A people’s historian-publisher

Published January 28, 2021
I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

PAKISTANI men and women of letters do have their fan clubs and circles of admirers or detractors but with the exception of a few, who are nationally acclaimed, most are hardly ever considered worthy of discussion by critics or laymen. Similarly, publishers are rarely recognised except for those few who market very popular publications. No surprise therefore that the passing away recently of Agha Ameer Husain, the head of the bookshop and publishing concern Classeek, caused little stir in his hometown, Lahore, or anywhere else in Pakistan.

However, he had history on his side and he came as close as anyone else to being recognised as a people’s historian and a people’s publishing centre. Besides being the author of 18 books, including his magnum opus titled Tareekh mein safar (journey through history), he was an institution unto himself, dedicated to the promotion of literature and citizens’ reading habits.

Classeek was founded in the stormy second half of the 1960s and its focus on contemporary politics was natural. Gaining strength during the popular agitation against the Ayub regime and the rise of populist politics, the concern became one of the country’s leading promoters of democratic ideas. Throughout the 1970s, the bookshop attracted a large number of young students of politics and activists who visited it to collect progressive publications before retiring for the night. The considerable work of archival value produced by the concern includes a complete record of the Bhutto trial and commentaries on it. Despite the limitations caused by partisanship the material produced by Classeek makes a rich contribution to Pakistan’s political history and historiography. Above all, Agha Ameer Husain made available to serious students of politics the material they needed to stimulate debate and open possibilities of realistic thinking.

For a long time, Agha Ameer Husain remained faithful to the PPP, and was identified as a supporter of Malik Meraj Khalid and Fakhr Zaman. But in the recent past, he grew out of party or factional loyalties and assumed more and more the role of a concerned, indeed wounded, citizen who was appalled by the waywardness of the rulers and the ruled both.

The present became more and more meaningless to Agha Ameer Husain.

The story of the rise and fall of Classeek as one of the country’s hubs for democratic debate runs parallel to the growth and decline of democratic institutions in Pakistan. As the democratic movement gained strength so did Classeek’s sphere of influence increase.

The steep degradation of politics during the dark Zia decade and the failure of the country’s infantile political elite to free itself from the shameless game of self-aggrandisement closed all possibilities of sane, sensible discussion and the market was emptied of buyers of whatever Agha Ameer Husain had to offer. He tried to plant the 18th-century French model of an eatery-cum-salon for debate but the public had been depoliticised to such an extent that it remained unmoved. In 1991, he started publishing a monthly journal, Sputnik that continued coming out till his death. Each issue of this magazine usually offered the readers a complete book.

A strong believer in the dictum ‘if you don’t know history, you don’t know anything’, he undertook the production of a brief history of the Muslim peoples from the first-century Hijri to the 15th century although he wryly observes that “from the Khulafa-i-Rashideen till the 14th, even the 15th, century Hijri , power in sultanates and states lay in the hands of nominally Muslim dynasties’ hands; the good or bad ‘accomplishments’ of these dynasties were declared to be the history of Islam”. He then proceeds to tell the history of the various Muslim kingdoms and empires century by century, down to the present. He concludes the discussion on the present-day Muslim states on a lament that “apart from the others’ conspiracies, our own unwise Muslims are unknowingly and unconsciously becoming tools in the hands of enemies” and shooting themselves in the foot”.

Unfortunately, he narrates the history of Muslim peoples in the manner devised by colonial-minded scribes and disposes of the history of the people in the form of a narrative about the rise and fall of Muslim state builders.

However, in this writer’s opinion, Agha Ameer Husain’s main contribution to modern-day Muslim societies’ political consciousness lay less in his essays on history and more in the commentary on contemporary politics that he continually offered in his periodical publications.

The popularity of Classeek as an informal forum for political debate touched its peak in the days of resistance of political elements to the Zia dictatorship and subsided with their surrender to it. As the environment turned hostile to democratic debate, Agha Ameer Husain isolated himself from politics on the ground and took refuge in the garret at the top of his building where he was safe from intrusion by all weak-kneed callers who disliked climbing narrow stairs. The present became more and more meaningless to him; a sad finale to a dynamic personality.

Agha Ameer Husain remained faithful to the first edition of the PPP and his final service to the party was his stock of archival material on the party from its foundation papers to its present-day waffling. One should like to hope that Ameer Husain’s children, especially those who stayed by his side till the end, will preserve the rich stock of material for future researchers.

But Ameer Husain is also likely to be remembered for much of the significant material he managed to offer in the monthly Sputnik. Imam Husain’s poetry, for instance. Ameer Husain’s forte lay in making political literature accessible to the ordinary citizens. By reaching out to the marginalised sections of society he brought a large number of people into the sanctum of knowledge and thus served the people and knowledge both.

Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2021

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