Minhaj Barna’s life-long leadership of trade unionism in Pakistan’s newspaper industry overshadowed some other aspects of his versatile personality and made him appear a uni-dimensional personality he was not. His humanism has remained unrecognised till this day, and the fact that he was a brilliant poet became public knowledge only after the publication of his book of poetry three years before his death last year today.
He struggled against injustice and suffered persecution from the establishment throughout his life whenever he saw rights being trampled over, no matter who the victim. Those who persecuted him unabashedly were not necessarily military governments; he had rough moments even with civilian regimes. An elected government called him a Jamaat agent because he pursued with the same doggedness his opposition to anti-press laws and nostrums as he did under the military governments.
Few people, including his admirers, know how Barna acquired that rebel streak which was to remain the dominant trait of his character. It began at Jamea Millia, Delhi, where he was a student, and which had a literary club called Bazme Adab. It had both Muslim and non-Muslim students, but the latter did not have the voting right.
Barna wondered why, and launched a campaign, demanding that Hindu and Sikh students be given the right to vote. The demand was not acceptable to the university authorities, and the agitation was gaining attention, so Barna experienced the consequences of arousing the establishment’s wrath for the first time in life when he was expelled from the university.
By then he had completed his graduation, but the issue was where he would live — away from his home in Qaim Ganj, UP, where he was born into a Pathan family in 1925. Barna also had ‘sedition’ in his blood. His father, Hakim Taj, was active in the anti-British non-cooperation movement (1922-23), made a ‘seditious’ speech at Karachi’s Khaliqdina Hall and was expelled from Karachi. Barna would perhaps not have caught the leftist bug if he got a ‘better’ place to stay after he was out of Jamea.
The headquarters of the Communist Party of India was nearby, and it opened its doors to him — his love affair with the Left had begun. However, the man instrumental in getting Barna into the CPI was Muqeemuddin Farooqi, Delhi CPI secretary.
In Karachi, after independence, Barna started working for Balshakov, who was correspondent for the Soviet news agency Tass, but was put behind bars for six months after the government cracked down on all leftist elements in 1951 as a consequence of Pakistan’s membership of US-led military pacts.
His career with newspapers began in 1951 with Imroze, Lahore, where Barna found the going tough because the paper was forced to join the government-controlled National Press Trust.
Following the failure of the strike in Anjam, and his severe criticism in the Pakistan Times of West Pakistan Governor Kalabagh, who wanted him sacked, NPT bosses transferred him to East Pakistan, where he stayed from 1966 to 1969 to return to West Pakistan to organise the historic 1970 strike to press for better working conditions for press workers.
As a prelude to the strike, Barna organised a referendum, and it was only after over 90 per cent had voted in favour of the strike that it began. The 10-day shutdown was a resounding success, and it rocked the press barons because Barna had secured the cooperation of non-journalists.
One hilarious aspect of the strike was the twist given to it by ‘ideologywallas’, because Pakistan’s first general election was around the corner. They tried to sabotage the strike by proclaiming that under the cover of the strike, and in league with Bhutto and Bhashani, Barna was preparing for a communist revolution!
After the strike Barna brought the journalists and press workers on one platform by forming the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation in 1976. He became its first president and remained so long after he had retired from active life.
His worst — which means best — days were during Ziaul Haq’s days of tyranny when journalists were flogged. In 1978 Barna went to prison for the second time during the movement revolving round daily Masawat. Hunger strike was not new to him. In 1978 he went on a hunger strike unto death in Khairpur jail, and broke it only after most of his demands had been met. But this did terminal damage to his system. He never fully recovered.
Facts on Barna’s early life are based on interviews conducted with him.