Intellectual’s Role in Society

Posted on June 5, 2009 by


by Eqbal Ahmad

Dawn, 10 December 1995


Artists and intellectuals are in the business of working with their minds. What distinguishes humans from animals is the manner in which people use the mind. And what distinguishes various levels of civilization, their literary and artistic achievement, economic prosperity, and moral outlook – is the extent and manner in which the resources of the mind are put to use. This is a profoundly complex subject. There are a myriad aspects to it. I shall discuss only one which I deem important. It has to do with the notion, by no means uncontested, that it is the intellectual’s special responsibility to affirm the good and just and resist the bad and unjust.

The argument, obviously a moral one, envisages a permanent, symbiosis of affirmation and resistance in artistic and intellectual.[ When] artists, poets, or intellectuals lose sight of this symbiosis, art suffers, intellect stagnates and people lose hope and faith in the future. The interplay of affirmation and resistance is the essence of art, the motor of creativity and soul of aesthetics. It alone rescues history, and liberates collective memory from the bitterness of pain and humiliation. It is thus that artists and architects leave timeless and universal monuments to the spirit of their time, which no historian can match. l think of Goya’s paintings of the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s army, of Picasso’s Guernica, and the pitiless faces Rembrandt painted of the trustees of the alms house in which he lived.

If l may add a personal notes: during the three decades l lived abroad the men in power – Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Z.A. Bhutto, and Mohammad Ziaul Haq – did much to alienate me from the state. The poets by contrast brought me closer to this society. They, not the traffic stopping VVIPs, have invested our history with its rare moments of glory. That was Habib Jalib reciting in his resonant voice:

Teray ain ko, aisay dastoor ko.

Mein naheen janta, mein naheen manta.

And Faiz Ahmed Faiz placing his tongue in every link of the prisoner’s chain:

Mtataa’i loh-o-qalam chhin gaee to kiya ghum hai
Ke khoon-i-dil mein duboi hein ungliyan mein rie

Labon pe mohr legee hai to kiya Ke rakh di hai
har ex halqa-i-zanjeer mein zabaan mein ne

Faiz and Jalib shall live in our collective memory and shape our consciousness long after the dictators have been forgotten. Their talents were not unique. Critically judged, Jalib was not a great poet. Several of his contemporaries had greater talent. Yet he shall be remembered more than most for his universal affirmations of life, and his uncompromising opposition to oppression and injustice. Faiz was the greater poet, no doubt, but he too had competitors, among them Rashid and Meeraji. Yet he has touched us as no modern Urdu poet has. If I were to explain his extraordinary power as poet l would offer first his qualities of humanity. These attributes Jalib shared with Faiz; and in this lay their common greatness.

Intellectuals and artists can serve as a beacon to the most beleaguered people in history. I am tempted to cite two recent examples from Bosnia: Oslobodenje is a Bosnian newspaper. It started during World War 11 as an underground newspaper of the partisans who fought Yugoslavia’s fascist occupiers. After the war, it developed into Bosnia’s largest daily. As Yugoslavia broke up, it supported Bosnia as a multi-ethnic and secular country.

Oslobodenje practised what it preached. Its editor is Muslim, deputy editor is an incredibly brave Serb woman, the staff are mixed – Muslim, Serb, and Croat. As such, the newspaper and its staff became a target of Serb nationalists, an easy target because its offices are located in the ‘death alley’ of Sarajevo within range of Serb gunners. The newspaper and its staff sustained many mines but did not miss a day of publication printing often a single page. Oslobodenje, became a symbol of Bosnian resolve, Sarajevans’ will to live and, above all, of Serb failure to destroy the values for which Bosaia stood. “Why don’t you move the paper out of Sarajevo?”, I asked Editor KemaI Kurspahic soon after he had survived a bomb, ‘We can’t”, he replied simply, “Oslobodenje is a lighthouse”.

The second example involves young architects. Last year, an exhibition on “Sarajevo:   Past, Present, and Future” was held in Paris and in New York where I saw it. It had been put up by students of architecture at the University of Sarajevo. It was divided in three parts.

One: the students had reconstructed – in photos, paintings, sketches, and narratives – the destroyed city as it once was.

Two: they had reproduced in minute detail – street by ruined street – Sarajevo as destroyed by the Serb bombers and snipers.

Three: they had prepared detailed plans in architectural drafts and paper mache models for rebuilding Sarajevo.

Awesome; truly awesome “Did they work on this for this exhibition?”, I asked one of their professors. “Oh, no”, said he smiling, “They wanted to show the people the good, bad, and the wonderful”.

Fortunately, our country and people do not confront genocide. We are victims of greed – of power and wealth. Insider moths are eating into the fabric of our society. We cannot save if becoming moths ourselves. We should begin by cleaning up our own closets, mental and professional, of moths. Each of them has a name: proximity to power, greed, consumerism, callousness.

Creativity suffers when intellectuals and artists seek proximity to power. Mediaeval Muslims saw poets as belonging in two categories: the sha’ir-ul-khilafa, poet of power, lived in the capital – darul-khilafa, enjoyed the Caliph’s favours or those of his courtiers and viziers, and basked self-importantly in the privileges of patronage. Artistically he tended to slide backwards becoming adept only in the passing skills of hijv and qasida. The sha’ir-ul-imama, poet who led, lived in the provinces often in modest circumstances, close to the heartbeat of society, and spoke truth to power. They are the ones we know still.

The contrast was drawn again in our century by Antoaio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher. He distinguished the state and civil society as distinct entities. Gramsci draws three fundamental conclusions:

(i) When civil society (which includes professional, literary and artistic institutions and associations) conforms uncritically or is coerced by the state into silence, totalitarianism prevails.

(ii) When civil society enjoys a lively network of institutions and associations, and these maintain critical links with state institutions, then democracy prevails.

(iii) When state and society are structurally and culturally antagonistic to each other, then conditions of civil war and anarchy obtain, and a society evades either fate only when its intelligentsia forges and popularities a programme for reform or revolution. In all three situations the choices artists and intellectuals make affect not only their own but their society’s destiny.

The point of all this is that artists and architects will have to face, during all their professional lives, the problem of choosing their moral and political location. The intellectuals will have to make their moral and political choice. The choices they make will affect, perhaps; in determining ways, the future of state and society in Pakistan. At present, it seems, a very fundamental antagonism is growing between state and society.This country seems to be on the threshold of Gramsci’s last scenario: a very fundamental antagonism both structural and cultural is growing between state and society. The main factor behind this development is the augmenting contrast and antagonism between the existing system of power and the growing system of production in Pakistan. Our system of power is colonisation inheritance and structurally designed to serve a rural economy. It is controlled by a feudal military bureaucratic elite.

But Pakistan’s is an increasingly industrial economy in which the urban middle class and working class people constitute already about thirty per cent of the population and contribute half of the GDP. Naturally, the structure of our governance, especially of the cities, is completely outdated and necessarily dysfunctional. This condition is at the root of Karachi’s crisis, more l believe than its ethnic divide, MQM’s bad politics, or the unlawful excesses of the government.

Karachi is widely described as a metropolis which means literally the chief city of a country it’s centre of activity. So it is Pakistan’s commercial capital melting pot of its workers, professionals, and industrialists, the largest taxpayer to the nation and, currently the sustainer of its deepest wounds. Karachi is the meeting point of our past and future, promises and betrayals, our great hopes and greater disillusionment. This city is awash with contradictions: a multi-ethnic metropolis torn by ethnic strife, a modern megalopolis ruled by a feudal elite. This rich city is home to the poor and even its kachi abadis are a magnet to the displaced and disinherited. Its dynamism defies calculation and defeats prediction. For years now it is being murdered, and refuses to die. Karachi is Pakistan, and the youth are the makers of its future.