HE used to read English newspapers in streetlight. One day he would plead with lawmakers in London for Sindh’s separation from the Bombay Presidency and would ultimately succeed. In 1937 he was knighted. This was Haji Sir Abdullah Haroon, whose life is more than a rags-to-riches story. Were it to be so, he wouldn’t be sitting next to Jinnah and be among those who drafted the Pakistan resolution.
If he were a mere tycoon, Stanley Wolpert, the Quaid-i-Azam’s biographer, wouldn’t call him Jinnah’s most trusted lieutenant in Sindh, for he was a philanthropist, educationist, reformer, politician and a freedom fighter all rolled into one. More important, he had a vision that reached out to the persecuted beyond undivided India’s borders.
Throughout his life, he remained devoted to Sindh, and once pledged he would make it India’s most prosperous province. However, once Muslim India’s goal became a separate homeland, Abdullah Haroon focused all his energy on this ideal. He founded the Sindh Muslim League and was elected its president in 1939, spent time and energy on its organisation and finally had the satisfaction of seeing the Muslim League emerge as a major force in Sindh’s politics and legislature to form a government. For him, Sindh’s separation from the Bombay Presidency was only the first and major step towards the creation of Pakistan. That Jinnah relied on him on crucial matters could be seen in the Khan Bahadur Maula Bux episode — a case of gross betrayal of the Muslim cause.
As head of Sindh’s coalition government, which largely relied on its Congress MPs, Maula Bux promised Jinnah in October 1938 he would join the Muslim League so that Sindh could have an ML government. However, egged on by Congress leader Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maula Bux went back on his word. Jinnah was furious, because he wanted to add to the number of provinces having Muslim League governments. The entire Maula Bux story cannot be narrated here, but, according to Wolpert, Jinnah looked to Haroon, his “closest Sind[h] deputy”, to sort the matter out. “Do not sell your souls for power,” Haroon advised Sindh Assembly members.
Of his regimen, Hatim Alvi, a former mayor of Karachi, says his day began early in the morning and lasted late into night. “It went on day in and day out, month after month, year after year”. This quality lasted in his old age because he had acquired it at age 16, when he entered business, with his mother as the guardian, his father having died when he was four. This Spartan routine helped him not just in business but in politics when he was part of the higher echelons of the Khilafat movement and Muslim League leadership during the crucial decades of the subcontinent’s freedom struggle — 1920s to the 1940s.
When poverty was behind him and Haroon entered public life, it was natural that philanthropy should precede politics, for it was education and Sindh’s poor and orphans who received his attention. Among the institutions he set up was an orphanage in Kharadar and the Jamia Millia. He also looked beyond Sindh and donated generously to healthcare and education in Aligarh and what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Outside India, he sent aid to Turkish refugees in the aftermath of Greek forces’ retreat from Asia Minor.
Once in politics, Haroon like most Muslim leaders supported Congress and the Ali brothers, who were leading a campaign for the restoration of the caliphate abolished by Ataturk. However, like Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders, Haroon, too, was disillusioned by the Congress leadership’s communal bias and started thinking in terms of India having two nations. His electoral defeat in 1937 made him abandon the Sindh United Party, but the following year showed his final choice — a separate Muslim homeland.
The Muslim League’s 1938 session in Karachi, presided over by the Quaid, turned out to be a landmark in the Muslim nation’s road to salvation, for even though it didn’t officially demand a separate state, Haroon was categorical in its favour. In his welcome address, Haroon pleaded for a federation of “Muslim states”. This was two years before the Pakistan resolution at Lahore in 1940. This way, according to Sharif Al Mujahid, a world authority on the Pakistan movement, Haroon’s speech “broke new ground [… and was] truly epochal”.
Hatim Alvi’s article in Dawn was titled in a way that most people — even old people like me familiar with Pakistan’s pre-decimal currency — would have difficulty in understanding. It read in all caps: “FROM 2 as. A DAY TO MILLIONS”. The ‘as’ means two annas, a rupee having 16 annas. He died this day in 1942 at age 70. Pakistan was still five years away, but he had the satisfaction of seeing a Muslim League government in power in Sindh.
The writer is Dawn’s readers’ editor and an author.
Published in Dawn, April 27th, 2020