by Eqbal Ahmad
For decades l have regarded him as model Pakistani, a man who broke all the bars – of power, money, and ignorance – to manhood. So when I heard he was in Lahore, I went to see him. The old man lay in bed, his large, bony frame denuded of flesh. I had seen him last summer when he was seventy-nine. The mirth which used to fill up the wrinkles in his strong lined face was missing. His eyes, which had twinkled like a child’s which had when he showed us the houses which poor people had but with his help, were fired.
I asked him about Orangi, and about the vibrant Goth outside Karachi l had visited. About a million slum dwellers who live there have given themselves a new lease of life under his guidance. But for once he has bean forced away – by the self-appointed guardians of the faith and a most deplorable legal innovation Eqbal from the problems of the poor. Aray Eqbal Sahib, in muqadmon se jan chootey to kam karoon. Abhi to baray kam thay. Lakin ab to adalaton ka chakkar hai. Karachi se choota to Multan men maheenon phansa. Ab Sahiwal jana tha usi insaf ki talash men. Lekin dil-i-natawan ne machal kar tarpa khaya. He chuckled the twinkle returning momentarily to his weary ayes. Khan Sahib bed obviously enjoyed his ironic description of a massive bean attack.
We talked briefly of his trials. He thought the worst was over. The Multan case bed been transferred to Sahiwal where he hoped to get a fair hearing. A renowned lawyer – Raz Kazim – was representing him pro bono Prison seemed remote; death sentence remoter, Most importantly those posters which on thousands of Karachi walls bed compared him to Salman Rushdie and declared him wajibul catal – deserving of death – had bean withdrawn following a Court order, permitting his family to breathe a bit easy.
He had rested in Lahore, and was returning to Karachi on September 28: On the 29th, the Court in Karachi adjourned hearings on medical grounds; his heart was working at 25% of its capacity. Yet, he was arrested on the same night by an army officer leading a contingent of police constables and accompanied inexplicably by a pensioner named Mubin Shafi who had worked for Khan Sahib and began his vendetta upon being fired. The captain had no warrant of arrest; and police officers at the Aziz Bhatti station disclaimed knowledge of charges on which the arrest was made. They were merely following army’s orders. When high level officials, presumably Khan Sabib’s admirers, interceded, he was released. In a similar cycle of night time imprisonment and reprieve both by sifarish, he had been apprehended anti freed before.
His story, too long to be told here in full, is worthy of Kafka. It is aim a parable of Pakistan: of i) the extremes of greatness and malice which dwell among us; ii) the distortions which law has undergone in the name of Islam; iii) the extent to which sectarian vigilantes have penetrated the government and; iv) the utter vulnerability of our state apparatus to evil. Bur first, l should introduce Akhtar Hameed Khan who has made a journey every good Muslim should wish his children to make.
In those days in colonial India when the Indian Civil Service commanded the highest possible social status, he became an ICS officer on merit, not quota. After reading literature and history in Cambridge, he served in Bengal where in Barisal and Mymensingh districts old people still tell tales of the Bars Sahib who ruled like a good king and walked a beggar among the people. The Bengal famine had a profound effect on him. He witnessed the callousness of the colonial system; and also the vulnerabilities of poor people. Hs had to leave the service to the people. In 1945, he resigned.
I have heard that when Bengal’s astonished Governor asked why he wants to leave the service, the young officer said: “l was serving you. Now, l want to serve God.” “Well, l cannot compete with Him”, the Englishman had said. It may be an apocryphal story. But it is in character. Akhtar Hameed is an outspoken man; and religion has been central to his intellectual and moral growth. His perspectives on Islam are deep, and rooted in profound scholarship.
After resigning from ICS, he became an itinerant locksmith in an effort to declass himself. Like most conscious efforts at declassing, this one too did not last but left a lasting mark on him. He was next seen in Deoband engaged in traditional Islamic studies. He was there, when Dr Zakir Hussain, later India’s President, recruited him into the faculty on Jamia Millid. In 1947, he moved to Karachi; thence to East Pakistan where he became the Principal of Victoria College in Comilla. This is where his interest in rural development truly evolved.
His two-pronged programme of (i) rural works and (ii) credit and training before the mark of a genius: it was simple and remarkably effective. It expanded to all East Pakistan. The man, the district, and the Academy he had established there became internationally known. In several elite American universities courses were taught on the Comilla Experiment; his name became synonymous with the concept of endogenous rural development. He received the Sitara-i-Pakistan, the Ramon Magasaysay Prize and other honours.
In 1971, the break-up of Pakistan forced him to migrate for the third time. Back here, he set out to organise a Pashtun area – Daudzai where his extraordinary success proved his undoing. Daudzai was a NAP constituency; so Z.A. Bhutto booted him out.
Michigan State University invited him; honoured him with an honorary L.I.D; and offered him a chair in sociology”.
He stayed in East Lansing for only three years; and returned to Karachi to organise this time, seemingly hopeless urban slums. Again, masterly simplicity combines with profound knowledge of social psychology and awesome discipline of detail. The World Bank has selected Orangi as one of the two urban development projects worldwide, worthy of study and emulation. Akhtar Hameed Khan also helped conceptualise, with Shoaib Sultan Khan, the most successful rural project in Pakistan — the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in the Northern Areas.
Since 1988, he has been intermittently harassed by death threats, imprisonment, and legal proceedings. He was charged first under section 245 of the Penal Code with defiling Prophet Mohammed’s name. Later, he was accused of defiling Hazrat Ali. It is colonial law which is being put in the service of sectarianism. British law, being mindful of Hindu-Muslim relations, made it a crime to defile the religious sentiments or places of worship of any community. The two items in question were amended during Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship, as a follow-up Bhutto’s legislation declaring the Ahmadis non-Muslims. Both charges carry the death sentence commutable to life imprisonment. Hundreds of Ahmadis currently rot in jails awaiting trial for this offence.
The evidence for the first charge is an interview which Khan Sahib allegedly gave, and which Takbir, the pro-Jamaat-i-Islami paper published in 1988.Thereupon, a multi-faceted, organised campaign began. About 100,000 posters calling for his death appeared instantly; several hundred Ulema gave a fatwa condemning Akhtar Hameed Khan; Qazi Husain Ahmed pressured Zia to take action. But the evidence seemed much too flimsy. A police Thana in Karachi refused to register the case for lack of evidence. The Federal Investigation Agency found the evidence took weak. The case got filed. Whereupon the activists, using a variety of legal ruses and Jamaat-i-Islami connections, took the case to Multan. I have heard hair-raising accounts, and not from the defendant or his lawyer, of judicial misconduct there. The lawyer for defence had the case transferred to Sahiwal.
Meanwhile, another case was filed against Akhtar Hameed Khan in Karachi on the bizarre charge that his poem — published in a children’s book — defiles Hazrat Ali. In simple rhymes, it tells the story of a fool who raised a lion, and was killed by it. Written in 1982, it may be read as a parable on Bhutto and Zia. But only the sickest of minds would read in it a reference to Hazrat Ali.
The prosecution’s case rests on the use of the metaphor sher-i-Khuda. It is truly amazing. But what underlies this bizarre and horrifying drama? What lessons does it hold for us? Four points strike me as important:
First it is clear that Akhtar Hameed Khan is being hunted by a disgruntled and resourceful former employee. On Dr Khan’s petition, the Sindh High Court did enjoin Mubin Afzal to desist from defaming him. So the posters are gone. But he is able to carry on his vendetta through his personal connections as shown by the latest incident of Dr Khan’s illegal arrest by an army officer. It suggests, once more, that the army too is vulnerable to the illegal deployment of state power for private purposes.
The phenomenon bodes ill for the future of governance in Pakistan.
Second, at first it struck me as being very odd that religious parties and personalities would go so consistently after a man who has done them no harm, and done the country much good. This seemed specially odd in the case of Jamaat-i-Islami which is a rationally organised and articulated party. I think that theirs is a broad and serious objective: it is to set a precedence of conviction under the law which they helped amend and expand. Law has been distorted in this country in the name of Islam. The true distorters are trying to consolidate their distortions. This, I believe, is the best for the liberal, legal community to become actively involved in cases of this sort. And this is an important occasion for us to struggle for the abrogation of these un-Islamic and undemocratic laws.
Three, there is something about Akhtar Hameed Khan that may be repugnant to neo-Islamic ideologues: Khan Sahib knows Islam, reads Arabic, and holds pluralistic views on it. He is more comfortable with Al-Farabi and Ibn-al-Arabi than with Al-Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyya. He subscribes to the tassawufi, ta ‘miri, and ta’biri schools of thought, and does not think much of the taziri school. These differences assume importance because he commands constituencies and influences people. In orangi, most women have joined the work force; and one hears the mosques’ loudspeakers announcing community meetings on birth who control. Those modernist and liberal Muslims who are concerned over the rise of neo-revivalist movements should rally around Akhtar Hameed Khan. They ought to manifest their convictions no less than test their considerable support in this country. Why isn’t there an Akhtar Hameed Khan Defence Committee in Pakistan? Why don’t we demand that the cases against him be thrown out by the courts?
As for Khan Sahib, I should beg you not to burden your dil-i-natawan any further. You have had to hassle all your life for a good cause. You ought to know that right now you are a good cause.