The man who wanted the world to be a better place

March 22, 2020

Visionary, nationalist, peacenik and birdwatcher, Dr Mubashir Hasan was all this and much more. Yet he found himself in the grip of a world not of his choice

Photo: Beena Sarwar

There may be a potential film in Dr Mubashir Hasan’s 1966 blue Volkswagen Bug going around Lahore before the Pakistan Peoples Party was launched on his lawn. The VW would be a familiar sight for years in Dr M’s long red brick-paved driveway. His modest, single-storied bungalow on Gulberg’s Main Boulevard, is now sometimes hard to find, dwarfed increasingly by high-rises.

Until recently, on a sunny day in Lahore’s cold winter months, visitors could find Dr M, lying serenely on a charpoy in the verandah, overlooking the lawn where the PPP was launched in 1967. Behind the outward calm lay an active mind constantly contemplating life, peace, politics – his passions — and trying to figure out how to make the world a better place.

Dr Mubashir Hasan’s regal bearing was accentuated by his tall, angular form. A slight, bemused smile typically belied his sharp gaze. He had the authoritarian manner of a man used to being heard and obeyed. But he also listened. And he continued working until he absolutely couldn’t, producing articles, books, papers and reports.

He worked with the top leadership in the ZA Bhutto years and was “senior enough to act as prime minister” during Bhutto’s absence from the country. Yet, he found himself to be, like his prime minister, “powerless in power”. These experiences inform his memoir The Mirage of Power (OUP, 2000). In 2016, he led the initiative along with over a dozen Pakistanis, to study what was wrong with Pakistan and suggest remedies – a new social contract outlined in Making Pakistan a Tenable State.

Dr M’s other passions included birds and photography. Inside his front living room, framed photos of birds lined the walls his Birds of the Indus (2001) is a ground-breaking book authored in collaboration with Tom J Roberts, author of several photo-books on Pakistan’s birds, butterflies, and animals.

Even when bedridden in the last months of his life, he was concerned about peace in the region and never complained about his health. His voice when he spoke, was surprisingly strong, measured. Just days before he passed into the hereafter, when asked what message he’d like to give, he thought not of his immediate family but of humankind at large. Every human being, he said, speaking with an effort, must try to be someone, to do something regardless of whether they were rich or poor, tradespeople or farmers.

It is fitting that the last public declaration he endorsed was a joint statement by South Asian citizens expressing concern about India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act, in December 2019.

After all, he was the person who guided the launch of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy in 1994, a bold, unprecedented people-to-people organisation. PIPFPD brought Indians and Pakistanis together to discuss contentious issues, from peace, demilitarisation and peace dividends (after the 1998 tests, this included denuclearisation), to Kashmir, religious intolerance and democratic governance. Globalisation and regional co-operation were added at the 5th joint convention in Bangalore, 2000.

He pulled me, a young journalist in Lahore, into this loop, with the first PIPFPD convention in Delhi, 1994, and to South Asia related conferences. These weren’t joyrides. To be accepted into Dr M’s unofficial peace team without even knowing you applied, you had to prove yourself by writing reports, minutes, papers, making presentations. He was a strict taskmaster. There were deadlines. You didn’t ask for payment.

Just days before he passed into the hereafter, when asked what message he’d like to give, he thought not of his immediate family but of humankind at large.

The first assignment he gave me was to write a paper on Strengthening Democracy in South Asia: The Role of Human Rights and Rule of Law, presented at a South Asia Dialogue in Kathmandu, November 1994. Another task was to compile a directory of peace and human rights organisations in India and Pakistan. Dr Mubashir typically played his cards close to his chest. He mentioned later that he had sent the directory to Stephen P Cohen, the American political analyst and South Asia security expert who passed away last year. We didn’t know what Cohen did with it.

Dr Mubashir also articulated a vision for a South Asian Union along the lines of the European Union. “If they can have visa-free borders, and common currency, and allow trade, travel, and tourism, why can’t we?”

This from a man who was once a hawk and hard-line nationalist, ZA Bhutto’s close aide, the finance minister who helped establish Pakistan’s Ministry of Science in 1972, as well as the Kahuta Research Laboratories and Pakistan’s nuclear project.

When India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons in 1998, Dr Mubashir staunchly opposed the adventurism, along with the organisations he helped steer, the PIPFPD and the HRCP. The PPP-Shaheed Bhutto he had joined also issued a strong statement.

Dr Mubashir’s “remarkable transformation” as IA Rehman has termed it, took place in the late 1980s during Gen Ziaul Haq’s military government. He became a founding member of the HRCP, joining Asma Jahangir who was behind the initiative together with other luminaries like Justices Dorab Patel, Khuda Baksh Marri and Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, as well as Air Marshal Zafar Choudhry. Most of them are no more.

Despite occasional differences with Asma, Dr Mubashir admired and respected her open-heartedly. She too often sought his counsel. Their discussions honed and added nuances to their views. He once observed happily that so many called her just “Asma” -- not “Madam” or “Begum Saab” — showing how people “owned” her.

It was through the HRCP that I got to know Dr M, after being elected to its Council in 1993. As perhaps the youngest, least experienced member, I learnt much at the twice-yearly meetings. Looking back, it is remarkable how much space seniors like Dr M gave novices like me to express ourselves, and how genuinely curious they were about our views.

Dr Mubashir Hasan’s remote, aristocratic demeanour belied his socialist heart and loving nature. We stayed in touch over phone and email after I left Lahore. In one phone conversation, after my move to the US some years ago, Dr Mubashir mentioned a friend in the Boston area he said I must meet, “a big peace activist” and author. One of his must-read books is The Lost Art of Healing (1996) about the importance of empathetic healthcare and the dangers of overmedication. Another is Prescription for Survival: A Doctor’s Journey to End Nuclear Madness (2008) a memoir about the formation of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, containing essential lessons in activism relevant even today.

The friend was Dr Bernard Lown, recipient of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize along with fellow cardiologist, Russian Dr Yevgeny I Chazov, for having started the IPPNW and countering the Cold War nuclear threat.

Dr Lown is about a year older than Dr M. He and his wife Louise hosted Dr Mubashir and his wife Dr Zeenat at their home years ago. When I met him in 2017, Dr Lown called Dr Mubashir “the most beautiful, noble, refined human being”.

His focus had shifted to climate change as the biggest threat to the world today, but Dr Lown graciously endorsed a statement for peaceful relations between India and Pakistan, that Dr Mubashir and over 1,000 other eminent personalities of India, Pakistan and elsewhere had signed. The statement may have helped counter the war hype-narrative of early to mid-2017.

After our meeting Dr Lown made a phone call. He said later he was pleased to have had “a more than one-hour conversation with Mubashir and Zeenat in Lahore”. Regrettably, Dr M sounded pessimistic, he observed.

The pessimism was not new. In a 2015 email, Dr M had written, “…We find ourselves in the grip of a world not of our choice. We live in Pakistan and in many other places on this planet and in the circumstance of our world in a civilisation decline with no end in sight”.

But this was also the man who always found hope in political activism. No progressive movement, he told me in one of our talks, had ever taken people backwards. I hold on to that thought as I now bid him farewell.

The writer is a journalist, editor and filmmaker. She tweets @beenasarwar. Website

Dr Mubashir Hasan: The man who wanted the world to be a better place