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In Memoriam: IA Rehman Was A Beacon Of Hope In Dark Times

It was in the summer of 1989, when as a student looking for an internship, I came across I.A. Rehman. He was then the Editor-in-chief of Daily Pakistan Times. The newspaper, after decades of serving as a mouthpiece of the successive governments, had been revived under the first government of the late Benazir Bhutto. The bold and fearless journalism of Pakistan Times had been dealt a major blow in the 1960’s when General Ayub Khan nationalised Pakistan Times and many other publications to create a press that would serve his dictatorship rather than the people of Pakistan. I came to know all of this much later, but as a 19-year-old student, all I knew was that the Times was being edited by Aziz Siddiqui, under the stewardship of Rehman sahib.

I was familiar with both the names through my recently acquired habit of reading English newspapers. Prior to his brief stint at the Pakistan Times, Aziz Siddiqui (may he rest in eternal peace), used to edit the Frontier Post which had become the leading voice against General Zia-Ul-Haq’s brutal dictatorship and reengineering of Pakistani society. The Frontier Post was muzzled, and Siddiqui sahib had left the paper after it had published stories critical of the generals, including a particular story that involved the regime in a major drug-smuggling scandal.

With the death of General Zia-Ul-Haq in 1988, followed by the election of the young Benazir Bhutto as Pakistan’s first woman Prime-Minister, there was a brief spell of hope and optimism. It was during her 20-month-long stint that P.M. Bhutto partially liberalised Pakistan’s strangulated media and lifted many restrictions that made the existence of free press impossible. The appointment of the trailblazers, I.A. Rehman and Aziz Siddiqui, had taken place in view of the commitment of Benazir Bhutto to free press. Now that I think of those languid months, in a disheveled newspaper office, the stale smell of cigarette smoke and sweat in the corridors, I cannot thank my stars enough to have spent my formative years in the company of such great men. As an intern I had the liberty to arrive whenever I pleased and stay in the office seeking advice and participating in gup shup that is characteristic of most office spaces in Pakistan. Aziz Siddiqui was a workaholic, and between his multiple smokes and infinite cups of tea and intermittent conversations, he would not only produce the finest editorials, but also edit and fix many a draft using the long hand since this was the pre-computer age.

I.A. Rehman was mostly in his office – obviously this was contrary to the protocol as technically Rehman sahib was Siddiqui’s supervisor. I was often called in to this huddle, and Rehman sahib would give me feedback on the few features I wrote in those days. His friendly manner, wit, and a vast repository of jokes, anecdotes, and stories were fascinating for a kid who had grown up in a completely different world at school and at home. This is when I learnt from Rehman sahib, the essential, non-negotiable, status and place of human rights in virtually every sphere of human life and public affairs. While he would lavish praises, mostly undeserved as I can now discern better, he would explain to me why a reference to equality, citizenship, and justice was required in a particular paragraph and why food supply chains, food storage, and food distribution, were all issues of human rights.

I was a student of Economics then, and was gradually getting to know the world better, but the remarkable clarity of Rehman sahib’s exposition and analysis is what struck me and perhaps has always fascinated me. This is maybe the most important facet of a larger-than-life personality, that we now remember with grief and wistfulness – the moral, intellectual, and analytical clarity that defined whatever Rehman sahib spoke and wrote through decades of journalism, activism, and public engagement.

Rehman sahib was a long time journalist and editor. Before joining Pakistan Times, he was the editor at ViewPoint, a progressive magazine that was one of the few voices of dissent during General Zia’s regime. Later, he became one of the founders of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan — an institution he saw grow in size, impact and reach until his last days.

As a teenager who had grown up in Punjab and was largely exposed to the brainwashing on Partition and India that occurs in our schools and colleges, the second most striking thing I learnt about Rehman sahib thirty years ago was a complete absence of bitterness. Even when he would complain about a particular situation or express his anxiety over a rights violation, he narrated it without a hint of cynicism, despondency, or despair. What could be more illustrative of this uniqueness than Rehman sahib’s own personal story. While migrating from Haryana, now a region in India, Rehman sahib lost many of his loved ones in the blood drenched events of what we call the independence of India and Pakistan. It took me some time to make sense of Rehman sahib’s life-long quest for Indian-Pakistani peace, despite all that he witnessed and suffered as a young man during the partition.

In our family circles, there were many an uncle or aunt who expressed visceral hatred for India due to the blood-stained memories of 1947. Even today, hyper nationalists are quick to remind you that peace cannot be an objective because of the treatment meted out to Muslims by Hindus and Sikhs in 1947. Of course, any mentions of Muslims attacking Hindus and Sikhs has been erased from official histories, popular narratives, and to a large extent even fiction that was produced in the post 1947 Pakistan. And here was Rehman sahib, I thought, who was not just saying the opposite, and bearing the bitterness, but actively working for peace between two insane, immature, and irresponsible states.

Now that I think of that time, minor and forgettable memories emerge on the mindscape. Rehman sahib would chop some of the long-winded introductions I wrote, the unnecessary explanations of sentences, and a couple of times he even made fun of my proclivity to use obscure and indigestible words. He taught me the importance of using simple and direct language. “Bhai kisko impress karna charahay hain aap – bas, siraf matalb ki baat ki jiye.” Of course, I was not pleased, but somewhere in a little corner of my brain the advice stayed. Even though it took me years to act upon what Rehman sahib said, it is a touchstone that I unconsciously use whenever I attempt to write.

The following summer, I returned to the Pakistan Times, but this was a period of uncertainty, as tensions between Benazir Bhutto and the military establishment had grown and the latter’s civilian face, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, was secretly conspiring to dismiss Benazir Bhutto’s government. Despite the weariness in public mood, and the many disappointments that people expressed about the first PPP tenure, Rehman sahib and Aziz Siddiqi had turned around a propaganda paper into a quality publication that was followed and read by all and sundry. This was no mean achievement. While the credit to Rehman sahib and his team is on the record, the willingness of Benazir Bhutto’s administration to accept critical opinion from a government owned publication must also be recognised.

This is why Benazir Bhutto remains perhaps the only ruler in Pakistan’s history who did not attack the press, faced relentless propaganda even after her death, but demonstrated what a tolerant political culture should be. The same values that I.A. Rehman held very dearly and observed throughout his life. On 6th August 1990, Benazir Bhutto’s government was finally dismissed, the assemblies were dissolved, and turncoats from her own party were brought in as interim administrators. I was not going to the office regularly, but after that I did not meet Rehman sahib and Aziz Siddiqi until the next summer when I was back from London and took up another internship at the Aurat Foundation. In the meantime, I did write to both the legendary characters and thanked them for their indulgence.

Through the next two decades, I kept in touch with Rehman sahib, and we frequently bumped into each other at the usual, predicable spots: Ajoka theatre’s performances, civil society seminars, Asma Jahangir’s home, among many other spaces that the millennials term as hangout spots.

When I took the civil service’s examination and joined the civil service in 1994, Rehman sahib was one of the few civil society walas who did not express concern. In fact, when we met in Lahore right after I had joined the Civil Service’s academy, he said, “acha hai, aap jesay logon ko bhi civil service mein jana chahiye, likan yaad rahkiye, hoga mushkil tumharay liye.” My stint in the Civil Service as Rehman sahib had predicted, did not last very long. After six years of service, I branched into the United Nations and other international organisations, and never returned.

Later when I started to write for the papers and joined the Friday Times, Rehman sahib was perhaps one of the first few people who encouraged me. But given how witty he was, in 2012 he told me that perhaps I was writing too much and quipped, “koi bhi akhbar dekho, wahan tum ne kuch na kuch likha hota hai. Saraa din ye hi kaam kartay ho kya?” And then he chuckled with a glint in his large, intelligent eyes, which of course I read as a sign of endorsement.

My smugness obviously did not last for long as precisely when I had found my own equilibrium in life, I faced the assassination attack that I have been trying to forget for years now. In 2014, my car was sprayed with bullets, and my companion/driver died. One thing that has kept me going is the tremendous support and solidarity I received from friends, colleagues, comrades, and the sniggering whispers by the nay-sayers, and the losers. In April 2014, exactly seven years ago, Rehman sahib and Asma Jahangir who are both dead now were two pillars of support. It was Asma Jahangir’s clear process of decision making that she urged me to leave Pakistan. Had she not pushed me, I may not have decided to leave the country, and would have been stuck in the constant battle of simply staying alive in Pakistan. Rehman sahib’s view however was more nuanced, and while he supported my idea of going away, he also said that I would come back to the country as I was too engaged to suddenly become disengaged.

So, after nearly five years of staying away, I returned to Pakistan on a brief, quiet visit, and saw Rehman sahib, and it seemed that no time had elapsed in all those years. He was warm, quick-witted, and inquisitive as always. Sadly, that was the last time I saw him, and obviously not seeing him on my subsequent visit has now become a new addition to my long list of regrets.

Tributes from all over the world have poured in by people who worked with Rehman sahib and knew him far better than I did. I cannot boast of a friendship, but I can certainly say that Rehman sahib has been a major influence, like thousands of others, in my life. Perhaps the greatest gift he leaves for many of us are his principles and values that are rare in this day and age. Like the Sufis, he practiced humility, remained focused on human welfare, and followed humanism as a faith in these times of neoliberal fragmentation of societies, cultures of individual aggrandisement, and commodification of everything including activism.

Rehman sahib passed away on April 12, 2021, at the age of 90. I guess mortality is inescapable, but the quandary in battered polities such as Pakistan is that each towering figure leaves behind a void that often seems irreparable.

First with weak institutions that are not allowed to grow in an autocratic environment, controlled by the military and civil bureaucracy, civic institutions, constantly fighting a battle for day-to-day survival.

Second, many civil society leaders are wary of the praetorian forces at work and are hesitant to devolve power or responsibility to others, thereby limiting the possibility of alternative leadership emerging. Of course, Rehman sahib was not like this, but he did function in such a society.

Because he is no more, we all wonder who will fill in this huge vacuum of clarity, courage, and single-mindedness.

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1 Comment

  1. Saeed Shafqat May 8, 2021

    Passionate, personal,insightful and a humane portrayal of a rare breed of a Pakistani– I A Rehman , who cared for the vulnerable and spoke for the voiceless, your write up conveys this effectively and with a sense of purpose. I hope it gets wider audience and readership…

    Reply

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