Merry Christmas… my dear

There have been over 300,000 Covid-related deaths this year in the USA alone, and the numbers are still rising as many deniers refuse to take basic precautions like wearing masks. Asymptomatic carriers — no signs of illness — can be infected and infect others. The second wave is well under way. So many losses.

Here’s a recent oped by pediatricians in the Boston area, pleading for the public to stay home: We’re Pediatricians In A Pandemic. We Shouldn’t Be Taking Care Of Your Grandparents. A new confusing disease they’re seeing is multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, MIS-C. In Karachi, Dr Darayus Gazder at Ziauddin Hospital describes the same thing, seeing children “who post-COVID develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which is worse than adult onset COVID” (emphasis mine).

Tweet after hearing of another tragedy in the family: Sajid Rizwan Ansari, 36, died in his sleep of a heart attack

So many personal losses this year. Grateful to have spent time with friends and loved ones in Pakistan last winter. Several have since departed this world. There’s sadness also about the departure of some whom I hadn’t seen in years, like my second cousin Khalid Afzal in London, an early victim of Covid-19. In Allahabad, family friend and mentor Comrade Ziaul Haq (Munnan Chacha) passed on in November, joining his wife Dr Rehana who departed a week after his 100th birthday barely a month earlier. My mother’s college friend Inkesar Nawaz died suddenly in Lahore of a heart attack.

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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)

Tribute to a nationalistic hawk-turned-peacemonger with a SouthAsian vision

Lahore, 1992: Dr Syeda Hameed with Dr Mubashir Hasan, uncle, comrade and mentor. Photo by Reza Kazim.

With the world in the grip of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to find space for anything else. As horrors unfolded in country after country, exposing the hollowness behind military might, glittering capitalist facades, and exploitation, a gentle soul slipped into the hereafter at his house in Lahore. At 98, he had spent the last half of his life fighting for exactly the kind of egalitarian, people centered system that would have mitigated the ravages of Covid-19. There have been some wonderful tributes to Dr Mubashir Hasan. Two of the best I’ve seen are by his old friend I.A. Rehman and Indian journalist Nirupama Subramaniam in Indian Express, also published in Aman Ki Asha.

Below, my tribute to Dr M. in The News on Sunday last weekend, a follow up to my piece in The Wire earlier. Also below, two previously unpublished pieces I am honoured to present here — a powerful, poignant poem in Dr M’s memory by his niece in Delhi, and a lively little remembrance by a 12-year old based on her memories of the Chaukas collective meetings she attended with her mother, that led to A New Social Contract published by Dr M, 2016. Also linking here this tribute in Mainstream Weekly magazine, Kolkata, founded by Dr Mubashir’s friend Nikhil Chakravartty — “one of the greatest journalists of the subcontinent” as Dr M called him — now edited by his son Sumit Chakravartty.

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Attempts to Maneuver Polls Unacceptable: HRCP

The narrative being peddled in Pakistan through social media and Whatsapp, is one, that the politicians are totally corrupt and the Army is the only institution worth supporting. And second, even if the army has been interfering, it is “no longer an Army with a ‘security mindset’,” as one long message being circulated puts it, but “truly a national army, which has come of age”. Along the way, it “has become the fourth pillar in our country with influence far beyond its mandate. Something not to relish and a sad reality”. According to this narrative, “a strong, democratic, well governed and corruption free Pakistan is a political death warrant for Nawaz and Zardari”. And since the army is there to stay and “if Imran wins, this will be the first time in Pakistan’s civilian history that we will have this strategic alignment between these key State institutions which matter”.

Dept of political engineering

The satirical caption for this photo above is an example of the satire with which Pakistanis are countering the manipulations. Another satirical caption for this photograph is “Election Commission of Pakistan”. Wonder why many are taking such satire literally?

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. I believe that such a “strategic alignment” will backfire. Controlled democracy is not democracy. You can’t put the people’s democratic aspirations back in the bottle. If Imran Khan wins, it will be a win orchestrated by muzzling the media in an unprecedented way, threatening, killing and terrorising opponents, and mainstreaming hardliners along the India model as I wrote recently. And look what’s happening in India. A democratic, well governed, and corruption free Pakistan is a death warrant not just for the individual politicians named but also for the boots.

Below, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan‘s statement on the “blatant, aggressive and unabashed attempts to manipulate the outcome of the upcoming elections” . Note: Please also see this  HRCP pre-poll monitoring form 2018 based on:

  1. Local news reports (print, radio and TV) about the area in which you live.
  2. Your own observations of the area in which you live (for example, candidates’ rallies, campaign banners, meetings with candidates).
  3.  Reliable observations of the area from other people (preferably, with supporting evidence).

Please send your completed copy of this form and any other supporting evidence (for example, photographs) of pre-poll irregularities to:

  1. Email: elections.hrcp@gmail.com
  2. Mobile/WhatsApp: 0332 430 4656
  3. Fax: 042 3588 3582

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‘An honest Pakistan is a better Pakistan’: the ‘unsilencing’ idea and the ongoing intellecticide

Citizens in Lahore at a #Rally4Sabeen. Photo: Farooq Tariq

Citizens in Lahore at a #Rally4Sabeen. Photo: Farooq Tariq

I wrote this piece last week for EPW – Economic and Political Weekly, India; reproduced below with photos and additional links.

“Unsilencing Pakistan” was an idea first articulated in 2011. It has been revived following the recent murder of Sabeen Mahmud, who had attempted to create a space where Pakistanis could discuss contentious issues–like the human rights violations in Balochistan–without fear. Can Pakistan’s intellectuals and human rights activists survive the “intellecticide” being perpetrated?

By Beena Sarwar

When the prestigious Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) announced that it was organising a seminar titled “Un-Silencing Balochistan” on 9 April 2015, it reminded me of the “Unsilencing Pakistan” initiative of the summer of 2011. Continue reading

#Rise4Sabeen: Keep the dialogue going

Protest4Sabeen-28April2015

Below, some of the widespread condemnation and protest vigils against the cowardly murder of human rights activist and upholder of free speech Sabeen Mahmud, shot dead in Karachi on the night of April 24, 2015 after she hosted a conversation on human rights violations in Balochistan. Just published: Tanqeed’s partial transcript of the discussion. No, Sabeen was not a separatist, nor did she condone violence by anyone, whether in the name of nationalism, ethnicity, religion, or honour. She was a firm believer in open, civil dialogue. The best tribute we can pay to her is to keep her legacy alive by continuing to speak up and keep the dialogue going.

Statement by Malala Yousafzai on the killing of Sabeen Mahmud, April 25, 2015

LUMS STATEMENT on Sabeen Mahmud’s murder, April 25, 2015

HRCP shocked at T2F director’s murder, demands justice, April 25, 2015

Target Killing of Sabeen Mahmud: WAF Statement, 25 April 2015

SAHR Statement of Concern on the killing of Sabeen Mahmud, South Asians for Human Rights, April 27, 2015

Karachi citizens press release, April 28, 2015

Report from Lahore rally for Sabeen, April 28, 2015  Continue reading

Requiem for a rights activist

Rashid Rehman KhanSenior journalist and Director, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan I.A. Rehman on a valued comrade and beloved nephew, shot dead in his office last week:

He loved life but he loved justice even more. He did not fail anyone, everybody who mattered failed him…. What is the situation now?

• The journalists in Multan dare not write about the murder.
• The judges in the Lahore High Court are apparently avoiding hearing Aasia Bibi’s appeal.
• The Multan police want the people to believe they do not know who the mischief-makers are.
• There is no authority in the country that can stem the wave of intolerance that is going to erase all remnants of reason and civilisation.

Let all those hurt by murder in the HRCP office stop mourning  Rashid’s loss and gird up their loins to save the next ones marked for annihilation.

Read the complete article: Obituary: Requiem for a rights activist

A quiet hero. RIP Rashid Rehman Khan

Rashid Rehman- screenshot from Mukhtiar Mai documentaryHeard the terrible news a few hours ago that the courageous Multan-based advocate Rashid Rehman Khan of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has been shot dead in Multan. Criminal cowards barged into his chamber and opened fire, killing him and injuring two others. He had been under threat for some time for defending a blasphemy accused, but refused to back down. More ominously, no protection was provided to him – although given the climate in Pakistan, any lawyer taking up a blasphemy case should be given 24-hour protection. Continue reading

Human rights activists condemn threat to Asma Jahangir’s life

 Link to South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) statement of concern regarding the threat to Asma Jahangir 

Signatories to HRCP Press release condemning threat to Asma’s life:

Lahore, 4 June 2012: We the undersigned citizens, belonging to various sections of Pakistan’s civil society, express our serious concern and alarm at the information-leak from a responsible and highly credible source that there is a serious threat to the life of the country’s leading human rights activist and one of the most influential leaders of the bar, Ms Asma Jahangir. What makes the reported conspiracy to liquidate Asma Jahangir especially serious is, firstly, the environment of target-killings, in which dissident persons’ dead bodies are being dumped all over, and, secondly, the fact that the finger of accusation has been pointed at the extraordinarily privileged state actors. We wish to make it clear to all and sundry, especially those who preside over the security apparatus, that they must not under-estimate the consequences of any harm being caused to the life of Asma Jahangir. This is not a conspiracy against one individual alone; it is obviously a plot against Pakistan’s future as a democratic state, of which the threat to Asma Jahangir may be only one, though crucial, part. What the duty of the state in this matter is and how the civil society must face the challenge thrown to it need no elaboration. Continue reading

‘Any attempts to dislodge parliament will be resisted’

I. A. Rehman, Director HRCP:

National Dialogue on Challenges to Democracy and Role of Civil Society in Pakistan

Joint Declaration: Any attempts to dislodge parliament will be resisted

LAHORE, January 23, 2012: Civil society representative  and concerned  citizens (Intellectuals, legal activists, journalists, women, students trade union activists, religious minorities and academia) of Pakistan from all over the country shared their deep concerns over the current political situation and crises, while talking at a national consultation held in Human rights Commission of Pakistan’s office in Dorab  Patel  Auditorium, Lahore today. Continue reading

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