Farewell Saleem Asmi

A quiet warrior slips into the night

Saleem Asmi, Nov. 29, 1934 – Oct. 30, 2020

First published in The News on Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020. Reposted here with more photos.

Saleem Asmi: Portrait by Sharjil Baloch, 2014-2015.

By Beena Sarwar

His old friend S. M. Shahid termed Saleem Asmi a ‘Marxist Sufi’ in his compilation of biographical essays, ‘Living Souls: Memories’. Asmi Sahib would typically brush aside the accolades that came his way, not because he didn’t appreciate himself but because he had no false pride, false humility, or a shred of hypocrisy.

I can imagine his chuckle at the couplet by his favourite poet, chosen by family and friends to inscribe on his gravestone: Ye masaail-e-tassawuf, ye tera byan Ghalib / Tujhey hum vali samajhtalay jo na baada khwar hota (The way you talk of philosophy Ghalib, the mystical way you explain it/ You would have been considered a saint yourself, had your drinking been less.

Karachi circa late 1990s: A historic photo of journalistic greats with friends: L-R – S.M. Shahid, Saleem Asmi, Zawwar Hasan, A.B.S. Jafri, Dr Haroon Ahmed, Iqbal Jafri.

His handlebar moustache and ferocious beard (nattily trimmed in later life), long hair curling over the back of his collar, often in casual t-shirts and jeans — when I first met him in the 1990s Asmi Sahib looked more like the rebellious artist he was at heart than a newspaper editor. His concession to conformity was ‘safari suits’ at work.

Saleem Asmi, Dr Abdullah Mangi, Mazhar Saeed, Dr Jafar Naqvi at my parents’ place in Karachi, August 2008, paying tribute to my father who was suffering from cancer (passed away in May 2009)

Unlike my father’s other friends, he was never “uncle” or “chacha” to me. Just Asmi Sahib. I never heard anyone call him by his first names, Syed Fazle Saleem. I had moved from Karachi to Lahore and was starting life as a journalist when Asmi Sahib reappeared in Pakistan after years of self-exile away from Gen. Zia’s military regime.

Our friend Anis Haroon describes how, as she and her husband Dr Haroon Ahmed were leaving artist Bashir Mirza’s place one night, they heard someone coming up the stairs. A stranger.

Saleem Asmi after his return to Pakistan, pictured with artist K. B. Abro, poet Attiya Dawood and their daughter Soonha Abro, early 1990s.

Then ensued a ‘tamasha’ – a spectacle. Haroon and the newcomer greeted each other delightedly and fell into each other’s arms. Anis remembers her consternation – this unknown man with big ‘wadera’ (landlord) moustaches, being greeted by her husband like an old friend.

“This is Asmi, one of our DSF comrades”, said Dr Haroon. Asmi, working in Dubai as editor of Khaleej Times, had returned to Pakistan in 1988. Winds of change were blowing aside the darkness cast by the Zia years. A new dawn was flickering on the horizon – that elusive dawn we never quite attain, as Faiz Ahmed Faiz has eloquently said.  

I.A. Rehman, Dr M. Sarwar, Saleem Asmi, 1990s musical gathering. S.M. Shahid’s hand visible on the harmonium to the left. Photo by Dr Haroon Ahmed

It took Anis some time to warm to this new old friend who looked a bit like a bandit. But under the gruff exterior was a man with immense wit and charm, open-heartedness, love for art and music, and passion for politics and life. The Haroons reconnected him with my father, Dr M. Sarwar, who had led DSF, the Democratic Students Federation in the 1950s.

I.A. Rehman and Saleem Asmi, 1990s. Photo by Dr Haroon Ahmed

Asmi took quiet pride in terming himself as a worker, not a leader – although he was the DSF President at SM College. After my father passed away in 2009, Asmi Sahib was one of the key DSF activists we interviewed for the documentary film, “Aur Niklenge Ushshaq Ke Qafley” – There Will Be More Caravans of Passion, documenting DSF).

It was Asmi who suggested the title, borrowed from Faiz’s immortal ‘Hum Jo Tareek Rahon Mein Maare Gae (we who were killed in the dark lanes).

Asmi Sahib was an integral part of the 2010 documentary on the Democratic Students Federation that I made together with Sharjil Baloch after my father passed away.
Saleem Asmi in the documentary on DSF, 2010.

The right-wing students would generate propaganda against activists of the short-lived but powerful nationwide movement that peaked in 1953-54, labelling them as Communists. “I never cared if anyone called me that”, said Asmi, half-smile lurking behind the serious exterior, characteristic glint in his eyes.

We connected in many ways, over many issues, and through many friends. He was ‘Asmi Nana’ to my daughter. In fact, he had a special relationship with children and young people in general. Never patronising or condescending, a man of few words, characterised by humility and compassion.

A lighthearted moment at Karachi Press Club last year: Asmi Sahib with his longtime driver and righthand man Sher Alam, Zubeida Mustafa, Mukhtar and Rumana Husain, Khursheed Hyder. His attendants were like sons to him, he told friends on his last return from hospital. Photo: Courtesy Rumana Husain.

Asmi dignified his domestic employees with the same respect he gave children and his peers. They reciprocated in the care and devotion with which they looked after him, particularly as he became immobile and confined to a wheelchair. He bore his ailments and personal discomforts stoically, calmly, even serenely. Never a word of complaint.

‘Saleem Asmi –Interviews, Articles, Reviews’, compiled by S.M. Shahid, 2012.

As editor, he never tried to ‘play boss’, attested journalist Muhammad Ali Siddiqui at the 2012 launch of ‘Saleem Asmi –Interviews, Articles, Reviews’, a book lovingly compiled by S.M. Shahid. (What friends do: Compilation of Saleem Asmi’s writings published, The Express Tribune). Valuable read for all journalists and anyone interested in Pakistani politics, art, music and culture (Our mutual friend Dr Naazir Mahmud describes Asmi Sahib’s engagement with these issues in his remembrance: What we learn from Saleem Asmi).

Asmi started his journalistic career as a trainee sub-editor with The Times of Karachi after obtaining a Masters in English literature from Karachi University. In the early 1960s, he was in Lahore working with the Civil Military Gazette, then joined The Pakistan Times. It was in Lahore that he and I. A. Rehman first met.

Rehman, a few years older, had been with PT since 1951. He recalls that Asmi left PT for a brief stint with PIA Public relations, but soon returned to journalism, joining PT’s ‘Pindi office.

Poster by K.B. Abro, 8 March 2020

Soon after Gen. Ziaul Haq’s military coup in 1977, Asmi was among the journalists arrested for defying the military authorities.

When daily The Muslim was launched in Islamabad in 1978, Asmi was among the launch team, as news editor with editor A. T. Chaudhry. Asmi is credited with designing The Muslim’s first layout, an achievement stemming from meticulous research as I.A. Rehman has outlined in his moving tribute, The end of spring (Dawn, Nov 5, 2020).

It was during this time that their friendship deepened. Rehman, working with NAFDEC, the now defunct National Film Development Corporation, and back in Lahore, would frequently fly to the capital. Asmi would pick him up in his little ‘foxy’, the Volkswagen Beetle. “He’d drive me around all day, then drop me back to the airport”, reminisced Rehman Sahib when we spoke recently. (Rehman Sahib had earlier lived in Islamabad with his family for three years between 1975-78. Those days Asmi Sahib would commute on a Vespa scooter, remembers Rehman Sahib’s son Asha’ar, now editor Dawn Lahore).

Last year, Karachi Press Club honoured Saleem Asmi and his services to journalism. Photo: White Star; report in Dawn – Saleem Asmi’s services to journalism applauded, June 2019.

Then, under pressure from the military regime, The Muslim fired about a hundred workers and journalists. The army sent in troops to turn them out. Secretary General Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists Nasir Zaidi, president of the Muslim Union at the time (among the journalists to be flogged in 1978) remembers Asmi being on the streets protesting along with the workers.

Asmi was among the journalists who courted arrest in protest at harsh censorship and closure of papers including the Urdu daily Musawat. A Lahore military court sentenced them to hard labour. Asmi served the sentence in Multan jail along with others, including Nasir Malik.

Nasir Malik, Saleem Asmi. Photo courtesy BBC.

When Malik’s hand started bleeding while weaving ‘baan’, he was tempted to show it to the jailor and get sent to hospital. Asmi shot down the idea with his characteristic forthrightness: “Senior journalists have gone to jail and done hard labour, never sought compromise. What kind of conviction do you have that this injury has scared you?” (جیل میں مشقت کرنے والا سرکش دانشور صحافی، سلیم عاصمی کُوچ کرگیا – BBC News اردو )

After his release a month or so later, Asmi joined the Khaleej Times. Today, “we can still picture him, with reading glasses balanced on his nose, poring over page bromides at midnight before they went to the cameras”, write Neville Parker and Joseph Nellary/Dubai (Colleagues mourn death of veteran Pakistani editor Saleem Asmi, November 2, 2020).

Portrait of Saleem Asmi by Sabir Nazir, a few months ago.

As Editor Dawn, one of Asmi’s most significant and lasting contributions was introducing sections that made it a more complete paper – weekly supplements for culture, art, books. He also took the then unprecedented step of publishing a major news story by a non-staffer – Hamid Mir’s interview of Osama Bin Laden in November 2001 that Mir’s own paper, Ausaf, was reluctant to publish.

Despite pressure from the Musharraf regime, as editor Dawn Asmi went ahead with the interview, as Hamid Mir tweeted:

Tweet by Hamid Mir after Asmi Sahib’s departure.

Asmi’s retirement in 2003 – he was rumoured to have been pushed out because his decisions caused discomfort in high places, something he never spoke about – coincided with the rise of social media. He became an avid iPad user. His thousand Facebook friends include dozens of young journalists and artists whom he nurtured, mentored and guided.

He also used the platform to promote causes close to his heart – human rights, social justice, even sensitive issues like Balochistan and right-wing radicalism. One such post led to his account being briefly suspended in 2015.

He flirted briefly with Twitter but didn’t go beyond a few pithy tweets and some responses, before losing his password and dropping it. But his bio says it all: “Marxist Feminist Animal Lover”.

S.M. Shahid and Saleem Asmi. Photo: Courtesy K. B. Abro.

After leaving Dawn, Asmi became active with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. HRCP founder Asma Jahangir had recruited I.A. Rehman and Aziz Siddiqui as co-directors. He served as the elected co-Chairperson HRCP Sindh and set up the Karachi office.

As I learnt only after his passing, he also began to indulge in his passion for art, mounting found objects like rocks, stones and driftwood. There was even an exhibition at Anis and Dr Haroon’s home. S.M. Shahid compiled the images in a coffee table book.

Coincidentally, Zohra Yusuf, my first editor when I was an intern at The Star in 1982 and later also a co-Chairperson HRCP Sindh, became Asmi Sahib’s neighbour when she and her family moved in next to his ground floor flat in Frere Town near my parent’s place. Ceramic plates and a veritable forest of potted plants on their joint outside wall greeted visitors, a welcoming hub for common friends.

Asmi Sahib’s flat particularly was a hangout for journalists, artists, music and culture lovers. I.A. Rehman always made it a point to spend his evenings there on visits to Karachi. Zohra would join, treasuring the conversation and company. Picturing these icons of journalism and human rights activism together is itself an inspiring thought.

Rest in power Asmi Sahib. Pakistan is poorer without you.

Nov. 15: Updated to add information about Asmi Sahib’s 1970s Vespa scooter and artwork.

(ends)

A beloved jurist passes on

Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim (12 February 1928-7 January 2020) gained respect early on in his career for refusing to take oath under the military dictatorship of Gen. Ziaul Haq. Through his life he wore many hats — founder member Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan Supreme Court judge, Governor Sindh, Chief Election Commissioner, to name some. But a little-known feather in his cap is his pro bono work for the imprisoned leftist and student activists of the 1950s, that he credited for his politicisation. Those, he would say, were “the best days” of his life. Here’s that story as I heard it from him and from my father Dr. M. Sarwar, published in The News on Sunday and The Wire a few days after Fakhru Uncle passed on.

Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim: A fine legacy (online photo)

By Beena Sarwar

As the debate on the much-delayed restoration of student unions in Pakistan gathers momentum, we celebrate and commemorate a beloved jurist who cut his teeth by taking on cases of detained student activists pro bono in the 1950s.

Continue reading

Remembering Doc: The importance of civil discourse and the art of listening

At a small gathering last year, our friend S. Ali Jafari read his essay in Urdu about my father, whom he called “Doc”. His son Salman videotaped the reading, which forms the basis of this 14-minute video I edited for 26 May 2019, ten years after Dr M. Sarwar passed away peacefully at home in Karachi, at age 79.

Continue reading

‘Blood on the streets’

Part one of a series I am working on.

Student mtg 1951 or 52

M. Sarwar addressing a meeting in Karachi, early 1950s, Khaliqdina Hall. Seated left: Rehman Ali Hashmi.

Looking back to look forward: The DSF-led movement of the 1950s eschewed party politics, was inclusive, and focused on student unity. Besides students from medical, engineering and and law colleges, it involved students from girls’ and boys’ high schools, and women’s colleges. 

Below, an extract from my forthcoming memoir on the struggle for democratic spaces in Pakistan. This is from the chapter about the student movement of 1953 that shook the country and laid the foundations for the University of Karachi, published in The Friday Times, Jan. 8, 2016. Thanks to Raza Rumi for pushing me to share this Continue reading

DSF Convention, Peshawar, April 29, 2012

Education is a right… Not privilege – DSF Pakhtunkhwa Students Convention, April 29, 2012, Peshawar

DSF Convention, Peshawar, April 29, 2012.

‘And there shall be more caravans of passion…’

Title for documentary 'Aur nikleiN Ge Ushhaq ke Qafley' - design by K.B. Abro

Several items uploaded to the Dr Sarwar blog over the last month:

1. Learning from history in an age of bombs
– my article based on research done for the 30-min documentary on the 1953 student movement directed by Sharjil Baloch, that I produced (we are making some final changes after which it will be available for distribution upon request).

2. Articles specially written for the Jan 9, 2010 Event Book on the 1953 student movement:
Keep the fire burning – End Note by Zakia Sarwar
Continuing Stories: Social Action and Change – by Ruqaiya Hasan
The High School Students’ Association and my rite of passage – by Ghazi Salahuddin

3. Scans of the Event Book, Jan 9, 2010 – Copies available upon request

A theatrical production by, about, for, students

Students rehearse at Arts Council. Photo courtesy: Rukunuddin Aslam

This is a unique theatre production – a combined effort written, directed and produced by students from various institutions in Lahore and Karachi, in collaboration with JAAG TAALIB E ILM a student organization promoting peace.

They promise “A theater performance the like of which Karachi has never seen. A story full of surprises, hilarity and personal tragedy. The story revolves a boy trying to find his identity in the conflicting ideologies facing our generation in this time of national turmoil.” (Tickets Rs. 250 available at Aghas and Shahbaz Subway). RSVP to the FB event.

The institutions involved are: Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), National College of Arts (NCA), National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), Lyceum, National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVSAA), College of Business Management (CBM), Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (SZABIST) and Sindh Awami Sangat.

Curtain raiser in The News, Jan 19: ‘Yeh Bhi Ek Kahani Hai’ aims at solidarity Continue reading

Commemorating the January 1953 movement and a story about Karachi students inaugurating a Multan hostel

Here is an interesting story from the 1953 student movement, about how they contacted colleagues and supporters in other parts of the country in an age when communication was far slower and more expensive than it is now. Continue reading

Celebrating Dr Sarwar

A few days before he passed on, I had a visual image of Dr Sarwar being welcomed by many of his close friends who had passed on earlier – Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, Habib Jalib, Suroor Barabankvi, his brother Akhtar… There are of course so many others. One thing is for sure – they’re together and they’re having a party.

Dr Sarwar with his friends Syed Sibte Hasan and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.    Photo by Dr Haroon Ahmed

Dr Sarwar with his friends Syed Sibte Hasan and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Photo by Dr Haroon Ahmed

We had our own party here in Karachi on May 31 – Pakistan Medical Association held a reference at PMA House for Dr Sarwar titled ‘Celebrating Dr Sarwar’. The event was initiated by his old friend Iqbal Alavi of Irtiqa, who had been one of his jailmates in 1953.

Some 200 people attended. Doc would have enjoyed the gathering, and the music (his favourite jugalbandi by Ustad Bismillah Khan and Ustab Vilayat Khan), the photos (we put together a slide show), the videos (including a clip from the last interview he did, the week before being admitted to hospital and a few clips from a discussion with Dr Yusuf Ali & Dr Ghalib in London I’d recorded in 2001), the tributes and the resolve to move ahead and continue the struggle.

Mairaj Mohammed Khan, Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, Salima Hashmi, Dr Badar Siddiqui, Dr Tipu Sultan and others spoke very movingly and from the heart. Tina Sani sang a Faiz poem she had composed, and Arshad Mahmud recited a couple of other Faiz poems for Doc. Aisha Gazdar video taped the event and so did Samaa TV. His Zakia Sarwar also spoke towards the end, very bravely, on what he had meant to her.

Links to a couple of reports about the event:

Progressive student leader remembered – http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-pma-dawn

‘Time to create a left-oriented think tank’ – http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-pma-news

And some earlier reports
In memory of Dr Mohammad Sarwar, The News, May 27, 2009
By Shahid Husain – http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-news

Ahmed Reza, BBC Urdu, 26 may, 2009
http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-bbc

Student politics pioneer Dr M Sarwar passes on, Tuesday, 26 May, 2009
http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-dawn

Dr Sarwar passes on – memorial meeting May 31st

He passed on peacefully in his sleep with his characteristic calm and dignity,

Sarwar, Jan 2007. Photo: Anwar Sen Roy, BBC

Sarwar, Jan 2007. Photo: Anwar Sen Roy, BBC

shortly after we said goodnight… Here is the note we sent to the press that day (forgot to mention his role in the Medical Gazette, one of the founding members of a publication that provided a platform for progressive political views in dark times):

Dr M. Sarwar passes on

KARACHI, May 26: One of Karachi’s oldest general practitioners, well known physician and former student leader Dr Mohammad Sarwar passed away peacefully in his sleep at home early this morning, May 26 in Karachi, after a prolonged bout with cancer. He was 79.

A memorial meeting is scheduled at PMA House on Sunday, May 31 at 6.30 pm.

Dr Sarwar, Karachi, 2004

Dr Sarwar, Karachi, 2004

Brief bio:

Born in Allahabad, he came to Karachi for ‘sightseeing’ in 1948 and stayed on when he got admission in Dow Medical College. He was instrumental in forming Pakistan’s first student union, the Democratic Students Federation (DSF). He served as DSF’s President and Secretary General before the Mohammad Ali Bogra government banned it in 1954. He was also the driving force behind the Inter-Collegiate Body (ICB) comprising student unions in different colleges and the All Pakistan Students Organisation (APSO), established in 1953.

Sarwar spearheaded the January 8, 1953 ‘Demands Day’ that spelled out the needs of students, including the establishment of a full-fledged university campus (now Karachi University). He tried to prevent the students from surging forward in the face of the police threat when the procession reached Saddar. Sarwar was injured in the police firing that killed seven students that day, commemorated for years as a ‘Black Day’.

APSO brought together college students from all over the country to demand students’ rights regardless of their politics or ideology. The organisation’s influence was visible in the 1954 elections in former East Pakistan when a student leader defeated seasoned politician Noor-ul-Amin.

DSF also published the fortnightly award-winning journal Students’ Herald, edited by the well-known economist S.M. Naseem, then a student activist.

Dr Sarwar received his final medical college results in 1954 while he was in prison for a year — the McCarthy era in the United States impacted Pakistan as well and progressive elements here were rounded up and incarcerated. His elder brother, journalist Mohammad Akhtar (1926-58) was arrested shortly afterwards. Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim, then an upcoming lawyer, defended many of these political prisoners, including their friend Hasan Nasir who was tortured to death later.

After graduation, Dr Sarwar worked as a general physician with various health services until setting up his own clinic in Gulbahar (New Golimar) where he practiced for over forty years. He was also one of the pioneers of the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) where he was twice elected general secretary. PMA played a vital role in progressive politics during the 1980s. During the Zia years, the PMA was one of the important ‘civil society’ organisations that consistently stood for democratic politics.

Dr Sarwar will be remembered for his inspirational leadership, generosity of spirit, warmth of character and clear-headed political vision.

He is survived by his wife, well known educationist and teacher trainer Zakia Sarwar, and three children, Beena Sarwar, Sehba Sarwar, and Salman Sarwar and three granddaughters, Maha, Myah and Minal.

Some news reports:

In memory of Dr Mohammad Sarwar Wednesday, May 27, 2009
By Shahid Husain

http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-news

By Ahmed Reza, BBC Urdu, 26 may, 2009

http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-bbc

Student politics pioneer Dr M Sarwar passes on, Tuesday, 26 May, 2009

http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-dawn

In memory of Dr Mohammad Sarwar Wednesday, May 27, 2009

By Shahid Husain

http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-news

Ahmed Reza, BBC Urdu, 26 may, 2009

http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-bbc

Thanks for your message. We’re grateful he passed on peacefully in his sleep with his characteristic calm and dignity, shortly after we said goodnight…

Here’s a link to a news report about him

Student politics pioneer Dr M Sarwar passes on, Tuesday, 26 May, 2009

http://tinyurl.com/sarwar-dawn

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