LAHORE: Amjad Saleem Minhas is one of the relatively progressive publishers from Lahore whose life took many turns before he settled with publishing Urdu and Punjabi books under the title of Sanjh.

Born in 1959 in Faisalabad, Amjad’s father was the regional emir of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) of the Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) and Jhang area. However, the family moved to Lahore in the early 1960s and he grew up at Ichhra.

“My political activities started from Ichhra when I was a student of 7th grade at Naya Madressa School of the JI. Some members of the Albadr fought against the Bengalis’ freedom struggle in 1971 in support of the Pakistan army. One of them, named Abdul Hanan, a Bengali, invited me to attend the Ijtimah of the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT). The other members of the IJT that later became known like Mian Maqsood Ahmed, Mian Mehmoodur Rasheed, Dr Mansoorul Hameed were there too. I became a member of the IJT.

“In 1974, I attended the first Ijtimah of Jamiat in Peshawar where I noticed that 70pc of the participants were schoolchildren.”

By his matriculation, Amjad used to circulate the press releases of the IJT in the newspapers offices. Later, he became the IJT Nazim of north Lahore. He remained an active part of the IJT until the 1980s; however, his differences with the organisation had started in 1978-79 as it, according to him, had started turning violent.

“Two students were killed by the IJT. One of them was Aminullah at the FC College Lahore in 1978 while the other was Mehmood Akhtar, himself member of the IJT, who was killed by another IJT member over a petty matter of refusing to help a student in cheating during the exam just after the start of Gen Zia’s dictatorship.”

Amjad had no ideological differences with the IJT but he says that three factors turned him away from it – violence, turning against their own people for vested interests and contradiction between words and actions. They used to hatch conspiracies against each other and the office-bearers, he recalls.

“The secretary general of the Jamiat of that time, Abdul Mohsin Shaheen, who later became the emir of JI Multan, was also at the receiving end. I told Nazim-e-Aala of the IJT, Shabbir Ahmed, who became an MNA later on, about the conspiracy from important members of the Majlis-i-Shura of the Jamiat against Shaheen.” The Nazim sought time to take action but that became a bone of contention between Amjad and the IJT.

Another example of the hypocrisy rampant in the IJT was an incident that happened in 1979, he explains.

“We (the IJT) had lost the student union election in the Allama Iqbal Medical College against the Rising Doctors but won in the King Edward Medical College. During the oath-taking ceremony of office-bearers at the former, there were music performances. The IJT raised objections to it, saying music was un-Islamic. The secretary health, principal and faculty members along with their families were present in it besides female students. The IJT disconnected the main electricity supply line and misbehaved with everyone in the dark. It was horrible. However, the same type of programme was held at the King Edward Medical College to celebrate the IJT’s win.” This incident added fuel to fire in taking Amjad away from the organisation.

Amjad got admission to the Shah Hussain College but later he discontinued his formal education. He left the Jamiat in 1980 when he was nazim of one (north zone) of the four zones of Lahore.

“After quitting Jamiat, I remained disturbed for about a year as I was disillusioned. I turned towards reading. I also reached the conclusion that religion should not be the basis of politics.”

He later joined a small student union called Federation of Punjab Student, the student wing of the Communist Party. There was NSF in Sindh, Baloch Student Organisation (BSO) in Balochistan and “the Afrasiab Khattak group” of the Pakhtun Students Federation. We gathered all of them in one group and founded the Democratic Student Federation (DSF) at the end of 1982 when its first meeting was held in Lahore. The next month another meeting occurred in Peshawar and the DSF was founded.

“The IJT members, led by Ejaz Chaudhry, now a leader of the PTI Lahore, kidnapped me. They first took me to the FC College and then shifted me to the New Campus of Punjab University where I was tortured for three or four hours.”

“I was working in Wapda then but was involved in student politics. The DSF was very active in Sindh and KP. I left student politics in 1984 and joined the Communist Party, which got quite organised (though underground) until 1985 and our political front was Pakistan National Party of (Ghaus Bakhsh) Bizenjo Sahib.”

Amjad remained with the Communist Party until 1989 when it started to dilute and it got, in his words, quite invisible in 1990. “The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was formed around the same time. There was the Joint Action Committee for Women Rights and I started going there and working with them as a volunteer. It continued until 2002 when we decided to promote indigenous thought, including Sufi poets of Punjabi, against the rising forces of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Lashkar-i-Taiba. We made a cultural organisation, named Punjab Lok Sangat and launched the first Punjabi calendar, designed by Sabir Nazar. Sanjh was actually a theatre wing of the Communist Party and the same name was used for publishing house.”

Regarding the start of his publishing career, Amjad says he was already working as a printer during his Wapda job from 1994 till 2002. Later on, he became a full-time publisher.

“We had our Sangat office at Mufti Building on Temple Road where we started printing and publishing. At the start, we were publishing only Punjabi books which continued until 2006 when I got a novel, Ghulam Bagh, by Mirza Athar Baig, which started our full-fledged publishing of Urdu books. In Punjabi books, Saeed Bhutta’s Kamal Kahani became our turning point.”

Five years later, Sanjh shifted to its current place on Mozang Road where now it publishes on average about 30 titles, including Urdu and Punjabi, annually; however, it claims to publish books in Balochi, Sindhi, Pashto and Seraiki languages too.

About the reading trends across the country, Amjad says history, philosophy and politics are read most in interior Sindh, KP and Balochistan. Though most number of copies are sold in Punjab, percentage wise Sindh gets the larger share of Sanjh books followed by Balochistan.

He rues the fact that publishing is going on without regularisation and sometimes the writers have to pay money to publish their books while sometimes royalty is given in form of books whereas the writers have to do marketing of their books themselves.

“Critical thinking is not allowed in the country which poses most challenges to publishing. There is self-censorship in the writers themselves who don’t create controversies and don’t believe in sloganeering. There is a big issue that anything which goes against the dominant ideology is considered treason or anti-nationalism or un-Islamic and one is termed a foreign agent.”

About the complaints of some known writers about copyrights and the publishers functioning as parasites on multiple editions of books, Amjad claims that Sanjh mentions the number of editions on the books.

“Publishers of religious books mention editions of the books, even if it’s the 40th edition, why can’t the publishers of literary books do that?”

He says that 80pc of publishing consists of religious books because society is being run on religious foundations. Amjad is working for the cause of Punjabi language until it becomes of the medium of instruction for basic education at the school level.

Published in Dawn, November 23rd, 2022

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