuss, something of such grave importance, on facebook and twitter.

    “Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.” – George Bernard ShawRecommend

  • omar bin abdulaziz

    Liberal extremists at work here.
    If you are so sorry about Pakistan not having take the Soviets hand, then I suggest you go there and live and die there.
    This country is meant to be a progressive Islamic state.
    Liberalism has nothing but failure as its destiny.Recommend

  • Neha Khan

    @ Omar bin Abdulaziz.. your opinion truly reflects the thinking that scares any sane, peace-loving person in this country. Can you people ever talk without killing anyone (“…..die there”)???? What do you think ‘liberalism’ mean? It mainly means tolerance and being liberal to accept other points of view/way of life. You CANNOT be a ‘progressive state’ (Islamic or otherwise) without being liberal. Recommend

  • Waqqas Iftikhar

    @humanity: what you say is true….but i am a bit of a coward :) so i am doing what i can…writing about it

    @omar bin abdulaziz:
    i have said this in the piece as well..who are these liberal extremists that you speak of and what is their body count?…..unlike our religiously motivated extremists who are well…prolific doesnt even begin to describe it.

    I never said we should have had a communist state here – i am talking about pluralism…..further our diplomatic bungling in that era gave us SEATO, CENTO and no help from the US in ’65 and ’71….it would have served us better to have back up. we had good relations with china, dont see why we couldn’t work with the soviets, instead we provided our airbases for U2 spy flights.

    as for emigrating to the soviet union….dunno if you’ve been following politics for the past couple of decades – soviet union ended in 1989 so you cant send me there.

    scandinavian countries are the epitome of the liberalism and pluralism i am talking about – they consistently perform at the top of the HD Index ….so that refutes your last statement too.Recommend

  • Arsalan Nazim

    Well written!

    Pakistan, to progress, is now cornered where she has to make a choice between Secularism or Religion. A country like Pakistan which does not have a state identity will continue to experience these horrors and democracy nor dictatorship will serve the people.

    Though based on religion, the Pakistani constitution is not followed and the state is practically run with a secular association than otherwise. Religion, extreme or moderate, is a matter of opinion and the same goes for Secularism.

    I wonder if “moderate Islam” is the cure for Pakistan as there will always be vocal fringes using illegitimate and suppressive means to impose their will to implement their own interpretations and because of this Secularism should be accepted as the bases of Pakistani State system.Recommend

  • Freedom of Heresy

    Liberal = Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.
    With this definition I am happy to be a liberal extremist because I would be extremely free of bigotry then.

    The so called ‘Liberals’ here have always betrayed their political positioning. They happily reconciled with laws like the Second Amendment and Blasphemy. We invariably hear from them that ‘there should be some changing in the laws’. What changing? Why not repealed? What scares them? Their vote banks? Aah! Then remain scared for ever. This society would stay in this glaciate state unless the flag-bearers of liberalism shed their cloak of faint-heartedness. Just the condemnation of terrorists won’t do any good.
    Rightists are more organized then liberals that is why they often prevail. Recommend

  • faraz

    Liberals can only raise their voice. Their voice of reason atleast creates a conflict in the minds of many laptop-bound jihadis. Liberalism and tolerance cant be forced upon someone. People will gradually learn after experiencing the dark consequences of religious intolerance and extremist ideologies. An intolerant society fragemented by sectarian differences is bound for disaster. The ideal Islamic state collapsed in the presence of Sahaba (R.A) although there were no sectarian differences. Our present day clergy is in a self destructive mode; they cant fool all the people all the time.Recommend

  • Sana Saleem

    Very Interesting and very well written. Recommend