WITH such rich, befitting tributes coming from the stable of the finest writers in the country about what journalist and human rights advocate I.A. Rehman meant to so many, particularly the voiceless in the country, any attempt to add much to that would be like holding a candle to the sun.
Like everyone else, I have personal experiences to narrate, to tell stories of a friend who was some 30 years older to me and yet had that incredible gift of putting everyone at ease by treating you no different than he would someone equal in stature, seniority and more significantly in intellect.
To be honest, given Rehman Sahib’s energy and ever-alert, beautiful mind, it never occurred to me that he was born in 1930 and could also be mortal like the rest of us. His seemed an eternal reservoir of knowledge, wisdom, wit and, equally, warmth and affection. Hence, the shocking, devastating loss.
His life’s work bears testimony to his professionalism and compassion. He went, as he’d lived most of his life, as a working journalist. His last piece appearing in these pages on April 8, four days before his final journey. I.A. Rehman remains among the finest journalists and editors in Pakistan.
Does the state of Pakistan, all institutions included, have the political will to address the runaway intolerance in society and take on the darkest of monsters?
Rehman Sahib walked the talk, lived every day of life by his principles and looked at material considerations with utter contempt. Perhaps, his strongest suit was his never-say-die optimism. Who, among us, in recent years has not been filled with despair? Rehman Sahib refused to succumb.
Perhaps, his sense of history and immense grasp of how events have shaped our present, turbulent world over the centuries, made him see what strips us of hope as no more than a hiccup on a much larger canvas and scale of time. Or it was that Marxist in him that told him the fight has to go on.
What else could have made him continue the fight after losing his beloved nephew in 2014? Rashid Rehman was a lawyer committed to fundamental rights and took on the brief of the Bahawalpur university lecturer Junaid Hafeez, who was maliciously and falsely accused of blasphemy in 2013.
He was warned not to plead the case but did not yield. In May 2014, as Rashid Rehman sat in his Multan chambers, two armed men barged into the office and shot him dead. There were multiple witnesses who saw the men but none stepped forward to identify them, such was their terror.
Added to this fear of the armed groups, who justify their murder and mayhem in the name of faith, was the state’s ambivalence towards these goons as they have been seen as a necessary evil, assets who can be deployed to great advantage when warranted by circumstances. So none was held to account.
It is another matter that over time it has been demonstrated that the so-called advantage has never worked out better than a series of own goals. The gunmen who killed Rashid Rehman were said to belong to a denomination which was opposed to the TTP.
This was the time when the state was taking on the armed purveyors of terror, the TTP, all over the country, most notably in erstwhile Fata, and any allies among politico-religious elements were welcome; the Barelvis in particular, given their differences with the Salafi-influenced Deobandi TTP.
That long, bloody fight continued for a number of years and exacted a heavy toll on Pakistan’s young soldiers and officers and also the civilian population but the alliance, seen as vital to putting down the challenge from the good Taliban-turned-terrorist TTP, would later come to pose its own threat.
When state institutions undermine established democratic dispensations in Pakistan, it has been our experience, all caution is thrown to the wind; deals are made with the devil. While this may deliver the desired dividend in the short term, it has inevitably exploded in the face of its architects over time.
One could have justified having the Barelvi and the moderate Deobandi clerics onside as a dire need. The assets nurtured over time to deliver foreign policy goals had turned toxic and were causing mayhem in the country and, therefore, needed to be stopped.
But extraordinary concessions were made to the now ‘proscribed’ TLP to destabilise the Nawaz Sharif-led PML-N government and then divide its vote in the questionable 2018 elections merely because the security institutions did not wish to follow Mr Sharif’s timeline to ‘set our house in order’.
After all it was merely the timing that caused the friction because the hybrid regime, named thus by its own supporters in the media, that replaced the PML-N followed the Sharif prescription after a time lag of some four years to comply with the FATF demands and de-escalate regional tension.
Now that the TLP has more than served its purpose and is fast becoming a pain in the neck, it has been decided to not only ban it by placing it on the proscribed list but also initiate legal steps to see if the Supreme Court will agree with the government on its dissolution and declare it defunct.
If you ask me, such a measure will be no more than cosmetic or a band-aid solution to a gaping wound. Does the state of Pakistan, all institutions included, have the political will to address the runaway intolerance in society and take on the darkest of monsters?
Does the state of Pakistan have the capacity to pave the way for truly representative institutions, to tackle extreme poverty that drives droves of jobless young men to these dark forces in the quest for political power to vent their frustrations, even if they get nothing from this in the end?
Most important: is the security establishment prepared to revert to playing its constitutionally defined role and abandon the games it feels so adept at playing ever so often? I wish I could have put these questions to Rehman Sahib. His wisdom alone could have given me an answer.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2021