Remembering Tahira Mazhar Ali

A fighter at the barricadesI was sad to learn about the indomitable Tahira Mazhar Ali passing away. She was and will remain an inspiration for many. Below, my tribute to her published in Indian Express – Torchbearer for a progressive politics. Also see A fighter at the barricades in TNS, I.A. Rehman’s informative obituary for his old friend and comrade and Omar Warraich’s piece in The Independent, Tahira Mazhar Ali: Women’s rights campaigner who was the mother of Tariq Ali and acted as mentor to Benazir Bhutto. RIP Tahira Mazhar Ali (1925-2015) – my tribute in Indian Express

Torchbearer for a progressive politics

Tahira Mazhar Ali with Faiz Ahmed Faiz

One of my enduring memories of the formidable Tahira Mazhar Ali, or Tahira Apa as I called her, is of December 1992. As a young journalist in Lahore, I watched her on a raised platform in Mozang Chungi holding forth in fluent Punjabi before a sea of rapt faces, thee crowd estimated at over 3,000 strong. Jet-black hair pulled back in her habitual bun, a tall, confident figure, she spoke boldly against the government’s plans to insert a religion column in the Pakistan national identity card, required for all citizens above 18 years of age.

In 1984, Gen. Zia ul Haq’s illegitimate military regime had inserted a religion column in Pakistani passports, a Saudi-inspired move aimed at preventing the country’s beleaguered Ahmadi community (officially termed as non-Muslims after a constitutional amendment in 1974) from going for pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1992, an elected government was trying to further this apartheid. Tahira Apa and her husband, the respected journalist Mazhar Ali Khan, were part of the movement against this move. The people prevailed. The discriminatory proposal was shelved.

Tahira and Mazhar Ali Khan had opposed Zia contemptuously and elegantly, most notably with Viewpoint, the fortnightly English language magazine they launched in January 1975 using their personal resources. Viewpoint was a torchbearer for progressive politics, an incubator for many of Pakistan’s top journalists and a thorn in the side of dictators and would-be dictators, until financial constraints forced its closure in April 1992.

Mazhar Ali Khan died less than a year later, in January 1993. Some time afterwards, a brick kiln workers’ union asked Tahira Apa for help, and she gave them the red brick building in Temple Road in the heart of Lahore that housed Viewpoint. Clearly, she was not one to just pay lip service to the workers’ cause.

Tahira Apa was only 16 when she became radicalised after meeting and marrying Mazhar Ali Khan. Both belonged to the same “very old, crusty, feudal family” as their eldest son Tariq Ali, the well-known leftist writer and political analyst has put it.  She had to wait until turning 18 in 1943 to formally join the Communist Party – an event she termed as a “great occasion”. That was also the year she gave birth to Tariq.

She also worked with the Women’s Self-Defence League, raising awareness about imperialism, colonialism, and the new ideas about India and Pakistan. She was not particularly enamoured of the idea of a separate country but when the CPI passed a resolution supporting a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, she was tasked with delivering the resolution to Mr Jinnah when he visited Lahore.

She talked about that meeting in a 2007 interview for a book I was working on. Speaking in her no-nonsense, rapid-fire way, she recalled bicycling over to Mamdot Villa on Habibullah Road where Mr Jinnah was staying. A chaprasi, ushered her in. “I told him, Mr. Jinnah this is a resolution passed by the Communist Party and I was asked to give it to you because they have agreed that if the Muslims want a separate homeland they should have it.”

“‘Have they come to their senses?’ he asked. Then he said: ‘You’re not with us. I hear you’re with the Congress.’

“I said, ‘Yes, very much so Mr. Jinnah, because the Congress talks to the whole of India but you only talk to the Muslims, so I am with the Congress.’

“I was very young and talking back. But he said to me, ‘But why are you worried? All your friends will come and meet you here from Amristar and Jalandhar and Bombay and India and you can go there when you want to, as I will be going to Bombay every year.’

“So I think Mr. Jinnah had a different vision of how Pakistan will be made. I don’t think he could cope with his ill health and he was also in a hurry like Mountbatten. He was going to die (of tuberculosis). His physician was a Hindu who promised him he would never let this secret come out, so this secret never came out. If it had, things might have been different.”

During the early years of Pakistan, Tahira Apa, just 22 in 1947, was among those who worked at refugee camps in Lahore. Many wanted to go back but were not allowed to return, she recalled, saying perhaps it was the same on the other side.

The real issue, she believed, was based on class and economics rather than religion. Partition “was a middle-class thing mainly. Punjab didn’t want to partition… Frontier didn’t want to. Baluchistan didn’t want to. Sindh – ask the Sindhis now and they will tell you it was wrong, ‘We did it because we owed a lot of land to the Hindus and we thought they would go and we would then have the land to ourselves’. It was economic.”

Tahira Apa was one of the founders of the CPI-supported Democratic Women’s Association (DWA) in 1950, Pakistan’s first women’s rights organization. DWA focused on mobilising women at the community level and was very much a part of the umbrella group Women’s Action Forum formed in 1981 against Zia’s controversial laws imposed in the name of Islam.

In 1971, she was among the very few who openly came out in public against the Pakistan Army’s brutality in then East Pakistan – a time of strict censorship and propaganda when most Pakistanis either had no idea what was going on or pretended not to know.

Well past the age of 80 she remained active with the central committee of the leftist National Workers Party and Workers Party Pakistan, as well with the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Tahira Apa was also one of the stalwarts of the movement for peace between India and Pakistan.

Activism for her was not a ‘profession, it was life’, as The News wrote in an editorial. “She walked shoulder to shoulder with the great leftist leaders of the 1960s and 1970s, including Sajjad Zaheer, Mirza Ibrahim, Sibte Hassan and Wali Khan. No one could have predicted that this daughter of the elite would live her life as an icon for working class men and women alike. Tahira Mazhar Ali’s legacy will continue to inspire all those struggling for the rights of women and the working class.”

I last met Tahira Apa a couple of years ago at her house in Lahore, by the outdoor swimming pool that she and Mazhar Ali Khan regularly used all their lives. Inside, their lovingly collected treasure of books, art works, Gandhara sculptures and rugs and textiles from around the region reflect a lifelong struggle to reclaim spaces and assert a secular, pluralistic progressive Pakistan. The struggle continues against all odds, inspired by people like Tahira Mazhar Ali.

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