The writer today unfolds a chapter of history, not so old, when dozens of Sindhi books, magazines, and over a dozen printing presses were banned during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. These also include Tariq Ashraf’s Suhni Magazine and a printing press. Rasool Bux Palejo had fought this case at a Commission headed by Qazi Akbar, and submitted defense note, which was a classic and superb piece of literature. Poetess Fahmida Riaz too had recorded her evidence, but alas both historic documents have not been preserved and are missing.
Sindhi students, journalists, and writers bitterly suffered in the last days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. The most common tool was the execution of the Defense of Pakistan Rules (DPR). In most of the cases, pretext categories of arrests were fifth columnists, anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan, printing and propagating hate material, and working for the enemy of the country. The last years of Bhutto’s Government actions were too reactionary and against the peoples’ popular desires. In doing so, the government was so confused that the majority of the actions were in their nature reactionaries and anti-people.
Let me allow to share with you a story of Suhni Magazine – how it was banned? How Tariq Ashraf, its editor was arrested a couple of times? On 7th May 1975 through press and radio, it was known that the Government has banned fourteen printing presses and thirty-six books and magazines. With short notice, the police overtook the presses, and soon issued the arrest warrants for the owners and editors. Interestingly, twenty-two writers associated with right-wing ideologies issued a press statement in favor of the ban. The statement said the books, magazines, and presses were issuing material against the state and printing erotic literature.
Lately, progressive, and nationalist Sindhi writers also issued the press statement that none of the writers were engaged in anti-state activities, and none of their books and magazines have printed hate as well as pornographic material. Amid uncertain situations, Tariq Ashraf went underground. The police kept an eye on his house, and finally, it was raided.
One day, Tariq Ashraf’s mother got a call from Rasool Bux Palejo that he voluntarily intends to be advocate for Suhni magazine. Tariq Ashraf’s mother told him that Tariq and his relationship are not cordial. ‘Tariq has written against you, and you have also rebutted his point of view.’ Rasool Bux Palejo told her, ‘Okay, it is true that he is against me, but he is not against Sindh’. Palejo also added that ‘there is extended time to live, fight and settle the scores.’ He persuaded Tariq’s mother to ask Tariq to come to his office and sign the papers – Wakalat Nama.
The message was passed to Tariq, and he immediately signed the papers.
Soon Sindh Government announced a commission, which became popular with the name of ‘Press Commission.’ However, many called it the ‘Fact-Finding Committee.’ Qazi Muhammad Akbar was made its head, and senior officials from the Home Department and Information Department were made its members. The commission’s first act was issuing of notices to press owners to present in person before the committee, along with records. Tariq Ashraf refused and communicated the commission that he could not gather the record, because the government has sealed and taken over the press. On the contrary, most of the owners went and presented their records. Although in a private meeting, they had agreed with Tariq’s proposal that they should protest, and do not attend the commission’ meeting.
Gradually, all the magazines and presses, except Suhni, Naeen Sindh, and Zahid Press were returned to the owners. However, the commission continued its proceedings. Mr. Rasool Bux Palejo defended Suhni. G. N. Mughal, at that time associated with Hilal-e-Pakistan, Karachi, told this scribe that, whenever there was a hearing date, the hall was quickly packed with the journalists. All of them just come to listen to mesmerizing arguments of Rasool Bux Palejo. He recalled that Rasool Bux Palejo’s submitted defense note was a classic example. It was a superb piece of literature, where he quoted world literature and cited numerous examples in support of Suhni magazine. He proved that it’s progressive magazine and custodian of new literary trends. He added that Rasool Bux Palejo in support of Suhni magazine submitted a list of writers to the commission as a witness.
The list had names of Sindhi and Urdu writers. The evidence was sought against the story under question. It was Amar Jaleel’s story – ‘Sard Lash Jo Safar.’ All those who were called or did manage to reach described the story as an artistic expression, and rejected that it has not instigated hate or undermined religion. GN Mughal recalled that Fahmida Riaz was also called to furnish her opinion about the story. She quoted a lot of examples from English literature in support of Suhni as well as a short story. Qazi Akbar interrupted her, and asked ‘Do you know Sindhi?’, and she answered his question by reading the story in Sindhi. GN Mughal repeatedly told that Rasool Bux Palejo’s arguments and submitted note were excellent. It must be collected and printed as a historical document.
I contacted Tariq Ashraf’s family, and friends. But all of them responded that they do not have a copy of Suhni’s file, and Rasool Bux Palejo’s response and Fahmida Riaz’s statement. Finally, I rang Jami Chandio and asked him about the copy of Suhni’s defense case. He told me that Palejo Sahib’s nature was not archive-type. And soon afterward he was arrested, and his documents and books were not collected and preserved. Resultantly, they lost this report along with other valuable documents.
The commission carried out its proceedings at different places. Rasool Bux Palejo, always carried Tariq Ashraf in his car. They drove from Hyderabad to Karachi and other places. However, he never charged a single penny from Tariq Ashraf as an advocates’ fee or court-expenses.
It was a political case, and it was pre-determined that Tariq Ashraf should be punished. Muhammad Khan Junejo, the then Secretary of Department of Home, Government of Sindh used to say openly that until he is in the service, Tariq could not be out of prison.
Ghulam Nabi Mughal, a famous short-story writer, novelist, and close friend of Tariq Ashraf, told me that the commission’s calls and presences were just formalities. At a higher level, the decision was already done. Meanwhile, Provincial Minister Zaidi’s kidnapping by Sindh University students also flared up the situation. Therefore, Tariq’s case became more vulnerable, he added. Finally, it was decided to ban Suhni and arrest Tariq under DPR from the courtyard of the commission’s office/premises. Ghulam Nabi told that after such a biased decision, Qazi Akbar was made Ambassador in Portugal, and his relationship with the Pakistan Peoples’ Party improved a lot.
Sometimes, while I work on stories such as the case of Suhni or like that situation, I always wonder why we as an individual do not have a sense of archive, storage, and documentation. I believe that Rasool Bux Palejo’s submitted defense note and Fahmida Riaz’s evidence statement in support of Suhni were a rare document of our history. But, till now, no one knows where these documents, including the press commission or fact-finding report, are stored. Perhaps, these papers still exist in the red-clothed official bag but dumped in the unknown cellar.