Literature and activism

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

At a time when Pakistan needs to mobilise for concerted action for positive change in our brutalised society, the discussions held recently on literature and activism and on Eqbal Ahmad`s `cross-border` writings were timely and relevant.

They were also provocative and provided food for thought, especially for those who have begun to despair at the direction the country is taking.

The occasion for this discourse were two sessions at the Karachi Literature Festival billed as “bringing together international and Pakistani writers to show creative writing at its best” by its sponsors the Oxford University Press and the British Council.

The unanimous opinion was that this was a grand initiative and for the first time Karachi got to hear voices of sanity in such large numbers. We have to thank Ameena Saiyid, OUP`s dynamic managing director, for laying out this delectable feast for us. Hopefully the festival, dubbed by Urdu writer Shamsur Rehman Faruqui as an adabi mela, will become an annual event and bring within its folds other languages of the country, apart from English and Urdu, which enrich the Pakistani culture.

The session on activism was of special interest to me. There was consensus among the panellists, writer/poet Fahmida Riaz, educationist Arifa Syeda Zehra and journalist/author Mohammad Hanif, that literature could serve as an avenue for activism. As Fahmida correctly observed that writing is a tool that can be used to achieve many ends.

But when it came to defining activism, each panellist had his/her own point of view. Fahmida felt activism had to have a strong ideological content — the writer should be a member of a political party. For Hanif the act of writing is in itself a political act. Arifa Syeda perceived activism as a process that brings about change, even though it might be a slow and gradual one.

There was much truth in what was discussed at the session though I see activism as something beyond that. Wasn`t Fahmida being a bit harsh when she refused to accept Ismat Chughtai as an activist because she did not have any political ties with a party? “Many writers are very good writers but they are not activists,” Fahmida observed.

This view did not go unchallenged. Ismat`s writings were definitely aimed at bringing about a change in the status of women who were more oppressed and disempowered in her age than today. And the issues that Ismat addressed called for courage to write about, as Arifa pointed out.

But if the ideological dimension were not to define the change, activism would amount to bringing about any shift in the status quo — and to quote the moderator Sunil Sethi, Maulana Masood Azhar, the founder of the Jaish-i-Muhammad who has written 42 books, would also be called a champion of change. So Fahmida has a point when she talks about ideology. But does it have to be sharply defined by the writer having allegiance to a political group?

What was not emphasised sufficiently was that activism has to be undertaken consciously and deliberately. If change comes about accidentally and not by design — say as a result of a person`s spontaneous writings that coincidentally focus on some key issues — then it is hardly activism. Even if writers join an ongoing movement for change, as Fahmida put it, it must be a conscious act. They must know clearly what are the results they are striving for, and work for these concertedly.

But what is not acceptable to me is activism without any activity on the ground. We have plenty of armchair activists around. They may be authors, orators, poets and others using their skills to convince people that change is absolutely necessary in a given situation. The sessions resonated with the complaint that people don`t read what the authors write. But is it enough to get people to read? Will change come if writers do not manage to strike a chord with someone who is the worker on the ground?

Hanif, who was a journalist before he became an author, would testify that words on paper create a stir only when the issues they highlight are taken up by a practical activist — be it a lawyer, a social worker, a parliamentarian, or the like. Words can be inspiring. But to have an impact they must be translated into action.

It is in this context that the activism practised by Arifa Syeda makes all the difference because she is interacting with the youth in her college and trying to revive the noble traditions of the teaching profession. She spoke of the importance of exposing falsehoods and breaking obscurantist conventions. Education facilitates this process.

The session on Eqbal Ahmed reinforced this view. Eqbal was writing and he was also teaching his students what he wrote — though it is a tragedy that he never got an opportunity to interact with students in Pakistan because Khaldunia, his dream project, could not materialise before death snatched him away from us. As the authorities were never keen about an institution that would make people think they prevaricated until it was too late.

Fahmida observed in her speech that Pakistan had a strong repertoire of activist writers and she named a few — Faiz, Habib Jalib, Shaikh Ayaz, etc. I asked her why the writings of these activists had not made any difference to conditions in Pakistan. She responded by saying that mankind has also had so many prophets.

But I believe literary activism in Pakistan has not been followed up by activism in the classrooms to bring about a change in the mindset of the youth. Arifa Syeda is in a minority. If Maulana Masood Azhar is increasing his following much to our dislike, it must be admitted that he is there working with the people he is trying to mobilise.

After all, the great philosophers — Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and all the big names — were also teachers who brought about changes in society by mobilising their students. The failure of the liberals in Pakistan has been their inability to interact personally with the people they are trying to reach out to.