When people think of Pakistan, a failed state crippled by military dictatorship, civil unrest and religiously-derived terrorism immediately springs to mind. If most foreign analysis on the country since 9/11 is to be believed, Pakistan is a dangerous, suffering region that serves primarily as the focal battleground in the global War on Terror. The Pakistani people themselves are automatically depicted as brainwashed, dictatorship-loving drones or hawkish, anti-Americanist religious fundamentalists, sometimes both.
For all its popularity, this one-dimensional discourse on Pakistan obscures two key attributes of the country’s society. It obscures Pakistani cultural and artistic contribution, which continues to flourish even with endemic bombings and outbreak of violence. And it utterly elides the historical resistance among the Pakistani people against the corrupt military and regressive nonstate forces. Because of restrictions imposed on left-wing organizations by dictators and liberal parties alike, antiestablishment ideas, protest and resistance proliferated into the cultural sphere. This enmeshing of culture with political resistance dates back since before the country’s inception, most significantly with the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA) and its post-independence counterpart, the All Pakistan Progressive Writer’s Association (APPWA). What resulted was a flowering in film, literature, and poetry that struck the very heart of Pakistani consciousness and artfully conveyed the challenges confronting the young country.
From the beginning, the PWA had a strong communist membership and held close ties with leftist politics in Pakistan. It served as the guiding light for the establishment of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), having predated its existence. Sajjad Zaheer, the cofounder of the PWA alongside other progressive Indian writers, migrated to Pakistan and became the secretary general of the CPP. In 1951, he was embroiled in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, wherein he and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, esteemed Urdu poet and member of the PWA, were punished for conspiring to overthrow the liberal and increasingly authoritarian Muslim League government. The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case was the pivotal point in an ongoing and aggressive assault on the CPP and its associates. It resulted not only in the banning of the CPP in 1954, but led to the further censorship and ultimate banning of the PWA, which was declared a political party despite being a literary organization. However, far from paralyzing the Pakistani Left, these repressive measures only mobilized it. As popular poet and progressive Habib Jalib said, “After the creation of Pakistan, as one by one our dreams were shattered, we looked for people who shared our ideals, to see how we could establish democracy and freedom in our country.”
Indeed, the angst in the wake of Partition and the botched independence that caused the deaths of at least one million people, effected widespread displacement and triggered countless rapes, was most honestly and devastatingly captured by the Progressives and their leftist associates. Faiz’s “Subh-e-Azaadi” (“The Dawn of Freedom”) laments the systemic suffering and denial of rights on the day India and Pakistan gained their hard-won freedom from the colonial power, Britain. An associate and dabbler in the PWA, short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto explored the psychological and ironic violence that characterized Partition and transcended communal, national and religious loyalties. His short story “Khol Do” (“Open”) depicts a Muslim girl and refugee raped by a group of young men who belong to her own religion and nationality, a vicious irony that conveys the universalizing reality of rape in Partition. Yet, there was a gem of optimism and vigilance in this literature. “The Dawn of Freedom” closes with the lines, “Friends come away from this false light/Come, we must search for that promised dawn.” This epitomized the leftist investment in nation-building and improving the lives of the Pakistani people, which would persevere for decades to come even under the fierce onslaught of religious reaction and nationalist suppression.
This leftward and progressive creativity wasn’t just limited to the realm of literature, however, but came to inspire cinema in Pakistan. The 50s and 60s saw a boundless flourishing in film, the promise of which current-day Pakistani filmmakers are still trying to fulfill. The revolutionary poets Jalib and Faiz were intimately involved in filmmaking and song-writing behind-the-scenes. Jago Hua Savera (The Day Shall Dawn) was the first Pakistani submission to the Oscars in the category for Best Foreign Language Film. The film was set in rural Bengal, then a part of Pakistan, and focused on the problems of an impoverished Bengali family, who relied on fishing for their survival. Faiz wrote the screenplay and the cast was drawn from both West and East Pakistan. Its focus on the working class earned it the Golden Medal at the Moscow International Film Festival of 1959.
Riaz Shahid was another emerging progressive filmmaker. His 1969 film Zarqa illuminated the struggle of the Palestinian people against Israeli colonization and starred famous actress Neelo as the titular heroine. The violence Zarqa endures in the fictional film did not only represent the Palestinians, but hit too close to home for Pakistani movie-goers as well. Popular legend dictates that Ayub Khan, the first military dictator of Pakistan, forced Neelo to dance for the Shah of Iran while the latter was on an official state visit. Because of this, Neelo attempted to commit suicide. Jalib channeled his anguish for the actress’ plight in a poem titled “Neelo”, which was later adapted into a song for Zarqa and became an anthem against oppression. Zarqa was also an example of decades-long transnational solidarity between Palestine and the Pakistani people, and Shahid is famous for donating the financial proceeds from the film to Fatah, the political branch of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Zia Ul-Haq, Pakistan’s sordid and longest-ruling dictator, seized power in a military coup in 1977. While all prior dictators had been jointly allied with religious fundamentalist parties, Zia took it to a new level and imposed an Islamization program that marginalized religious minorities and women. Faiz was imprisoned and then driven into exile in Beirut. Jalib protested against Zia and languished in jail. But in the character of Pakistani resistance, this repression did not inhibit dissident art and literature. On the contrary, it only bred progressive enterprises. The theater group Ajoka was founded as a performing arts counter to the regime. Tehreek-e-Niswan and Lok Rehas followed suit. A new generation of feminist poets was born. Kishwar Naheed and Fahmida Riaz gave brazen and stunning indictments against the misogyny of the Zia regime through the medium of poetry. Their poems correlated with the mass mobilization of women activists and protesters against the regime, who faced severe police brutality at their rallies. Both poets paid personally for their endeavors. Riaz confronted sedition charges and Naheed lost her job. Jalib encapsulated the Zia era in his poem, “Zulmat ko Zia” (“Darkness Called Light”) wherein he asks the dictator, “How can I write that a human is a God?” Pakistani rock band Laal has since adapted the poem into a song.
This is the culture and tradition in which Pakistanis create art and write literature. This is the legacy they inherit. It’s true that the political landscape is abundant with military dictators, religious fundamentalists, and corrupt politicians. But the fact that Faiz to this day is a household name in Pakistan and considered the country’s unofficial poet laureate reveals the people’s defiance against these hegemonic forces and their sincere desire for progress. For too long, Pakistan’s rich cultural and literary heritage has been undermined and ignored. It is time to shed some light on its existence, and on its crucial connection with dissident politics. No vilification and stereotyping of Pakistanis, however rampant, changes or mitigates this history. It was as Eqbal Ahmad, political scientist and commentator, said in his criticism of V. S. Naipual’s reductive take on Pakistan, “You describe Pakistan as an Islamic state under General Mohammed Zia-ul Haq. You describe it throughout as if this government represented that country and was supported by its people. It was your responsibility to at least report, mention, that the state of affairs you are describing there was being opposed at great risk to themselves by hundreds of thousands of people, including all the known poets and writers and artists of Pakistan, without exception. That our best writers of that time were in prison or in exile, our best poets were in prison or exile. “
Today’s Pakistan isn’t the same as Zia’s Pakistan, but many of its problems, including that of the Taliban, directly result from the Zia dictatorship. Pakistanis continue to fight, resist, and challenge the military and the religious fundamentalist threat, whether it’s nonstate militant outfits or institutionalized blasphemy laws and Islamist parties. Given the constant milieu of violence, they resist at the risk of their personal safety and happiness. This resistance is nothing new. It’s confirmed by the country’s history. And if history repeats itself, then this resistance will grow and thrive in the face of oppression.