A memoir of the 1950s Pakistan – III

A memoir of the 1950s Pakistan – III

This memoir was published in Criterion Quarterly, January-March 1919, vol. 14, no.1.

Eric Rahim

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 realised 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 recognised, 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 an artificial country. 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 visualising 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 when the Sindh provincial Government was dismissed and the Observer banned, Jinnah’s tone had changed. Addressing a public meeting in Dhaka (East Pakistan), he 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.

The context of the speech was the first murmurings in East Pakistan about the fear of the domination by West Pakistan (or rather by Punjab), and the beginning of the language movement (demanding that the Bengali language should enjoy equal status with Urdu as a national language). 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 descendents of muhajirs (migrants, refugees) who migrated to West Pakistan from the Urdu-speaking part of India at the time of Partition. Following the Muslim leadership at the time of the ‘Mutiny’, Jinnah in his Dhaka speeches was identifying Urdu with Islam, and now making it, 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) criticising 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 favourable 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 emphasised 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.

During the period 1950-1953, the Korean War was big news. Reports from the news agencies poured all day, hour by hour. During the weeks I was on night duty I was assigned the job of constructing a coherent story from all these reports from different agencies for publication the next morning. (The chief sub-editor gave me this responsibility over the heads of more senior sub-editors.)

One night the editor, Mr Altaf Hussain, walked into the newsroom and informed us that the American ambassador had protested that our presentation of the news on the Korean War had a distinctly anti-American bias. He said nothing more and walked out. He knew that I was the culprit.

The other incident occurred during the same period. The context was   revolutionary developments in Iran. This is a fascinating story. In 1949-50, Iran experienced a democratic and nationalist revolution under the democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh. He had two main policies, to curtail the powers of the Shah and make Iran a constitutional monarchy, and nationalise the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In 1951 Iran’s national assembly unanimously passed a bill to nationalise the AIOC.

Following this there was a US-British sponsored coup against Mossadegh, which failed. The Shah fled the country and made Rome his home. By this time Tudeh (communist) Party had emerged from underground and helped mobilise demonstrations supporting Mossadegh. The western press was now presenting Mossadegh as a dictator and a communist collaborator.

In August 1953 there was a second coup, by the Iranian army led by General Zahedi and the CIA. This time the coup was successful, the Shah returned to Teheran, accompanied by Allen Douglas, the CIA director. Mossadegh was arrested, humiliated, sent to prison. After three years, he was confined to house arrest. He died in the late 1960s, completely forgotten. The Shah became more authoritarian. The British monopoly of Iranian oil was broken, the American interests joining in.

(In August 2013, on the 60th anniversary of the successful coup, the US state department released the documents clearly showing the CIA’s role.) 

Now, to come to the point. The Pakistan government had been cultivating the Shah. The Shah had visited Pakistan and was received with all the possible pageantry and ceremonial spectacle. (There were even rumours that there were attempts to find a Pakistani wife for him.) According to the author Ayesha Jalal (The State of Martial Rule), under the influence of General Gracy, the British commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army (1948-51), facilities were created in Balochistan for an attack on Iran in case there were attempts to nationalise British oil interests.

As in the case of the Korean War, the chief sub-editor had assigned me the task of dealing with the reports from Teheran. One day I was summoned to the editor’s office and I noticed a number of agency reports on the Iranian developments and my write-up that had appeared in the morning edition lying on his desk. He told me that I was ‘mutilating’ reports from the agencies. I stood my ground. I said the agency reports were biased and I was only restoring some balance in the presentation of the news. He was not persuaded, and dismissed me with a warning.

I knew at this point that my position in the newspaper was becoming uncomfortable. This was the push factor in my decision to leave Dawn.

Now to the pull factor. I had come to know Mian Iftikharuddin (through party work) quite well. Mian Iftikharuddin was a progressive member of the first constituent assembly.  He owned the Progressive Newspapers Ltd. which published the English language daily The Pakistan Times and the daily Urdu Imroze from Lahore. The Imroze also had a daily edition published in Karachi. Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the great Urdu language poets, was the editor-in-chief of all the three newspapers. (Faiz was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962.) The three newspapers supported liberation movements around the world, supported the non-aligned movement, were generally sympathetic towards the Soviet Union, favoured a genuinely federal constitution (and confederation between East and West Pakistan) for Pakistan, and advocated land reforms. Mian iftikharuddin wanted me to join The Pakistan Times as their Karachi correspondent. (The Pakistan Times at that time had the same kind of monopoly of the English newspaper readership in Punjab as Dawn had in Karachi and Sindh.) I was happy to join The Pakistan Times, and so resigned from Dawn.

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