IBN ABDUR REHMAN (1930 — 2021)

Remembering Rehman Sahib
Updated 18 Apr, 2021 07:57am

A close friend and colleague in the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan remembers Rehman Sahib

By Zohra Yusuf

September 1, 2020, was I.A. Rehman’s 90th birthday. Although he was in Lahore and most of us in Karachi, homebound due to Covid, a few dear friends felt it was an occasion to celebrate and got together at former Dawn editor Saleem Asmi’s house, from where we surprised Rehman Sahib with wishes over the phone. That is the kind of love that Rehman Sahib enjoyed from both his friends and peers.

In early October last year, Rehman Sahib’s 90th birthday was celebrated once again — this time in his presence — at Saleem Asmi’s when he came down to Karachi. This was the last time we met.

The news of his passing away on April 12 led to an outpouring of calls and messages from friends, human rights activists and journalists, not just from Pakistan, but from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well. His was a life people celebrated. They took pride in knowing him. Social media was full of personal memories and photographs taken with Rehman Sahib on a host of occasions.

Rehman Sahib’s visits to Karachi meant a great deal to me. I did not accept any other invitations for the few evenings he would spend in this city. A pattern had emerged — he would drop in at my place when he was done with his seminars and workshops, and we would mostly discuss Human Rights Commission of Pakistan-related matters. Rehman Sahib had dubbed my place the “thana”, from where we would move to his favourite “maikhana” — next door at Asmi Sahib’s.

Cognisant of Asmi Sahib’s immobility, Rehman Sahib would spend every evening with his dear old friend. These were evenings I looked forward to, listening to them talk about their experiences in journalism and life as such — with wit and warmth. Saleem Asmi passed away on October 30, bringing to an end these wonderful sessions.

Asma Jahangir and I.A. Rehman at a conference in Islamabad | File photo
Asma Jahangir and I.A. Rehman at a conference in Islamabad | File photo


HRCP apart, I had developed a close personal rapport with Rehman Sahib (as had countless others). I got to know him when I was in journalism and started making frequent trips to Lahore in the eighties. Visiting him at Viewpoint and later at The Pakistan Times became mandatory. In fact, I had one of my most memorable meals at his office at The Pakistan Times — a plate of daal with a large bone marrow swimming in it! Apparently, it was a specialty of a restaurant close by.

Rehman Sahib would also invite me to dinners at journalist and activist Aziz Siddiqui’s house where I was treated to great food and conversation. The two were neighbours on Temple Road and remained close friends and colleagues till Siddiqui Sahib passed away.

Rehman Sahib was appointed editor-in-chief of The Pakistan Times by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government that came into power in 1988. With Aziz Siddiqui as editor, the duo turned the government rag into a highly respected critical voice.

An intellectual of a high calibre, Rehman Sahib was, nevertheless, totally at home sitting amongst the families of bonded labour in Hyderabad or joining a sit-in protesting enforced disappearances in Quetta.

When Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed in 1990, Asma Jahangir requested Rehman Sahib to join HRCP as its director. He persuaded Aziz Siddiqui to join as well, as joint director. In fact, Asma would laughingly say that the dismissal of BB’s government had a bright side — freeing Rehman Sahib and Siddiqui Sahib to work for the HRCP.

Their hard work and commitment would prove to be a tough act to follow, even for younger people. Their professionalism was evident in the reports they compiled and edited, including annual reports as well as reports on fact-findings on various issues. Never a word out of place or in excess. Never a proofreading error.

Both I.A. Rehman and Aziz Siddiqui made a lasting contribution to HRCP, helping set its direction and ensuring its mission remained one of struggling for equality of all citizens, with special focus on the more vulnerable.

An intellectual of a high calibre, Rehman Sahib was, nevertheless, totally at home sitting amongst the families of bonded labour in Hyderabad or joining a sit-in protesting enforced disappearances in Quetta. His presence gave courage to many in the human rights movement who saw in him a constant ally, rather than as the head of one particular rights organisation.


I.A. Rehman lived life to the fullest. Apart from the causes he was committed to, friendships and travel invigorated him. He would never miss an opportunity to travel, even if it were to some remote part of the country, far from creature comforts.

A few years ago, he drove with a group of writers from Lahore to Karachi to attend the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF). On arrival, he called me, and although I suggested he take rest that evening and we meet up the following day, he freshened up and landed up at the “thana” and then on to the “maikhana”. As long as there were no visa issues, he would visit Delhi on every holiday and had as many friends in that city as in Lahore.

I have wonderful memories of travelling in his company. In 1997, on an invitation from the German foundation, the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, several human rights defenders from South Asia visited Germany and Belgium. In Berlin, Rehman Sahib took me to visit an old Pakistani friend in the eastern part of the city. The walk through this architecturally marvellous city, with references to its history both by Rehman Sahib and his friend are memories that are etched in my mind. When we went to Brussels in 1999 to receive the King Baudouin Foundation Award given to Asma Jahangir and HRCP, Rehman Sahib was a highly sought-after member of our group — both by human rights defenders and journalists. On our arrival in Brussels, Asma whisked us off straight away to Bruges for the day, where we lunched, danced in the square and relaxed, away from concerns that would dog us most of the time.

When the HRCP council elections were coming up in 2011 and a new chairperson needed to be elected, Asma badgered me to contest. Always preferring to be away from the public eye, I was a very reluctant candidate. It was on Asma’s and Rehman Sahib’s assurance, that they would stand in for me when needed, that I agreed. The six-year term was tough and full of challenges that I could not have overcome without their constant support.


Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

The first challenge came when the body of Siddique Edho, an HRCP activist, who was made to ‘disappear’ in December 2010, was found near Ormara in Balochistan in April 2011. Shortly after, we went on a fact-finding mission to Balochistan, where the focus remained on enforced disappearances.

Sometime later, six miners were kidnapped by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). Rehman Sahib decided to write a public letter to BLA, demanding their release. Since all correspondence had to be signed by me (living in Karachi) while the HRCP Secretariat is based in Lahore, Rehman Sahib had the authority to ‘forge’ my signature.

The BLA reacted angrily to the HRCP appeal and the following day’s newspapers, published from Quetta, carried BLA’s condemnation of HRCP and myself. It should be noted that Balochistan’s newspapers in those days were under pressure from both separatist groups as well as security forces.

Shortly afterwards, I received a call from a BLA representative (speaking from a satellite phone) in which he offered to hand over the miners to HRCP and no one else. I consulted Rehman Sahib, who advised that the HRCP Vice Chairperson for Balochistan should receive the miners but in the company of journalists and other activists. However, after being communicated the arrangements, the BLA decided to set them free at a location of their choice.

The sense of loss or parting was perhaps hanging in the air lately. Unable to visit Karachi due to concerns about Covid, he would call me once or twice every week.

Balochistan was close to Rehman Sahib’s heart. On his advice, all fact-finding reports on Balochistan were released in Islamabad, the power centre. He was enthusiastic when I suggested that we request Mohammed Hanif to write stories about the disappeared in Balochistan. The Baloch Who Is Not Missing and Others Who Are was launched at KLF, where Rehman Sahib was among the speakers.

It was at KLF in February 2018 that the news of Asma Jahangir’s sudden death was received in shock and sorrow. Though grief-stricken at losing someone he deeply loved and respected, someone so close to him, Rehman Sahib pulled himself together and spoke briefly about her. It was only in the evening, when I could hug him that I found my own tears flowing.


The sense of loss or parting was perhaps hanging in the air lately. Unable to visit Karachi due to concerns about Covid, he would call me once or twice every week. Usually reticent on the phone, he had begun to discuss the country’s state of affairs at length and would always remember to ask about close friends.

Rehman Sahib always ended his conversation with, “Aap apna khayaal rakhiye ga [you take care of yourself].” For you, my dear friend, I will try and do that.

The writer is a human rights activist and a former chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She tweets @meranaam

Header illustration by Samiah Bilal

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 18th, 2021


In this file photo, I.A. Rehman displays a copy of a human rights report | AFP
In this file photo, I.A. Rehman displays a copy of a human rights report | AFP

Much has been written — and will continue to be written — by extremely authoritative people about Rehman Sahib, as most referred to I.A. Rehman, and by those who knew him well over decades. Certainly, there is enough material in his nearly 70-year-long career, as a journalist, as a trade unionist, as an activist for democracy, and as an indefatigable human rights campaigner, to be written about.

But one of the reasons Rehman Sahib was so widely revered and loved by so many, was his role as a public intellectual. Many people who had never had the chance to meet Rehman Sahib personally, to experience the warmth of his human connection and his incredibly down-to-earth nature, heard or been at the receiving end of his cheeky wit, or seen first-hand his kindness and genuine empathy for the underprivileged and the marginalised, looked up to the astonishing clarity and grace he brought to bear in his writings.

Rehman Sahib could always be relied upon to provide a beacon for reasoned, logical thought on the most sensitive and emotive of issues troubling the minds of thinking Pakistanis, and to do it with an unparalleled grace that never resorted to sensationalism or below-the-belt attacks. The grace may have been a generational trait but, notably, he always managed to cut through to the heart of matters in an unconvoluted way.

This was the reason that often, for the trickiest of subjects, such as the tragic lynching and brutal murder over unsubstantiated blasphemy allegations of Mardan university student Mashal Khan in 2017 — an incident whose fourth anniversary passed this past week on April 13 — we would turn to Rehman Sahib to set the tone.

Having Rehman Sahib write in the pages of Eos was an honour and a privilege for us. His stature as an iconic defender of media freedoms and human rights certainly gave the pages of the magazine heft, although we had to request his indulgence judiciously, keeping in mind his other preoccupations and his regular weekly column on the op-ed pages of Dawn. We knew he would not make unsubstantiated claims, that his positions would be backed by thorough knowledge and historical context and that, given his vast experience negotiating the tricky world of Pakistani journalism, he would be able to phrase his words in a way that not even those opposed to his views would be able to challenge or take out of context.

Having Rehman Sahib write in the pages of Eos was an honour and a privilege for us. His stature as an iconic defender of media freedoms and human rights certainly gave the pages of the magazine heft, although we had to request his indulgence judiciously, keeping in mind his other preoccupations and his regular weekly column on the op-ed pages of Dawn.

The importance of these qualities in negotiating the minefield of public expression in Pakistan cannot be overemphasised. It also did not hurt that Rehman Sahib was the dream outside writer, full of readable and thought-provoking content, punctual to the core, and needing minimal editing.

But one thing often overlooked in Rehman Sahib’s considerable body of work is also the sheer breadth of his knowledge and the diversity of topics he wrote on. He began his career as a film journalist and continued to be deeply interested in and write periodically on cinema, when most journalists in Pakistan — obsessed only with power politics — considered the topic not worthy of ‘serious journalism’.

He could write about parliamentary proceedings, our chequered constitutional history, the machinations of domestic politics and the strain of civil-military relations, geostrategic issues, see-sawing Indo-Pak relations, the tides of media censorship and the diminishing rights of women, children and minorities. But he could equally, and did, write also on literature, on poetry, on music, on the space for performing arts such as theatre and dance, on people’s histories and on cultural dynamics.

Like the true Renaissance human that he was — and of whom there are sadly very, very few now left in Pakistan, it seems — no topic was too small or of too little interest to Rehman Sahib. He wrote not out of a need to fill up space, a trap some regular columnists sometimes fall into, but out of a genuine interest in the topics he touched on, and because he could see how these diverse issues interlocked to create the tapestry of a society that he wanted to see prosper.

We felt there could be no greater tribute to Rehman Sahib than to republish some excerpts from his articles for Dawn from well over a decade, as well as the first piece he wrote for Eos. Hopefully, they will provide a sense of why so many are in mourning at his passing.

— Editor Magazines


By I.A. Rehman

The brutal murder of a student in Mardan raises the question of who is actually responsible

Originally published in Eos on April 23, 2017

Illustration by Aan Abbas
Illustration by Aan Abbas

The brutal murder of Mashal Khan in the hostel of Mardan’s Abdul Wali Khan University, after being accused of unspecified blasphemy, has generated an unprecedented wave of public outrage. The reasons are not far to seek.

Despite the freedom allowed to the militant organisations to promote the cult of violence, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa still remains considerably faithful to Bacha Khan’s legacy of non-violence and tolerance of religious diversity. The territory is also relatively free of incidents of blasphemy.

As per figures available on June 23, 2016, there was not a single Sec 295-C accused in KP jails; all six persons convicted on charges relating to religion held in prison there had been tried under Sec 295-B (desecration of the Holy Quran) and all the seven under-trials except one had also been charged under the same section. (This at a time when Punjab jails had 202 prisoners charged with offences relating to religion, 91 of them convicts, including 18 on the death row.) Thus, accusation of blasphemy against Mashal lacked credibility.

Further, the complicity of the university teachers and security staff in the conspiracy against Mashal, and the policemen’s refusal to intervene when he could have been saved, turned the case into one of extraordinary brutality. Hence an exceptionally strong reaction.

It is also possible that the public remorse at witnessing people killed for unsubstantiated charges of offences relating to religion, or before they were convicted, and that had been building up for years, could not be borne any longer, and the community’s dormant conscience at last started turning.

But what happened between the first blasphemy cases in the early 1990s and Mashal’s lynching is a sordid story of collective failure to check the abuse of Sec 295-C of the Penal Code that has been evident all along and has been callously ignored by most people. About a century ago, the ruler of the princely state of Khairpur received a complaint that one of his non-Muslim subjects had committed blasphemy. He told the man to abandon his residence and relocate himself at some other place till such time as the matter ceased to provoke the Muslim community. He chose this course apparently to avoid whetting the complainant party’s appetite for new victims and saving the non-Muslim subjects from living in a state of fear. Above all, he preferred the path of peace among his people to strife around an emotive issue.

Compare this with an incident that took place in Lahore many decades later. A high court judge berated a man who appeared as a complainant in a blasphemy case and asked him why he had failed to kill the culprit himself. He obviously cleared the way not only for the institution of more blasphemy cases but also for the extra-legal killing of a number of citizens on suspicion of having committed the serious offence. The theory of blinking at murder committed with a religious motivation was consolidated. The path of peace in society was rejected in favour of a reign of violence.

“If the asserted religious motivation of the appellant for the murder committed by him is to be accepted as a valid mitigating circumstance in this case, then a door shall become open for religious vigilantism which may deal a mortal blow to the rule of law in this country where divergent religious interpretations abound and tolerance stands depleted to an alarming level,” declared Justice Asif Saeed Khosa in his widely hailed judgment while dismissing Malik Mumtaz Qadri’s appeal in the Salman Taseer murder case in October 2015.

But the gates of religious vigilantism had already been wide open for 25 years. And surrender to vigilantism had made the custodians of power and scales of justice blind to the fate of a series of victims.

Zafar Iqbal of Lahore was put in prison for having converted to Christianity. His bail plea was rejected though no law was cited to justify his detention. He died in prison. Naimat Ahmar of Faisalabad, a teacher, was knifed to death by one of his pupils and the latter became a hero in prison. In Gujranwala, a Hafiz-e-Quran was accused by his wife of allowing the Holy Quran to fall from his hands. Nobody verified the charge. He was beaten up mercilessly by a mob and dragged through the streets till he died. And a young Christian couple was thrown in a brick kiln stove near Lahore over a wage dispute after being falsely accused of blasphemy.

The people watched in silence. But more crucial was the silence of the custodians of the state’s authority for it meant condoning, if not explicit approval, of religious vigilantism. If they spoke at all, as they have been doing since the arrest of a few bloggers early this year, it was to reaffirm their resolve to deal with blasphemy with an iron hand. Maybe they wanted to pre-empt more strident calls in support of vigilantism but the effect has been just the opposite. Each warning to anyone who fell under the mischief of laws relating to religion has become an encouragement to the perpetrators of mob justice.

The ulema were asked to disapprove of vigilantism. They consistently declined to do so, though some of them did reject abuse of the laws for offences relating to religion. While defending the addition of Sec 295-C to the Penal Code, the learned ulema had said that in the absence of this law it will be impossible to prevent vigilante killing of suspects. How do they explain the surge in such killings after this law was made?

A question arose whether killing anyone for belief through terrorist methods amounted to terrorism. The anti-terrorism court convicted Malik Mumtaz Qadri of terrorism and murder but the Islamabad High Court deemed it proper to drop his conviction for terrorism. It was left to the Supreme Court to set aside the high court order of Qadri’s acquittal from the charge under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

This is the crux of the problem. Unless murder is treated as murder, and terrorism as terrorism, regardless of the holy robes sported by the vigilante brigade, the threat of a doomsday scenario hinted at by the Supreme Court will persist. And more mothers will share the agony of Mashal’s mother when she found the fingers she kissed broken and the face she adored unrecognizable. And who will ensure respect for the Supreme Court dictum that judges are obligated to decide cases “in accordance with the law as it exists and not in accordance with what the law should be.”

Time to count all the hands on which Mashal’s blood can be traced.

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