MemoirsPolitical History

A Memoir of the 1950s – Part-I

Author shares memoirs of his life as a student, a journalist and an active member of the communist party from the late 1930s to the 1950s

The Sindh Observer, expressing almost universal opinion in the province and campaigning against the separation of Karachi, was silenced.

Eric Rahim

(Excerpts from an article which shares brief glimpses of the political landscape of the subcontinent, with emphasis on Pakistan, from the viewpoint of the author – as a student, a journalist and an active member of the communist party from the late 1930s to the 1950s)

In Lahore, troubles – Hindu-Muslim riots – started in March (1947). Our exams (final BA) which were scheduled to be held sometime in May had to be postponed. The halls of the residence were closed and the students sent home. It was expected that normal life would soon return and students – Hindus as well as Muslims – return to the college and normal teaching.

But things turned out very differently, and as a result of extensive rioting the exams had to be repeatedly postponed. I was confined to my village. I had my course books which I continued to study. I also had some other books with me. I remember reading during these months Maxim Gorky’s The Mother, which made a strong impression on me. I also had a small pamphlet by the Russian philosopher G. V. Plekhanov on the materialist conception of history. But I was unable to make any sense of it. I subscribed to the People’s Age and an uncle of mine to an Urdu language daily newspaper, the Zamindar (the cultivator). So I was well-informed about the events taking place in the outside world, and of course the coming into existence of Pakistan.

This was a time – mercifully a short one, some months – of utter madness, of mass inter-communal killings. No one would have imagined that things would turn out to be this way. As I have said, our village was surrounded by Muslim villages. The Christian people in our village had lived in peace with the Muslims in the area, their boys had daily come to the village to attend the middle school and they had come to avail of the medical facilities when available. During the time I am talking of, Christians were left alone and there was no fear among them. But the Hindu families in the village were extremely nervous, and with good reason. However, they were assured by the people of the village that they were under their protection. A group of men, led by my father, with his gun slung over his shoulder, escorted all the Hindu families to Gojra where they boarded a train for Amritsar (in India, across the border from Lahore). We learnt later that they all crossed the newly established border safely. My father never used the gun, as far as I know. Under the British, gun licenses were given only to loyal subjects and those who had influence in the community.

***

By December all the cross-migration in Punjab – of the Hindus to India and of Muslims to Pakistan – was completed. The situation was now completely peaceful. The exam date was announced. The North Hall was practically deserted. All the Hindu and Sikh students were gone. We would never see our Hindu and Sikh friends again.

I had decided to make my career in journalism. But before I could start looking for a job I needed the results of my exams. Instead of going to my own village I decided to visit my maternal grandfather who lived in a village near Okara, in Montgomery (now Sahiwal) district. There my uncle, who was about my age and who had also completed his studies, suggested that we go to Karachi. One of his sisters, my aunt, lived there. She was a nurse in Civil Hospital.

Although life had returned to normal, railway train time tables remained disrupted. We waited for hours at Okara railway station for the train to Karachi, with no idea when it would arrive. I remember it was night and it was freezing cold. There were families with small children also waiting. The children were crying from the cold. At last the train arrived and our long journey to Karachi began.

Unlike the train passenger in Britain, the passengers in the sub-continent talked freely among themselves. They talked about all kinds of things: the state of the harvest, family weddings, and one’s problem with toothache. The talk in our compartment was naturally about the recent events, the partition of the country, the recent inter-communal violence, the mass transfer of populations across the newly established border, and Pakistan and the future.

Two lines of thought were running through the conversation, though of course people were talking about all kinds of things. It wasn’t against the Hindus as such, but about the superiority, perfection of the Islamic faith. During the discourse on this subject, one elderly man claimed that you could tell a Muslim by the light (noor) on his face, and as if to demonstrate the truth of his claim he pointed towards me. He wanted to witness the noor on my face. I don’t think I ever received a better compliment. The other line of thinking referred to the future, the future of Pakistan. There was universal sense of optimism. We have plenty of fertile land. We will be able to feed ourselves. Above all, God is on our side.

***

The central government had taken Karachi, the capital of the Sindh province and its main source of revenue, out of the jurisdiction of the province and made it the centrally-administered capital of Pakistan. Public opinion in the province was outraged. The provincial government, which protested, was dismissed.

After a couple of weeks of my arrival in Karachi I saw an advertisement for a proof-reader in the English language daily newspaper, The Sind Observer. I applied and was interviewed by the editor. He thought I was over-qualified for the job (by the standards of the time I had good command of the English language). But after some persuasion he relented and gave me the job. The monthly salary was 80 rupees. I think at the time a primary school teacher earned as much.

After a couple of months the Observer was banned by the order of the central government. I was without a job.

The central government had taken Karachi, the capital of the Sindh province and its main source of revenue, out of the jurisdiction of the province and made it the centrally-administered capital of Pakistan. Public opinion in the province was outraged. The provincial government, which protested, was dismissed. The Observer, expressing almost universal opinion in the province and campaigning against the separation of Karachi, was silenced. (The government in the North West Frontier Province was also dismissed, though for different reasons.)

***

Within about six months of its creation, the main fault line of Pakistan had been exposed, though few realized this at the time. The new country had been demanded and created on the notion that the Muslims of India constituted a nation – a Muslim nation. The ethnic diversity of the community was of course recognized, but it was considered of little or no significance. Now with the task of framing a new constitution for the country facing the leadership the ethnic or the ‘nationalities’ question could not be ignored.

To look at the issue from another perspective: Pakistan was a new creation. The leadership needed to create a new Pakistani national identity, to meld the different nationalities into a single nation, to make Pakistan a nation state. What was the idea that would bind, fuse the different nationalities together into a nation?

In his first address to the constituent assembly on 11 August (1947), Jinnah had told his audience ‘… in the course of time [in Pakistan] Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as the citizens of the state.’ In other words, Jinnah was visualizing a secular Pakistan. Pakistan would be a country where religion would be a private, not political, matter. In other words, religion could not be the idea that would bind the nationalities together. What force would then meld the different nationalities into a new national identity?

However, by the time the Sindh provincial Government was dismissed and the Observer banned, Jinnah, while addressing a public meeting in Dhaka (East Pakistan), said (on 21 March, 1948): ‘What is the use of saying ‘we are Bengalis or Sindhis or Pathans or Punjabi?’ No, we are Muslims, Islam has taught us this. Here I think you will agree with me that whatever else you may be and whatever you are, you are Muslims. You belong to a nation now.’ Pakistanis are a nation because they are Muslims.

He told the meeting: ‘The state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu [a language that is completely alien to the Bengali] and no other language. Anyone who tries to mislead you is merely the enemy of Pakistan.’

Three days later, addressing the students of Dacca University, he associated the nascent language movement with a ‘fifth column’; there could only be ‘one lingua franca’. Urdu, he added, ‘embodies the best that is in Islamic culture and Muslim tradition.’ He also spoke of the ‘poison of provincialism’ (demand for a substantial degree of provincial autonomy).

Although Urdu was the mother tongue of only a small part of the sub-continent’s Muslim population, Muslim leadership after the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857 attempted to make it the symbol of Muslim identity, distinguishing it from Hindi, spoken largely by Hindus. In Pakistan, Urdu is the mother tongue only of the descendants of muhajirs (migrants, refugees) who migrated to Pakistan from the Urdu-speaking part of India at the time of Partition. Following the Muslim leadership at the time of the ‘Mutiny’, Urdu was now being identified with Islam, and was considered, along with Islam, the medium of nation-building.

***

After about a couple of months I noticed an advertisement in The Daily Gazette for the position of the head proof-reader, with a monthly salary of rupees 125. I applied and got the job. I must have worked there for about eight months. Then one day I sat down to write a ‘letter to the editor’ to Dawn (now the leading English language newspaper in Karachi and Sindh) criticizing something it had said in an editorial. As I wrote it, the letter became longer and longer and became a general criticism of government policies as espoused by Dawn. I knew it could not be published as a letter to the editor, nor of course as an article. But I sent it anyway. I signed it as a ‘humble Pakistani’. There was some indication that I was a young man working in a newspaper.

After two or three days, with great surprise, I saw a small box item on the letters page saying that a ‘humble Pakistani’ who had written a letter to the editor should come and see him. I saw the editor, Mr. Altaf Hussain, who asked me a number of questions on my background, my present work, my career ambitions, etc. At the end of the interview he offered me the position of a junior sub-editor, with one month’s probation, and told me to report to the chief-sub-editor. The chief sub-editor was an Englishman, Mr. Brown, from Fleet Street, London. After a month, on a favorable report from Mr Brown, my position was confirmed, with a monthly salary of rupees 250. This must have been sometime in 1949.

Dawn was founded by Jinnah in New Delhi in 1941 as the organ of the Muslim League. With the establishment of Pakistan it moved to Karachi in August 1947. Most of its editorial staff had migrated with it. It continued to be the mouthpiece of the dominant section of the Muslim League. Sometime in 1950 (or perhaps a little later) the Daily Gazette ceased publication. After this, Dawn had the monopoly of the English newspaper readership in Karachi and Sindh.

Dawn’s editorial policy, as noted, followed the line taken by the dominant leadership. It was, for instance, hostile to India, and emphasized the Hindu character of the country. It was referred to as Bharat instead of India or Hindustan. This was of course another aspect of the line of thinking suggested in Jinnah’s Dhaka speech, that only religion could bind the different nationalities into a nation. Hindu India, Muslim Pakistan. It also regularly condemned the ‘curse of provincialism’.

Sometime in the first half of 1953 I resigned from Dawn. There were both push and pull factors involved. Two incidents are worth mentioning. (Continues)

____________________

Eric Rahim, Glasgow, 14 October 2018. (Published on March 31, 2019)

Courtesy: Criterion Quarterly  

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