"It’s not intolerance. I’d call it the age of glorification of ignorance"

TNS caught up with Wusatullah Khan at BBC’s Karachi office to which he has been associated since 1991 at its Urdu Service section, and asked him if he saw any hope of turning around the narrative of intolerance that seems to be weighing us down.

Khan has been writing a weekly column Baat se Baat for BBC since 1998. He also produces documentaries for its Urdu TV every now and then, conducts workshops and trainings for journalists to hone their reporting skills, equips them with writing techniques and tells them about safety matters. In between, he manages to contribute a weekly column for daily Express.

Being an itinerant and a student of history, his conversation is sprinkled with anecdotes and dates that easily slip through his fingers.

The News on Sunday (TNS): Rashid Rehman, Salmaan Taseer… what did they do to have met such a tragic fate?

Wusatullah Khan (WK): I don’t think Rashid Rehman did anything; neither did Salmaan Taseer. In fact, if it had to be anyone, then Bulleh Shah or Niaz Fatehpuri, or even Allama Iqbal should have come first. They would have met their end much quicker by a ‘good’ Muslim. Imagine if Iqbal had written his iconic Shikwah and Jawab-e-Shikwah today, he would definitely have been accused of blasphemy with a complaint lodged under Section 295C of the Pakistan Penal Code.

TNS: Who are these people who create so much trouble?

WK: These were once foreign bodies but now they are well ensconced in us, in our blood. They have become us, or we have become them and can be found everywhere. It’s no more a question of us and them. We keep changing sides depending on what suits us.

TNS: Where would you trace the roots of this intolerance to?

WK: If you ask me, it’s not intolerance which is the issue, because that can always be rectified by taking certain measures; it’s far more insidious. I’d like to call it the age of glorification of ignorance. It’s a unique phenomenon where ignorance is considered knowledge, a pride, and which inspires others to adopt it. I’ve never seen such a precedent in present times.

Take the case of self-confessed killer of Governor Salmaan Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri. I can perhaps forgive him for his deed given his background, his knowledge; the fact that he planned an action and executed. To him that was the right thing to do. But for the life of me, I cannot fathom what sense prevailed with lawyers who garlanded Qadri or for that matter the Lahore High Court’s former Chief Justice Khawaja Muhammad Sharif who offered to defend him.

TNS: Was the seed of intolerance sown much before partition?

WK: I think it stems from the confusion that prevails about who we are. We have not been able to define the Pakistani state. In the original Nazaria-e-Pakistan (that Jinnah and the Muslim League hoped for), Bengal and Punjab were not to be divided. In fact, the Quaid-e-Azam had hinted as much to the Sikh leadership that they could be major stakeholders in undivided Punjab. I often wonder what Pakistan would have been like if that had been the case with 60 per cent Muslims and 40 per cent non-Muslims. What is taught in our history books is so different.

When state is not neutral, it becomes an accomplice, but then it is not a normal state. India went through the same birth pangs but it built institutions, while we experimented with different ways of running it.

Going back in history, from 1947 to 1971, Shias, Ahmadis and Sunnis, all lived together. There could be many reasons why things changed after that. But if I were to argue, I would say a major factor was that that generation which had experienced life in un-divided India, was aware of and tolerant of the Ganga-Jamuna culture. Further, East Pakistan was still a part of us and was the most secular of all provinces with between 22 to 25 per cent non-Muslims; which kept the balance for tolerance intact. Once we lost that part, it became a country with 95 per cent Muslims. I concede there was an anti-Ahmadi riot in 1953 in Lahore and then Shia-Sunni collision in 1961 in Khairpur, but both were quelled.

TNS: But now that Pakistan has a majority Muslim population, why so much intolerance?

WK: The trouble began when we cut the historical  umbilical cord and developed a new kind of a relationship with the Middle East. I remember as a child we had chapters on Ashoka and Chandra Gupta Mauriya. Soon after the 1965 war, I remember, my history book had a two-page insert in glossy paper of photos of two war heroes in black and white -- Maj. Gen Abdul Ali Malik (of Chawinda tank battle fame) and Maj. Gen. Iftikhar Janjua  (hero of Runn of Kutch, killed in action in 1971) who were seen being conferred with Hilal-e-Jur’at by President Ayub Khan. They were our heroes but several years later, when I was gleaning through the history book of my nephew, that pull-out was no more -- you see they were Ahmadis.

TNS: Can we say the state is a deliberate accomplice to the violence and mayhem we see around us?

WK: I hold Zulfikar Ali Bhutto responsible for a lot of things that have led to this climate of intolerance and violence. His words and posture may sound different but his action was what mattered. Take the 1973 Constitution, the 1956 one was more secular than the 1973 one and the 1962, the most. The Council of Islamic Ideology played the role of a supra constitutional body after the Bhutto era rather than a body subservient to an elected parliament; the president and prime minister of the country had to be male Muslims although later the ‘male’ part of it was removed; it was Bhutto who amended the Constitution and deprived Ahmadis of their religious rights by declaring them non-Muslims. I marvel at the fact that Pakistan has defied many political science theories -- it is perhaps the only country where a majority ran away from minority.

When state is not neutral, it becomes an accomplice, but then it is not a normal state. India went through the same birth pangs but it built institutions, while we floundered and experimented with different ways of running it. We are still finding our way around.

TNS: But have we learnt nothing from our past?

WK: You learn only when you accept you’ve made a mistake. We haven’t.

TNS: How do you see the role of the society in all this? Is it a case of an armed minority calling the shots while the silent majority sits and watches or has the majority also become as intolerant of the other view?

WK: You see there are several Nazariat-e-Pakistan (ideologies) simultaneously trying to raise their head from time to time. The Baloch have one as do Sindhis and Mohajirs; the Punjabis have another and the Pashtuns don’t seem to figure at all. We could have tried to find a common vein running through within these. Instead, it’s the powerful who is calling all the shots and whose ideology dominates.

Aitzaz Ahsan often narrates his poem -- Riasat ho gi maa jaisi at political rallies. And that gets me thinking that if the mother starts having one favourite, with time, her other children will find it hurtful. Eventually they may get even with the mother. To me a good and simple model that the state can apply to run the country would be that of the harmony found with various family members living together under one roof. But then the latter has to be convinced it’s a good model.

TNS: In recent days, we have seen how easy it is for the powerful forces that constitute the state to change the narrative through their proxies in religious parties and by manipulating the media. Has this powerful section already won this war of narratives?

WK: There are different actors playing musical chairs, each with their own narrative. They also keep switching between the role of a martyr and a badmash [rogue] depending on the situation.

TNS: What about the media, are they fuelling intolerance?

WK: If we are talking about the electronic media, which I like to think of as a visual FM, filling time, then yes, I’d say they are. The tragedy is they don’t know they are the culprits. Right now they are like Karachi’s Nehr-e-Khayyam [sewerage canal behind Boat Basin] an urban blight which needs to be cleansed of all the filth; till the water becomes crystal clear and till you are able to see the bed, you cannot decide which fish to put in that water.

TNS: How can we change this narrative of intolerance into one of tolerance? Can we change it?

WK: I don’t have an answer for that. We’ve kept quiet and been silent bystanders for too long and now paying for it.

TNS: You have been writing biting satire on the ills inflicting society? How do you see the impact of writing over the years?

WK: Some cry, others scream to vent, but this is my medium to manage my pain. It may not have brought any tangible gains as such and I am under no illusion that it’s for any greater good or for a noble cause, because then I’d be waiting endlessly for some miracle which would not happen and I would only get frustrated. But I know from the feedback I get that there are hundreds who share my thoughts and think the same way as I do. That’s good enough for me.

"It’s not intolerance. I’d call it the age of glorification of ignorance"