Monitors Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Expression in Pakistan 

Mob lynching of Mashal Khan is silencing the Freedom of Speech at the campuses in Pakistan 

By Yasser Latif Hamdani, Lahore – Pakistan
April 17, 2017

16-years old Mahomedali Jinnahbhai, as he was known then, was sent to England by his father to learn the tricks of business at an established British firm.

A curious and bright young man, never a conformist, he wanted more out of life than the drudgery of business ledgers. Soon after settling down in London, Jinnahbhai started frequenting British Museum’s Reading Room, which is where he was exposed to a world of knowledge, imbibing the various works from English liberal thought to the works of Shakespeare. London of the late 19th century must have been a fascinating place, the de jure capital of the greatest Empire on Earth and, therefore, the de facto capital of the world. An intellectual revolution was under way in London. It all must have been terribly exciting for young Jinnahbhai.

There was Darwin, and his ideas were in vogue in London’s educated elite. Similarly, John Morley’s liberal doctrine was ascendant. Not surprisingly, Jinnahbhai’s favorite book was “On Compromise” by John Morley. Then there was the Suffrage Movement, which Jinnahbhai supported passionately. He also mixed freely with undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge, even getting arrested (for the first and the last time) as part of a group of such students who were deemed disorderly. At other occasions, he would be found at viewers’ gallery of the British House of Commons, a curious pastime for a young man in his late teens. Consequently, Jinnahbhai gravitated towards the law. He abbreviated his name and dropped the suffix “bhai” and then joined Lincoln’s Inn to attend the requisite qualifying dinners to be called to the bar. This was not an academic but a vocational course. Jinnah was entirely self-educated through reading and experience. And he was a voracious reader, something that is hardly ever mentioned about him. His excellent 40-year legislative record in the Indian legislature is peppered with references and quotes from British political and constitutional thought. Stanley Wolpert wrote that Jinnah could quote Edmund Burke better than British themselves.

Jinnah was the embodiment of 19th-century British liberalism in which he was schooled. As a legislator, Jinnah found himself going against the tide of established conservative positions of his community. In the debate on a law allowing inter-communal marriage between adults, Jinnah argued that the Legislature could and should override the religious law. “May I ask the honorable member, is this the first time in the history of the legislation of this country that this council has been called upon to override the Musalman Law or modify it to suit the times? This council has replaced and changed the Musalman Law in many respects. This is an entirely free character of legislation, and it is not at all compulsory that every Muhammadan shall marry a non-Muhammadan or that every Hindu shall marry a non-Hindu. Therefore, if there is fairly a large class of enlightened, educated, advanced Indians, be they Hindus, Muhammadans or Parsis, and if they wish to adopt a system of marriage, which is more in accord with the modern civilisation and ideas of modern times, more in accord with modern sentiments, why should that class be denied justice?” Imagine if a Pakistani politician today were to repeat these words?

When debating the introduction of Section 295-A to the Indian Penal Code in 1927, he rose to declare: “We must also secure this critical and fundamental principle that those who are engaged in historical works, those who are involved in bona fide and honest criticism of religion, shall be protected.” Imagine a politician saying that about the blasphemy law today, especially after the introduction of 295-C to the Pakistan Penal Code in 1986. Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer had died for merely suggesting that 295-C was being misused.

Even though we grew up with Jinnah’s image in our schools and offices and our textbooks, I discovered Jinnah for the first time in my late teens at the Alexander Library at Rutgers University in the US, more than a hundred years after Jinnah had taken to British Museum’s Reading Room in London. There had been a seismic shift in world politics during that period. The US was now the preeminent power in the world. Naturally those of us Pakistanis privileged enough to seek higher education abroad now turned to New York and Washington DC.

For me, the knowledge trees I planted during those four years, between the age of 18 and 22, in the US have been the most significant. Rutgers, the eighth oldest university in the US, was founded in 1766. It was a remarkable place to come of age given the intellectual freedom it provided. The first shock I received was when I picked up the latest issue of “Medium,” one of the many college newspapers on campus. It was dedicated entirely to poking fun at Christianity and Judeo-Christian beliefs, in a crass and offensive manner. I remember being surprised that a college paper would be allowed to publish the kind of stuff it did. Then I learned about the great constitutional, legal and social debates about freedom of speech, expression, and religion that had shaped the American experience. There were no blasphemy laws, no prior restraints on freedom, and no death penalties for words spoken or written. If someone was offended, too bad one just had to live with it. The marketplace of ideas they called it, and this is what made the US what it is — a super power. Intellectual freedom made it that super power. There I made numerous friends, Wiccans, Jews, Hindus, Christians, Atheists, and so on and so forth. It was a remarkable meeting of the minds, a great confluence of ideas. We exchanged views on almost every subject under the sun, but despite our disagreements and vociferous debates, none of them wanted to kill me, and I did not want to kill them.

Young Mashal Khan of Mardan would have fit in perfectly at any campus in the US. Indeed he would be celebrated and admired. He would have even thrived in the 19th Century London just as well as young Jinnah did. Unfortunately for him, Khan found himself at the benighted Wali Khan University campus in Mardan in 2017’s Islamic Pakistan, where the lesser minds that surrounded him did not know their Ghalib, and so they mistook his quote of Ghalib to be blasphemy. He was no blasphemer. His last words were an affirmation of his faith in Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and cried for help. Instead, he was dragged out, beaten and tortured to death. His mistake: he wanted more in a place that lynches people for wanting anything.

Therein lies the reason why Pakistan will never progress, never succeed, never rise beyond being a third rate power no matter how many CPECs materialize. Ours is a primitive society that eats its own. Soon those of us who survive will learn not to speak, not to think, not to question. We will then live, and then we will die.

The writer, Yasser Latif Hamdani is the Attorney at Law. He can be reached at @therealylh