AUTHOR: Dr Muhammad Ali Siddiqui: For the progressive option
By Imam Shamil
Dr Muhammad Ali Siddiqui is a respected critic of Urdu literature in Pakistan. He has been an ideologue and a mentor for a generation of writers, poets and journalists in the country. His commitment to social democracy and his unwavering faith in the rational and progressive approach in literature and life has made him an object of reverence for many. Dr Siddiqui has been associated with journalism, education and literature for more than 40 years. He has served as the director of the Quaid-i-Azam Academy, Karachi, for six years, and is currently working as the dean faculty of humanities and social sciences at the Hamdard University, Karachi.
Dr Siddiqui’s fame owes a great deal to his literary column that he wrote for Dawn by the name of ‘Ariel’ for 40 years.
My rendezvous with Dr Siddiqui took place on the sidelines of the International Urdu Conference, recently held in Islamabad. Unlike most writers assembled for the conference, and who appeared to be quite optimistic about the future of Urdu language and literature, Dr Siddiqui thought otherwise and considered globalization as a serious threat to Urdu language and culture.
“Even the Frenchmen are worried about American domination; I wonder how can the Urdu intelligentsia afford to be so complacent?” he remarks. He cites from a Unesco report according to which 10 to 15 small languages are dying away every year in the world. “Cultures are at stake. Behaviours of nations are being altered; what to speak of languages,” he says.
These remarks might offend many. He believes that the existing Urdu language and idiom do not have the capacity to keep pace with modern times. He believes that revolutionary and desperate measures need to be taken in order to accommodate modern issues and themes in the Urdu language. “We must admit the fact that English also serves as an easy medium of expression when it comes to scientific and technological issues. It is easier to study computer sciences in English than in Urdu. We need to develop Urdu to an extent that it meets the challenges of the WTO, otherwise it will be wiped out,” he asserts.
Talking on the subject of criticism, Dr Siddiqui says that many less acclaimed writers and poets in Pakistan have assumed the role of critics, and become spokespersons of popular authors. “It is a fact that serious critics in our country have never violated the principles of academically sound criticism, and never favoured any writer or poet unjustifiably. These days there are critics accompanying writers and poets in literary functions and book launching ceremonies, but none of them has any literary worth,” notes Dr Siddiqui.
“Criticism is a specialized field. A literary critic has to be well equipped with all tools of inter-disciplinary insights and perspectives, and he should be able to evaluate and compare local literature with the literature of the world. I know that people consider me arrogant when I refuse to write for the flap of any poet’s anthology, or decline the invitation to a literary programme. But I believe in honest criticism. To express an opinion is one thing and to criticize is another. If you are an opinionated person you have every right to express your opinion, but that does not make you a critic.”
Commenting on progressive literature and criticism, Dr Siddiqui says that progressive critics like Mumtaz Hussain, who was even appreciated by opponents of his ideology, stressed as much on aesthetics as on the content of a literary piece. “Mumtaz Hussain thought it would be unjust to belittle the aesthetic demands of a work of art. He also opposed many progressive critics who found the use of metaphors insignificant. He supported metaphors because he thought that they added a great deal to poetic sensibilities.”
Dr Siddiqui himself stood against the campaign of Lisani Tashkeelat (linguistic reconstructions) or ‘new poetry’ and wrote many articles in favour of conventional language, which is amalgamated with new feelings, new sensibilities and new images. Exponents of the so-called ‘new poetry’ started a campaign to shun the use of conventional language in Urdu poetry and discarded all old and new poets like Meer, Ghalib, Iqbal, Faiz and Rashid by labelling them ‘conventionalists’ and hence good for nothing. Dr Siddiqui takes pride in the fact that he has done his bit to demolish the movement.
The decadence of literature in Pakistan can be attributed to the absence of emphasis on the classics. “We don’t offer Persian and Arabic in schools as optional subjects. This has produced a generation in our country that has no knowledge of classical languages. Unless our youngsters are trained in Persian and Arabic, they cannot appreciate Ghalib. They can’t even appreciate Iqbal, Josh, Jigar or Qasmi,” believes Dr Siddiqui.
Siddiqui Sahib is of the opinion that if one is not interested in literature, one cannot understand the socio-economic problems. “This might be the reason that global powers do not want our people to have a literary bent of mind. Our system of education wants to create a generation of young Pakistanis who should not be able to relate with their own literary and intellectual heritage. So, we are becoming thinkers of alien solutions and we don’t want to draw upon our reservoir of wisdom,” he remarks.
Opponents of the socialist doctrine claim that progressive literature has become irrelevant after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. How would you comment on this criticism? I ask. Dr Siddiqui refutes that by saying that the basic issues and problems in the Third World have not ceased to exist after the collapse of communism.
“There are huge class differences in Third World societies, and its people believe that their economies are being run by the IMF and the World Bank. The issues confronting them are the same as they were in the past. It is wrong to assume that the progressive movement is dying down. Actually, what it lacks is the fervour that comes from a strong and dynamic organization, which is non-existent,” he elaborates.
It is interesting that Dr Siddiqui, who is perhaps one of the last of the progressive ‘giants’ in the country, is extremely optimistic about the future of the progressive ideology. He is of the opinion that the ideas of progressive writers have sunk down into the psyche of young writers and poets. “It is not important that they explain their progressive ideas in the classical paradigm of the progressive writers and intellectuals of the 1930s,” he maintains.
The critic says that sometimes he finds the views of the exponents of art for art’s sake similar to his ideology. Much of the progressives’ ideas have become part of the common psyche of writers regardless of their faith and beliefs. Has the demarcation line between the progressives and the non-progressives blurred? “There is a clear segregation between progressive literature and non-progressive literature. Progressive literature relates the literary writings to socio-economic and political realities of society. How can a progressive writer, while composing poetry or writing prose, forget that in Pakistan only a few feudal families own 60 per cent of fertile land?” He maintains that as long as social and economic injustice prevails, progressive ideology will remain alive and vibrant.
I disagree with his ‘absence of progressive organizations’ theory because most advocates of communism and supporters of leftist ideas have transformed into ‘liberals’ over the years, and are working for social change under different non-government organizations. Their class character and interests have also changed. Organizations are there but progressives unfortunately have eschewed politics and the revolutionary methodology to bring about a change in society.
“In a society where there are inequalities and all sorts of exploitative tendencies, even a liberal is preferred over an obscurantist and fundamentalist. It is a loss that a diehard progressive has come down to the level of a depoliticized liberal because one should believe in taking sides,” retorts Dr Siddiqui.
Commenting on the current international polity and America’s regime change doctrine, Dr Siddiqui maintains that America is adopting the same unilateral policies that it used to accuse the former Soviet Union of. “Today the rightists have found a cause to oppose imperialism, and they are doing it much more energetically than the liberals and the progressives.”
According to him, there is a strong feeling in Muslim countries that America is after their resources and its policies are aimed at enslaving their economies. In that case, rightists have found a cause while the progressives are in a dilemma because they cannot support the regressive social policies, and hence they appear to be less radical in their opposition to US policies. Dr Siddiqui’s approach towards issues confronting our society and the progressives is based on ‘pragmatic rationalism’. Perhaps that is the best way to counter the process of liberalization and militarized fundamentalism, which are very much the two sides of a coin. But the fact remains that the progressives face a grave dilemma: how to emerge as an alternative and workable third option? There is a need to debate this more.