Waqar Ahmad with three other colleagues, Sarwar Kamal, Sara Naqvi and Mahommed Ghayur | File Photos
Waqar Ahmad with three other colleagues, Sarwar Kamal, Sara Naqvi and Mahommed Ghayur | File Photos

Waqar Ahmad, the authoritative voice of the BBC Urdu Service for over 30 years, died on March 13 after a short illness. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, some of the most turbulent years in the politics of South Asia, Ahmad was the regular presenter of BBC’s daily current affairs programme Sairbeen. During that period his distinctive, magisterial style of broadcasting became the hallmark of the BBC Urdu Service and his knowledge and judgement informed understanding of events in South Asia for BBC World Service audiences as a whole. In those years, BBC broadcasts were compulsory listening for millions of Pakistanis and Indians and Ahmad’s voice became one of the most familiar on the airwaves.

Ahmad was born in Sitapur, Awadh, India, in 1929 and throughout his life he retained an affection for the inclusive culture of that part of India. His father was a respected local lawyer who was, for some time, chairman of the municipal board. Ahmad was educated at Lucknow and Aligarh universities in the years before Independence and developed an early interest in politics and history.

After the turmoil of Partition, the family moved to Pakistan in 1950, where they settled in Karachi. Soon afterwards, Ahmad and his young wife Rehana set off for London, where he studied for a BA in European History at Birkbeck College under Eric Hobsbawm. During that time, he began broadcasting for what was then the BBC Pakistan Service, first as a contributor and later as a member of staff. There he worked alongside Amjad Ali, Siddiq Ahmad Siddiqi and other early pioneers of Urdu broadcasting. But the service was devoted largely to cultural programmes and did not have a mass following; that only came with the transistor revolution of the 1960s.

In the 1970s and 1980s, BBC’s Sairbeen hosted by Waqar Ahmad was compulsory listening for millions of news enthusiasts

In 1961, Ahmad returned to Pakistan to take up a job as a lecturer in European History at Karachi University. There he broadened his knowledge of world affairs and developed his own analytical skills and distinctive personal style of teaching. He also became a regular contributor to discussion programmes on Pakistan Radio and TV.

In 1970, he was invited to be one of the leading presenters involved in the coverage of the general elections, which eventually led to military action in the eastern wing, war with India and the division of the country. Ahmad’s forensic questioning of politicians and government officials was not always welcomed but the election coverage was remarkably free and fair and his reputation grew as an independent commentator.

In 1971, he returned to London to the BBC Urdu Service, by now transformed by the transistor revolution with an audience much increased by the recent political and military upheavals. With his intimate knowledge of Pakistan’s politics and his deep understanding of European history, he soon assumed a critical role in the expanded current affairs output of the service. His analytical skills, his clear, unhurried delivery and measured style, his ability to draw together the complex strands of a fast-moving story and to probe the inconsistences of political positions helped to win Sairbeen a large regular audience, not only among the country’s intelligentsia but also among the masses. In 1982, at the height of Gen Zia’s dictatorship, a BBC survey found that over 46 percent of adults in urban areas listened to the Urdu Service at least once a week.

His analytical skills, his clear, unhurried delivery and measured style, his ability to draw together the complex strands of a fast-moving story and to probe the inconsistences of political positions helped to win Sairbeen a large regular audience, not only among the country’s intelligentsia but also among the masses.

Apart from his daily work as the anchor of Sairbeen, Ahmad produced many memorable series of programmes on cultural and political issues, often compiled during visits to the subcontinent. A series on the status of the Urdu language in India, and another on the future of the so-called stranded Pakistanis left behind in Bangladesh, were both important contributions to knowledge of these issues. But he was proudest of the major series he produced in 1985 as Pakistan returned to a form of party-less democracy after eight years of military rule. In that series, he interviewed most of the leading politicians of the country, including the likes of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who had never been heard on the government-controlled media. It was encyclopaedic in scope and drew on both his educational strengths and his political knowledge, adding real value to political discourse in Pakistan at that moment.

Waqar Ahmad
Waqar Ahmad

Outside the studio, Ahmad was a man of many friendships across the Urdu, Hindi and Bengali Services of the BBC. He was also a must-see person for many academics, journalists and poets from across South Asia visiting London, whom he would entertain after the day’s programmes in the BBC Club at Bush House. He and Rehana are fondly remembered as wonderful hosts in their family home in Harrow, where Faiz and Zehra Nigah would sometimes be found reciting their poems late in the evening.

A few years ago, Waqar suffered a stroke, lost his great fluency of speech and had to lead a much more restricted life. But he continued to follow events in the subcontinent and, ever the teacher, spent his time teaching his carer how to play chess.

Ahmad was the much-loved father of Nadeem, Dushka and Munizha, and a grandfather of five, who lived to see the birth of his first great grandchild. He was an enlightened, liberal, humane man, a much-loved friend and a remarkable broadcaster, whose influence on BBC broadcasts to South Asia is still felt today.

The writer was the Editor of the BBC Urdu Service from 1977 to 1985 and Deputy Head of the BBC Eastern Service, which broadcast in six languages to South Asia, between 1985 and 1994

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 31st, 2019

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