SOMETHING in I.A. Rehman — Rehman Sahib to his followers — reminded me of the old-school communists who shunned the know-it-all airs and spoke simply and lucidly on complex issues of history or science or politics without intimidating the listener. I would meet him often in Delhi either on Syeda Saiyedain’s manicured lawns or at a packed lecture overflowing with fans or an occasional music concert where he would dissolve himself into a different world.
One day he was in a hurry to catch the plane to Lahore but still found the time to run through Khan Market’s stores for gifts for his grandchildren. In a shawl store, I introduced him to Priyanka Gandhi who was buying a sweater for her maid. In that half-minute exchange, she said she was aware of his work for human rights and was proud to meet him. Rehman Sahib wasted no time to remind her to do more to save India’s democracy from militarism and poverty. That was years ago.
What made Rehman Sahib a cult figure in India, or practically the entire South Asian region as a sagacious friend and an intuitive strategist of myriad causes? The answer may lie in a visit made to Delhi in the early 1990s by Noam Chomsky. The sea of fawning people, leftists, liberals, hard and soft communists, academics and students that thronged his lectures was unprecedented. Look at the people, I had told some friends. Could any communist leader summon such a crowd of willing activists without a party fiat?
Rehman Sahib came across as a battle-scarred soldier who was perpetually planning to regroup after a setback.
That spontaneous show of solidarity was unprecedented and still remains unparalleled. The simple point is that there are people waiting to hear and savour an honest appraisal of reality. Old partisans had that ability to attract listeners, and Rehman Sahib belonged to that school.
He came across as a battle-scarred soldier who was perpetually planning to regroup after a setback, of which there were plenty. But he desisted from promising quick or easy rewards. The quest was more in tune with Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s exhortation: “Chaley chalo ki wo manzil abh nahi aaee.” (Do not be deterred if victory eludes us. Let’s continue with the march.)
A notable feature of the dominant left in Pakistan has been that despite its many internal quarrels and assaults by a perennially hostile and periodically vengeful state, it rarely loses sight of the nation’s diversity and its attendant complex struggles. Rehman Sahib embodied this multilayered characteristic of the left that one misses in India.
Whereas the dominant Indian left was reduced over a period of time from its internationalist worldview to two oxbow lakes in Kerala and West Bengal, or possibly two and a half if one includes its short-lived rule in Tripura, the Pakistan comrades have intervened in all its provinces with equal effort. In fact, they had a very good proposal in 1971 to peacefully and democratically avert trauma that broke the country into two. For the Indian communists, the ideological perspective is directed by political realities in Kerala and West Bengal.
Rehman Sahib represented the different approach in Pakistan. He canvassed support for human rights in Balochistan, land rights and stolen liberties in Sindh, minority and women’s rights in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. All this, while keeping a steady gaze on the slippery eel called democracy, not in this or that part of the country alone, but across the entire canvas of Pakistan, including the tribulations of Kashmiris on both sides.
There was a time when the idea of human rights was regarded as a Western invention conjured to taunt and taint communism. The credentials of the UN, which crafted the charter of rights, was itself suspect. The fear was not entirely without basis. How a country set up by newly literate working classes had launched Yuri Gagarin into space to the consternation of the capitalist world had become immaterial. The glaring fact, declaimed the critics, was that there was an Iron Curtain behind which existed a subhuman mass of people whipped daily into submission by the dictator’s fiat.
So how did such a slave society become a superpower in no time to challenge the mightiest nation on earth, but not before driving the last nail into the coffin of Hitler’s formidable army, and at a huge human toll to itself? Never mind that hackneyed claim. Just get rid of the godless, evil system, the critics yelled in unison. Romania’s Nadia Comaneci of communist moorings won the perfect 10 in Montreal, and went on to beam a mesmeric smile. But then, uncle, communists are trained how to smile, intoned a niece who was exposed to Orwell’s Animal Farm, prematurely I suspect, during a brief stay at school in New York.
Rehman Sahib was averse to indulging the meaningless comparison between two unequally flawed systems. Instead, he joined hands with Asma Jehangir and Aziz Siddiqui among others to blend the West’s promise of human rights with the struggle for egalitarianism, a quest he pursued as a Marxist public intellectual throughout an eventful life.
Playing down the acrimonious in any discussion was Rehman Sahib’s forte, a quality he deployed with finesse while dealing with the critical India-Pakistan sensitivities. He founded the Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy with Dr Mubashir Hasan to underscore the role of people and democracy in encouraging peace.
Writing in Dawn about India’s annexation of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, he exhorted the Pakistan state to respect the need to involve the media and the ordinary people in the endeavour to undo the damage. The Human Rights Watch, on the Pakistani state’s hit list, had done more to critique Prime Minister Modi forcefully and lucidly than any foreign friend, he chided his government.
“A little confidence in civil society organisations’ ability to contribute to appropriate formulation and execution of national policies, and also to check, correct and improve the official narrative, will yield handsome dividends.”
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2021