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Mainstream, VOL LV No 25 New Delhi June 10, 2017

Remembering Mazhar Ali Khan On His Birth Centenary

Saturday 10 June 2017

Mazhhar Ali Khan Ali Khan, a legendary journalist who never flinched from uncompromising journalism, upholding the sanctity of the freedom of press, was born on June 6, 1917. He married Tahira Hyat Khan, daughter of Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan, Prime Minister of Punjab, in colonial India. Sir Sikandar was the younger son of Nawab Muhammad Hyat Khan of Wah. The Hyat family belonged to the Khattar tribe of Attock, North Punjab. Educated at school in Aligarh under the then Aligarh Muslim University, Sikandar was in England for education for a short period as he was recalled home in 1915 due to World War I. He served as one of the first Indian officers to receive the King’s Commission with the Punjab Regiment and his valour in the war as well as the Third Afghan War in 1919 fetched him the knighthood.

He was the founder of the Unionist Muslim League that became the single majority party in the provincial elections in 1937. As a result, it formed a coalition with the Sikh Akali Party and the Indian National Congresss. He became the Premier, although the government mainly benefited the Punjabi Zamindars.

The irony of the history was that Tahira, after gettring close to Mazhar, gravitated towards communism and joined the CPI in pre-Partition India, although Mazhar remained a fellow-traveller of the CPI and later the CP of Pakistan. Wrote Tahira, “Mazhar was a good friend of my elder sister (and a second cousin). He would come and discuss politics, but I must confess he never noticed me. He was a great debater and more of a hero for me.” Her face softened as she remembered, according to Khan’s article. “But it was quite difficult not to notice Tahira Hayat Khan for too long.”

“Bicycling her way to Mamdot Villa, the 14-year-old Tahira told the chowkidar to inform Mr Jinnah that Tahira had come. ‘He knew my father and I’d already met him when he came to our house. He was very nice to me and told me that he knew the stance of the Communist Party. I showed him a pamphlet I was carrying in which the Communist Party had declared its support for an independent country.’”

Tahira Mazhar Ali narrated the life of her husband after his demise on January 28, 1993:

“Mazhar was born with the Revolution in 1917. His father, Nawab Muzaffar Khan, was my father’s cousin. Our family lived in Wah, the elders thought the tribe came to India from Ghazni with Sultan Mahmud. They also believed that Jehangir stopped by the springs on their land en route to Kashmir and exclaimed, ‘Wah!’ We were brought up in Lahore, we were a large brood, ten children off three mothers. Abaji (Sir Sikander) was very keen that we be constructively employed in after-school hours. He encouraged an interest in the arts and culture. I went to Queen Mary’s College with my sisters and had a passion for sport. We spent the weekends at our family home in Lahore where the other cousins also gathered. Mazhar was eight years older than me. I must have been 14 or 15 when I first noticed him. He was tall and quiet. He was already a well-known debater and student leader. I remember I tried several antics to attract his attention. He ignored me. I think he began to notice me a year or so later.

“We married when I was a little over 17 and he 25. Abaji would’ve been happier had I married Mumtaz Daultana. It was an unspoken understanding between his father Chacha Ahmedyar and Abaji. Don’t forget, Mazhar was unemployed. But I made my preference known to Abaji and he agreed. We went to live in Wah after we married. Mazhar was a Communist sympathiser although he never joined the party. In Wah, he worked with the peasants and workers at Khaur. Of course the family was distinctly uncomfortable with this line of activity but they didn’t object openly. Those were happy days. We lived on virtually nothing. I remember the time Ghaffar Khan was externed from the Frontier. He came to live with us in Wah for two months. Shortly after that, Mazhar left for the Middle East on military service. I was very pregnant by then. We didn’t see each other for two years. Our son Tariq was born while Mazhar was away.

“By the time he returned, I had joined the Communist Party. I had given away my entire trousseau, including the family jewels, to the Party. We were penniless but content. One day Mian Iftikharuddin came to Wah to see Mazhar. He said he wanted to launch a daily newspaper, The Pakistan Times. He and Mazhar discussed it for days and eventually agreed to put an organisation together. It was called Progressive Papers Ltd (PPL). This was the year before the Partition.

“Mazhar became editor of PT and then went to the news desk when Faiz took over the editorship. We moved to Lahore; we had another child, a daughter, Tausif. I worked with women and trade unionists. I used to cycle all over Lahore. Our children were raised by Mazhar’s wetnurse, Jan Amma. I don’t think I could have managed without her. The children called their father Majo and me Maa.

“In 1959, General Ayub Khan nationalised PPL and Mazhar resigned immediately. We were lucky to have had our own house but the going got tougher and tougher, so we rented our house and moved to an apartment on Nicholson Road. Ayub sent messages through General Sheikh who was his Interior Minister and Mazhar’s brother-in-law for him to return to PT. But Mazhar declined, saying he couldn’t collaborate with a martial law regime. By then I was expecting our third child, Mahir.

“Mazhar remained unemployed for years together. He kept his sanity by observing a strict regime of exercise. We swam regularly in the summer and played tennis in the winter. He also read voraciously.

“It wasn’t possible to write anywhere in those days. It was much later that Mazhar began to write for the Bengali weekly, Forum. His great pride and joy was Tariq, our elder son, who at 12 had led a demonstration of schoolboys to protest the murder of Patrice Lumumba. He was also a keen debater, another thing he had in common with his father.

“Our apartment on Nicholson Road overflowed with life. The progressives were constantly in and out of our home — Sajjad Zaheer, Sibte Hassan, Mirza Ibrahim. The 60s closed on an optimistic note. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won a landslide victory. Sometime in the early 70s, Dawn’s management asked Mazhar to fill in for their editor Altaf Gauhar, who had been imprisoned by Bhutto. When he came back to Lahore, he launched a weekly called Viewpoint.

“We sold our house, retaining the patch with the annexe, to get Viewpoint going. It was a labour of love for Mazhar. The children were growing up; Tariq had been to Oxford and won his own recognition. I was busy with the Democratic Women’s Association. Viewpoint was a bottomless though; we ended up selling almost everything we had to keep it going. I did protest that we couldn’t carry on like that but I just couldn’t say no to Mazhar in the end. It was his life.

 “The pressures were enormous, especially with General Zia came to power. Mazhar was arrested and imprisoned in 1978 and then again in 1981, following the hijacking of the PIA plane. He developed a heart problem and had to have bypass surgery the following year.

“We kept Viewpoint going for as long as we could. Eventually, it became such a strain that we had to close it down in 1992. Mazhar went back to writing a weekly column for Dawn. On the afternoon of January 28, 1993, he complained of a feeling of ‘heaviness’. I took him to hospital. He asked me to call his editor at Dawn and tell him that he wouldn’t be able to send in his column on time. He died the same night.

“I wouldn’t say he was broken by the closure of Viewpoint. No, he’d come to terms with it. He had watched the Cold War thawing with great interest. Although he’d been a member of the Pakistan-Soviet Friendship Society for years, along with Faiz, he was not uncritical of what passed for Communism in the USSR. He was enormously heartened by Gorbachev’s appearance. When the Soviet Union broke up, he said it was the dialectic at work. Communism had had an enormously salutary effect on capitalism. The welfare state and ‘caring capitalism’ were the West’s response to the threat of Communism. No, we did not mourn the demise of the Soviet Union.”

They have three children. Tariq, the well-known writer and Trotskyist, is the eldest. The younger son Mahir is a noted journalist and the daughter is Tausif. Among their friends in India were Nikhil Chakravartty, Renu Chakravartty, Parvati Krishnan, Mohan Kumaramangalam and Jyoti Basu.

We are reproducing the following editorial that appeared in Pakistan Times (January 31, 1948). This was perhaps the best tribute to Gandhiji after his demise written anywhere in the subcontinent. The writer was Mazhar Ali Khan, a fact revealed by Tahira Mazhar Ali during a conversation with the Mainstream editor in Lahore in November 1998. We are also reproducing a piece that appeared in this journal in its Republic Day Special on January 28, 1989. (This was taken from Mazhar sahb’s speach at the Media Assembly of South and South-East Asia on the theme “Perception beyond Borders’ organised by the National Media Centre in New Delhi (January 23-25, 1989). In this way we are expressing our homage to that outstanding Pakistani journalist, public intellectual and prograssive thinker who played a major role in cementing India-Pakistan relations at the people’s level braving the heaviest of odds.

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