A mentor and guide

April 18, 2021

IA Rehman became chief editor of The Pakistan Times in December 1988,soon after Benazir Bhutto became prime minister

“The detenu who would not break” is how they headlined my first article in The Pakistan Times, March 1989. IA Rehman and Aziz Siddiqui were the editors.

As a young freelance journalist, I had interviewed former political prisoners and written about the torture they had endured under the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq. I had given the typewritten pages to Rehman Sahib never expecting a full-page spread.

IA Rehman became chief editor of The Pakistan Times in December 1988, soon after Benazir Bhutto became prime minister. When Minister for Information Javed Jabbar invited him to return to PT – a paper he had retired from 14 years earlier - Rehman Sahib told him, “We will run the PT as an independent daily and not as a party paper”.

“It was on this condition that I was able to persuade Aziz Siddiqui Sahib to come along as the editor. He ran the paper so independently that Benazir Bhutto once remarked that PT looked like an opposition paper. But she bore with us”.

When the Benazir Bhutto government was sacked in August 1990, “both Aziz Sahib and I felt that there would be no freedom of expression for some time. Aziz Sahib wrote a beautiful editorial recalling Sissyphus fable (sic) that we put on the front page and walked out”.

Lakshmi Mansion at Regal Chowk where I lived after moving to Lahore in 1988 was near the office of English-language weekly Viewpoint where I probably first met IAR. In the absence of Google, the best search engine around was Viewpoint’s veteran chronicler Nizam Sahib, who later joined the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, when Asma Jahangir roped in Rehman Sahib and Siddiqui Sahib as directors after they left The Pakistan Times.

Soon afterwards, I began volunteering at the HRCP, then served on its Council for three terms. Long after I left Lahore, when I pressed Rehman Sahib for information for a book I’ve been working on, he was characteristically patient and generous with his time and insights.

It was from him that I learnt about the pioneering Urdu daily Azad, launched in November 1970, information that should be in our history textbooks but isn’t.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ), agitating for an interim award by the Second Wage Board, had called a ten-day strike in April 1970. The military regime sacked nearly 200 newspaper workers, including over 150 katibs - scribes who literally hand-wrote the papers. The PFUJ decided to bring out its own paper, employing many dismissed journalists and katibs. Air Marshal Nur Khan, the former chief of Pakistan Air Force, supported them. He bought a second-hand rotary machine and rented a small plot at the corner of Lawrence and Temple Roads behind the then Dawn office. That is where Mazhar Ali Khan launched Viewpoint in 1976.

Besides IAR, the Azad team included Abdullah Malik, Hamid Akhtar, and Minhaj Barna who was chief reporter. Abbas Athar was the news editor. It was he who made famous the line wrongly attributed to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto “Idhar hum, udhar tum” – roughly translated, We here, you there – based on a throwaway comment by another journalist friend Nisar Osmani, also later an HRCP founder member.

On February 28, 1971, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto gave a public address in Lahore. He said that he, Bhutto, had the electoral majority in West Pakistan and Mujibur Rehman had a majority in East Pakistan. He declared that no PPP parliamentarian would go to Dhaka to attend the NA session. When Abbas Athar ran into Osmani Sahib and asked what had happened at the jalsa, Osmani Sahib replied, “Idhar hum, udhar tum”.

“Abbas Athar made that the headline in Azad” said IAR.

Yahya immediately put off the National Assembly session, catalysing the disobedience movement in East Pakistan. Rehman Sahib and his friends were among the few who stood against the military action that followed, and which paralysed the economy.

Parties failed to pay for ads and papers floundered. Azad’s journalists pitched in for a while but “then we burnt out our savings. This continued for a short while only”. IA Rehman characteristically played down the hardships that he and his comrades and their families faced, selling household belongings and assets to keep the paper going.

Azad folded up in late November 1971. Some of its journalists found jobs in other papers. Others were out on the street. “Barna went to ‘Pindi and from there he drove to Karachi in a car he had bought without learning to drive”, quipped Rehman Sahib. He returned to his father’s house in Multan. But not for long.

The writer is a journalist and journalism teacher, founder editor of The News on Sunday, and a three-time HRCP Council member. Website: www.beenasarwar.com, Twitter @beenasarwar

A mentor and guide