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“They don’t ban books any more, or at least not recently, which is a relief and a small step forward.” I wrote in a preface to my latest book on Pakistan [The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power] after explaining how the previous two had been, at different times, banned by military dictators. I was wrong. I had foolishly assumed that since General Musharraf had not banned books his civilian, supposedly democratic, successors would also stay the course. The Pakistani distributors of my publisher, Simon and Schuster, who had no problems selling ghost-written volumes by Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto (published by the same house), have for the last four weeks been waiting for ‘clearance’ from the Ministry of Information (i.e. Propaganda) to import my book. The Minister, Sherry Rehman, is a former Karachi journalist.
Her public embrace of Sarah Palin notwithstanding, she had a reasonable civil liberties record, often preached the virtues of legality, political morality, civic virtues, freedom and equality. They lie now at her feet, broken and scattered shards as the government stumbles from one crisis to another. A war on the Western frontier, a run on the banks, a disaffected public is not enough. They still have time to stop books. Did she really think that working for President Zardari meant anything else? Her friends tell me she is not responsible for the ban and is trying her best to ‘expedite clearance’, but if not her, who? The man at the top these days is well-known as a semi-literate who has never read a whole book in his life. But there is a chain of sycophants stretching down from the Prime Minister’s office to the most lowly civil servants, whose task as loyal retainers, is to second-guess and please the master.
They don’t realise that its totally counterproductive to ban a book in these times and even if they did they wouldn’t care provided the master was happy. I’ve received e-mails from many friends in Pakistan who have expressed delight: ‘what an honor to be banned Zardari’, ‘ surely you realise the book will be smuggled in from India’, ‘everyone will want to read it now’, etc. And one from a literary scholar urging me to read a short-story by the late and very great Saadat Hasan Manto: ‘Please read Manto’s ‘The New Constitution’. It is the same old law. Nothing changes because no government in the last 63 years has made any attempt to even tinker with the state structure and a bureaucratic system designed to oppress. You should have felt surprised if your book wasn’t to be banned.’
All this may be true, but is still depressing.
The short story, incidentally, was written during the Raj when the 1935 Act of India promised limited democracy. Ustad Mangu, an old tongawallah in Lahore, attempted to test the new order by responding to racist abuse and violence from an English soldier by beating him up. Mangu was arrested but kept screaming ‘New constitution, New constitution.’ His jailers told him ‘What rubbish are you talking? What new constitution? It’s the same old constitution you fool.’ Manto concludes: ‘Then they locked him up.’
My book is still locked up, but is being translated into Urdu for publication in November which will be a release of sorts. That edition does not require a clearance, but one can never be too sure in Pakistan. And in case you were wondering, the book is a very sharp critique not just of military dictators, but also of their civilian counterparts, whose corruption knows no bounds.
One mustn’t exaggerate. When the Amsterdam Synagogue, mimicking the Inquistion, excommunicated Spinoza in 1656, they decreed: ‘May he be cursed by day and by night….may God never forgive him. We order that no one have commerce with him by speech or in writing, that no one give him the least sign of friendship or approach him or live under the same roof as he, that no one read a work written or composed by him.’
I got off lightly.
TARIQ ALI’s latest book, ‘The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power’ will be published on September 15 by Scribner.