On retirement from University of Engineering and Technology (UET), Professor Azhar Zahur Butt was recruited by the first rector (a British) of the new Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology (GIKI) in 1993 to develop a humanities stream for engineering students. It was financially rewarding and promised new opportunity to do some good work.
GIKI is a private university, somewhat insulated from the influence of the political parties. Yet our ‘big man’ syndrome and the proclivity to the opportunistic and arbitrary decision-making meant that those who had the ears of the founder-patron, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and his advisor Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, could advance their personal fortunes and tilt policies towards their interests. Azhar found himself again struggling for principled rules and regulations against the tendency of playing favourites and the politics of cliques. He stimulated conversations about policies and operations by regaling colleagues with caricatures and humour about the happenings in the institute. His holding court irked the administration. He left after nine years.
Azhar always complained of self-censorship and social oppression, over and above the government-enforced conformity of views that hung over private conversations
GIKI had an interesting cultural fissure. Its student body was mostly made up of the relatively more modernist and savvy children of expatriate Pakistanis. Contrasted to that was the faculty of conservative-rural roots who had excelled in academic studies but culturally many were rooted in their ancestral values. This clash of values between the students and faculty-administration was often a source of tensions about music concerts, boys-girls mixing or the social life of hostels.
Azhar developed a very popular but innovative course in sociology on the moral issues in Pakistani society, wherein the students discussed topics such as ‘corruption is bred in our families’, ‘are parents always right?’ He was admiringly remembered by many students years after graduation. I have independent evidence from some former students who regard Azhar’s course as the most memorable experience of their education.
The lecture material that he prepared for this course was meant to be a book, but it lay around awaiting his attention. It could have been a contribution to the social sciences in Pakistan. He was a very good writer, clear, original and luminous, but a life-long writer’s block inhibited his production. He wrote articles for newspapers, edited magazines and published academic reports and papers. All with some pain and under pressure.
Apart from universities, Azhar had other venues for political and intellectual discussions. These were the discussion groups, associations and social gatherings of Lahore in particular. His evenings often were spent with groups of friends and acquaintances meeting in restaurants or private offices, many times in organised weekly discussion sessions and sometimes in happenstance gatherings.
With Pakistan’s turn to overt religiosity and Islamism, both under the cyclical military rules and elected governments, the ground for reasoned discourse, egalitarian ideas and civic viewpoints was shrinking. Even in private gatherings, freely expressed ideas could exact heavy costs, with the threat of blasphemy hanging over one’s views. The professed beliefs have steadily become beyond discussion. Conspiracy theories have captured the public mind and the social space for freedom of expression has shrunk. Azhar always complained of self-censorship and social oppression, over and above the government-enforced conformity of views that hung over private conversations. Yet his resort to humour and the repartee (he was a master of comebacks), gentle pointing of contradictions in arguments and the art of deflating pomposity were helpful in getting across his points of views.
I have concentrated on his intellectual and professional interests, but the other half of his life as a sympathetic friend, family man and community member was equally central to his notion of self. He was a resourceful person as a fixer of friends’ problems. Friends of friends would show up at his house asking for his interventions to get some favour from this or that office, help in getting good marks from examiners, intervention in a court case or job-related problems. In the early years, he would give up his time with his family to accompany a visitor in pursuit of such tasks. Later, he realised that this ‘help’ is sustaining corruption, meant to bypass rules and procedures, though in Pakistan greater injustice could come by withholding “safarish” for a needy person. This moral dilemma gnawed at him.
He was very devoted to his family, from siblings and to his wife, daughter and son. He was deeply involved in the extended family and took pleasure in the Kashmiri clan. He was the ‘wise’ man of his extended family and friends, whose advice helped solve many emotional and material tangles. His son and daughter grew up to be responsible, affectionate and successful adults, distinguishing themselves academically and professionally. His son became an engineer whose job took him to Ireland and eventually Canada. His daughter graduated with master’s degrees in statistics from Pakistan and Canada, though marriage took her to settle in London. Thus, the rising tide of Pakistani professionals migrating to the west also carried them away. He who gave up many opportunities to settle abroad saw his family emigrate. In his retirement, he lived periodically in Britain and Canada and even took Canadian citizenship for what he in his inimitable way said was the security for ‘for the widow’. He stayed only three days after taking the oath for Canadian citizenship, returning to Lahore, never to come back.
The writer is the author of the book Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation