I.A. Rehman, Pakistan’s renowned journalist and human rights icon passed away earlier this month on April 12 at the age of 90. His life was spread from the progressive movement in Aligarh University to the movement for human and worker rights in South Asia, and he was among those who were afflicted by the Partition of the subcontinent and his relatives were also killed in the riots.
Apart from being the former Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and its Honorary Spokesperson, Rehman also remained the editor of the Pakistan Times and was affiliated with the Urdu daily Azad at the time of the independence of Bangladesh, which he had founded. Afterwards he was also the head of Viewpoint during the regime of former military dictator General Ziaul Haq and during this time he also wrote columns for other Pakistani newspapers.
Rehman was also a fan of films and had written reviews on films for the Pakistani magazine Herald apart from political essays. For his services in raising a voice for human rights in Pakistan and South Asia, he was also awarded many international honours which include the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award in 2003, the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2004 and many other awards.
He was born before Partition on September 1, 1930 in Hasanpur, a village of Gurgaon district in Punjab. He was born in a household where the rights of workers were acknowledged and when he started writing for newspapers in 1949, he became a member of the Civil Liberties Union afterwards.
His father was a religious person but also secular simultaneously. ‘There was never a religious bias in my life. I did not even know the difference between Hindu and Muslim till the time I went to high school’, he was wont to say.
At the time of Partition, he was studying at Aligarh University and lost many relatives in the riots but he was saved since he was himself in Aligarh. His father was a lawyer. After partition, he arrived in Shujabad in Multan and then transferred to Lahore. He did an MSc in Physics from Punjab University and then appeared for the Central Superior Services (CSS) exam, which he did pass but could not be appointed because there was no place available in the quota. Afterwards, he would express joy that it was well that he did not become a government official.
I.A. Rehman had become associated with the Progressive movement from his student days at Aligarh and remained a Marxist till his last days. After CSS, he began practical journalism at the Pakistan Times under the editorship of renowned progressive poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, where he was made the in-charge of the film page. Afterwards he became the Assistant Editor and Chief Editor in the same newspaper.
He faced numerous ebbs and flows in his journalistic period. He was also active in the Punjab Union of Journalists. He also contested the election of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) in 1967, but lost. In 1970, when the PFUJ organized a 12-day strike to include non-journalists in the Wage Award, he was active in it and was sacked from the Pakistan Times as a result.
Afterwards he took out the newspaper Azad with Abdullah Malik. He was a supporter of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) established in 1967 but after the military operation in then-East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), he supported the Awami League due to which Azad was shut down. Afterwards Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) of the PPP restored him at the Pakistan Times after coming to power.
I.A. Rehman was also the editor of the English magazine of the National Film Development Corporation (NAFDEC), the institution responsible for films in Pakistan, though this magazine was shut down after General Ziaul Haq came to power. Afterwards, Rehman issued an English journal called Viewpoint with the journalist Mazhar Ali Khan. Meanwhile, he was arrested in 1981 and remained in jail for 6 months.
In 1988 after Benazir Bhutto, ZAB’s daughter came to power, he was restored at the Pakistan Times, though he was once again sacked after the removal of this government.
Rehman was a brave journalist and he said everything fearlessly. He personified the resistance in Pakistani journalism. He is regarded as a founding member of the HRCP. He became its Director, then its Secretary-General and was its honorary spokesperson at the time of his passing. In addition, he used to write a weekly column for Dawn and wrote his last column on April 8, where he was gently urging both our decaying government and the diseased opposition to play their role honestly.
After retiring from practical journalism, he took charge of human rights and not only improved the prestige of the HRCP but further developed the values of human rights. He was regarded by many human rights workers as their leader. He was among those who attempted to popularize progressive thought in Pakistan and paid the price for it. He worked alongside the late Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani at the HRCP for some four decades with very limited resources.
Had he chosen to concentrate on column-writing alone, he would have profited immensely because the big newspapers of India and Bangladesh were ready to publish him in lieu of his desired amount, but he taught many generations of journalists about filing a report, doing research and journalistic ethics; and worked very hard at the HRCP from 1990 to 2015 and made people aware about how important human rights are in strengthening the relationship between the state and its citizens.
In addition to Pakistan, he was an active worker for peace, friendship and human rights in India and the SAARC countries. In 1994 when the Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy consisting of journalists, human rights workers and intellectuals was set up in India and Pakistan, Rehman was its founding member. He used to claim that the people of both countries should connect with each other because they did not possess hate, there are divided families on both sides. He was optimistic that sooner or later, there would have to be friendship between Pakistan and India and it would be permanent. To lose a worker like him at this moment is a huge loss for this region.
More personally, I was deeply honoured to share a few panels with him at the annual Sustainabe Development Policy Institute (SDPI) Conferences in Islamabad over the last few years. My last public interaction with Rahman sahib was his chairing of our panel on Pandemic Literature at the virtual 2020 SDPI Conference last December. I became awed with his grasp over literary matters seeing him at a panel celebrating the centenary of Ismat Chughtai a few years ago at the Faiz Festival in Lahore, so I made it a point to invite him to chair the various seminars of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) at the Pak Tea House in Lahore, which he would do so graciously. It was at one of these seminars held on the anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union on a cold December night a couple of years ago that I also had a taste of Rehman’s self-deprecating humour. Responding to my own comments which I had made that in Pakistan many Left-leaning intellectuals had joined NGOs or become businessmen overnight after the events of December 1991, Rehman said that I was obviously referring to him since he was the only Leftist who had actually joined the HRCP! He could not come to chair the PWA conference on the birth centenary of Sahir Ludhianvi here in Lahore last month due to illness. However, I am also very grateful to him for advising me to contact veteran Punjabi poet Ahmad Salim for my own upcoming short book on Sahir Ludhianvi when I called to wish him on his 90th birthday last September. This advice eventually changed the whole direction of my book project!
I also very much regret now not calling him up to seek out his opinion on my cover story on Major Ishaq’s centenary for Dawn EOS magazine on April 4, just a week before he passed away! That regret will now be mine to mourn and agonize over.
His lifelong relationship with the protection of human rights and freedom of expression will be remembered forever in the history of Pakistan. Another pillar of the protection of human rights in Pakistan has fallen with his passing away.
I.A. Rehman was the voice of the voiceless. With the successive losses of Asma Jahangir, Dr Mubashar Hasan and now Rehman sahib, Pakistan has become a wasteland. As the great Urdu poetess Kishwar Naheed puts it wonderfully in her poem for her great comrade and ally Abhi Toa Jaagne Ke Dinon Ne Aana Tha (The Days of Awakening Were Yet To Come):
Rehman sahib! Whatever you wrote
Not even Your angels would have written so much Allah Mian.
They record the sins and rewards of people
And you used to write their fable
Which was written neither by the pen-wielding journalists
And nor those giving sermons in the mosque pulpits
You never sometimes assuming the Divine voice
Scared our so-called Muslim people and nations
Of the end
You could not deem the deadly poison of their slander, misdeeds and misgovernance
As sugar like Iqbal
All your life in one hand you held a pen
And in another a typewriter.
He was not an ascetic, or a sufi
A man of this earth actually
You peeped into the courtyards of the forlorn
But did not embarrass them
Despite descending into the abyss of thought
To walk while holding the sun you wished not.
You considered improper even to mention the drum-beaters.
Yet we were hoping for better days
You even thought that was a deception and went away!
Note: All translations are by the writer.
(Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book‘Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi’, forthcoming in 2021. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)