Tuesday October 19, 2021

Remembering Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman

As usual I was not surprised to receive a call from Sheher Bano of Jang group early January reminding me for a memorial article on a triple event in our journalistic lives. Foremost I was required to reminiscence about the life of great Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman Sahib with whom I have had the pleasure of spending more than 27 years as a working journalist.

Whenever I am required to reminiscence about Mir Sahib I am lost in an eventful life full of challenges, adventures, and stumbling blocks under threats from powers that be always threatening Mir Sahib of worst consequences if he could not control head strong journalists like me in his sprawling media empire resisting oppression at each and every step under the totalitarian regime of General Zia-ul-Haq.

It was a reign of terror in which working journalists were stretched by their limbs on a cot and hung in public to be administered lashes on bare backs to be put dread in public at large witness to Gestapo like torture. It must go to the resilience of General Zia’s victims that they bore the pain and torture but did not give up their resistance to the military rulers. To recall all those events still cause pain to one’s body and mind but do steel our determination to resist. As such to recapture the years gone by it remains a pleasure for me to write in memoriam of the man with iron nerves to recast his unparalleled journalistic skills to steer his journalistic flotilla least scathed out of the clutches of Ziast hounds such as blood thirsty bureaucrat Altaf Gauhar infamous as Ayub’s media taramasih. Indeed, Pakistan in its over 70 years of journalistic history has not yet produced a person like MKR as the most outstanding media manager/innovator in the galaxy of media giants and the journalistic icons.

It was my good fortune to have found a place in his organisation to start my career in times that were challenging to be in journalism. Those were the days under first ever martial law under a military dictator, followed by yet another more oppressive and draconian in censorship and anti-press laws all that was retrogressive for freedom of press that left journalists castrated for ages, even now they suffer from self-restrain and censorship.

Life of journalists in Pakistan had been rendered by successful military regimes as short, brutish and nasty. Had it not been for steadfast individuals like Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman who provided inspiration to us to do wonders in those challenging circumstances when even dare to print truth in the best national interest was a crime in the eyes and laws of military regime. When I am told about the predicaments faced by the newspaper industry today, I really wish if MKR were alive today to steer the media out of the stormy ocean to safer shore.

Today, the pathetic state of media has become so alarming that one shudders to think of the end consequences when already the civilised world has branded our environment as most unsafe for working journalists. In recent times hundreds of workers have been laid off, unprecedented numbers of newspapers and TV channels have been closed, one could hear constant sound of death knell highlighting the pathetic state of media in Pakistan, I wonder what would be the end result. It seems we are drowning in another surge of fascism at its worse or something similar to that. Never before did the Pakistani media go through such a stressful period to be described as the worst possible place for the working journalists to be.

Indeed, having been a working journalist under three martial law regimes and also having survived authoritarian civilian governments, just to imagine the plight of Pakistani journalists sitting in London raises one’s hair at their ends when one learns frequency of the cases of ‘pick and drop’ journalists by the dark state. I wish at this critical juncture Jang/Geo’s founder Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman were alive today. He had the courage, perseverance, resilience, determination and tenacity to face all the adverse challenges. He had that vision and comprehension that would have steered his media empire out of the current stormy ocean to safer shores unscathed.

Indeed, for the media he was like a strong Bunyan tree that could swing this way or that in the storm, but would not bend. Since I edited two of his English newspapers-Daily News and Weekly Mag-by far the largest circulated in the field, could only survive because of MKR at their back. Not once but on many occasions MKR defied the military rulers and stood by his editor. Once President General Zia-ul-Haq phoned him while I was sitting in his office and told him point blank to sack me as I was very supportive of Bhutto Sahib. Mir Sahib did not concede his demand, told him that I had got my job on merit as an apprentice and had progressed on merit. On other occasions too Mir Sahib had to defy pressure of Information Secretary General Mujib-ur-Rehman and Ayub Khan’s Information Secretary Altaf Gauhar.

As soon as I did my masters in International Relations and Law, my father late Syed Shamsul Hasan wanted me to practice law but I insisted on becoming a journalist. He knew all the top proprietors and editors and none would have said no to his request to give me a job. But he would not make a request. It was my own initiative to barge myself in JANG’s Office and request Mir Sahib for a job in his Daily News (victim of current crisis). He knew who I was and when I told him about my qualification and the fact I had got a job of an apprentice sub-editor in Dawn, he tried to discourage me. This was 1962 and after that Mir Sahib was many things to me---an employer, a mentor and an affectionate elder like a father until his death. When the opportunity came he also sent me to London on Commonwealth Press Union scholarship for professional training that enabled me to spend some time in Bristol Evening Post and London’s Evening Standard.

Indeed, MKR’s singular contribution would be recorded in letters of gold for being the most powerful mover and shaker in the world of journalism. Had it not been there for so long and with his guts and courage Pakistani journalism would not have been what it is today. His life was multi-faceted, each more glorifying than the other. I can never forget my meeting with him along with my late father in his office dusting the furniture. As a young commerce graduate, instead of seeking future in normal business, MKR found himself bitten by the bug of freedom. Having no proper financial means of sustaining a daily newspaper, he had the spirit and determination to pick up the gauntlet to pursue his ambition and Quaid’s mission for a Muslim mouthpiece in Urdu. His perseverance showed the way forward and his unflagging spirit made Jang a household name in pre-partition Delhi and it became a flag bearer for Muslim struggle for freedom.

I am one of those few who had seen MKR make his career selling his newspaper on a bicycle in the streets of Delhi. Through the sweat of his brow he made Jang a household name in no time. Those were the days of post-Industrial Revolution transformation in India in the print media too. While the indigenously owned English, Hindi and other vernacular newspapers had made their mark by the time World War II erupted, technology for Urdu printing was in a rudimentary stage, expensive and cumbersome too.

Credit must go to MKR for getting hold of the bull by the horn to launch Jang and since his was one-man show-he made it big by being its printer, publisher, by selling it in rounds on his bicycle with no additional hands. And once he had sold first few hundred copies of Jang, he would rush to paper market, buy extra-rolls of newsprint and rush back to the press to have reprints several times in a day. Brick by brick he built his Media Empire.

As an apprentice in Daily News-with printers ink running in my blood-it was Mir Sahib’s guidance that made me climb the ladder of success. I can say that without fear of contradiction that whatever I achieved as a journalist-editor, I owe it to MKR, his tutoring, his grooming and his experience to extricate oneself from a difficult situation least scathed in periods of worst media censorship, controls and intimidations. Despite the fact that his stakes were too high and his huge financial interests under constant threats of take over by the government-he did not compromise on issues of freedom of expression and the freedom of non-interference that he gave to his group editors in separate publications.

Both as Editor of Daily of News as well Weekly Mag, I can write volumes on how many difficulties MKR faced on account of the aggressive manner we fought back General Zia-ul-Haq’s draconian censorship when even printing of truth in the best national and public interest was forbidden and violation of martial law regulations and draconian Press And Publication Ordinance. We could not even print the Quranic verses dilating upon the believers to raise their voice against oppression, evils of dictatorship, abuse of religion by the state and the ruler and to say no to “jabir sultan” under General Zia-ul-Haq. Not only that, we were forbidden to print quotes from Quaid-i-Azam, Allama Iqbal and other Muslim leaders who had fought for Muslim freedom.

If one were to get to the newspaper archives of the early days of censorship under General Zia’s martial law one would not be surprised to see newspapers with scores of blank spaces caused by censoring officer’s plucking out the “objectionable” item (in the eyes of the censor) from the page. At first they were contemptuously careless. They did not bother to realise the impact and damage blank spaces in newspapers would cause both within and outside Pakistan. However, some bright officer opened their eyes and it was decided not to let newspapers go with blank spaces. So we were required to carry with us extra ‘useless’ items to instantly fill in the blank.

Most outstanding characteristic of Mir sahib was his ‘Johar shanasi’-- an eye for innovation. Had it not been for his ingenuity to introduce high technology in Urdu print media and had he not joined hands with Late Mirza Jameel Ahmed of Elite publishers, development of Urdu Nastaliq would remain a far fetched dream. Indeed, he shall have for himself permanent niche among the inventors for revolutionising Urdu from calligraphy into computerised type-setting. Unlike many big entrepreneurs who are not alive today, MKR was fortunate to have left a rich legacy of competent heirs such as late Mir Javed Rehman-an unassuming humble pillar of Jang’s strength to help Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman (MSR) and his heirs to carry on MKR’s dynastic mission. MSR too has shown beyond question that he is a chip off the old block!

-The Author is a former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK, Adviser to PM Benazir Bhutto and a veteran journalist, Editor of Daily News and Weekly Mag.