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Icon of struggle Barna is dead

January 14, 2011

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ISLAMABAD, Jan 14: Minhaj Barna is no more. That icon of trade union struggle in Pakistan’s newspaper industry lost his battle against death early on Friday at the age of 87.

The rupture of an ulcer in his duodenum, or the first part of the small intestine, became the immediate cause of his death after a week’s treatment at a private hospital in Islamabad, although he has been ailing for some years mainly due to old age.

As he was buried at the army graveyard in nearby Rawalpindi’s Westridge area, where he has been living for some years with his niece and adopted daughter, messages of condolences came from across the country, including from government leaders like President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, opposition

politicians, trade unions and the newspaper industry’s All-Pakistan Newspaper Society and the Council of Newspaper Editors.

Minhaj Mohamad Khan — Barna was his poetic name — had been leading mostly a reclusive retired life for several years because of his ailment after an eventful career as a journalist and as one of the most fearless trade union leaders. But he would occasionally make an appearance at trade union-related events and was always available for counsel to young union leaders.

Born in 1923 in a Pathan family of Qaim Ganj, in the present-day Uttar Pradesh state of India, Mr Barna had been closely associated with the trade union movement after his family’s 1949 migration to Pakistan, where he worked for several newspaper organisations such as the dailies Imroze, the Pakistan Times and the Muslim – his last journalistic assignment being a brief stint with the Associated Press of Pakistan news agency.

But he played key roles as secretary-general and then president of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) and as founder-president of All-Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation, which comprises both the unions of journalists and combined unions of newspaper organisations.

And it was the measure of Mr Barna’s undaunted leadership that the slogan of “terey saath jeena, terey saath marna – Minhaj Barna, Minhaj Barna” — became a battle cry in facing the most oppressive of Pakistan’s military rulers, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, from 1977 to 1988.

In an article on the Facebook social networking website in 2009, Mr Barna thus wrote of that dark period: “Perhaps the worst the press suffered was during the martial law administration of General Zia-ul-Haq, legitimised under a Supreme Court judgement in the name of the so-called ‘law of necessity’. But while this period may be remembered for its oppressive measures, including a long spell of censorship, banning of independent and dissenting newspapers, arrest of editors and journalists, sentencing them to rigorous imprisonment under martial law regulations and even whipping them, it was also marked by memorable resistance by the journalists and press workers led by the PFUJ and Apnec.”    Among the Zia regime’s tactics to browbeat Mr Barna and his associates was a division in the PFUJ, perceived to be inspired by the general himself. Though the move did damage it, the genuine organisation continued to command support of the majority.

Before that, in the united Pakistan -- before the 1971 secession of Bangladesh — Mr Barna played a key role in the first 10-day, and successful, nationwide strike in the newspaper industry in 1970 for better wages and inclusion of non-journalist employees in the wage structure. He was then the PFUJ secretary-general with K.G. Mustafa from the then-East Pakistan as president and another PFUJ founding father, Asrar Ahmad, providing a guiding inspiration.

Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Mr Barna’s youger broher and a well-known left-wing politician, flew from Karachi in time to be present at the burial.