COMMENT: Colonial crime, postcolonial justice —Abbas Zaidi - Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On what basis can a colonial crime be decided in a postcolonial context? The court that indicted Ilmuddin was a British colonial court; it had a colonial jurisprudential logic and legality. Now the entire paradigm has changed. The crown has been replaced by the crescent

The Lahore High Court (LHC) has accepted a petition requesting that the death penalty awarded to ‘Ghazi’ Ilmuddin ‘Shaheed’ be declared null and void. The argument tendered in the request application is that Ilmuddin killed a Hindu because the latter had committed blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Prima facie, the LHC has accepted the petitioner’s request and issued a notice to the government asking its representatives to appear with the record about the death sentence awarded to Ilmuddin.

It is, to begin with, extremely curious that an elevated court like the LHC has obliged the petitioner. It is not surprising, though, given the fact that since the days of General Ziaul Haq, the judges have been proactive custodians of Islam in Pakistan. Only a couple of months before, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry proclaimed from his judicial seat that he would not allow parliament to go secular. Only last week, General Kayani sent a message to the masses from the Kakul Military Academy: do not to lose heart because the Pakistan Army will take care of everything. Anything goes in Pakistan in these times. Every section of society is fortifying itself into mafias, seeking power in order to extract as many material benefits as possible while claiming to be safeguarding the interests of the people. Hence, whosoever says whatsoever should be understood in terms of the proverbial crocodile that shed tears. Reopening the Ilmuddin case, however, deserves a little attention because it straddles the so-called colonial-postcolonial binary.

On September 6, 1929, Ilmuddin killed Raj Pal, an old, unarmed Hindu shopkeeper, because he had published a book on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which allegedly contained insulting remarks about him. I have not read the book, so I cannot tell you how blasphemous it was. Nor did Ilmuddin because he was an illiterate man. Someone incited him to murder Raj Pal, which he did. Ilmuddin was sentenced to death. He appealed for mercy (Pakistanis are never told this fact), but the colonial government of Great Britain rejected the appeal and he was hanged on October 31, 1929.

I do not wish to say a thing about Ilmuddin at this point. I do not wish even to deconstruct the name given to him by his Pakistani devotees. However, just a short remark: a ghazi is someone who returns (alive) after defeating infidels, and a shaheed is a martyr who dies at the hands of infidels. Why Ilmuddin is both can better be explained by an Ilmuddin hagiographer. My point is: on what basis can a colonial crime be decided in a postcolonial context?

The court that indicted Ilmuddin was a British colonial court; it had a colonial jurisprudential logic and legality. Now the entire paradigm has changed. The crown has been replaced by the crescent. Will the LHC allow a lawyer who can represent the colonial empire? Will the LHC accept the colonial legal paradigm? If it does, what modus operandi would it follow to dispense justice? Perhaps my argument is useless. In today’s Pakistan, legal niceties do not impinge upon our legal-judicial heads. Poring over legalities requires extreme mental hard work and patience, which does not bring cheers from Islamo-fascists amongst the journalists, demagogues, spymasters, retired generals and opinion makers. Thus, we must accept postcolonial legalities to settle colonial issues. Accepted. Then why just begin and stop at Ilmuddin only? Should we not institute cases against those who committed acts ranging from crime to treason to high treason in accordance with (postcolonial) Pakistan’s laws and constitutions?

What about Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, our textbook demigod-saviour, who saved dozens of kafir English men and women during the mutiny of 1857 (which we celebrate as the War of Independence)? What about the Tiwanas of Punjab who sent thousands of their soldiers to help the British defeat the rebels/warriors of 1857?

Should we not sue the Muslim League, which in 1906 was established through William Shakespeare, the principal of the Aligarh College? After all, he was a kafir too. What about the manifesto of the Muslim League, which explained its raison d’etre as, “To inculcate among Muslims a feeling of loyalty to the (British colonial) government and to disabuse their minds of misunderstandings and misconceptions of its actions and intentions”?

Should the LHC not pass a judgment against those who were in favour of the Lucknow Pact, which gave up Muslims’ right to separate electorates in favour of Hindu-Muslim unity? What about Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah who stayed away from the Khalifat Movement of 1918? What about Allama Iqbal’s letter (never mentioned in the media or textbooks), which said that he had nothing to do with the idea of Pakistan? Nevertheless, the Allama should not be eligible for prosecution because he participated in Ilmuddin’s funeral prayers where he cried for the martyr saying: “This son of a teli (inferior caste of oil pressers) has left us behind (in seeking and attaining God’s blessing).”

Those who say that knowledge is power are dead wrong. Power is knowledge. If you are powerful, you decide what is good or bad, who is right and who is wrong. Justice is in the hands that hold the noose. Run away with your neck!

Abbas Zaidi is the author of Two-and-a-Half Words and other stories. He can be reached at

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