Vulgar and obscene
By: Harris Khalique
There were two letters written to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan by an arch rightwing politician and another ardent rightwing figure, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the former Ameer of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and Justice (retired) Wajihuddin Ahmed, one of the leaders of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf. They prayed to the Supreme Court that it must take action against increasing obscenity on TV channels.
A three-member bench, headed by the chief justice himself, took suo moto action and summoned the acting-chairman of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). The Supreme Court did not find a reason to order an investigation into the issue or sought to establish any definitions of obscenity, morality and public morality relevant to the matter at hand or form a commission to make conclusive recommendations. Its immediate remarks determined that it considers the two petitioners right. The acting chairman of Pemra was asked to clear up the TV channels from any obscenity and vulgarity at the earliest. He was also reminded of Pemra’s lack of action even after a few journalists and social commentators had identified the TV channels and programmes that promoted obscenity (a couple of those were actually named by the chief justice who many others see as the self-proclaimed custodians of state ideology and public morality in the country).
The chief justice in his remarks cited some offensive programmes and advertisements. He also objected to some advertisements aired even during Iftar time in the holy month of Ramazan. Pemra’s acting chairman was directed to categorise programmes with proper ratings-like it is done in the Western media-so that viewers would know in advance about what is going to be aired.
One may say that if something is seen as insensitive or bold and needs to be discouraged for TV audiences to view, it shall remain insensitive and bold during any part of the day and in any month of the year. However, the categorisation of programmes according to their content with a proper rating is something we definitely need, not as much to curb the spread of so-called vulgarity but to control the acceptance, legitimacy and glorification of violence.
In his somewhat muted response, the acting chairman submitted before the court that Indian channels were banned in Pakistan to restrain broadcast of any improper programmes. What an excuse and how hypocritical. It is Indian news channels that are banned in Pakistan, and that is reciprocal. The news channels would be least vulgar by default compared to any cinema or entertainment. Our newspapers, magazines and TV screens through cable network providers are infested with Bollywood movies or Indian soaps. Besides, a film made in the language you speak and depicting your own or similar lifestyle will always remain popular. It wouldn’t matter whether it is made in Pakistan, India or the United States.
Nevertheless, the letters written by the stalwarts of two rightwing parties and the Supreme Court’s swift response to their complaint affords me another opportunity to recall the trials and tribulations of two of our greatest minds, the iconoclast storyteller Saadat Hasan Manto, and the avant garde poet, Meeraji. The current year marks the birth centenaries of these two men of letters who both died young. Some of us have already celebrated their nonconformist works in our talks and writings.
But I am reminded of them again now, because Manto faced five court cases on charges of obscene writing and Meeraji was blasted by champions of morality all his life. But who on earth denies today that they enriched us with outstanding prose and poetry, helped transform the reader’s consciousness, contributed to our emotional and intellectual liberation and impacted our humanity and perspective on life. Fifty years after Manto’s death, Pakistan issued a commemorative postage stamp. Lahore boasts that he is buried there. Meeraji was anthologised afresh and some of his original work and translations are being reprinted.
Out of the five court trials, three were about one of Manto’s masterpieces, Thanda Gosht. To so many of us, this short story is the most powerful rejection of rape and violence during partition riots and makes us feel sad and numb rather than aroused and excited. But the authorities in the early years of Pakistan looked at it differently as they would continue to look at the works of anyone who is living today. Manto was dragged from the lower courts to the high court for charges of spreading obscenity.
He was humiliated by the lower court when they held him responsible for obscene writing and sentenced him to three months’ rigorous imprisonment and fine. In case the fine was not paid, the prison term was to extend by another three weeks. He appealed to the session court and was acquitted. But the government was not satisfied and filed another appeal in the Lahore High Court. Manto was found guilty and while his prison sentence was commuted, the fine was reimposed. Manto’s pen remained unfettered though and he continued to uncover the rotten and hypocritical underbelly of our society. It was an underbelly in his times but has become the face in ours.
Meeraji was born in the same year as Manto but died even earlier. Whatever his personal traits, he never compromised and was never apologetic. There is no hypocrisy to be found near him. He may not be one of the greatest of our poets but remains an icon in our poetry and literature. He blazed the trail for so many. Meeraji had the courage to write in a foreword to one of his poetry collections, Meeraji Ki Nazmein: “The pollution that culture and civilisation have collected around sexuality offends me. As a reaction I see everything under the sun as the image reflected in the mirror of sexuality, and this image is perfectly natural and it is my ideal.”
We learn from the history of human society at large that any such desire can never be fulfilled in the long run that restrains people by force of law or social coercion from enjoying anything that entertains them. Be it cheap soaps or lowbrow theatre. Or, in other cases, elates them like art films or paintings and sculpture. There is a paradox here. If the state and society do not let critical and enlightened discourse flourish, in the name of religion and public morality, there may be a short-term revival of spiritless religiosity. But neither the aesthetic taste nor the intellect develops and majority of people find ways, legally or illegally, to indulge in cheap entertainment. The only things they are capable of enjoying are those which are instinctive, sensual and superficial.
To an ordinary citizen like me, the advertisements of hair-removing creams or sanitary napkins or TV soaps about illicit love affairs are less obscene and less against public morality than a seven-year-old girl selling national flags for living at a traffic light in the capital Islamabad on the eve of the Independence Day. I feel ashamed of myself, my society, my country and its institutions for being so insensitive to poverty, ignorance and dispossession. This is vulgar and obscene.