IA Rehman: a requiescat

IA Rehman is remembered as the worthy guardian of our collective conscience for decades

I met him first in 1977 when Zia ul Haq ruled the country. He lived in Lahore and his friend, Hussain Naqi Sahib, was the tenant in Model Town of the mother of a friend of mine. I was then a military officer about to resign my commission. I knew little about the two unassuming journalists who were so down-to-earth but I understood that they were brave and well-read. I learnt from them that there was a thriving movement of dissent against Zia’a martial rule. I was impressed.

Much later, when I became an academic and started writing columns in the English press, I met him again. I learnt then that this down-to-earth, good humoured man was IA Rehman and that he was highly respected among the left-leaning and liberal humanist circles of Pakistan’s intelligentsia. Then I met both him and Hussain Naqi in the pages of Viewpoint, which Mazhar Ali Khan published from Lahore. Dissent with Zia’s policies was dangerous in those years but the contributors of this weekly never flinched in taking up the cudgels against whatever they considered anti-people. My admiration for him grew but whenever I wanted to pay homage to him he laughed and said something like: ‘Array Doctor Sahib, yeh to choti si baat thi, so keh di’ (Oh! This was a small matter, so I said it). Everything, no matter how serious or potentially dangerous it was for his own safety, was a small matter to him for which he claimed no credit. Mazhar Sahib, the editor, was another wonder of the world. He assured me that he would send me copies of Viewpoint to my house. So, even when I was in Scotland, the weekly was sent to me, costing him a fortune though the paper was bankrupt and we wrote free for him. Such was the moral calibre of the people associated with Viewpoint.

Later, I saw Rehman Sahib’s work for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. It was back-breaking and nerve-straining work. His desk in his small office in Lahore used to be full of reports, newspapers and legal judgments that hardly left him any room to move about. In this pile of material he sat with his cheerful smile working incessantly from morning till evening in order to compile the yearly reports that have become a barometer of our national conscience. These reports are far from easy to compile as they record the misdeeds of our governance system, the misdeeds of the high and mighty, and give the lie to those who maintain that there is nothing wrong with the country. Others who worked closely in recording what was wrong were Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani and a number of journalists who continued to report these cases even when threatened with injury and death.

Rehman Sahib was the key figure in all pro-democracy movements and opposed all military governments. He was not among those seduced by Pervez Musharraf’s facile charm and the glib diction of modernity (chief executive instead of chief martial law administrator) he introduced. With his mocking smile he told me about the realities of Musharraf’s rule. Things that became known to most people only in 2007 were evident to him in 2003. He also knew just what policies of the military had the potential of precipitating a war with India. In seminars, despite his assiduous effort not to hog the show, he was inevitably asked to chair and deliver keynote addresses. I, too, sometimes spoke at these and he would always praise me leaving me somewhat embarrassed as, in my opinion, I had said nothing that could be called original. Once he said:

“Doctor Sahib, congratulations. Bahadri ki baaten kin aaj” (what you said today was brave).

I assured him that I was not in his league and what I had said was based entirely on the material the Human Rights Reports had provided so it was with thanks to him that I had used it. He grinned and said: “The reports are useless if they remain buried in some libraries. You used them; that is what makes them useful.” He did not add that he had risked life and limb to compile them. “Your books will stay around longer than our newspaper articles and speeches,” he once said when I thanked him for reviewing my book Language and Politics in Pakistan (1996).

I interviewed him about his journalistic activities. Among other things, he told me that he and colleagues Abdullah Malik and Hamid Akhtar had taken out a daily newspaper in Urdu called Azad from Lahore. It lasted from November 12, 1970, till September 30, 1971, when, despite a circulation of 35,000 plus, it came to an end because of financial stringency. The daily reported the atrocities against Bengalis in March 1971 that they had learned about from Mazhar Ali Khan, who was an eyewitness. Naseem Malik, wife of Shamim Ashraf Malik, and mother-in-law of the NAP activist and lawyer Zafar Malik, too, came back from Dhaka with an eyewitness account of the military action. They wrote a statement against the military action in March and it was published in Azad but nobody in the mainstream media published it nor did many sign it.

Rehman Sahib’s human side was touching. My wife Hana tells me that she was looking for me at some festival at the Alhamra Complex when he saw her. With his typical smile and a glint of humour in his eyes he said to her: “Aap Doctor Sahib ko dhund rahi haen. Aap dhundti rahiye. Wo to kho gaye, idhar udhar.” (You are looking for him. Keep looking, but he is lost here and there”. She was much amused at his lighthearted way of joking about me having gone for fun, leaving her behind, and moved that he remembered her. Great men, people who were so busy, hardly remembered people whom they met on so few occasions, she said.

“Truly great human beings,” I assured her, were also humble. Rehman Sahib never let his heroic stature come in the way of his essential humanity.

For more than half a century, he was the guardian of our collective conscience and the better angels of our nature. Never was there a struggle for the exploited, never a movement in the interest of the underdog, never an occasion when brute force had to be opposed, when IA Rehman was not part of it. He was always there: resolute, without bluster, without complaint, without even anger.

The years 2020 and 2021 have deprived us of other gems too: Masud Mufti, Tariq Aziz and Haseena Moin for instance:

I close with a couplet from Ghalib:

Sab kahan kuch lala-o-gul maen numayan hoe gaeen

khak maen kya surataen hon gi keh pinhan hoe gaeen

(Not all, only some of them manifest in the forms of tulips and roses/ Oh what lovely faces there must have been that are hidden in the dust).

The author is an   occasional contributor

IA Rehman: a requiescat