Ahfazur Rahman Aur Mozahmat:
Adbi Khidmaat Aur Azaadi-i-Sahaafat
Ki Jidd-o-Jehd
By Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed
Institute of Historical and Social
Research, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9697985159

In the recent past, when the military establishment was pitching Imran Khan as its main pawn against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), it persecuted the journalists who did not get on the bandwagon, and furthered the careers of those who were willing to help its project get into the corridors of power.

What happened of the project and of the journalists who were part of it is another story, but it solidifies the truth that there’s no getting away from manipulation of — and by — the media.

Pakistan’s history regarding freedom of speech has always been chequered, but many exemplary writers and journalists — Nisar Osmani, Minhaj Barna, Hussain Naqi, I.A. Rehman and several others — have struggled hard to defend this most basic of people’s rights.

However, those who sided with the rulers of their time have been greater in number than those who opted to follow their conscience and side with the truth. Ahfazur Rahman was among the latter.

A tribute to the late journalist and activist Ahfazur Rahman casts a wide net, encompassing his struggles for media independence, his critical essays as well as his often ignored poetry

Ahfazur Rahman Aur Mozahmat: Adbi Khidmaat Aur Azaadi-i-Sahaafat Ki Jidd-o-Jehd [Ahfazur Rahman and Resistance: Literary Endeavours and the Struggle for Freedom of the Press], edited by respected scholar and academic Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed, is a tribute to Rahman after his death in April 2020.

The book’s four parts include critical reviews of Rahman’s works by the likes of Zahida Hina and the late Fahmida Riaz (a write-up she wrote on his poetry before her death); sharing of memories by renowned people such as Amjad Islam Amjad, Khawar Naeem Hashmi and Rahman’s wife Mehnaz; and a selection of Rahman’s journalistic writings and poems.

Mehnaz maps Rahman’s struggle as an activist and journalist from his days as editor of the daily newspaper Musawaat’s magazine in 1973. Recounting her husband’s contribution to journalism and freedom of speech, she divides his role into three parts.

First is his struggle during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government in 1974, when many journalists from Musawaat were sacked. However, they were later reinstated with increased salaries and the Bhutto government also announced the Wage Board Award for journalists. The second part covers Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime, and the efforts led by veterans such as Barna and Osmani when the media faced the wrath of Gen Zia’s dictatorship and a number of newspapers folded.

Ahfazur Rahman reporting on the protests against the 2007 crackdown on independent news channels | Dawn file photo
Ahfazur Rahman reporting on the protests against the 2007 crackdown on independent news channels | Dawn file photo

Some leading journalists, including Rahman, had to go underground. Others courted arrest and went on hunger strike in jails. Yet others defected from the committed ones and joined the government’s ranks. Rahman wrote about this struggle of 1977-78 in his book Sab Se Barri Jang [The Greatest War].

In the 1990s, Rahman was editor magazines at daily Jang when the media group faced the wrath of Nawaz Sharif’s government and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) led by Saifur Rehman.

Jang’s editor-in-chief, Mir Shakilur Rehman, had promised his employees the Wage Board Award when matters settled down, but failed to keep his word. Ahfazur Rahman was the president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) at the time and demanded implementation of the Award from the three big media groups, including his own. This offended Shakilur Rehman, and Ahfazur Rahman’s annual contract was not renewed. Thereafter, he moved to the daily Express, where he remained until 2018. By then, his health had severely deteriorated because of throat cancer.

That Fahmida Riaz considered Ahfazur Rahman’s works worth critiquing speaks volumes of the standard of his poetry. In her essay ‘Zameenzaad’ [Son of the Soil], she digs deep into the reasons why critics neglected Rahman’s poetry and concludes that literature focusing on the woes of the masses and national tragedies is considered a pariah in the world of Urdu literature.

Another reason she believes Rahman was not accorded due credit is because of the relationship between journalism and literature. The two are considered harmful for each other and so Rahman, being a journalist, was ignored as a poet. Riaz, however, saw a blend of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Akhtarul Iman — especially the bitterness of the latter — in Rahman’s poems and liked his tackling of postcolonial themes in his verses.

In her essay ‘Shola Nafs, Sharar Bar, Ahfazur Rehman’ [Fiery and Enthusiastic, Ahfazur Rahman], Zahida Hina recounts a friendship spanning over 50 years, especially the tough days they braved together during Gen Zia’s dictatorship. She remembers when Rahman was tortured by the police during Gen Pervez Musharraf’s regime in the early 2000s.

About his poetry, Hina feels Rahman would have been great, were he not tilted towards journalism. She writes at length about his essay collection Jang Jaari Rahay Gi [The War Will Continue] and points out how Rahman introduced Urdu readers to American scholar Noam Chomsky, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, world judiciary and the dangers of nuclear assets.

The best critical essay in the book is Daaman-i-Dard Ko Gulzaar Bana Rakha Hai [I’ve Turned Pain into Pleasure] by Dr Syed Jaffar Ahmed. It encompasses, in detail, the salient features of the poetry in two of Rahman’s collections, Naee Alif Laila [The New Alif Laila] and Zinda Hai Zindagi [Life is Alive]. He also refers to Rahman’s collections of verses for children, titled Titli [Butterfly] and Khirrki [Window].

Ahmed writes of Rahman’s younger days, when he won essay contests conducted by the Pakistani literary journal Afkaar and the Mumbai-based Shair. Afkaar’s contest was for the journal’s special edition on Faiz; Shair’s was for Krishan Chander.

Ahmed divides Rahman’s poetry into social poems targeting injustice and inequality, political poems seen through the prism of history, personal poems and translations. He points out that Rahman kept journalistic influences away from his poetry, so that his verses are imbued with all the elements of poetic aesthetics.

The section featuring Rahman’s selected writings shows his journalistic excellence. He writes in detail on Chomsky, nuclear war, the Mumbai attacks of 2008, current affairs, Gen Musharraf’s regime, the lawyers’ movement and Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistan’s president.

His four essays on the ethics of journalism can be used as a treatise for young journalists. A 20-page essay dissects the issue of Balochistan, the struggles of the Baloch people and proposes a long-term solution. It is Rahman’s attempt to inject some sense into rulers who never gave a sympathetic ear to the sufferings of the Baloch.

In his essay ‘Dark Days of Ziaul Haq’, Rahman delineates the struggle of journalists after the military regime shut down Musawaat. The struggle was carried out in three phases and there were hunger strikes and arrests. Four journalists from Lahore were sentenced to lashes; three were lashed. Additionally, Rahman writes of the black sheep that were part of journalist Rasheed Siddiqui’s pro-Zia group; instead of opposing the military regime, they went to the federal capital and joined its ranks.

Perhaps the last time Pakistani journalists put up a resistance to curbs on the media was during Gen Musharraf’s era. Rahman, again, was one of those at the forefront. A photo of him on the ground, microphone in hand as baton-wielding policemen surround him, circulated widely and drew attention to the cause.

These days, rather than fight repression of press freedom, the news community seems ready to dance to the tunes of those in power. From 2016 till the ouster of Imran Khan’s government in April 2022, especially, journalists have suffered crippling pay cuts and layoffs. Many veterans and committed newspersons lost their jobs or switched careers. There was no one to organise the news community as Rahman had done, and as Barna and Osmani had done before him.

The legacy of activism appears to have died with Rahman. At least we have this book, that chronicles the history of past efforts and may tell the new generation of journalists what the role of a true journalist actually is.

The reviewer is a member of staff.
He tweets @IrfaanAslam

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 29th, 2023



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