November Issue 2009
Interview: Afzal Tauseef
“I am all for the awam irrespective of the province they belong to”
– Afzal Tauseef
Born in pre-Partition India, Professor Afzal Tauseef’s forefathers were proud landowners in the Hoshiarpur district of what is now East Punjab. Although she moved to Quetta with her parents at age 10 — much before the mayhem of 1947 — the immediate family on her father’s side met a brutal end in the madness that seized the subcontinent. Despite the homelessness and undue oppression, Afzal Tauseef grew up to be one of the country’s most prolific and progressive writers.
To date she has authored 32 books, written innumerable newspaper columns and spoken at international forums with courage and feeling. Her concern for the downtrodden, the victimised and the oppressed gathered ground even as she read at school and then for a bachelor’s degree in Quetta, her adopted home town. She adopted the Punjabi identity in later years when she rose to prominence as an educator in Lahore’s academic circles. Those were also the years when her political ideology took shape in concurrence with the rise of the Pakistan Peoples Party.
The results were dramatic to say the least.
She was accused in cases of treason against the state for having written a book on the fall of Dhaka, withstood two military trials, suffered incarceration and was, many a time, relegated to fugitive status in her own country.
Her literary acumen has been acknowledged by numerous groups from the Denmark-based Asian Writers Award, to the India-based Millennium Award, to eight Academy and Masood Khaddarposh Awards. All the more reason to be proud of the homelessness that stalks her to this day because in her words, “My crime is that the establishment has always been populated by ignoramuses.” Her recently launched autobiography Dekhi Teyree Dunya explains it all.
Having spurned the government of Pakistan’s first offer in recognition of your literary merit some years ago, you have once again been nominated for the prestigious Pride of Performance this year. Will you accept the honour this time?
When a senior police officer representing Zia-ul-Haq came to me offering a Pride of Performance with a prize of eight murabbas of cultivatable landholding, I had refused pointblank. Because, one, all my life I had written against the very system that was being perpetuated by Zia. Two, my acceptance would have led to the indictment of 41 other comrades in the Libya Conspiracy Case in which I had been named a party. So, my answer had been that to be remembered as a freedom fighter and revolutionary were far greater awards. That having been named as the best teacher by 25,000 students was a far greater honour. That I did not care for the bait of a landholding because my grandfather had owned three villages in undivided India. That my late father who had been the Quaid’s security officer in Ziarat had made no claims against his ancestral holdings, despite being in a position to do so, even while others were making fortunes. But yes, now I will accept the Pride of Performance because I have been convinced by friends that the award comes as an honour not from the establishment, but from the country that I have fought for. That it is my right.
What has been the single, most powerful factor in the development of your political ideology?
Growing up in Balochistan, reading the world’s literature with teachers who were book lovers with a progressive bent of mind and acquiring the feel for the Marxist revolution and for social injustice that had already taken seed. But when I moved to Lahore as a teacher at the Lady Maclagan College in the late ’60s, the contrasts in society became more glaring. I realised that the Punjab, with its vast population of honest folk, was a hotbed of oppression perpetuated by good-for-nothing land owners aided by bureaucrats. They had all the power, all the wealth; the awam led miserable lives. I awakened to the reality and joined the rank and file of the Peoples Party as it rose up against the Ayub regime.
Those were exciting times and it was a unique experience to teach younger people who were looking for direction. I had been selected by the Public Service Commission for my lecturer’s position and, although we were not activists in the real sense of the word, the generally suspicious environment forced us to attend party meetings in burqas so as not to be detected, because there were spies everywhere.
Along with Shaheen, Haneef Ramay’s wife — whom I knew from my Quetta days — we formed the underground wing of the PPP. There were about 25,000 female members with us at the time of the crackdown. Then later, during the Zia regime, I was in the forefront of the Bhutto Bachao Tehreek because we wanted to save him at any cost. But even as lakhs of people agitated for the cause and received public lashings, we could not save him. In fact, this has been one of the greatest defeats I have suffered in my life.
The fact remains that Bhutto, your ideological hero, too failed democracy. As did his daughter Benazir.
Yes, in a way, because even during Bhutto’s lifetime, the PPP was on the way to being derailed. All the pioneers, the real persons behind the ideology were so disillusioned that, but for Sheikh Rasheed, they all went their separate ways. Hanif Ramay, one of the original PPP members, was subjected to torture in the Lahore Fort when Bhutto was in power. Dr Mubashir Hasan walked out, giving up a ministry when Bhutto sacked the NAP government in Balochistan. But Bhutto realised his mistake because when asked for his last wish, he had said, “Give me a pistol with 32 bullets and my central committee.”
Benazir, like Bhutto, disappointed although she suffered a lot. We were all for her but as soon as she took oath as prime minister, we realised that the position had been won on the basis of compromises. Benazir compromised with the very people who had killed her father. But had she not acceded to the American point of view, she would have remained in exile all her life, which might have been better in the long run. Her worst mistake was that she compromised on ideology, at the cost of the masses and, that too, at the behest of an imperialist power.
Today, there is no Peoples Party and Zardari’s promotion of Bilawal without in-house party elections is child’s play. It is a game like so many other games that the people have been fooled into accepting.
The Baloch cause, with its apparently anti-federation, separatist viewpoint, has always won your sympathy. Why?
Because Balochistan took me in when I was homeless, when I had no identity. It nurtured me, gave me an awakening and maturity of thought. I have seen how the rights of the Baloch have been trampled upon. Under such conditions, what do you expect? That they will be appeased by being given a hospital or bags of atta? You have to first dress their wounds, which have been festering for so long. Treat them as a part of Pakistan. By the way, Balochistan came to Pakistan only by one vote and that belonged to Akbar Bugti, who was ultimately annihilated by bombs. You don’t bomb your own countrymen like that.
As for representing Balochistan, Bugti (now dead), Marri (who is too old now) and Attaullah Mengal were the only people who had a genuine feeling for the land. Just because they rose up for the rights of the Baloch, they were put into prison, some of them for 25 years at a stretch. All they wanted were their rights in a Pakistan where provincial autonomy does not exist. Balochistan, Sindh and the Frontier province, all have the same grouse.
So the Punjab would be the villain of the piece and, in that case, where does the federation figure?
There never has been a federation and even the Punjab would have been better off with autonomy because I believe that provincial autonomy would strengthen democracy. That was what the Quaid had planned. As for my loyalties, I am all for the awam irrespective of the province they belong to. Punjab is my birthplace and it is to Punjab I owe my identity as a thinker and writer for which I have received so many awards. In fact, if I had not moved here, I would never have learnt to speak my mother tongue nor developed the courage to write in it. Punjabi brought me the friendship of people like Amrita Pretam who has written a book about me, calling me “the child of a lesser God” for my sensitivity in portraying the sensibilities of the masses. My Punjabi writings got me invited to India for an award, thereby giving me the chance of a lifetime to visit the village of my forefathers and relive the tragic ironies of their lives for having sacrificed life over loyalty to the homeland at the time of Partition.
In spite of all this you went to India to accept an award from the very people who had murdered your family and rendered you homeless ?
The Millennium Award people had arranged a very big function in my honour. I was sitting on the stage when they came up, putting their hands together as a gesture of apology. But I said that if you do so then I will also have to apologise because the same sort of cruelties were perpetuated here against the Sikhs and Hindus. The only difference is that those stories have not been written about on the Pakistani side of the border.
How would you review the academic scene in view of your 35-year experience as an educationist?
Zia-ul-Haq’s period was the darkest. At a personal level, I was haunted by the agencies to the extent that once I escaped by jumping over the walls of neighbouring houses at two in the morning. This led to a long period of hide-and-seek, ending only when I myself surrendered to the ISI in Quetta in order to save my sympathisers.
At the public level, one of the first things Zia did was to get together a bunch of pseudo literateurs and publicly tell them that Progressive literature and thought were mere rubbish that would eat up the system. Waris Mir died of shock when he saw the treatment being meted to progressive thought. But the most direct fallout happened when they started scratching away at the history and literature syllabi. They redesigned courses with the express notion of introducing very warped versions of Islamiyat as a subject. I was a sitting member of the Senate Committee on syllabi planning and I told them explictly that while one could somehow compromise on the removal of Faiz from the syllabi, why had we suddenly taken affront to some very beautiful expressions of Iqbal when in the same breath they continued to maintain that Iqbal gave the idea of Pakistan. When I persisted, they told me that the order for the removal of Iqbal’s verses like “Uththo Meree Dunya Kay Ghareebon Ko Jaga Do” had come from above! I maintained that it was not a divine order. So their next excuse was that Iqbal was too difficult to teach. I offered my services to prepare teachers of Iqbal if that was the problem. The very next day I was informed that I was no longer on the Senate Committee.
Where would you pin the cause for the state of things in Pakistan today?
Jagirdari and the jagirdari mindset, especially as it grew to gather political backing. It cost us a wing of the country. This system is an enemy of those with socially-awakened intellect. Nowhere else in the entire world can you find such an oppressive system. India put an end to it at the very beginning but our leaders continue to nourish it. I personally think that if Nehru had not included land reforms in his programme, Pakistan would never have been created. The country was made so that the jagirdari system could remain intact. The jagirdars, who were all protÃ©gÃ©es of the British, knew that if left in the Congress fold, they would be wiped out since at that time Marxist thought was moving into the subcontinent. The Muslim League was a product of the British and the land-owning Nawabs. On the other side was America, who wanted something in return for the money it had given to the British during the war. They wanted an area where a new imperialism could be let loose. And this is what continues to this day. Now we are paying for it dearly.
But the initial thought behind Pakistan was La illa ha illallah.
That slogan came much later when Liaquat Ali Khan passed the Qarardad-i-Maqaasid. The Quaid had seen Pakistan as a secular state, but within a year-and-a-half he was almost a helpless prisoner in Ziarat. My father was very close to him and I remember him quoting the Quaid as telling a group of students who had come to visit him in Ziarat, “Where is the Muslim League? This typewriter and myself?” The Quaid had never envisioned the Muslim League as a party of landowners. In fact, he was against the allotment of property to people against claims of things left behind in India during Partition. For this reason the rift between him and Liaquat Ali Khan grew to the extent that they were not even on talking terms towards the end. We all know how he was treated on his final journey from Karachi Airport to the governor general’s house.
What is your greatest concern today?
That Pakistan survives. That it is able to weather all the malicious intent directed at it. That the murder and mayhem rampant across its length and breadth may come to an end. I have always been against military intervention but today, there is so much at stake — the country, the people, the very culture — that I believe the army must act.
I also maintain that along with the overall influence of the imperialist powers in the face of a weakened awam, Mullahism is the most significant threat. Pakistan was not made solely for Muslims. The very fact that Muslims are daily at each other’s throats proves the point that there is no such thing as the Muslim collective. Today, society is just a configuration of the different statuses enjoyed by Muslims … the poor, the rich, the oppressed, the oppressors, the powerful and the powerless.
Your hypothesis reeks of disillusionment, meaning that your life-long activism led nowhere.
No, I still believe that the people who came under our influence will eventually rise to recreate the system. I am proud today of the number of students who learnt to think with me. My generation may have failed but I still see light at the end of the tunnel.