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A thinking mind

Reminiscing Bilal Ahmed on his fifth death anniversary

A thinking mind
Bilal Ahmed.

Thoughts and practices must be institutionalised instead of counting on individual leaders, said Bilal, ruminating on the general malaise besetting third world economies.

Charismatic leaders have personalised patterns of governance, and authoritarian tendencies are embedded deep in the very structure of the state. The charismatic leader, in all probability, flourishes only at the expense of institutionalised democratic norms and practices. Institutions and their functioning have been substituted with personal choices of a strong leader and the fruits of development have been restricted to a select few, he said.

Bilal reposed firm faith in democracy and the values associated with it, like freedom of speech and action. He espoused and advocated autonomy for the individual in synchrony with the collective good. In order to achieve that social balance, he laid optimum stress on democracy to be paired with the rule of law. For him, democracy can ensure socio-economic stability and prosperity for the general masses only when it is accompanied by the supremacy of law; otherwise, it has all the likelihood to be reduced to a mob rule.

Here it is very important to underline that, for Bilal, rule of law meant secular, impersonal law embedded in the constitution. Upholding the law was only possible through state institutions, he vehemently argued. For him, democracy ensured freedom for the individual, and law was a necessary conduit for dispensing justice to all, including the marginalised echelons of the society.

Thus the doors to social mobility for talented individuals remain open.

In order to substantiate that theoretical formulation, he usually elucidated the case of the Indian states of Bihar and Maharashtra. Both these states have democratic trappings where elections are regularly held and governments are formed as a result of the elections. But, in the case of Maharashtra, that practice is marred by a few extremely powerful individuals with respective spheres of influence in the Mumbai underworld who invariably influence the outcome of the electoral exercise.

Bilal reposed firm faith in democracy and the values associated with it, like freedom of speech and action. He espoused and advocated autonomy for the individual in synchrony with the collective good.

He had a particular derision for the likes of Karim Lala, Haji Mastan (Sultan Mirza) and Dawood Ibrahim. These characters were the dons of Mumbai’s underworld and markedly influenced not only the social but also the political landscape of the city. Far too big for law enforcement agencies to apprehend, they were the law unto themselves. Political thugs like Bal Thackeray and his clan with all their political gimmickry seemed to have derived the authentication of their political self by flouting the law. Such a dispensation allowed Thackeray to fan anti-Muslim sentiments with impunity.

To Bilal’s dismay, the same pattern was replicated in Karachi when Altaf Hussain and his cronies got busy re-enacting the same drama of advancing squarely personalised interests at the expense of democracy and state institutions.

The other examples Bilal usually furnished were those of Saudi Arabia and Soviet Union where the respective sets of law were enforced but democracy was not accorded any space in their political systems. Therefore, the freedom of the individual was sacrificed at the altar of the so-called collective interest, which had varied connotations, national security being the most prominent of them.

He was not a great fan of China either despite its fairy tale of development. If it was development alone then Joseph Stalin did a far better job than the Chinese, and Germany under Adolf Hitler underwent a phenomenal phase of development, he thought. Authoritarian dispensations had, in many cases, produced an environment conducive to development. The unilateral support for development does not account for human rights. That was the exact reason why Bilal thought that development alone was not a goal worthy of human aspiration. An egalitarian society, where freedom for the individual is coupled with a well-regulated social collectivity, should be our goal, in his view.

The projection of personalities in politics or in the realm of literature irked him beyond measure. I still remember him speaking on the eve of Saadat Hasan Manto’s anniversary at the Lahore Press Club when he said “personalities are always insignificant, however sometimes historical forces use them as instruments in order to perform big feats”.

As a student of history I agreed with that contention. With particular respect to Pakistan, in the context of larger-than-life personalities, time is bereft of its most essential trait — dynamism. By sanctification of personalities, the process of history becomes stagnant.

Last week, in a panel discussion at the Faiz International Festival, when I raised a question about the legacy of Sibte Hasan with Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed, he was visibly flummoxed. The norms and practices of a society or an institution are institutionalised through legacy because that is what sustains continuity. It also works towards diluting the overriding influence of a single person. Thus we have failed to transform the creative potential of people like Faiz and Sibte Hasan into a systemic thought process. Their creativity and scholarship got arrested in time.

Bilal’s exhortation on the need of institutionalising thoughts and practices makes a lot of sense here too.

Bilal was a modernist to the core. His modernist ideas were received with a grain of salt by many of his friends like Dr Virinder S. Kalra, a British sociologist specialising in the settlement problems of the Pakistani diaspora in the United Kingdom. Both of them locked horns on several occasions. Bilal was relentless in his criticism of the theoretical formulations of the post-colonial paradigm, which irked Dr Virinder a lot. His adulation for Karl Popper and his stress on open societies also remained a subject of contentious debate. Besides, Douglas North and Robert Putnam fascinated him immensely and he included their theories in the course that he taught to the M.Phil students at the GCU’s History Department.

Now that five years have passed since he departed for eternity, his fond memories still inhabit our hearts and minds. Several of his students have begun their respective careers in academia and, in their endeavours, Bilal smiles on us with the usual twinkle in his eyes.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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