Lucy Popescu

Mohammed Hanif

On 6 January this year, agents claiming to be from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) raided the Maktaba-e-Danyal publishing house in Karachi and confiscated some 250 copies of Mohammed Hanif’s acclaimed satirical novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. The following day, they demanded a list of bookshops that stocked the work.

Originally published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in June 2008, Hanif’s debut novel paints an unflattering portrait of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the former Pakistani dictator who was killed in 1988 in a plane crash. The title refers to a conspiracy theory that the explosives that brought down Zia’s plane were hidden in a box of mangoes. Lindy Burleigh (LR, July 2008) described Hanif’s novel as ‘an exuberant romp through the minefield of recent Pakistani history and politics … an indulgently playful satire in the same vein as Salman Rushdie’s Shame’.

While the English version has not been subject to any interference and remains freely available, the publication of an Urdu translation in September appears to have upset the Pakistani military. The high command is notoriously quick to respond to critical coverage when voiced in the national language and thus widely accessible to the general population. In late December last year, a defamation suit was filed against Hanif, his translator and the publisher by Ijaz-ul-Haq, one of Zia’s sons. According to Hanif, they have responded to the complaint and are waiting for a court hearing.

The seizure of copies of the Urdu translation is a threat to free expression and the right to publish. ‘The attempted censorship of a novel is a new low for the Pakistani military, which regularly stifles criticism in the media through various forms of intimidation, particularly the Urdu-language press,’ observed Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. ‘We call on authorities to cease their harassment of the publisher and distributors, and to allow both versions of Mohammed Hanif’s book to be sold freely. Satire is a vital form of creative expression, and the translation of books into a new language is to be celebrated, as it expands access to literature. The Pakistani people have a right to read this book if they so choose; the government must not infringe on that right.’

On 6 January, Hanif tweeted: ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes has been in publication for 11 years now. Nobody has ever bothered me. Why now? I am sitting here, wondering when will they come for us. ISI is World’s No 1 spy agency. I am sure they have better things to do. I have my school run tomorrow.’ An unnamed official at the ISI told the Associated Press that Hanif’s claim was a ‘cheap attempt to gain popularity by hurling false accusations on a national institution’.

In Pakistan, journalists have long faced threats, intimidation and even violence from state and non-state actors alike, but such harassment has increased in recent years. According to Human Rights Watch, the Pakistani government stifles critical voices using national security concerns as a pretext. In 2016, the national assembly pushed through a widely criticised cyber-crime law, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, that has since been used to curtail free speech online. Enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture take place with impunity, while the security forces exercise undue political influence. In January 2017, five activists known for their online criticism of the military ‘disappeared’. While four were released a few weeks later, the fifth was missing for an entire year.

After taking office in July 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to make social justice a priority, but his administration has increased restrictions on the media, opposition parties and non-governmental organisations. On 16 June 2019, Muhammad Bilal Khan, a freelance journalist who ran a popular YouTube channel covering politics, was stabbed to death in Islamabad. Faced with such threats and attacks, journalists increasingly practise self-censorship.

In October last year, renowned Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman erected 444 gravestones in Karachi as part of the city’s second biennial art festival. Each grave had a wilted metal rose, symbolising a victim of police extrajudicial killing. On the morning of Sunday 27 October, men in plain clothes forced the display, called ‘The Killing Fields of Karachi’, to close. When activists held a press conference to protest against this attack on artistic freedom, a government official shouted that the installation was ‘vandalism, not art’, and that artists should not ‘showcase our dirty laundry to the world’. Ironically, the attempts to shut down Suleman’s exhibition and suppress Hanif’s book have garnered wide publicity for the works. Photos of the gravestones have been shared on social media, commentators have defended the role of art in public discourse and civil society groups have expressed outrage. Hanif’s case has been publicised by the BBC and The Guardian, as well as by human rights organisations. PEN is monitoring the case but is not currently recommending appeals.

Update: Legal proceedings are continuing against the award-winning Sri Lankan writer Shakthika Sathkumara (LR, Aug 2019), who is accused of inciting religious hatred and violating international human rights law. Sathkumara’s next court hearing is scheduled for 19 May. If formally charged and convicted, he faces up to ten years in prison. PEN continues to call for the investigation against him to be dropped.                                                                             

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