Sheikh Asad Rahman was not a self-hating Punjabi. His passion for the Baloch people, fighting for them because he believed they are waging a just struggle and raising his voice for their cause, did not mean he denied his roots.
Sheikh Asad Rahman breathed his last in an Islamabad hospital on the night of Monday, October 29. He developed a severe heart condition about two weeks ago and struggled under a ventilator before his body systems finally failed him. I had met Asad a day before his heart attack. Appearing fighting fit, he was in his true element, when speaking of human rights movements in Pakistan, reflective when deliberating on development challenges faced by communities in the length and breadth of the country, and passionate while tracing the history of the struggle for the rights of the Baloch people.
Asad worked as a journalist and community development practitioner with a number of institutions before finally becoming executive director of Sungi Development Foundation. For over 40 years he worked and campaigned in various capacities for the realisation of people’s rights. He continued writing for newspapers as well, offering succinct political comment. His contribution to the social, labour, women’s, minority and cultural movements was consistent all along. But his cause for life since his student days was singular-the cause of the Baloch people and realisation of their inalienable economic, political and social rights. He was fondly called “Chakar Khan” by the Baloch with whom he worked closely in the 1970s. The year 1971 saw him in the mountains of the Marri tribal region. He was accused of ambushing military convoys and securing ammunition for the fighters. Caught, he was jailed and charged with treason. Even after his release he remained fearless and vociferous in his criticism of the policies pursued by the establishment and the marginalisation of the Baloch from mainstream national politics.
What was probably his last column, published in a Lahore newspaper on October 9, Asad wrote: “The 1948, 1958, 1962-68, 1973-77 [periods] and the ongoing violence and civil war were not only expressions of the Baloch resistance to imposition of an alien culture and politico-administrative structure, but a very emphatic movement for their fundamental, human, cultural, social, political and economic rights. Balochistan’s political elite have been continuously excluded from policy and decision-making forums, or [are] under-represented due to the population basis used for electing political representation in the National Assembly. While the Senate has equal representation for all provinces, it is not the final policy/decision-making forum as it has no fiscal or political decision-making powers.” Further, he argued that it is in the last ten years that the movement for rights within the federation in accordance with the 1940 Lahore Resolution has become a secession movement in Balochistan. The tactics used by the Pakistani establishment, the military and its agencies has brought about this change. Balochistan is seen as a tract of land for strategic and exploitative purposes, a testing ground for nuclear devices and an area rich in mineral ores. It should rather be seen as a land inhabited by our own people with equal rights. Referring to the East Pakistan debacle in his writings, he lamented that the powers that be are incapable of learning from their past mistakes. Or perhaps they do not even have the capability to understand that they committed and continue to commit blunders.
Asad gave credit to his parents for shaping his social and political views. His father, Justice S A Rahman, retired as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1968. Soon after, Justice Rahman was appointed chairman of the commission that tried Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in the Agartala Conspiracy Case. He was also the chief election commissioner for the 1970 elections, the fairest elections we ever had. It is said that when Sheikh Mujib was finally released, the first person he visited was Justice Rahman. Mujib told him that if her were not its chairman, the tribunal would have hanged him. Asad’s mother was a social worker who served women and children from disadvantaged groups until her death. In an interview given to Malik Siraj Akbar three years ago, he said, “I would not describe myself as someone from the elite. In the first place, you have to understand when I went to Balochistan; it was my commitment to work with the poorest, marginalised and disfranchised population of Pakistan…”
By far, Sheikh Asad Rahman was not a self-hating Punjabi. His passion for the Baloch people, fighting for them because he believed they are waging a just struggle and raising his voice for their cause, did not mean he denied his roots. While being bitterly critical of the state dominated by the Punjabi elite and its lopsided policies, he loved the Punjabi people, their culture, their language, and the simple life a common Punjabi leads. He supported the cause of all Pakistani languages and thought that all children have the right to get primary education in their mother tongues. When it came to his community development work, he would want training to be imparted, meetings to be held, and material to be developed in Urdu, rather than in English. It goes without saying that Asad had full command over English. He was sent to the best of schools and colleges of his time by his parents, both in Pakistan and the UK. But he was among those who are against the use of a language for exclusion and perpetuating the power of one small class over all the others. It was not prejudice of one against the other but humanity at large that inspired him.
Today I see that young people from Punjab, particularly those belonging to its elite and affluent middle classes, have so much to learn from people like Sheikh Asad Rahman. Politically, he represented a different Punjab from what we witness now-a pre-Unionist, pre-Muslim League, pre-1947 Punjab. Culturally, he represented a people’s Punjab. Politically, the Punjab he belonged to was conscientious, just and pluralistic. A Punjab that would side with Guru Gobind Singh and Dara Shikoh against Aurangzeb Alamgir, a Punjab that would produce Dulla Bhatti and Bhagat Singh. Culturally, the Punjab he belonged to was rich, warm and colourful. While it is also a reflection on the universality and humanity embodied in art vis-a-vis matters of mundane politics, it must also give a sense of pride to Punjabis today that their culture was so inclusive that the family of the greatest hero of Punjabi films, Sultan Rahi, belonged to Saharanpur, UP. The greatest villain, Mustafa Qureshi, is from Hyderabad, Sindh. The first Punjabi film to be released in Pakistan, Neeli, had Santosh Kumar as its hero: the actor came from Lucknow. Punjab produced some of the greatest poets and writers in Urdu, from Iqbal, Manto and Bedi to Noon Meem Rashid, Majeed Amjad and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Top writers and artists from all over India came and settled in Punjab much before Partition. Just to name a few, Mohammad Hussain Azad, Akhtar Sheerani, Imtiaz Ali Taj and Patras Bukhari had either come to Lahore themselves or their parents moved there. Agha Hashr Kashmiri, the pioneer of Urdu theatre, settled for Amritsar after travelling across the subcontinent, from his native Benares to Bombay.
The life and struggle of Sheikh Asad Rahman reminds us that a politically conscious Punjabi must shun the antics of its own elite-dominated establishment. Remember Habib Jalib singing his poem some years ago: Jaag meray Punjab ke Pakistan chala. (Wake up from slumber, o my Punjab, or else Pakistan is done with.)
The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad. Email: [email protected]