Censoring Jinnah

Print edition : February 27, 1999

WRITE according to your lights, write honestly and fearlessly. The present Government in Pakistan and that follow would do well to remember the words of wisdom regarding the freedom of the media that came from the man they profess to follow, Quaid-e-Azam (the Great Leader) Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

Jinnah's words are compiled for their convenience (should they choose to listen to them) in the very first chapter of veteran journalist Zamir Niazi's book Press in Chains (Karachi Press Club, 1986, which chronicles how successive governments have tried to muzzle the press for their own interests, using tactics that are still used. The substantial section, "Jinnah & the Press" (pages 26-40), makes clear Jinnah's own tolerance of dissent and different opinions, even those opposing his own. He never interfered in the working of the Muslim League's official organ, Dawn. The editors were at "full liberty to express and interpret the League viewpoint without waiting to be tutored by anybody."

When journalist Aziz Beg casually showed Jinnah in 1947 the typed script of an editorial for the weekly Star of Bombay, he replied: "My dear boy, do not be dictated to by anybody. Write according to your lights, write fearlessly and honestly. I do not believe in interference of this sort."

Jinnah's advice to a gathering of Muslim journalists in Bombay on March 13, 1947 was similar. He asked them to wield their power as a trust. "At the same time, I expect you to be completely fearless. If I go wrong or for that matter the League goes wrong in any direction of its policy or programme, I want you to criticise it honestly as its friend."

Jinnah's speech to the Calcutta session of the All-India Muslim League in December 1917 is particularly relevant to the situation today: "Instead of government meeting the complaints of the people, what do they do in the country? They want to muzzle you. They say we shall pass a Press Act. If you write anything, we will, they say, strangle you. They have passed the Seditious Meeting Act to stop meetings of the people. Is this really the method by which you can continue governing the people? Is it possible for any statute to destroy the soul of the people?"

On another occasion, he said opposing the Press Act: "I do not wish for a single moment that any culprit who is guilty of sedition, who is guilty of causing disaffection, who is guilty of causing race hatred, should escape, but at the same time I say, protect the innocent, protect those journalists who are doing their duty and who are serving both the public and the government by criticising the government freely, independently, honestly, which is an education for any government."

Niazi quotes D.F. Karaka, perhaps the last Indian journalist to meet Jinnah in June 1947 soon after the acceptance of the Partition plan. Karaka sought permission for an interview, which was promptly granted. He writes: "Jinnah said to me: 'You have held a different point of view from ours. We differed all the way. You fought hard against us but I respected you because you wrote out of conviction'."

It is ironic that the party that bears the name of Jinnah's party, the Pakistan Muslim League headed by Nawaz Sharif, has no respect for any dissent. It is also ironic that attempts to doctor the truth began right from the start, as Niazi chronicles. In Jinnah's historic speech of August 11, 1947, he said: "You are free, you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of the State." Attempts were made by several leading members of the establishment to have portions of this speech blacked out in the press. These efforts were stymied by Altaf Hussain, Editor of Dawn, who fought against the Press Advice (the first ever issued in Pakistan) which sought to censor this speech.

It is further ironic that today one still sees the same drama being replayed: journalists struggling to give the whole truth to the people, and the establishment using all its might to dilute or change the facts.

Notes Zamir Niazi, tracing the roots of repression in Pakistan: "Thus Jinnah's faith in liberalism, his regard for sanctity of fundamental human rights and the freedom of the press and platform became a taboo for successive regimes who ruled, rather misruled, this unfortunate nation, leading to the undoing of Jinnah's Pakistan in 1971 and the emergence of Bangladesh."

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