A fighter at the barricades

March 29, 2015

That she broke with the family tradition and threw her lot with the working class was Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan’s most remarkable achievement

A fighter at the barricades

Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, who died on Monday last, won the title of the grand old lady of left politics in the country on the strength of decades of consistent work for the disadvantaged sections of society. Even when a series of paralytic strokes had cut her active life short, she continued to support her people’s strivings for an egalitarian dispensation, especially for realising women’s rights.

Born in 1925, the fifth child of Sir Sikander Hyat, she grew up in a house that was deeply immersed in politics. The family had a long record of allegiance to the British and her father became Prime Minister of Punjab as the leader of the Unionist Party, a non-communal alliance of landlords and small peasant proprietors. That she broke with the family tradition and threw her lot with the working class, especially women workers, was Tahira Mazhar’s most remarkable achievement.

Politics was in a flux while Tahira, in her teens, was studying at Lahore’s Queen Mary School. While the founder of the Unionist Party, Sir Fazli-i-Husain, had told Mr Jinnah to stay away from Punjab, Sir Sikander responded to the changing mood of the people, and Great Britain’s war priorities, by signing the Sikander-Jinnah pact that gave the Muslim League a toe-hold in the province. At the age of 15 Tahira was a witness to the excitement generated by the adoption of the Lahore (later Pakistan) Resolution and the tension in her house caused by her father’s frustration at the Muslim League’s refusal to adopt his formula for the country’s constitutional advance.

A decisive factor in Tahira’s transformation from a darling of the aristocracy into a fighter at the barricades was her marriage at a formative age of 16 to her cousin, Mazhar Ali Khan. The son of Nawab Muzaffar Ali Khan, one of the important leaders of the Unionist Party, Mazhar had defied the family tradition by becoming a fiery leader of the nationalist students union while studying at Lahore’s Government College. Inspired by Gandhi, and more than him by Nehru, he was usually identified not only as a Nehruite socialist, but also as a friend of the Soviet Union, and this not only because of having been born in the year of the October Revolution. His political creed had not been affected by his decision to secure a commission in the British Indian Army, partly in fulfillment of Sikander Hyat’s condition for claiming Tahira’s hand in marriage, because he found several British army officers who were keen to organise communist study circles with their Indian colleagues.

The fall of the Soviet Union caused severe tremors in Pakistan’s shrinking left corner of the world. Tahira Mazhar Ali was not unwilling to see what had gone wrong but she refused to join the wailers and the keen-to-quit stragglers.

When, after quitting the army, Mazhar Ali Khan started organising peasants in the feudal-dominated northern Punjab, Tahira had a good opportunity to learn of the exploitation of the under-privileged and, more than that, of the victims’ acceptance of their misery as a heavenly-ordained obligation. Soon afterwards, however, Mazhar Ali Khan was invited by Mian Iftikharuddin to join The Pakistan Times that he was launching to support the movement for Pakistan, and Tahira followed him to set up their home in Lahore.

Lahore during 1946-50 was the scene of great intellectual ferment and popularity of the left ideals. Mian Iftikharuddin had succeeded in dragging a staid Muslim League into a confrontation with Khizar Hyat’s Congress-Unionist ministry over the people’s right to civil liberties. Daniyal Latifi had scripted a progressive election manifesto for the Punjab Muslim League. Mohammad Afzal had helped Mirza Ibrahim and his colleagues in making trade unions active and lively. Members of the Communist Party who had joined the Muslim League after the Adhikari verdict in favour of Pakistan were demanding practical steps towards establishing a pro-socialism society and men like Prof. Eric Cyprian and Abdullah Malik and Hamid Akhtar were working as party whole-timers. A Civil Liberties Union had been formed. The Punjab Union of Journalists had been reorganised and activated by leftist journalists (Ahmad Ali Khan, Hameed Hashmi, Ghayur-ul-Islam, et al).

The Progressive Writers’ Association had held a ground-breaking convention; its meetings were often held at Tahira-Mazhar flat on Nicholson Road, where they had hosted Sajjad Zaheer, who had been forced to stay underground, for a considerable time. It was in this milieu that Tahira Mazhar completed her education as a worker committed to the uplift of the poor and the marginalised, while at the same time bringing up her two little children, Tariq Ali and Tauseef Hyat (the third, Mahir Ali, had to wait for more than a decade to arrive).

Tahira Mazhar formally joined the Communist Party (CPI) and chose to work with railway workers and their womenfolk and for peace. Many old residents of Lahore used to recall with amazement that they saw this exceptionally good-looking Sikander-di-dhi distributing CPI bulletins and journals and later on stomping the city streets for peace in the world. Eventually Tahira found several public-spirited women to join her in launching the Democratic Women’s Association.

When Mazhar Ali Khan became editor of The Pakistan Times in 1951, he moved a little away from active politics, mainly to ensure that the progressive daily, though committed to upholding democracy, an independent foreign policy, a mixed economy, and good relations with India and the socialist countries, was not taken by anyone as a party organ. Tahira Mazhar agreed with all this but saw no bar to her active involvement with the politics of women’s liberation and their due role in politics, economy and social life.

The Ayub period brought some quite serious challenges to Tahira. Mazhar Ali Khan’s journalistic career was cut short when he was only 42 years old. Although he could contribute a column to the Dhaka-based journal, The Forum, and daily Azad (1970-71) and briefly served as editor of Dawn (1972), it was not until 1975, with the launching of weekly Viewpoint that he was able to resume his career as a full-fledged editor.

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Throughout this period Tahira was called upon to offer him the critical moral and social support that he needed. It may be useful to recall that, as narrated by Tahira in her excellently written interview with Kamila Hyat, published in this paper in 2000, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Gen. K.M. Sheikh, ministers in Ayub’s cabinet, came to persuade Mazhar Ali to stay on at the PT after its seizure, the first big ‘no" they heard was from Tahira.

The cause of the women from Garhi Shahu, as her friends were called, was however not left unattended. She kept her colleagues in the Democratic Women’s Association working, despite cracks in their unity caused by a variety of reasons, for some of which she herself also was blamed. Her ability to stay above any intra-party squabbles saved her space for her continued activism. In time she became a widely respected mentor to younger women who had new ideas about taking on the dictators and challenging the seemingly unconquerable gods of patriarchy.

The East Bengal crisis of 1970-71 offered Tahira Mazhar Ali an opportunity to reveal both clarity of her mind and her fighting spirit. While Mazhar Ali Khan went to Dhaka to try his hand at brokering a Mujib-Bhutto accord, she was out in the streets of Lahore to oppose the military action in Bengal. She never revised her thinking about the wrongs done to the Bengali people.

Much later, at an international writers’ conference in Islamabad, she called upon the government of Pakistan to apologise to the people of Bangladesh. Sheikh Hasina Wajid, the Bangladesh Prime Minister, could recall this and much more while conferring the Friend of Bangladesh Award on her, though Tahira was too unwell to travel to Dhaka.

The fall of the Soviet Union caused severe tremors in Pakistan’s shrinking left corner of the world. Tahira Mazhar Ali was not unwilling to see what had gone wrong but she refused to join the wailers and the keen-to-quit stragglers.

In her view nothing warranted any slackening of Pakistani progressive elements’ work for the rights of the people. One of her last major contributions to the cause of the Pakistani women was when as a vice-chairperson of HRCP she lent decisive support to Asma Jahangir’s call for reservation of 33 per cent seats for women in all elected bodies. A refusal to give up was a most enduring feature of her character. Only a few days before she passed away she surprised old comrade Nasim Shamim Malik, while seeing her after years, with a glint in her eyes that reminded the guest of their fighting days.

Tahira Mazhar Ali will be remembered for many things, especially for awakening hope in hearts where despair had ruled for centuries, both Muslim and non-Muslim, for she was a model of freedom from communal and sectarian biases, her attachment to and pride in the Punjabi language notwithstanding.

One of the great things she and Mazhar Ali Khan achieved was the development of their home into a nursery for free development of intellect. A strict disciplinarian that Mazhar Ali Khan was he could not prevent his children and grandchildren from exercising their political options and choosing their own ways of living and this was most probably due to Tahira’s success in grounding political idealism in love for ordinary human beings.

A fighter at the barricades