Remembering Ahfazur Rahman, a fighter for press freedom

Rahman leaves behind a rich legacy as a journalist, poet and writer

Photo courtesy Twitter

In a professional career spanning over 40 years, Ahfazur Rahman stood up to three military regimes as a poet, journalist and a trade unionist. He was always at the forefront in the struggle for protecting the rights of students, journalists and workers.

On April 15, Rahman breathed his last in Karachi at the age of 78 after battling cancer for 10 years.

Rahman was born on April 4, 1942, in Jabalpur, India. His family migrated to Karachi in 1947 when he was just five.

After receiving his school education from Karachi’s Bizerta Lines area, he graduated from the Urdu College and the University of Karachi. He had always been inspired by the stalwarts of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. The poetry of Sahir Ludhyanvi and Krishan Chander’s fiction were among his favourites.

During his college days, he became active in student politics under the banner of the National Students’ Federation (NSF), a left-leaning student group. As a member of its executive council, he took active part in student protests held against Ayub Khan’s rule from 1962 to 1964.

Recalling Pakistan’s first military rule, Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a senior journalist, says that raising a dissenting voice was considered a heinous crime during Ayub Khan’s dictatorship. “Rahman, along with other NSF leaders, led an effective protest campaign against college fee hike, non-provision of basic facilities to students in the academic institutions, and most importantly, for the restoration of democracy,” he says.

“During his time at the University of Karachi, the then vice-chancellor Ashfaq Hussain Qureshi, tried to prop-up a right-wing students’ group. Rahman fought back by raising awareness among the students and promoting progressive ideas on the campus,” Dr Tauseef Khan says.

After teaching at the University of Karachi for a brief time, Rahman took up journalism in 1966 as a sub-editor at the weekly Akhbar-e-Jehan.

Thereafter, he worked for several publications, including Musawaat, Jang, Amn and the weekly Al-Fatah holding senior positions.

In 1969, he went to China to work for the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution.

Upon his return to Pakistan in 1972, Rahman resumed his activism and took part in the historic protest movement against Ziaul Haq’s military regime in 1977-78. When journalists from all over Pakistan came to Karachi in 1977 to offer mass voluntary arrests, Rahman was the first to be sent to Camp Jail.

After teaching at the University of Karachi for a brief period, Rahman joined weekly Akhbar-e-Jehan as a sub-editor in 1966. Later, he went on to work for several publications, including Musawaat ,Jang, Amn and Al-Fatah

Later, he was released, but banned from entering the Punjab for six months.

In July 1978, Rahman went underground to escape arrest and organised journalists, workers, peasants and student volunteers against the military regime.

“He was inspired by the struggle of veteran journalists such as Eric Cyprian, Minhaj Barna, MA Shakoor, Ahmed Hasan and others who were arrested in 1954 for defying the notorious Security of Pakistan Act,” said one of his colleagues.

In 1985, he once again joined the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing.

On returning to Pakistan in 1993, Rahman joined Urdu daily, Jang, as magazine editor.

In 2002, he was elected president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. In November 2007, he was arrested for organising protests against the Musharraf regime’s decision to ban several media channels including Geo TV.

Rahman has 25 original books and translations to his credit. His book Sab Sai Bari Jang is considered an honest, accurate, and concise account of the days of Gen Ziaul Haq when a series of draconian laws was promulgated to suppress the freedom of expression and free press.

Tauseef Khan, who is also a journalism teacher, says it is a must-read for students of journalism and those who would like to understand how Pakistani journalists had struggled to achieve whatever little freedom they have today.

Rahman also translated the autobiography of Chou-en-Lai, the former Chinese prime minister and a history of China. He used to say that he had spent twelve years in the People’s Republic of China and was inspired by the great statesman.

He also wrote and translated several books for children. These included World of Stories by Bulgarian writer Angel Karaliychev; Three Conceited Kittens, a Chinese novel for children; Neemoo Keemoo, a short novel for Pakistani children; and Great Britain, a general knowledge book for children. He also compiled 100 pictorial Chinese books for children.

In 2015, while he was battling cancer, Rahman wrote the book Zinda Hai Zindagi, chronicling the 1977-78 journalists’ movement for the freedom of the press.

His poetry, according to feminist poet, Fehmida Riaz, is “an engaging account of our collective yearnings for what this nation has yet to achieve”.

Nai Alif Lela is one of his books in Urdu verse.

Rahman was buried at a graveyard in Karachi’s Mehmoodabad locality. He is survived by his wife - Mahnaz Rahman, the Aurat Foundation resident director, who also took part in the journalist movement with her husband, and two children — a son and a daughter.

Paying a tribute to Rahman’s professional legacy, Akhtar Hussain, a senior lawyer and an Awami Workers’ Party leader, said that Rahman belonged to a generation of intellectuals that had witnessed the people’s agonies in the wake of the Partition and dreamed of and struggled for building an egalitarian and fairer society.

“Rahman was a man of integrity who struggled throughout his life for press freedom and for better wages for working journalists, peasants and workers. He was among those rare Pakistani journalists whose lives embody our national history,” Hussain says.

Remembering Ahfazur Rahman, a fighter for press freedom