IBN ABDUR REHMAN (1930 — 2021) Remembering Rehman Sahib
By Zohra Yusuf
September 1, 2020, was I.A. Rehman’s 90th birthday. Although he was in Lahore and most of us in Karachi, homebound due to Covid, a few dear friends felt it was an occasion to celebrate and got together at former Dawn editor Saleem Asmi’s house, from where we surprised Rehman Sahib with wishes over the phone. That is the kind of love that Rehman Sahib enjoyed from both his friends and peers.
In early October last year, Rehman Sahib’s 90th birthday was celebrated once again — this time in his presence — at Saleem Asmi’s when he came down to Karachi. This was the last time we met.
The news of his passing away on April 12 led to an outpouring of calls and messages from friends, human rights activists and journalists, not just from Pakistan, but from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well. His was a life people celebrated. They took pride in knowing him. Social media was full of personal memories and photographs taken with Rehman Sahib on a host of occasions.
Rehman Sahib’s visits to Karachi meant a great deal to me. I did not accept any other invitations for the few evenings he would spend in this city. A pattern had emerged — he would drop in at my place when he was done with his seminars and workshops, and we would mostly discuss Human Rights Commission of Pakistan-related matters. Rehman Sahib had dubbed my place the “thana”, from where we would move to his favourite “maikhana” — next door at Asmi Sahib’s.
Cognisant of Asmi Sahib’s immobility, Rehman Sahib would spend every evening with his dear old friend. These were evenings I looked forward to, listening to them talk about their experiences in journalism and life as such — with wit and warmth. Saleem Asmi passed away on October 30, bringing to an end these wonderful sessions.
AN EDITOR, A FRIEND
HRCP apart, I had developed a close personal rapport with Rehman Sahib (as had countless others). I got to know him when I was in journalism and started making frequent trips to Lahore in the eighties. Visiting him at Viewpoint and later at The Pakistan Times became mandatory. In fact, I had one of my most memorable meals at his office at The Pakistan Times — a plate of daal with a large bone marrow swimming in it! Apparently, it was a specialty of a restaurant close by.
Rehman Sahib would also invite me to dinners at journalist and activist Aziz Siddiqui’s house where I was treated to great food and conversation. The two were neighbours on Temple Road and remained close friends and colleagues till Siddiqui Sahib passed away.
Rehman Sahib was appointed editor-in-chief of The Pakistan Times by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government that came into power in 1988. With Aziz Siddiqui as editor, the duo turned the government rag into a highly respected critical voice.
When Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed in 1990, Asma Jahangir requested Rehman Sahib to join HRCP as its director. He persuaded Aziz Siddiqui to join as well, as joint director. In fact, Asma would laughingly say that the dismissal of BB’s government had a bright side — freeing Rehman Sahib and Siddiqui Sahib to work for the HRCP.
Their hard work and commitment would prove to be a tough act to follow, even for younger people. Their professionalism was evident in the reports they compiled and edited, including annual reports as well as reports on fact-findings on various issues. Never a word out of place or in excess. Never a proofreading error.
Both I.A. Rehman and Aziz Siddiqui made a lasting contribution to HRCP, helping set its direction and ensuring its mission remained one of struggling for equality of all citizens, with special focus on the more vulnerable.
An intellectual of a high calibre, Rehman Sahib was, nevertheless, totally at home sitting amongst the families of bonded labour in Hyderabad or joining a sit-in protesting enforced disappearances in Quetta. His presence gave courage to many in the human rights movement who saw in him a constant ally, rather than as the head of one particular rights organisation.
LIVING LIFE TO THE FULLEST
I.A. Rehman lived life to the fullest. Apart from the causes he was committed to, friendships and travel invigorated him. He would never miss an opportunity to travel, even if it were to some remote part of the country, far from creature comforts.
A few years ago, he drove with a group of writers from Lahore to Karachi to attend the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF). On arrival, he called me, and although I suggested he take rest that evening and we meet up the following day, he freshened up and landed up at the “thana” and then on to the “maikhana”. As long as there were no visa issues, he would visit Delhi on every holiday and had as many friends in that city as in Lahore.
I have wonderful memories of travelling in his company. In 1997, on an invitation from the German foundation, the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, several human rights defenders from South Asia visited Germany and Belgium. In Berlin, Rehman Sahib took me to visit an old Pakistani friend in the eastern part of the city. The walk through this architecturally marvellous city, with references to its history both by Rehman Sahib and his friend are memories that are etched in my mind. When we went to Brussels in 1999 to receive the King Baudouin Foundation Award given to Asma Jahangir and HRCP, Rehman Sahib was a highly sought-after member of our group — both by human rights defenders and journalists. On our arrival in Brussels, Asma whisked us off straight away to Bruges for the day, where we lunched, danced in the square and relaxed, away from concerns that would dog us most of the time.
When the HRCP council elections were coming up in 2011 and a new chairperson needed to be elected, Asma badgered me to contest. Always preferring to be away from the public eye, I was a very reluctant candidate. It was on Asma’s and Rehman Sahib’s assurance, that they would stand in for me when needed, that I agreed. The six-year term was tough and full of challenges that I could not have overcome without their constant support.
REHMAN SAHIB AND BALOCHISTAN
The first challenge came when the body of Siddique Edho, an HRCP activist, who was made to ‘disappear’ in December 2010, was found near Ormara in Balochistan in April 2011. Shortly after, we went on a fact-finding mission to Balochistan, where the focus remained on enforced disappearances.
Sometime later, six miners were kidnapped by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA). Rehman Sahib decided to write a public letter to BLA, demanding their release. Since all correspondence had to be signed by me (living in Karachi) while the HRCP Secretariat is based in Lahore, Rehman Sahib had the authority to ‘forge’ my signature.
The BLA reacted angrily to the HRCP appeal and the following day’s newspapers, published from Quetta, carried BLA’s condemnation of HRCP and myself. It should be noted that Balochistan’s newspapers in those days were under pressure from both separatist groups as well as security forces.
Shortly afterwards, I received a call from a BLA representative (speaking from a satellite phone) in which he offered to hand over the miners to HRCP and no one else. I consulted Rehman Sahib, who advised that the HRCP Vice Chairperson for Balochistan should receive the miners but in the company of journalists and other activists. However, after being communicated the arrangements, the BLA decided to set them free at a location of their choice.
Balochistan was close to Rehman Sahib’s heart. On his advice, all fact-finding reports on Balochistan were released in Islamabad, the power centre. He was enthusiastic when I suggested that we request Mohammed Hanif to write stories about the disappeared in Balochistan. The Baloch Who Is Not Missing and Others Who Are was launched at KLF, where Rehman Sahib was among the speakers.
It was at KLF in February 2018 that the news of Asma Jahangir’s sudden death was received in shock and sorrow. Though grief-stricken at losing someone he deeply loved and respected, someone so close to him, Rehman Sahib pulled himself together and spoke briefly about her. It was only in the evening, when I could hug him that I found my own tears flowing.
The sense of loss or parting was perhaps hanging in the air lately. Unable to visit Karachi due to concerns about Covid, he would call me once or twice every week. Usually reticent on the phone, he had begun to discuss the country’s state of affairs at length and would always remember to ask about close friends.
Rehman Sahib always ended his conversation with, “Aap apna khayaal rakhiye ga [you take care of yourself].” For you, my dear friend, I will try and do that.
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 18th, 2021