The year 1916 was very kind to the Indian subcontinent. Notwithstanding the fact that the third year of the first great world war was raging on, three distinguished personalities from the fields of art, critical prose and literature were born: the great painter and innovator of abstract art, Shakir Ali; one of the region’s greatest short-story writers and poets, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi; and Sibte Hasan, Pakistan’s own Gramsci and gadfly. In an article published in the Guardian last year and much circulated on the social media, Sarfraz Manzoor credited the eminent Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto with predicting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan and being prophetic about the direction of Pakistan-US relations. Saadat Hasan Manto didn’t live long in independent Pakistan, but it was public intellectuals like Sibte Hasan who educated generations of enlightened, secular-minded, progressive Pakistanis and thus prepared them for the long dark nights of military dictatorship and the rise of fundamentalism and obscurantism. The essay offered in translation as part of this special report is no less prophetic than anything Manto had written about in the 1950s. Sibte was born on July 31, 1916, 101 years ago in a village called Ambari in Azamgarh District of Uttar Pradesh. He came from a crusty zamindar family which boasted of traditions of intense loyalty to the British as well as outright rebellion to them, in the 1857 War of Independence. He describes the influence of rationalist scholar Niaz Fatehpuri while still a schoolboy in the following words, “During school education, the favours of Allama Niaz Fatehpuri upon me, I cannot ever forget. In the seventh class, for the first time, I read Niaz Fatehpuri sahib’s magazine Nigar, after which I brought and read his books. Reading Niaz Fatehpuri’s writings radicalised my thought, the ability to think with my own mind away from blind following. I learnt this from Allama Niaz Fatehpuri that whatever appears to be correct, accept it, whatever appears incorrect, reject it. It is because of his writings that I became wary of mullahism. Mullahism is a very bad thing and it has created a lot of damage.” The young Sibte was further radicalised towards rejection of his family values, attracted to rebellion and revolution by the contradictions within his own family. He says, “Then I saw one or two very extreme events. Once I had gone to a relative’s place. I was returning from there in the evening that I saw a commotion at the house. There was a huge neem or guava tree outside our house. A man was tied to it and my late younger paternal uncle had a paper and he was forcibly affixing the farmer’s thumb on it and the latter was screaming. His thumb was moving because of the screaming and uncle was furiously trying to affix it to the paper by making it static. God knows what happened to my late uncle, perhaps seeing my reaction or just by seeing me he felt embarrassed and let go of the man immediately. He went away sobbing. I still remember this incident and whenever I think about it, I feel very sad. I did not have the courage to say anything to uncle but I felt very bad.” After getting his BA from Allahabad University, Sibte went to Aligarh Muslim University where he studied law. This was again a formative period in his life, because here he came into contact with the Communist Party of India (CPI) and became a communist after reading the work of Dr KM Ashraf, a distinguished historian very close to the CPI. This period in young Sibte’s life is immortalised in eminent progressive writer, journalist and film director Khwaja Ahmad Abbas’s epic autobiographical novel Inqilab, in which the protagonist Anwar, an Aligarhian like Abbas meets a comrade Subhanovsky who lectures the former on the finer points of libido, and inhibitions, as well as terms like dialectics, bourgeois, proletarian, Oedipus complex and fixations. There is no doubt that comrade Subhanovsky is modelled on Sibte. From Aligarh, Sibte started a distinguished journalistic and literary career, mentored by two towering personalities of the Urdu firmament, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, famed for his satirical Laila Ke Khutoot; and Maulvi Abdul Haq, celebrated to this day as ‘Baba-e-Urdu’. This intellectual journey is lovingly and delightfully recorded in Sibte’s memoirs ‘Shehr-e-Nigaraan’, the title referring to Hyderabad Deccan, in his own words, “Where my consciousness became aware of the beauty of life and where I learnt to love human beings”. It is also an unforgettable record of Sibte’s days spent in the company of remarkable comrades and contemporaries like the leading Progressive poets Makhdoom Mohiuddin and Ali Sardar Jafri, and an accurate picture of the crumbling milieu of the feudal, oppressive Asif Jah dynasty. The heady, creative days of Hyderabad Deccan were interrupted in 1946, just on the cusp of Partition, to go to the US, where Sibte completed his MA in Political Science from Columbia University in New York. The Cold War had just begun and Sibte too became a victim of the McCarthyite witch-hunts as a result of which he was first arrested, and then deported. He arrived in Lahore in 1948 and started work with the newly minted Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) together with his comrades Sajjad Zaheer, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ashfaq Beg. However the CPP was later banned on a trumped-up charge of attempting to overthrow the Liaquat Ali Khan government. Sibte was arrested along with scores of comrades in 1951 in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and remained in jail until 1955. After Pakistan’s first military coup in 1958, led by General Ayub Khan, he was again arrested. Thus the comparison to the famed Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is not accidental; however unlike Gramsci, Sibte’s internment mercifully proved temporary and he went on to research and write his seminal works. It is not possible in this short tribute to do justice to each of Sibte’s 11 works in Urdu and the lone one in English. Most of these works like Moosa say Marx Tak, Naveed-e-Fikr, Maazi kay Mazaar, Shehr-e-Nigaraan, Pakistan May Tehzeeb Ka Irtiqa and Inqilab-e-Iran require separate discussions and expositions. The first four aforementioned books have gone into almost 20 reprints each, making Sibte a best-selling writer and a household name in Urdu popular literature; an astonishing feat for a thinker who by his own admission shied away from poetry and fiction, and was attracted to the critical prose essay. The life and legacy of Sibte can be understood in three ways: as one of the founders of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in colonial India; as one of the leaders of the CPP in Pakistan; and as one of the pioneers of progressive journalism in Pakistan while working for such distinguished newspapers as Imroz, The Pakistan Times and Lail-o-Nahar. There are also two other, much less-acknowledged ways to understand the significance of Sibte as a public intellectual who despite his command over Urdu, Persian and English consciously chose to write in Urdu. The first is as one of the most important protagonists in the battle of ideas in Pakistan which had initiated in colonial India between the followers of the two Syeds: namely Jamaluddin Afghani and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan; then between the followers of Muhammad Iqbal and Maulana Maududi. While in colonial India, these debates were limited to the role of Islam in public life and affairs of the state; and the strategies of anti-imperialism and British loyalism, in newly-independent Pakistan, the debates encompassed the role of Urdu, ‘Pakistaniat’, and by extension modernity and backwardness, ‘Islam’ and ‘Progress’, and the role of nation and culture. On one side were popular, but nevertheless important writers like Naseem Hijazi and many ex-Progressives like Muhammad Hasan Askari, Akhtar Hussain Raipuri and MD Taseer, all of them writing in Urdu; on the Progressive side were equally distinguished names like Safdar Mir, Manto, Qasmi and Sibte. Sibte entered the debate with the publication of his book Pakistan May Tehzeeb Ka Irtiqa in 1975. Unfortunately despite the importance of this topic, the book continues to be ignored even by sections of the Pakistani left. In this writer’s humble opinion, it is Sibte’s most important work specifically dealing with Pakistan, and whose relevance increases as Pakistan moves towards celebrating the 70th anniversary of its independence in a month’s time, this year. From Aligarh, Sibte started a distinguished journalistic and literary career, mentored by two towering personalities of the Urdu firmament, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, famed for his satirical Laila Ke Khutoot and Maulvi Abdul Haq, celebrated to this day as ‘Baba-e-Urdu’ The second way in which Sibte appeals especially to my generation is his spirited defence of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal against the dogmatists of both the right and the left. In fact, Sibte rehabilitated their role as the predecessors of the Progressive tradition. About Khan, whose bicentennial is being celebrated this year, Sibte observed, “The objections to Sir Syed are still taking place. These were of two types: firstly, the fundamentalists put fatwas on him for being an infidel and natury (sic). Secondly, those with nationalist thought labelled him as a British lackey, that in his zest for adopting new thoughts and ideas, he had become a great supporter and exaggerator of the British government and on order to pave the way for British strategy and decisions, he had begun appearing as an Anglophile to an extreme degree. This objection to him was true to a great extent. Actually Sir Syed was politically a conservative and understood the security of India to lie in continued British rule and instead of orienting himself with the national aspirations of India, was seeing the Muslims as a separate nation. But socially he was a progressive. He started a systematic campaign for organising thinking in favour of modern ideas and against superstition. Seen like this, his ideas were also constantly changing. In his initial period, he wrote an essay, ‘A Refutation of Earth Movement’ in which he had tried to prove the idea of the earth’s movement as false, but gradually his thought began to adopt a scientific direction. In the matter of religion, his basic argument was that there cannot be any contradiction between the word and work of God, that is, this nature cannot be opposed to the word of God, and if it appears to us to be so, we are definitely erring somewhere in understanding the word of God. That is why we need to explain, interpret and comment on the word of God on a new basis. So in our history of culture and ideas, his role has definitely been remarkable, which is impossible to deny. Now the fact that he was loyal to the British and supported their strategy does not carry any weight anymore, as he has turned our current of thought towards scientific ideas and he has a huge contribution in the enlightenment and mature vision, which has come to us. He freed us from the trap of superstition, religious prejudice and outdated way of life. It is a result of his strong personality and steadfastness of thought, that powerful groups of enlightened and modern-thinking educated people gathered around him, who are even today known as the Sir Syed School.” Sibte’s great contemporary Khawaja Ahmad Abbas has referred to the former in his autobiography I Am Not An Island as ‘one of the “Russians” or communists propagating communism through literature’, which is quite unfair given that Sibte was one of those who not only vehemently protested the expulsion of writers like Manto, Askari and Rashid from the PWA; but also survived the destruction of the CPP following its banning, as well as the Sino-Soviet split later on with his prestige intact, and because of his immense stature was acceptable to every camp. In an exchange with the famous modernist, free-verse poet Rashid, Sibte answers to some of the former’s objections and allegations regarding communism and freedom of expression, “As far as the personal freedom of any writer is concerned, I wholeheartedly agree with his view, rather I think that personal freedom is the birthright of every man, whether he is a writer or a non-writer, since it is only in an air of total freedom that man’s creative abilities and natural tendencies can prosper. Submission really reduces his life to a drying stream. How well has Rashid sahib put it in his preface to ‘La-Insan’ that, “Slavery reduces both the price and the stature of an individual. Both love and thought are reduced to being wanting and deficient.” But his accusation that Progressive people advise the poet to withdraw from his individual right in the choice of topic, is unfounded. Which Progressive poet of India or Pakistan has instructed which poet or artist to create this kind of literature and not to create that type of literature? Although the creative man is strange because even while obeying orders he can create great masterpieces. After all, Ferdowsi wrote the ‘Shahnameh’ at the request of Mahmud Ghaznavi; and Michaelangelo and Raphael painted the frescoes of the Church of Rome at the order of the Pope; and Shakespeare wrote most of his dramas for the sake of the belly on the direction of the theatre owner. Just yesterday Urdu poets used to write ghazals-on-demand on rhyming couplets. This does not mean that we are in favour of order, instruction or advice. But my view too is that every artist should always follow his ‘vision’. Every person knows that no one ever told Faiz, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Farigh Bukhari, Ismat Chughtai, Krishan Chander or other Progressive writers to write this or that kind of story, poem or ghazal; in fact everyone followed their ‘vision’ according to their own philosophy of life and aesthetic taste.’ Here Sibte comes off as anything but a dogmatic communist. The year 2016 was celebrated as the birth centenary year of Sibte albeit in a modest way in India and Pakistan, and progressive pockets in Europe and North America; certainly not with the fanfare that Sibte deserved, and which is usually reserved for his more ‘illustrious’ comrades like Faiz. He was not only Pakistan’s own Gramsci but also its gadfly, constantly provoking and questioning its elite and people alike with uncomfortable questions, in the best Socratic tradition. Yet he has been studiously excluded and ignored by all the major literary festivals celebrated in Pakistan in the last year, including the city where he chose to live his long and productive life. The revolutionary poet Habib Jalib paid him a tribute in the following words, which will endure. ‘He was culture and conscience incarnate, SibteHasan As he departed the assembly too became a dream He didn’t care to preserve just a few flowers Rather he wished that the entire garden bloom His imprints will lead the discussion forward This flamboyant evolution will not cease We will teach and be taught how to live From his ideas and thoughts, will all the lovers of the word He spoke true that life itself takes their steps When men and women are not afraid to die The usurpers will not be there forever, how well he used to say When the weak-bodied and the scorned all rise His name rings in every street O Jalib For the very mountains and the valleys have been awakened by his thought’ The writer is an academic, writer and award-winning translator based in Lahore. He has also devised a special summer course on Sibte Hasan’s writings to be taught at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. The translations from the Urdu are his own. He can be reached at email@example.com Published in Daily Times, August 1st , 2017.