By and large, individuals’ lives reflect the social and political trends of their societies. The economic opportunities available; the ethnic, racial, class and religious standings; the economic conditions and socio-political values, these societal factors influence the path of an individual’s life. You can often read the history of a country and its institutions in the biography of a person. The history of Pakistan’s educational institutions in particular is mirrored in the life story of Professor Azhar Zahur Butt, who died recently leaving a hole in the lives of many, not just mine.
Azhar Zahur Butt spent most of his working life as a professor of English and Humanities at the University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Lahore. On his retirement in 1991, he taught at Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute (GIKI), Topi for another nine years. Of course he was not a national figure, but he attempted to influence his own ‘little Pakistan’ of the universities and his social sphere by arguing and promoting humanistic values and the rationality. The professional achievements though significant were not what defined him. As it will become clear, his intellectual contributions and moral struggles extend beyond any office he held. This is a story of an individual and through him of how Pakistani society affected the moral and intellectual development of its people.
In Pakistan of the 1950s, in private discussions, one could still dabble in atheistic ideas, proclaim non-traditional beliefs and question religious orthodoxy, but sometimes even from public platforms
Azhar Butt was half a generation older than the Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children born at the time of Indo-Pakistan independence. This fast disappearing generation was born in the 1930s and early 40s, and were children or adolescents at the time of partition. They had witnessed the communal mayhem and uprooting of millions from their homes at partition, and have vivid memories of the riots, migrations and the feelings of safety and promise in the new homeland, Pakistan.
Azhar grew up in Ajnala, a small town in the Amritsar district. It was a harmonious place where Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims had no animus for each other, rather lived as good neighbours. He remembered the Sikh and Hindu teachers very fondly.
He had taken the matriculation examination when his family had to escape to Lahore, as Ajnala became a part of India. He had some harrowing experiences of moving across the border to Pakistan in a hurry with a mob gathering for an attack.
Pakistan was a place of refuge and security for those coming from across the newly-laid border. It offered an instant assurance of a safe life and the pride of the newly liberated homeland. These feelings were mixed with hope, loss and expectations of making a new start. The refugees from India shared these feelings with the millions more who lived in Pakistan’s territories.
In the early years (1947-48), Pakistan was in an economic depression, particularly with the abandoning of the Hindu/Sikh owned businesses and industries. The gloom began to lift as refugees were resettled, businesses reopened and farms began to be reworked. The Hindu and Sikh properties were distributed among the Muslim refugees who came from across the border. The scramble for the ‘allotment ‘ of abandoned properties was the first national indulgence in corruption, nepotism and falsehood. The guilt of falsifying property claims and bribery was assuaged with the adage that ‘everybody does it’. It has worked ever since.
Building a new life and the promise of Pakistan
Azhar’s family also made a new start. He enrolled in Zamindara College, Gujrat and immediately made a mark with his outstanding grades and as a defenseman in the hockey team. Felled by illnesses, including anxieties, he barely completed the F.Sc. He left his studies and took a job in a government laboratory.
The laboratory turned out to be a life-changing place for him and many others.
I was there with Azhar and that is where our long friendship began. We, the staff were young science graduates, who by some accident of luck were open-minded, ambitious and extremely supportive of each other.
There was little work, just some routine testing and periodic research projects pursued half-heartedly. For example, in my six years of employment, my total work hours would have amounted to about 2-3 months of full time work. As the research and testing arm of the Public Works Department, the laboratory was a peripheral institution, where the engineer officers with the reputation of being ‘cerebral’ were parked. We all thrived under their benign neglect.
In the 1970s, with Bhutto’s government in power, an informal socialist group emerged among the faculty. As the political cycle turned over and General Zia’s Islamism came to rule, the socialist group evaporated. The individuals devoted themselves to their personal interests. Some bargained for promotions, others sought jobs abroad
The mid-1950s was a time of rising expectations in Pakistan. Many of us in the laboratory, including Azhar enrolled for studies and started attending day classes, while our colleagues covered for us. Others took competitive examinations for the civil services, all without the required permissions from the department, which would not have come, given the rigidity of the rules. Out of our group, two got into the federal superior services and another two in the provincial executive services. Azhar completed the B.A. and then an M.A. in English, both in the top tier of graduates. I did a master’s degree in sociology, and another colleague completed a law degree. Most of us were on the way out and up and the laboratory was the catapult. We could dream big, liberated by the spirit of independence.
The laboratory was a unique institution in one other way. Its leisurely routines combined with the love of learning among the staff turned it into an intellectual salon. We spent hours discussing national politics, religious beliefs, social customs, poetry and literature and of course the gossip about imagined romances. No topic was taboo and no argument forbidden. This is where Azhar made a mark. His witticisms combined with erudite insights often provided the ballast for discussions.
Azhar led a bohemian life in those days. His father had finally settled in Gujjar Khan practicing law, but his influential and affluent relatives lived in Lahore. He could have lived comfortably with anyone of them, but he chose to be at his own. There was the ‘Qalander hostel’, a disputed evacuee property of the DAV College, where one could live without any rent and services. Azhar spent a year there among other students, office workers who had come from distant towns. While there was no functioning kitchen, an unauthorised electric connection and communal bathrooms, there was a strong sense of fraternity, which helped beat back the authorities’ attempts to oust the occupants.
Azhar was a tall, broad and strong young man. He was a witty person, who could bring laughter in every gathering, though privately he was depressive and obsessive. Despite his strong constitution, he suffered from bouts of TB, pleurisy and undiagnosed fevers.
Opportunities for advancement and rewards
In Pakistan of the 1950s, in private discussions, one could still dabble in atheistic ideas, proclaim non-traditional beliefs and question religious orthodoxy, but sometimes even from public platforms. Colleges and universities held debates on topics such as ‘the necessity of religion’, ‘advantages of love marriage’ or ‘secularism and Pakistan’s ideology’. Pakistan of the 1950s was politically preoccupied with the making and unmaking of elected governments and cobbling together parliamentary majorities that little public energy could be spared to forge ideological purity. The British enacted civil liberties had not yet worn out.
Azhar was one of the first secular, non-religious person that l encountered. I had come from the Walled City, where folksy superstitions were woven into religious dogmas. I grew up surrounded by beliefs of houses haunted by spirits and the pirs who had miraculous powers. My encounters with Azhar shook me and gave me the courage to re-examine my beliefs.
Azhar had no formal religion practically when l met him, though he supported liberal and moderate ideas of Islam. But his family’s denominational identity was tagged on him whenever it suited his competitors in the politics of jobs and influence. He had dropped the proverbial blanket but the blanket could not be detached from him.
With an M.A. in hand, Azhar became a lecturer in English in the Government College Gujjar Khan around 1959, but he could not stay away from Lahore. After a short stint at M.A.O. College, in 1962, he finally settled in the newly formed University of Engineering and Technology (UET). The UET was formed by transforming the long-established MacLagan Engineering College into an autonomous, expanding and ambitious institution.
One of the changes introduced in the engineering curriculum was to add courses in the humanities and social sciences. Azhar was among the first teachers for these subjects. He started the department of English, though he later also taught sociology. To have a job in Lahore with the additional benefit of a residence on campus was what suited Azhar. It became his life long career. He did well in his career rising to the rank of professor and was the head of the department for many years.
Azhar’s involvement in the university administration began soon after he started teaching at the UET. Barely a few months into teaching, the turbaned and sashed peon of the vice chancellor (VC) appeared on his classroom door asking him to come right away as ordered by the VC. The VC’s secretary had resigned and the lecturer in English was thought be the one capable of handling correspondence.
The newly chartered university began in strife. The senior teachers of the MacLagan College accustomed to the autonomy of the teachers’ life protested against the policies introduced by the newly appointed VC, a retired chief engineer. The hierarchical and authoritarian ways of the VC clashed with the collegial traditions of the teachers from the college. Azhar was thrown in the middle of this political conflict.
It was the time of President Ayub Khan’s military rule, which was modernist in outlook but authoritarian in approach. As a part of the economic development plans, the university was given the resources to expand. The teachers began to be sent abroad for higher studies and thus qualifying themselves for promotions in the professorial ranks. New disciplines were introduced, the curricula were revised and the academic council, boards of studies and the senate were established for policy-making, making the university a self-governing institution.
Azhar’s talent as an imaginative and lucid writer, who could unravel rules and argue convincingly, was used by almost every VC in his 30 years career. As a young lecturer, he was the superintendent of one hostel, but over time he was charged with managing all the hostels as the provost. It was a job of considerable challenge, as hostels turned into dens of politically patronised agitators. Managing these dangerous situations fell to him for years. He served as the Director of Student Affairs, another crucial but challenging responsibility.
Apart from these additional administrative appointments, he was the informal advisor, the go-to-man and negotiator for successive VCs in his time. Even those who were sometimes ill disposed towards him depended on him to compose a letter, draft a speech, and write a report or memoranda for the governmental and international bodies. In an institution full of engineers and scientists, his talents were scarce and always in demand. One way or the other, in his career at the UET, he was in the thickest of its policy-making and management, which brought him into the middle of ideological confrontations and turf wars.
Building an institution
Of course, the rising tide of the UET’s development also lifted Azhar’s boat. He had two opportunities to study in Britain on scholarships, in 1965 at the University of Birmingham for the M.A. degree, and then in mid-career for the Master’s in linguistics at the University of Ashton to help him develop a program in report writing and the teaching of English as the second language (ESL). Incidentally, he also did a law degree from Punjab University.
On both occasions of studying in Britain, his outstanding performance would have led to doctoral studies or settling in Britain, like many other Pakistanis gone abroad for studies. He could not stay away from Lahore, where he was happy to be with his family, friends and the university, indulging in passionate conversations and gossip. He loved this lifestyle that was fun and purposeful.
What purpose beckoned him: a desire to contribute towards promoting in his little world a liberal, rational and humanistic ethos, be it in the university, the family, the circle of friends. He was not a crusader, ideologue or a careerist.
He deployed humour in engaging discussions with colleagues and students, caricaturing of the unprincipled and devious ideas and practices. His insightful comments delivered with a jovial punch warmed up the daily tea conclaves of the faculty in many departments and the evenings of discussions among friends.
He advocated for insulating the university from politically inspired religious extremism. He also argued for the moral education of students through example as well as pedagogy, in addition to engineering subjects. More than any other idea, he strongly advocated for the rule of rules and avoiding arbitrary decisions. What effect did these efforts have? The answer can be read in the current state of universities. Outwardly the universities and colleges look impressive with campuses and legions of doctor-professors, but operationally they are credentials mills for the poorly educated graduates.
Over the years, the universities’ administrations have come to be judged not on how good an education they offered, but on their containment of students’ agitating in the streets and posing a law and order problem .Yet paradoxically political parties fuelled students agitation and street protests by sponsoring their respective students party wings in the educational institutions. The UET, like other universities and colleges, became a political battlefield among various national parties. The Islamic Jamiat-Tulaba (IJT) was the most organised and violent group in the UET those days.
For years, musical functions, debates, even graduation convocations could not be held, for fear of Islamists’ disruptive raids. The student wings of other political parties, Pakistan People’s Party and various Muslim Leagues, had little consistent ideological commitments, though they would put up fights for political reasons. Azhar used to say that the liberals did not offer an alternative and systematic narrative of the enlightened and rational thought within the Islamic ideology. In Pakistan, modernity and liberalism are a life style and not a system of values.
The arc of institutional decline
The university hostels were divided into territorial fiefs of the various political students organisations. Their conflicts could turn into shootings and rioting on the campus, occasionally resulting in deaths and injuries. This is what has been the primary challenge of the university administration in all periods, but particularly in the 1970s to the 90s, starting from the anti-Ayub movement to Bhutto’s regime, General Ziaul Haq’s martial law and later Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League rule. Each government and political party contributed to the breaking of peace and order in universities by patronizing its student leaders.
Azhar’s proximity to the VCs involved him in negotiations with students, police and public authorities at various times. He advocated for responding fairly to the students’ university-related demands, but taking measures to stem violence and calm the hostels. As the administration’s representative, he was often targeted for neutralisation by maligning him in the religious idiom. In Pakistan such stereotyping has worked magically. How does one prove the negative?
As opportunism and political corruption in the national life increased, the universities became highly politicised institutions, which lost their mission. Azhar recounted the time, he went as a member of the UET delegation to meet with the then chief minister of the Punjab, requesting help in disciplining the violence-prone leaders of the student wing of his party, to find that those students were present in the meeting as the chief minister’s advisors. He used to sum up the reasons for the current state of educational decline, despite tremendous expansion in the number of colleges and universities, as the result of the ‘brick by brick’ demolition of the structure of rules, regulations and moral expectations. The UET was his point of reference.
Azhar espoused liberal values and argued for moral education to produce informed human beings over and above their scientific and technical competence. One of his struggles was to argue in the Boards of Studies and Academic Council to have Pakistan Studies lodged in the humanities department, but the Islamists took over its teaching, dashing Azhar’s hope of introducing some critical thinking and moral discourse on Pakistani society. He nursed life-long disappointment with his liberal colleagues, who though vocal in espousing such values would not show up when their votes were to be cast in the academic council and other university bodies.
In the 1970s, with Bhutto’s government in power, an informal socialist group emerged among the faculty. As the political cycle turned over and General Zia’s Islamism came to rule, the socialist group evaporated. The individuals devoted themselves to their personal interests. Some bargained for promotions, others sought jobs abroad. The democratic interlude of the Nawaz League, and Benazir Bhutto’s regimes followed by the enlightened and moderate Islam of the Gen.Musharaff’s military rule all readily yielded to the threats of Islamists’ agitation. Their compromising policies contributed in equal measures to intolerance, suppression of rational thought and exuberant religiosity.
The university has expanded tremendously. In 2016, it had 9,400 undergrads and 1,700 postgraduate students, 880 faculty members, 33 departments, many new disciplines and satellite campuses. On these measures, it is a thriving institution. It is an exquisite example of hollow institutions developed in Pakistan, having the structure and form of a modern institution but devoid of its meaningful functions, purpose, commitment and quality. The UET is scandalized by cases of faculty plagiarism, arbitrariness of rewards and promotions, neglect of teaching, fake research and self-dealing in doctoral degrees.
The question to be asked is: Why the pervasive religiosity has not cultivated ethical behaviour and moral commitments. The answer lies in Pakistan’s moral confusion. The pursuit of material benefits is guided by the guiltless drive for personal gains in the idiom of modernity. The non-material life of professed beliefs and values is based on ritualistic conformity to religious and traditional notions of the right or wrong. In such an environment, persons like Azhar, even Pervez Hoodbhoy, a nationally prominent activist exposing the universities’ rot, could not notably influence the evolving culture of the educational institutions.
This is a two-part series and will continue next week.
The writer is the author of the book Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation. He can be contacted atMQ35@hotmail.com