Home Memoirs A Memoir of the 1950s – Part-V

A Memoir of the 1950s – Part-V

A Memoir of the 1950s – Part-V
A view of Karachi in 1950s

On 7th October 1958, BBC reported that President Iskander Mirza had declared martial law in the country and that General Ayub Khan, commander-in-chief of the army, was to be the martial law administrator. 

Shortly, Iskander Mirza was exiled to London 

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)

The origin of the separate electorates system goes back to the latter part of the 19th century when the British government had established a uniform system of administration throughout the sub-continent. In due course the issue of some form of Indian participation in the administration (at local level with a limited franchise) arose. Muslim leaders argued that as the Hindus were numerically a much larger community, Muslims would always be under- represented in elected institutions relatively to their number. The issue was important because, it was argued, that the Muslims were not only a minority community, but also they were in a weaker position in business and industry, professions and education. Therefore, in order to safeguard their interests: (a) the number of seats in elected bodies be allocated to each community according to the numerical size of the community, and (b) that constituencies be determined on the basis of religion so that there would be Muslim constituencies in which only Muslims could vote, and similarly for the Hindus. This principle of separate electorates was accepted and then adopted as a general rule applicable to all religious communities.

After the creation of Pakistan, Muslims were in overwhelming majority; in West Pakistan minority communities formed no more than two – if that – percent of the population. Muslims now needed no safeguards.

However, the principle of separate electorates was more than just about the safeguards. It was an institution signifying the separateness of the Muslim community from all other communities. It was an ideology. It was Islam that provided the bond of a shared national identity to diverse Muslim ethnic communities that now formed Pakistan. This is the standpoint that Daultana and other Muslim League leaders from West Pakistan espoused. As noted, the people of East Pakistan did not share this standpoint.

The principal concern of Ghafar Khan, Abdul Samad Achakzai and G. M. Syed’s parties was provincial autonomy, abolition of One-Unit, and loose federal structure in which the provinces would enjoy a large measure of autonomy.  

It was at this time in Dhaka that the decision to form the National Awami (People’s) Party (NAP) was taken. Mian Iftikharuddin kept me informed of the progress of the discussions, and I reported on the final decision in The Pakistan Times. The new party was to be formed through the merger of certain existing opposition parties and groups. Maulana Bhashani, a prominent leader of the Awami League (East Pakistan), an anti-imperialist and a staunch advocate of radical economic and social reforms had broken away from his party which was now part of the government led by Prime Minister Suhrawardy. He had a strong popular and religious appeal. (Mian Iftikharuddin once jokingly asked me if I thought Bhashani was such a man of God as he pretended to be and as his followers believed). Equally radical was Mian Iftikharuddin’s Azad (free, independent) Pakistan Party (APP) – also staunchly anti-imperialist and advocating radical economic and social reforms. APP was largely operating in Punjab and Karachi, while, at this time, Bhashani’s following was confined to East Pakistan. These two were the genuinely Left groupings.

GM Syed was president of the Pakistan-Soviet Cultural Association

Then there were, what we may call, nationalist groupings. These were Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgars (God’s Servants) based entirely in the North West Frontier Province, Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai’s Wrore Pakhtun (Pakhtun Brotherhood) confined to Balochistan and closely aligned with Ghaffar Khan, and GM Syed’s Sindhi Mahaz (Front) based in Sindh. GM Syed was president of the Pakistan-Soviet Cultural Association, and as secretary of the Association I came to know him on friendly terms. The principal concern of these three parties was provincial autonomy; they wanted, above all, destruction of One Unit and a loose federal structure in which the provinces would enjoy a large measure of autonomy. Their concern with economic and social reforms (e.g. radical land reforms) in their province was minimal. They could not by any measure be considered as parties of the Left.

The common ground between these nationalist parties on the one hand and Maulana Bhashani and Mian Iftikharuddin on the other consisted of secular politics (none of them subscribed to the kind of Islamic ideology to which the Muslim League adhered), a genuinely federal system, and their agreement on a non-aligned foreign policy, the kind India had adopted.

Because of their different perspectives on economic and social reforms and the narrow nationalism of the three nationalist parties, the newly formed party, the National Awami Party, was never able to achieve the kind of internal coherence that was needed for its development. With the martial law in 1958, like all other parties, it was banned. After the ban was lifted the party broke up in different factions. Even in East Pakistan the party was split into the Bhashani and anti-Bhashani factions.

While in Dhaka, I was able to see the leaders of the East Pakistan Communist Party (which despite the ban and repressive measures adopted against it had remained intact). Sardar Fazlul Karim, a communist member of the new constituent assembly, with whom I had become friendly, had arranged the meeting. I faced four leaders, as if I was being interviewed. They made me talk most of the time, asking questions about the situation of the party in West Pakistan, about the political situation generally, and about individual leaders of various parties in the western wing. I asked them about the Awami League as part of the central government. They did not think the ‘honeymoon’ with the ruling junta would last long. As it turned out, Suhrawardy was out in a year’s time. After the meeting Sardar Fazlul Karim told me that all the four leaders I had met were members of the politburo. I felt greatly honored.

The communist party activity in Punjab was even more depressing than what it was in Karachi. In fact, the party in Punjab had ceased to exist – there was hardly any activity.

Sometime in the beginning of 1957 I decided to move to Lahore. Party activity in Karachi, now underground, was at a low ebb. Also, I felt that I needed change in my professional work. The editor agreed to my transfer to Lahore.

The party activity in Punjab was even more depressing than what it was in Karachi. In fact, the party in Punjab had ceased to exist – there was hardly any activity. The members of the old central committee (who were based in Lahore) were engaged in other activities. Eric Cyprian was teaching full time in a college. He had a degree in English from Oxford University, and before becoming a whole-timer in 1945 or 1946 he was a lecturer in Forman Christian College. Mohammed Afzal had departed for London where he was doing chartered accountancy. Sibte Hasan was working full time as editor of the newly-launched (by Progressive Papers Ltd.) Lail-o-Nihar. Aslam Chaudhri was in full time legal practice. Firozuddin Mansoor was in poor health. The only exception was Mirza Ibrahim. He continued his work in the railwaymen’s union which could function openly.

I had been transferred to Lahore but no decision had been taken as to the nature of my duties. On my own initiative I wrote some articles. I remember writing one on the famous Lahore Museum and noting that in order not to offend the sensitivities of visitors, the director had covered the nudity of some the female exhibits with pieces of cloth. I suggested to the editor that the newspaper create a new position, that of a roving correspondent. He or she would visit neglected, relatively backward parts of Punjab (and eventually of the country as a whole) to highlight the economic and social problems facing the people in relatively deprived areas. To establish the feasibility of the idea I went to Shakargar, in Sialkot district, and wrote an article with the title ‘The God-Forsaken Shakargar’. The place was suggested by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was born and brought up in that area. Although Faiz was the chief editor, he did not interfere in appointments, etc. The editor did not like the idea of a roving correspondent; instead, he gave me the position of a senior sub-editor.

I was reasonably content in my new position for about ten months. But then I began to feel restless. I was now approaching the age of 30 years. Was I going to spend the rest of my life in the newsroom sub-editing? I decided to study economics in the hope that I would become a columnist specializing in economic issues. I discussed the idea with the editor who agreed, and suggested a leave of absence of two to three years.

I decided to go to London to study economics. I do not recall why I did not choose to do my studies in Punjab University (Lahore). An old friend, Dr. Abbas, was head of the economics department there. He had been a party member in Karachi, had gone to Holland and obtained a Ph.D. in economics. Perhaps I needed a complete change of scenery.

I wrote to a friend who was studying at the London School of Economics (LSE). As noted earlier, SM Naseem had been an activist in the student movement of 1953, and was the editor of the Students Herald. After doing his MA in economics from Karachi University he had gone to London to obtain a masters degree in statistics. He advised me to apply not only for admission to the London School of Economics (LSE) but also to University College London, which also had an economics department. This turned out to be excellent advice. I was not accepted at the LSE, but was offered a place in University College. This was for the session beginning in September 1958. All that I needed now was a passport.

I made an application at the Lahore Passport Office. When after about a fortnight I returned to the office to collect my passport, I was told that I needed a ‘clearance’ from the Punjab C. I. D. (Criminal Investigation Department). I knew this was going to be tricky business. There was no point in my going to the CID office and requesting the ‘clearance’.

I spoke to an old friend from my college days, who had joined the police force and risen to the position of inspector. He had then resigned, studied law and had become a lawyer. He was still in contact with his former boss, a deputy inspector general, now retired. My friend explained the problem to his old boss, who was sympathetic. He gave my friend his visiting card and advised that I see the superintendent of CID and give him the card. That is what I did. The superintendent asked me about my relationship with the retired DIG, who had also been his boss. I told him the truth. He told me that I would get the ‘clearance’. It could take a couple of weeks.

I returned to the passport office after two weeks, and was told that I needed another ‘clearance’, this from the Central Intelligence Bureau, Pakistan’s FBI. This was going to be trickier than getting the clearance from Punjab.

And so I travelled to Karachi. I renewed contact with my old journalist colleagues, and sought someone who had access to Mian Anwar Ali, the director of the Intelligence Bureau (Pakistan’s Edgar J. Hoover). After much exploration someone suggested that as Nawab Qizilbash was a good friend of Mian Anwar Ali he might be able to help. Qizilbash was a Punjabi grandee, a feudal lord, a former Punjab Minister and close to the ruling circles.

I knew Qizilbash as a journalist, but not too well. Fortunately, it turned out that a friend of mine happened to know him much better. Asrar Ahmed (one of the founders of the Karachi Union of Journalists) and I made an appointment with Qizilbash, and explained the reason for our visit. He was sympathetic and called Mian Anwar Ali on the phone. After some pleasantries he came to the point. Mian Anwar Ali was telling Qizilbash that Eric Rahim was a dangerous man, and Qizilbash was saying that it was all the more reason that he should be allowed to get out of the country, perhaps for good. Eventually, Mian Anwar Ali relented. I could collect my passport from the Foreign Office in about ten days.

We were now into October (1958). The academic session in University College would already have started. It would take me at least another two weeks to get to London. I had missed the session. I sent a telegram to the admissions office of University College saying that because of the problems in obtaining the passport I would not be able to make it.

But I was going to collect my passport anyway. After about ten days of the meeting with Qizilbash I went to the Foreign Office. There I was told that my passport was ready for collection. It was a restricted passport, valid only for four countries and for three years, and that it could not be renewed without reference to the Foreign Office. It was also conditional on my making a signed declaration that while abroad I would not engage in any political activities. I refused to sign the declaration and returned to Lahore without the passport.

Back in Lahore I consulted my friend Major Mohammed Ishaq, a former Rawalpindi ‘conspirator’, now a communist and practicing at the Lahore High Court. Would it be feasible to make an application to the Lahore High Court asking whether the government had the right to deny me an unrestricted passport for the legitimate purpose of studying abroad, and to demand an undertaking that while abroad I should not participate in any legitimate political activity?

We decided to meet in his chambers near the Mall Road to discuss this question. It was the 7th of October (1958). As I was getting ready to leave the house for my meeting with Major Ishaq my younger brother rushed in to inform me that he had heard it on the BBC that President Iskander Mirza had declared martial law in the country and that General Ayub Khan, commander-in-chief of the army, was to be the martial law administrator.

I saw Major Ishaq and we both agreed that the best thing I could do was to try to leave the country as soon as possible. (Major Ishaq was arrested soon afterwards.) I sent a telegram to University College informing them that I had succeeded in obtaining the passport and inquiring if there was still a place for me on the course. Within a day I received a telegram back with a positive response.

I travelled to my village to bid farewell to my parents, and then to Karachi. I went to the Foreign Office, signed the declaration they had demanded and received the passport. In the first week of November – I remember it was Guy Fawkes night – I was in London. My friends SM Naseem and MA Shakoor were at Victoria Terminal to receive me. It was the beginning of a new life.


During my short stay in Karachi preparing to leave for London I was contacted by Abbas Khalili, secretary of the Ministry of Industries. I knew Khalili quite well in my capacity as a journalist. But more importantly, I knew him at a social level as a close friend of mine, Jaffer Naqvi, was engaged to be married to one of his nieces. He knew he could trust me. He gave me a letter for his wife who lived in London. At this time he did not wish to communicate with her through the normal channels.

Iskandar Mirza had been the joint defence secretary in the last days of British India, the first secretary of defence after the creation of Pakistan, a position in which he had wielded enormous power, he had been governor of East Pakistan, then governor general, and finally president of the country under the 1956 constitution which he had scrapped. Here he was at the beginning of his exile in London.

The reason for this was that Iskander Mirza, who had as president of the country declared martial law and appointed Ayub Khan as the martial law administrator had been booted out by Ayub Khan. As Mirza belonged to the Shia sect of Islam there was a great deal of nervousness among the top bureaucrats who belonged to the same sect. Khalili was a Shia too.

Immediately after arriving in London I phoned Mrs. Khalili to inform her that I had a letter for her from her husband and that I would come to her house to deliver it as soon as my registration at University College had been completed. I was already five weeks late. She was very anxious about her husband and she wanted the letter immediately. She would come and see me the same day to collect the letter. That is what she did, and invited me to her house in Putney.

On the appointed day I arrived at her house and was warmly welcomed. There were about four other guests. As I was chatting to one of them I noted a new arrival. Guess who? Iskandar Mirza. This man had been the joint defence secretary in the last days of British India, the first secretary of defence after the creation of Pakistan, a position in which he had wielded enormous power, he had been governor of East Pakistan, then governor general, and finally president of the country under the 1956 constitution which he had scrapped. Here he was at the beginning of his exile in London. He looked smaller than what I had thought. He looked at me and nodded in recognition – he knew me by face in my capacity as a journalist. I nodded back. I wondered if I should go and speak to him. But what could I say? ‘How are you Mr. Mirza today?’ No, I did not speak to him. Later, as I was leaving I went up to him and said goodbye and shook his hand. But I did not say ‘good luck, Mr. Mirza’. (Concludes) 


Eric Rahim, Glasgow, 14 October 2018.

Courtesy: Criterion Quarterly (Published on March 31, 2019)

Click here for Part-I Part-II Part-III , Part-IV