Ahfaz-ur-Rahman, who died at 78 this Sunday, was a journalist who fought against three military dictators in his lifetime—on the streets, on paper, in jail and, as a photograph from 2007 showed, on the ground.
It was a poetic injustice of sorts that towards the end of his life, throat cancer prevented him from speaking, leading him to rely on pieces of paper or a voice modulator applied to his larynx. But perhaps what he had to say had already been said, in his daily Express column ‘Black and White’ published every Sunday and one of his many books, ‘Sab se Barri Jung’ (Raktab Publications, 2015).
When we interviewed him in Dec 2019 (for an assignment), he conveyed that he felt content that he had lived life as he wanted to. “One can never be satisfied,” he had said, the consummate editor, “but if I look at my life as a whole I’m quite satisfied.”
Rahman sahib was born in the Indian city of Jabalpur on April 12, 1942. Since his school days he idolised members of the Progress Writers Movement and there is a photograph of him being awarded a prize for an essay by one of its big names, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. He eventually became a student leader of the left-wing National Students Federation which led him, in 1969 to Beijing, to work in the Foreign Languages Press during the Communist state’s cultural revolution.
“I always wanted to fight for the betterment of society and humankind,” he said. “I had a mission which made me join the student federations. Mairaj Muhammad Khan and Minhaj Barna helped me in my struggle.” He saw Mairaj Muhammad Khan as a father figure and followed in his footsteps. There could be no compromise on ethics.
Rahman sahib’s political leanings inevitably brought him into conflict with the regimes that would alter the course of Pakistan’s history. He took part in the 1962 and 1964 student uprisings against General Ayub Khan’s regime and organised an underground journalist movement against military dictator General Zia ul Haq from 1977 to 1978. When journalists from all over Pakistan came to Karachi in 1977 to offer court arrest in batches, Rahman was the first to be sent to prison. When he was released he went underground and kept organizing groups of journalists, workers, peasants and student volunteers for voluntary arrest.
He documented those years in the 590 pages of Sab se Barri Jang (translated by Imtiaz Piracha and published by OUP as Freedom of the Press). Here is a summary of an excerpt which conveys the colour of those days and the style in which he conveyed it.
A hunger strike had been announced. Rahman sahib and 15 other journalists of Musawat were sitting at the Pakistan Times office. Minhaj Barna was with them, typing in his usual fashion, with one finger. The telephone rang. Well-respected editor of the newspaper, AT Chaudhry, was on the other end. He used to play golf, it was said, with Lt Gen Mujeebur Rahman, who was Zia’s information secretary. There was a message conveyed through the editor, if they go ahead with the protest they would face strict action.
Barna calmly replied, alright and hung up.
A few minutes later, Chaudhry rang back. “Barna sahib, have you thought about it,” he said. “Mujeeb said that if these people don’t listen, then the entire journalist community will be made an example of. There is still time [to call it off].”
Barna was unmoved. “Ok, do what you want. Fire the cannons, crush us. We will not change our minds.” He hung up again, this time, without waiting for a response.
Five minutes later, Chaudhry was back on the line.
“Barna sahib, Mujeeb is saying that if Barna doesn’t listen, ‘Our press release is ready. We are telling everyone that the PFUJ wallahs are miscreants and are conspiring against the country’.”
They all fixed upon Barna’s face. With one hand, he rotated the typewriter knob, looked up at the wall in front of him and pulled out the sheet.
“Tell him, even our press release is ready.”
Rahman believed, ‘If a man does not want a fight, he’s not a man.’
The movement ended but Rahman was blacklisted by all major newspapers and magazines, which led to economic hardship. In 1985, he rejoined the Foreign Language Press in Beijing.
Upon his return, he became magazine editor of the largest Urdu newspaper, daily Jang. The activism continued, for in 2002, he was elected unopposed president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.
In that position he waged a battle on the corporate greed of newspapers and media house owners, which unsurprisingly led to his termination from service. Indeed, his entire career had fluctuated between employment and joblessness. But by 2007, he was still among the first journalists to be arrested for protesting against military dictator Musharraf’s decision to ban media channels.
It is easy to see why his voice was intolerable to powerful circles. “We keep crying for the lost area of Kashmir, the state of Junagadh and Hyderabad Deccan, but we do not talk about what our leaders did to the state of Kalat,” he said. What foundations did the Quaid lay, he would ask.
In another book, Jang Jari Rahegi Rahman continued to speak out against imperialism, capitalism and war. The profile of the bard of the protest song Bob Dylan carried a scathing indictment of artists who did not speak on the right side of history:
“Hamaray haan ye dawa mubalghay ki hadd tak duhraya jata hai k fanoon e lateefa zindagi ka rukh mutayin kartay hain. Zindagi ka rukh mutayan karnay ke liye badsoorti ko benaqab karna zaroori hai.” The claim that Arts determine the direction of life is often repeated around us. But to determine the direction of life it is necessary to unmask the ugliness (of society).
That ugliness included the systemic violence of the American war machine that, as Chomsky put it and Rahman seconded, created the ‘War against Terror’ to profit its military industrial complex.
On the local front, Rahman sahib fought relentlessly for the rights of journalists, not just the freedom of press but the implementation of the Wage Board Award for their salaries. But over the years, it appears he had grown disillusioned.
“Today journalism is not what it used to be; it has become a disgusting mix of a lack of integrity, lack of ethics and lack of labor,” he said. “Loudmouth anchors and columnists just keep praising themselves by proving what they said came true; I ask are you the Almighty who knows everything?” For him, a journalist should never use ‘I’ or say, ‘In my opinion’, he felt. Who were they?
He would perhaps be disappointed in what he would see of the media today given how much he had fought for. Columnist Zahida Hina called him “one of those principled journalists who, for the freedom of press, had to go through a lot of difficulties”.
As we wrapped up our interview, he recited the first few couplets of a famous Faiz poem:
Aaiye haath uthaen ham bhi,
Ham jinhen rasme-e-dua yaad nahin,
Ham jinhen soz-e-mohabbat ke siva,
Koi but’ koi khuda yaad nahin…
As we left, we asked him how he viewed his life now. In response, he borrowed from a 1979 Bollywood hit Mr Natwarlal in which Amitabh Bachhan says, “Ye jeena bhi koi jeena hai lallu” Is this living what you call living, kid?
Rahman sahib, we and many other journalists, would disagree.
Kabeer Nadir and M. Ali are studying for their Masters in Journalism at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism at IBA, Karachi