Among friends - Sibte Hasan, Dr M. Sarwar and Faiz Ahmed Faiz
31 July marked the 99th birth anniversary of the pioneer of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in undivided India and of the Communist Party in Pakistan – Sibte Hasan. Like Antonio Gramsci, the Italian thinker and activist, Hasan endured repeated jail terms, first during his sojourn in the US, and then in Pakistan in 1951–55 and again during the Ayub regime. Both thinkers chose to write in their native language: Italian for Gramsci and Urdu for Hasan. Both Gramsci and Hasan were concerned with producing organic and original theories, applying Marxist concepts to their material realities rather than the other way round. Chances are that Pakistan’s younger breed of comrades knows their Gramsci, but not their Sibte Hasan.
Despite Sibte Hasan’s iconic stature in the Subcontinent, very little is known about him: neither he nor some of his closest comrades, such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, wrote anything about him. Sibte Hasan was born in Azamgarh, India, in 1916 and graduated from Aligarh Muslim University. He embarked on a distinguished journalistic career, serving the Pioneer (Lucknow), National Herald (Allahabad) and the Bombay Chronicle besides the Urdu daily Payam of Hyderabad, Deccan. He was also the editor of the renowned literary journal Naya Adab and the Lahore weekly Lail-o-Nahar. His initiation into socialism began while he was a student. In his preface to Moosa se Marx Tak, which has for decades served as the bible of Marxism for thousands of left-wing activists in the Subcontinent, he admits: “I learnt the first principles of socialism from the prominent revolutionary historian the late Dr Muhammad Ashraf. Those were the days when the English were dominant in the country and the entry of socialist literature was totally prohibited.”
Sibte Hasan, the dreamer
In 1951, along with other comrades, he was arrested in the trumped-up Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and remained in prison until 1955. He was rearrested after Ayub Khan assumed power. After his release, he worked for a time with Ferozsons, later moving to the Eastern Federal Insurance Company as director in charge of publications and publicity. This gave him the time and opportunity to devote his energies to writing. Owing to his significant works in Urdu – Moosa se Marx Tak (From Moses to Marx),Adab aur Roshan Khayali (Literature and Enlightenment), Pakistan main Tehzeeb ka Irtiqa (The Evolution of Culture in Pakistan), Inqilab-e-Iran (The Iranian Revolution) and his sole English work, The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan, Hasan became a pre-eminent popular intellectual associated with progressive and secular ideas in Pakistan.
Earlier in April this year, while on a visit to Karachi, I accompanied a comrade to meet Naushaba Zuberi, Sibte Hasan’s daughter, in an attempt to piece together the latter’s life in the city he made his permanent home. Sibte sahib changed many homes throughout his life, but never owned one. Then, in 1975, his daughter and her husband built a house in Gulshan-e-Iqbal and asked Sibte sahib to stay with them. He spent 11 years here and, as per his request, the house had no partitions or boundary walls in order that his grandchildren might come and go freely. He lived in two rooms: one for studying and the other a bedroom, and tended to his mehndi and haar singhar plants in the garden. As a rule, he refrained from accepting dinner invitations and would only make an exception for someone’s wedding or to call upon a sick comrade in Landhi or Korangi. Interestingly, said his daughter, given that he anticipated arrest at any time, Sibte sahib always kept a carton of milk and a packet of tea by his bedside and had instructed her to go to his friend Tariq Suhail’s house if ever he was arrested.
Pakistan’s younger breed of comrades likely know their Gramsci, but not their Sibte Hasan
After Sibte sahib’s death, Zuberi turned the house in Gushan-e-Iqbal into a library and even appointed a librarian for it. When no one came to visit, she was heartbroken and sold the house in 1988, Sibte sahib would not have approved…
Following his release from prison, Sibte Hasan wrote prodigiously. From current affairs to anthropology, and from the history of Marxism to a people’s history of Pakistan and the roots of Islamic fundamentalism and secularism in the country, he wrote in simple Urdu. During the Cold War, when most communists in the country were divided between their loyalties to either Beijing or Moscow, underground, in jail or executed, Sibte sahib was one of the few intellectuals and activists who courageously opposed military dictatorships uncompromisingly and, through his works, tried to sow the seeds of progressive thought in Pakistan, be it Marxism or secularism.
The Evolution of Culture in Pakistan, which was published exactly forty years ago, is one of his seminal works, but surprisingly ignored even by those on the left. Sibte sahib’s intent in writing the book was nothing less than what Gramsci had similarly intended for the Italian national condition in his Prison Notebooks: to ascribe a central role to culture in explaining the people’s history of Pakistan. He writes, “There is great fanfare about culture these days in Pakistan […] There is no denying that culture plays a very important role in shaping and construction of personality, but the negligence which has hitherto been shown towards cultural problems, whether these discussions would contribute to remedying it, no one can tell.”
In Sibte Hasan’s hands, the narrative of our cultural evolution becomes a history from below
Unlike Gramsci, however, Sibte Hasan spent considerable time discussing the definition of culture: “The system of meaningful creativity and social values of any society is called culture […] Therefore language, instruments and tools, methods of production and social relations, way of life, the arts, knowledge and literature, philosophy and wisdom, beliefs and magic, manners and habits, rituals and traditions, the behaviour of love and family relations, etc., are different manifestations of culture.”
From this definition, Sibte sahib moves onto the synthesizing elements of culture, which for him, form the basis for all the new and old cultures of the world. These are physical conditions, instruments and tools, systems of thought and feeling, and social values. Hasan adopts a wide panorama enveloping the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley, the Aryans, the Greek, Saka and Kushan influences, the Arabs, Turks and Iranians, and the rise and decline of Mughals before concluding with a reflection on Mughal culture in the mirror of its Western contemporary.
A number of things stand out in Hasan’s analysis. First, as mentioned before, this book came out in the mid-1970s when the democratic government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was in power and there was much debate on the definition of Pakistani culture among both the left and the right. Sibte sahib wrote about the evolution of Pakistani culture in a detached manner – one not given over to emotion but tracing a 5,000-year-old civilization in a scientific manner. In his hands, the narrative of our cultural evolution becomes a history from below, a people’s history, rather than a mere chronicle of the exploits and adventures of kings and rulers and palace intrigues.
Sibte Hasan helped found the Progressive Writers Association
Second, Sibte sahib’s account painstakingly establishes the fact that the Subcontinent’s history has been a history of the separation of religion and politics. For example, one of the most powerful kings of the Mameluk dynasty in Delhi, Ghias-ud-din Balban, would say openly that matters of state were subject to national convenience rather than to the laws devised by theologians. Sibte sahib writes, “It is correct that the rulers used religion for the benefit of their class and did not find anything wrong with using the services of maulvis, pundits and clerics, but they were unwilling to accept religious representatives as their masters.”
The third distinctive feature of Hasan’s work is the space he devotes to popular movements of the Subcontinent. One is the Bhakti movement, which is usually dismissed as a “Hindu” movement, but was in reality a joint movement of lower-class Hindus and Muslims. The other popular movement, which Sibte sahib treats as more than a historical footnote, is the Roshaniya movement founded by the ‘Pir-e-Roshan’ Bayazid Ansari during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar. Despite leading an egalitarian movement, says Sibte sahib, “Historians and religious scholars too have presented Pir Roshan’s character in a very biased manner and tried to prove him an infidel, heretic, dacoit and even a robber. His historical greatness should be reviewed in the light of the longstanding enmity between the Mughals and Pakhtuns. The Pakhtuns never accepted Mughal suzerainty; in fact, where and whenever they had an opportunity, they used it to rebel.”
Women, too, have their fair share in Sibte Hasan’s narrative, especially the present underdevelopment of women and the growth of brothels in the Subcontinent under the influence of Muslim notables: “Upper and middle class women were paralyzed because of purdah. Dancing and singing, which was considered a sacred prayer in Hindu society, was deemed as the forbidden tree among Muslims thanks to the cleric’s fatwas. And thereby Muslim notables began to patronize the dancing and singing establishments. This is how this sacred art became a source of entertainment for the full-bellied and for the satisfaction of lust in the cities.”
The Mughal period also comes alive in these pages and Sibte sahib gives more credit to this era for leaving a lasting influence on the region than many are willing to do. One of his great achievements in the chapter on the rise and fall of the Mughals is the way he has treated Aurangzeb, the last major Mughal emperor. Historians either usually depict him as a fundamentalist successor to the four caliphs or a cruel tyrant who showed no mercy to his own father, brothers and progeny in his quest for unlimited power. Despite being a committed secularist, Sibte sahib refuses to take sides, rather describing the man and his times as they were.
Writing about the celebrated battle of ideas between Aurangzeb and his learned free-thinker brother Dara Shikoh, he writes: “If Aurangzeb won and Dara Shikoh lost in this civil war, it was because such was the need of the times. Regarding the charge that the sharia-compliant Aurangzeb betrayed his brothers and put his aged father in prison, in the period of personalized rule, this was the norm everywhere regardless of West or East. To shed the blood of father and brothers for throne and crown was not really a new tradition and had Dara Shikoh won out, he would have treated Aurangzeb in the same manner as the latter with the former.”
One of the most crucial arguments of the book is the thesis that the chief blame for the decline of the Mughal Empire and subsequent British domination in India lay with the scientific and commercial short-sightedness of the Mughals. Very much like their Ottoman contemporaries, even as farsighted a ruler as Akbar refused to either set up the printing press or even to learn more about it, justifying this historic blunder by arguing for the inferiority of machines in relation to his calligraphers, fearing it would leave them unemployed. In a moving and lyrical passage, Sibte sahib writes, “We should search for the main reasons of the decline of Mughal culture in their self-sufficient society, which did not find the need for invention and innovation; in those instruments and tools which had not changed since centuries; in that feudal system which did not have space left for further progress; in that authoritarian personalized rule in which the authority to decide the fate of country and nation belonged to the king and the nobles, and the ruled had no right of representation at any level.”
When the book was published in 1975, forty years ago, it immediately set off a debate in South Asian Marxist circles regarding the social conditions in India before the arrival of the British, and what impact the latter’s development had on modes of production. Since this was the first time such a thesis had been presented in Urdu, it drew in eminent Pakistani intellectuals such as Safdar Mir, Muhammad Ali Siddiqi and Hamza Alavi.
2016 will be celebrated as the birth centenary of Pakistan’s greatest Marxist thinker. Throughout his life, he was respected in all circles despite his Marxist affiliations; his death was widely condoled by all shades of political opinion, including political parties and heads of state. Yet his seminal works are not widely known or taught in the so-called heartlands of Urdu or outside a tiny minority of dedicated leftists (they are certainly lapped up enthusiastically elsewhere in Pakistan, in Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa). Translation would certainly play a pivotal role here for the many people who still do not have access to Sibte sahib’s work. None of the eleven books he wrote in Urdu have been translated into English to date.
At a time where demagogues and opportunists have taken up the mantle of “public intellectual” and appeal to a middle-class youth hungry for change – rather than the modest and soft-spoken man born nearly a century ago – the challenge he has thrown to us in concluding The Evolution of Culture in Pakistan still remains:
“… what will be the fate of our national culture and regional cultures in the era of this industrial culture?”
The author is a social scientist, translator and critic based in Lahore. The translations in this essay are his
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