In memoriam

Ibn Abdur Rehman 1930-2021

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MY friend Ibn Abdur Rehman, who passed away in Lahore on April 12, was one of the brave luminaries of the human rights movement in Pakistan, and led the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan from 1990 till 2016, fighting against adversities. He was a co-founder of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD).

I can trace back my friendship with Rehman Saahb (as he was fondly known) to the 1980s. It was sometime in 1986 that I met him for the first time in Bangkok in Thailand at a conference on human rights, which I attended along with my friend Harsh Sethi. He stood out from among the other speakers as a brave critic of his own state Pakistan, by expressing his opposition to the violation of human rights in his country. Soon after that, I and Harsh met him and shared our common concerns about the threats to civil liberties and democratic rights that both Indian and Pakistani citizens were facing in their respective countries. Ever after that we remained the best of friends. I kept in touch with him – through letters and occasional telephone conversations – exchanging news about the human rights movements in both the countries.

It was only after a decade that I had a chance to meet Rehman Saahb again, in Lahore in November 1995 at the PIPFPD’s first joint convention. During my stay in Lahore, he took me around the city, walking as it were, down his memory lanes sharing thoughts with me. He introduced me to the landmarks that were associated with the progressive movement, like a bookshop on the Lahore Mall (called Vanguard?), which sold Leftist books and journals. He took me to visit the family of the famous poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. He showed me the office of the newspaper Pakistan Times, of which he was the Chief Editor in 1989. He then recalled how he started contributing to the newspaper in the 1950s, when it was edited by the veteran journalist Mazhar Ali Khan (1917-1993) – to whom he paid tribute as his mentor in the field of journalism.

It was during one such walk, Rehman Saahb told me about his upbringing as a child and youth in Haryana, and later as a student in the Aligarh Muslim University. He narrated how he and his family were forced to leave their home during the communal riots at the time of the 1947 Partition, and moved to Pakistan. He said how much he missed his birthplace in Haryana. Years later, in the 1990s, when Rehman Saahb came to Delhi to attend a conference of the PIPFPD, we arranged a visit for him to his birthplace in Haryana, where he tried to trace the descendants of the old neighbours of his parents.

But the most moving and exciting moment for me in Lahore was when Rehman Saahb told me about his initiation into Left politics in the 1950s, and traced it to the influence of the late Hasan Nasir – a leader of the Pakistan Communist Party. Nasir originally came from Hyderabad in India, where he grew up as a young student Communist activist in the 1940s, inspired by the famous Telangana armed peasant uprising. He shifted to Pakistan in 1948 (probably under instructions from the then Communist Party of India) to join the Pakistan Communist movement. He was later arrested by the Ayub Khan militarist regime, and in 1960 was tortured and killed in November that year in the notorious dungeons of the Lahore Fort.

After listening to him, I told him that Hasan Nasir was my brother-in-law. He was the son of my wife’s aunt, the late Zehra Alambardar Hussein. Although I never met him, his mother (whom I affectionately called Zehrakhala) was very close to me. In Hyderabad in the 1970s, I spent some precious moments with her, when she used to occasionally talk about her son’s life. It was a traumatic experience for her to cope with his killing. On being informed of Hasan Nasir’s death in Pakistan, she went to Lahore in December1960, expecting to collect her son’s body. But the exhumed body that was shown to her by the Pakistan military authorities was unrecognizable, and she refused to take possession of it, stating that she did not think that it was her son’s body.

Shared memories of Hasan Nasir brought me and Rehman Saahb closer in the years that followed. The last time I met him was in 2015, when he visited our home in Hyderabad, and we talked about old times, as well as the present political problems. Before leaving, he gifted me a book entitled Surkh Salam by a Pakistani author, Kamran Asdar Ali, about the Communist movement in Pakistan. Rehman Saahb’s parting words were: ‘Read the chapter on Nasir bhai.’

Sumanta Banerjee

Journalist and political commentator, Hyderabad