Saturday August 20, 2022

Farhad Zaidi – fighter for freedom

March 20, 2022

During my school days in the 1970s, despite our financial hardships, my father made sure that the hawker delivered at least two Urdu newspapers to our two-room abode in Malir Karachi.

For me as a child, the dailies ‘Jang’ and ‘Hurriyat’ had different attractions: comic strips of Tarzan in ‘Jang’ and of Phantom in ‘Hurriyat’. These two characters were my favourites thanks to their bravery and uprightness. Tarzan was raw and rustic; Phantom was a more decent defender of people. He was sophisticated and had no superhuman powers. He was skilled in his craft and a perfect marksman. He had genius-level intellect and was in good physical health. As I grew older and started understanding politics, I realised that Pakistan was a country with limited freedom of expression. From military dictatorships to civilian governments to back to despotism, we were running in circles.

Within that vicious cycle, journalism created a lot of rigmarole. Still there were editors and journalists who tried to untangle the knots of politics for their readers. They were fighters for freedom of expression and came in all shapes and sizes. Farhad Zaidi was the editor of Hurriyat, making it one of the best Urdu newspapers of its time.

By the late 1970s, Pakistan was under the dark clouds of the worst military dictatorship in Pakistan’s history. With strict censorship, newspapers were under tremendous pressure. But we had our Tarzans and Phantoms. Some were firebrand leaders of journalists who could shake the earth under the feet of the lords of censorship. Just like Tarzan jumping from one branch to another, they moved from city to city and mobilised activists of the journalists’ movement across the country.

Then there were the Phantoms: more elegant, soft-spoken, but sharp in their wit and wisdom. Farhad Zaidi was one of them, others included Ahfazur Rahman, I A Rehman, Masood Ashar, Zameer Niazi, Ghazi Salahuddin, Wahid Basher, and many others. In fact most of them had combined qualities of the two such as Abdul Hameed Chhapra, Minhaj Barna, Nasir Zaidi, Nisar Usmani, and Saleem Asmi. Many of them have left us, but will remain in our memories forever.

Farhad Zaidi was at the forefront of the struggle that journalists were waging against Gen Zia and his anti-democracy measures. He challenged with full vigour and zeal the martial-law orders and courted arrest with his colleagues and friends. That was the time when the martial-law regime was even using lashings and public hangings to browbeat journalists who believed in the freedom of expression and fought for it. Zaidi also spent some time in jail but never relented in his conviction that the press had to defend itself against all authoritarian regimes.

Farhad Zaidi was extremely decent both as a person and as a professional. His decency reflected in his editorship and his writings. He was one of those who could easily segue from English to Urdu and vice versa. From being the editor of an Urdu daily to occupying the top office in ‘The Muslim’ – which was one of the most widely-read newspapers – Farhad Zaidi kept his professional ethics at the highest standards. He groomed perhaps hundreds of junior journalists during his at least 50 years of active professional life.

In the 1990s, he became managing director of Pakistan Television (PTV) and proved his mettle in broadcast journalism too. Many who worked under his supervision remember his as a guide and mentor par excellence. His commitment to democracy remained intact throughout all the ups and downs of Pakistan’s history. It was his integrity that always kept him a man of humble financial means. When many other journalists were ready to sell their integrity at a handsome price, he was one of those who could not accept any offer to compromise on their two most cherished principles: democracy and freedom of expression.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I had infrequent meetings with him but fortunately we had a chance to travel together to India in 2000 for a peace conference in Bangalore. That was the time when he and his wife Musarrat Jabeen – another indomitable journalist – became close to us, especially thanks to our two daughters who accompanied us. Zoya and Sawera were just six and four years old respectively and Farhad Bhai and Musarrat Bhabi bestowed all their love upon them. That was when we realised that without the care and support of Musarrat Jabeen, Farhad Zaidi could not have done what he managed to achieve.

Just like Mehnaz and Ahfaz ur Rahman, the Farhad-Musarrat duo was inseparable. They set the highest ethical and moral examples to their children and to their junior friends like us. During our travels to various cities in India, we heard both speak their minds to enthusiastic audiences. They talked about democracy, harmony, and peace in the region. Luckily the likes of I A Rahman and Mubashir Hasan led our delegation and we were so content to be spending some time with these beacons of light.

It was the early 2000s that we dared to invite Farhad Zaidi and Musarrat Jabeen to our home in Malir, which was so far from the city centre where they lived. Without any hesitation they accepted our invitation and kept gracing our home whenever we invited them. Then we left for England, but whenever we found ourselves in Karachi only for a while, we made sure that we paid a visit to them. After coming back from my studies we moved to Islamabad and lost regular contact with Farhad Bhai. Sadly, during the last ten years or so, I was negligent in visiting him.

He was also a poet of considerable repute and his poem Shareef Aadmi is a masterpiece of Urdu nazm. This poem is sort of a monologue in which Farhad Zaidi makes some critical observations about those who remain ‘neutral’. Here I try to do a loose translation of his poem Shareef Aadmi into English.

Sometimes I wonder

When Husain was challenging Yezid

In the wilderness of Karbala

When the son of Ali

And the dearest grandson of the Prophet [pbuh]

Standing like a rock

Opposed the ruler of his time

Where was I?

Had I been among the followers of the Imam

With those who were ready to sacrifice their lives

I would have become a martyr

Had I been in the army of Yezid

I would have been rewarded with splendid regalia

For suppressing the virtuous voice

But martyrdom was not in my destiny

Neither could I receive the reward and regalia

Then I wonder where I was?

I pondered and realised

I was on neither side

Husain and his principles

Were all dear to me

But even closer to my heart

Were my own interests

My interests that revolved around

My person and my children’s safety

They eagerly sought a favour or two

From the master of the realm

That’s why in the battle of virtue and vice

I knew the right from wrong

But still, kept quiet

But when Karbala and Yezid were all gone

Thirsty Husain had lost his life

My feeling of honour resurged

I have made Yezid

A symbol of tyranny and suppression

Have been mourning Husain for ages

This poem is for those who count themselves among the gentle folk who pride themselves for being apolitical and pretend to be on neither side. Farhad Bhai fought well and was never neutral

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: