WHILE observing the centenary of the birth of Mazhar Ali Khan, one of Pakistan’s most outstanding newspaper editors, the journalist community would do well to recall, and if possible to reaffirm, the traditions of independent and public-spirited journalism that he and his fellow pioneers had nourished.
Mazhar Ali (1917-1993) was well known in his college days as a star debater, a lover of sports (tennis and swimming) and as a leader of a nationalist-minded and non-communal students’ union. After a brief stint as an officer in the British Indian army — to fulfil the condition for marrying the beautiful daughter of Sir Sikandar Hayat, the unionist prime minister of Punjab — he was mobilising peasants in his family’s fiefdom when he was invited by Mian Iftikharuddin to join the editorial team of The Pakistan Times, the newspaper he had launched to win Punjab’s support for the Pakistan cause, And Mazhar Ali Khan became a fulltime journalist for the rest of his life.
Within four years of his joining the PT, Mazhar Ali was promoted as editor in place of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, when the latter became a victim of the Rawalpindi conspiracy, and held that post till April 19, 1959, when the PT and its sister publications Imroze and Lail-o-Nahar, were seized by the Ayub regime as the first step in its design to hegemonise the national press.
During the eight years of Mazhar’s stewardship (Faiz returned to the PT as chief editor in 1955 but chose to take an interest in editorial matters only when Mazhar was away), the Pakistan Times reached the pinnacle of its popularity and financial stability. It also became a powerful voice that the administration could not ignore. A provincial police chief had to be relieved of his post after a photograph in the PT had shown the employment of unauthorised labour at his residence. Although the general policy of PT and the thematic priorities of the paper had been chalked out by Faiz and his team, that also included Mazhar, it was under the latter’s editorship that the paper really flourished.
Mazhar Ali Khan’s career shows how literary and journalistic talent was suppressed by authoritarian rulers.
In many ways, it was perhaps the most glorious period in Pakistani journalism. The country was fortunate to have several editors whose competence and uprightness had brought dignity to their calling. They won the respect of the people by articulating their wishes and aspirations more faithfully and honestly than those who claimed to represent them in the legislatures. They acknowledged their duties to the state but they did not yield their right to define the legitimate demands of patriotism.
The state used repressive laws to restrict freedom of expression in both wings of the country but there were always some editors who resisted all forms of coercion. And they sustained a healthy debate on the various issues, from the evils of the One Unit system to denial of East Bengal’s share in power and its benefits.
Although neither Mazhar nor Faiz ever joined a political party so as not to compromise their editorial independence, and the leftists on the staff were always in a tiny minority, the PT was hounded by the establishment as a hotbed of communist intrigue. Mazhar Ali Khan’s greatest success lay in establishing the paper’s credibility as an independent advocate of non-alignment, good relations with both socialist and capitalist countries, and secular democracy at home, with special emphasis on the rights of peasants and workers. He also saved the paper from becoming an organ of the political parties of Mian Iftikharuddin and the latter helped by not interfering in the editor’s domain.
Mazhar Ali Khan did this by insisting on truthfulness and objectivity, by giving space to district correspondents, by developing a superb reference section and by encouraging the staff to pay due respect to the dictionary and essential reference books and especially to Keesings reports. He was punctual to a fault, did not like idlers, and hated the idea of newspaper holidays. He allowed the paper to make its due contribution to the journalists’ trade union and it paid for staff members’ travel to attend the union meetings.
One of Mazhar’s golden rules was that the newspaper could not be used for the editor’s or his family’s projection. During the Viewpoint days, Tahira Mazhar Ali sent a statement for publication in her capacity as president of the Democratic Women’s Association. Mazhar sahib, said no publicity for the editor’s spouse. The maximum concession allowed was that a heavily trimmed version of the statement could be taken as a letter to editor.
Mazhar Ali Khan’s career shows how Pakistan’s literary and journalistic talent was suppressed by authoritarian rulers. He belonged to a tribe of editors who wanted to write for their papers as much as they could. He became a prolific and compulsive writer. In 1981, he kept writing his editorial for Viewpoint from Kot Lakhpat jail.
His career may be divided in three parts. For the first 12 years, he wrote for the PT. Then he was forced to put his pen aside for 16 years except for writing a few columns for the Forum, the weekly launched by his Bengali friends Dr Kamal Husain and Rahman Subhan, and during a short stint as editor of Dawn when the regular incumbent, Altaf Gauhar, was thrown in prison by Bhutto. He was able to resume his writing only in 1975 when he could bring out his weekly, Viewpoint.
For 17 years, this sedate-looking publication gave the clearest call for a democratic and an egalitarian order. Reputed authorities on politics, the economy, sociology and culture contributed to it and quite a few journalists discovered their ability to write valuable columns. The weekly became a thorn in Gen Zia’s thick skin and he subjected it to censorship perhaps longer than other victims of his venom.
Fortunately, two selections of his writings, Pakistan: The First Twelve Years and Pakistan: The Barren Years published by OUP are there to testify to Mazhar Ali Khan’s enormous contribution to Pakistan’s political literature. These writings can still be read for enjoying good prose and are relevant because the state has refused to resolve the issues it had created for itself 50 to 60 years ago. Viewpoint folded up in 1992 when Mazhar had exhausted all his resources. He too passed into history less than a year later.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2017