Those interested in Pakistan’s political history must have definitely heard about the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case which occurred in 1951, just four years after Partition, when 11 officers of the armed forces and four eminent civilians were arrested for the first attempted coup d’état.
The officers included Zafar Ullah Poshni, author of Prison Interlude: The Last Eyewitness Account of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. Then a captain and now the only surviving member of the group, he narrates the story of the time the conspirators spent together in prison. However, he does not mention anything about the proceedings of the trial by a special court because all those connected — the accused, judges, lawyers, witnesses and court staff — are legally bound to maintain confidentiality.
Soon after independence, violence broke out in Kashmir, and Pakhtun tribesmen started advancing towards the valley. Maj Gen Mohammad Akbar Khan, DSO, Chief of the General Staff, who was then a brigadier, was given command of the regulars and irregulars to fight the Indian army. According to Poshni, it was during this period that he first became dissatisfied with the moral and material support that the then prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s government had provided to the Pakistani fighters. He also held a grudge against Gen Douglas Gracey, then commander in chief of the Pakistan Army, who had put the brakes on deeper involvement of the army on the Kashmir front.
An English translation of the jail memoirs of the only surviving member of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case accused, humanises their four years of incarceration
Maj Gen Khan was of the opinion that accepting a ceasefire in Kashmir was a mistake and the battle against the Indian army should have continued. This experience frustrated him, but being a risk-taker and extremely ambitious, it also propelled him to devise a plan to remove Liaquat’s government from power through a coup d’état. The conspiracy was entirely Maj Gen Khan’s brainchild and he was able to persuade others to follow his lead up to certain point — but no further.
While democratic governments were established both in India and Pakistan, there were strong lobbies of the communist parties in the two countries. Liaquat had chosen to support the capitalist American bloc and made his first ever official visit to the United States. Pakistan’s political leadership was, therefore, highly antagonistic towards persons propagating the cause of communism.
Three of the four civilians involved in the case were staunch communists; the most prominent was the great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the then editor of the English-language daily newspaper Pakistan Times. Faiz was first kept in solitary confinement for three months and then allowed to join the other prisoners arrested under the case and kept in the Hyderabad Jail. The other two civilians, Syed Sajjad Zaheer and Mohammad Hussain Ata, were the general secretary and member, respectively, of the central committee of the Communist Party of Pakistan. The fourth was Begum Nasim, wife of Maj Gen Khan, who was quite vocal in her criticism of the government.
According to Poshni, the coup plan was laid out by Maj Gen Khan in a meeting held at his house on Feb 23, 1951 and attended by the whole group. Also present were Lt Col Siddique Raja and Major Mohammad Yousuf Sethi, who later obtained state pardon and became approvers against the rest. Their evidence, recorded during the trial proceedings, must have greatly damaged the defendants’ case. The plan to topple Liaquat Ali Khan’s government by compelling the then governor general Khwaja Nazimuddin to announce its dismissal came to the prime minister’s knowledge through a confidant of Maj Gen Khan, who had ditched the latter.
The trial began on June 15, 1951 for which the government constituted a special tribunal comprising three judges: Justice Sir Abdul Rahman of the Federal Court, Justice Mohammad Sharif of the Punjab High Court and Justice Amiruddin of the Dacca [Dhaka] High Court. The prosecution was led by the eminent lawyer A.K. Brohi and the defendants were represented by lawyers of no lesser calibre: Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy — who later became prime minister of Pakistan — appeared on behalf of Brig Latif Khan while Zahirul Hasan Lari represented Maj Gen Khan. Four other celebrated legal practitioners appeared for the remaining accused. All proceedings of the trial took place inside the jail.
The senior officers of the armed forces were given A class in the jail while the others were kept in B class. The group named the two classes Seraye and Khanqah respectively. However, most of the time there was no restriction by the jail authorities on their mixing with each other. Faiz wrote about Poshni as a “nonchalant, carefree, sporty young man, who seemed to have no concern with the world’s affairs except to do push-ups and sing.” Poshni played a key role in boosting the group’s morale for the nearly four years they spent in Hyderabad Jail; he would sing for them, organise mushairas and volleyball matches and motivate the other inmates by doing physical exercises. While in jail, Poshni and Ata became close friends. A substantial part of the book relates to long conversations between the two, which includes Ata’s narration of communism concepts.
Nevertheless, living in confined premises, and the psychological pressure of existing in a narrow, restricted space of unpleasant ambience, made the group members lose their tempers at times. Since there was no protocol of rank inside the jail and their status was just that of civilians, they would sometimes pick physical fights with each other and engage in childlike behaviour to let out their frustration.
With Hyderabad Jail being fairly large, a number of political and other prisoners from all over the country were brought here to spend their terms. These included members of the ‘Red Shirts’ of the frontier province; opponents of then prime minister Mohammad Ali Bogra’s declaration to make West Pakistan a single unit; those arrested under the Pakistan Safety Act; and the agitators of the anti-Ahmadi movement that had erupted all over West Pakistan in February 1953.
Because of Faiz’s stature and his literary influence, the majority of the 15 prisoners of the case developed a keen interest not only in listening to Faiz’s poetry, but also writing their own verses and reciting them in mushairas held during the initial months in prison. A tarana — “Darbaar-i-watan mein jab ik din/ Sab janay walay jaengey/ Kuch apni saza ko pohnchein gey/ Kuch apni jaza le jaengey” — and a ghazal — “Rung perahan ka, khushboo zulf lehranay ka naam/ Mausam-i-gul hai tumharay baam per aanay ka naam” — written by Faiz while in jail, are among those of his verses still quite popular among people.
The poetry written by the author and a few other inmates while in jail was of a fairly good standard and is included in the book at many places, which itself is a translation of a book Poshni wrote in 1972. However, it would have been convenient for readers if, instead of English transliterations, the verses had been reproduced in Urdu, as it becomes difficult to decipher some of the words written in Roman English.
Even so, the events taking place in Hyderabad Jail and the interaction between the inmates of the conspiracy case have been narrated such that they keep the reader’s interest alive till the end. The judgement in the case was announced on Jan 5, 1953 and sentences ranged from “till the rising of court” given to Maj Gen Nazir Ahmed, MBE, to 12 years’ rigorous imprisonment for Maj Gen Khan. However, all detainees of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case were released from prison by the middle of 1955, on account of an amnesty granted by the new Constituent Assembly.
The reviewer is an industrial relations professional
Prison Interlude: The Last Eyewitness
Account of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case
By Zafar Ullah Poshni
Oxford University Press, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 11th, 2019