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Pakistan: With the Passing of Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan - the end of an era

by Ishtiaq Ahmed, 14 April 2015

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The Daily Times - 14 April 2015

I remember engaging in spirited discussions and sometimes arguments with Tahira chachi over our respective pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing orientations. What I distinctly remember is that she always spoke in Punjabi and I believe that remained a lifelong commitment even when attending formal gatherings
Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed

The veteran leftist Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan (1925 to 2015) died on March 23, 2015. Her departure closes the chapter on pre-partition erstwhile Lahore-based Communist and pro-Communist intellectuals and activists. I first saw her in the late 1960s at meetings in Lahore of workers and of the National Awami Party (Wali Khan). Then, when the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) held its inaugural meeting at the YMCA in 1971, she came to convey her best wishes, though she did not attend the meeting. By that time the leftists had spilt into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing groupings. Tahira belonged to the pro-Moscow faction while the MKP was staunchly pro-Beijing.

Later, I started meeting her regularly at the residence of Syed Amir Hussain Shah on Birdwood Road, Lahore. His elder son, Ali Haroon Shah, and I had been friends since the first standard class at St Anthony’s High School. In 1970, we were both preparing for our political science Master’s exam and were meeting regularly at their Birdwood Road residence. Both Tahira and Mazhar Ali Khan were very close friends of Haroon Shah’s parents. Amir Hussain Shah sahib died suddenly on March 14, 1971. He had been elected to the Punjab Assembly in December 1970 as a PPP candidate. Tahira and Mazhar sahib began to visit Birdwood Road even more frequently to be with the distraught family of their friend.

Tahira chachi (aunt) exuded her warmth naturally and spontaneously while Mazhar sahib was a shy and private person. I remember engaging in spirited discussions and sometimes arguments with Tahira chachi over our respective pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing orientations. What I distinctly remember is that she always spoke in Punjabi and I believe that remained a lifelong commitment even when attending formal gatherings. Now, both are gone. Many of their best friends and comrades departed earlier. Among the closest were Mian Iftikharuddin (1962), Amir Hussain Shah (1971) and Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1984). Others who have also gone include former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, Sohan Singh Josh, the lone member of the Punjab Assembly who used to come to the assembly riding his bicycle, Abdullah Malik, Hamid Akhtar, Mirza Ibrahim, Shamim Ashraf Malik and many, many others. An era has indeed come to an end.

In 1973, I immigrated to Sweden and settled there but once in a while would come back to Lahore. On such occasions, I would call upon Tahira and Mazhar sahib. I remember the partition of India was a topic I particularly discussed with her. The Communist Party of India (CPI) had passed a resolution in favour of the creation of Pakistan based on Dr G Adhikari’s controversial 1943 thesis, which described the Muslims of India as an oppressed nationality. Such conceptualisation and theorisation negated both Lenin and Stalin’s standpoint on the national question; both had rejected religion as the basis of nationality or the nation.

Nevertheless, the CPI thesis had created a new situation. Consequently, Muslim Communists were instructed to join the Muslim League and steer its politics towards class struggle. Hence, in the 1945/1946 election campaign, a battery of class-based slogans was added to the Muslim League’s arsenal, which was also equipped with fiery Islamist slogans and battle cries. On the other hand, the Sikh Communists, who constituted the bulk of the party in the Punjab, felt alienated from such a standpoint. The partition of India thus put the Punjab Communists in a quandary. Tahira chachi told me that not all Muslim Communists agreed with the CPI’s stand but had no choice but to accept the party line. She confided in me that she was one such Muslim Communist.

In any event, once Pakistan came into being, Governor General Mohammed Ali Jinnah was the first to label the Communists fifth columnists. Such an accusation had been ventilated by him even earlier, before the partition, when the movement of Pakistan began to gather momentum. The anti-Communist thrust in Pakistani politics was in fact part of the historical legacy. Pakistan inherited the ‘great game’ mantle from the departing British colonial state. Its leaders, civil and military, were determined to convince the US that nothing had changed with the exit of the British and that Pakistan would be more than willing to assume the role of a frontline state to contain the spread of Soviet Communism; not only South Asia but also the Middle East and Southeast Asia! Under the circumstances it should not be surprising that the scope for leftist politics was severely constrained in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, a ban was imposed on the Communist Party of Pakistan as early as 1954. This was followed by the takeover of the Progressive Papers Limited in 1958 by the Ayub regime. Tahira chachi was a witness from close quarters to all those reverses and suffered as a result. While Mazhar Ali Khan continued to write in the national press and later for several years published Viewpoint from Lahore, she continued with her social and political activism in behalf of the oppressed and deprived.

Last year, when I met her, I could sense she was extremely weak, tired and exhausted. She lived another year. During March 23 to 29, 2015, I was in India with 53 of my students and a colleague, Muhammad Imran, from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). The trip to India had been undertaken with a view towards enabling young people from both countries to meet and get to know each other as fellow human beings. I am sure she would have been pleased to know that efforts continue to heal the wounds of partition.

The writer Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed is a visiting professor, LUMS, Pakistan, professor emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University, and honorary senior fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Latest publications: Winner of the Best Non-Fiction Book award at the Karachi Literature Festival: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, Oxford, 2012; and Pakistan: The Garrison State, Origins, Evolution, Consequences (1947-2011), Oxford, 2013. He can be reached at: billumian @gmail.com

P.S.

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