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Torchbearer for a progressive politics

Tahira Mazhar Ali struggled to reclaim spaces for a secular, pluralistic Pakistan.

Written by Beena Sarwar |
Updated: March 28, 2015 12:03:22 am
Tahira Mazhar Ali struggled to reclaim spaces for a secular, pluralistic Pakistan. Tahira Mazhar Ali struggled to reclaim spaces for a secular, pluralistic Pakistan.

One of my enduring memories of the formidable Tahira Mazhar Ali, or Tahira apa as I called her, is from December 1992. As a young journalist in Lahore, I watched her on a raised platform in Mozang Chungi, holding forth in Punjabi before a sea of rapt faces, the crowd estimated at over 3,000. Jet-black hair pulled back in her habitual bun, a tall, confident figure, she spoke boldly against the government’s plans to insert a religion column in the Pakistan national identity card, required for all citizens above 18 years of age.

In 1984, General Zia-ul-Haq’s illegitimate military regime had inserted a religion column in Pakistani passports, a Saudi-inspired move aimed at preventing the country’s beleaguered Ahmadi community (officially termed as non-Muslims after a constitutional amendment in 1974) from going on pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1992, an elected government was trying to further this apartheid. Tahira apa and her husband, the respected journalist Mazhar Ali Khan, were part of the movement against this move. The people prevailed. The discriminatory proposal was shelved.

Tahira and Mazhar Ali Khan had opposed Zia contemptuously and elegantly, most notably with Viewpoint, the fortnightly English language magazine they launched in January 1975 using their personal resources. Viewpoint was a torchbearer for progressive politics, an incubator for many of Pakistan’s top journalists and a thorn in the side of dictators and would-be dictators, until financial constraints forced its closure in April 1992. Mazhar Ali Khan died less than a year later, in January 1993. Some time afterwards, a brick-kiln workers’ union asked Tahira apa for help, and she gave them the red brick building in the heart of Lahore that housed Viewpoint. She was not one to just pay lip service to the workers’ cause.

Tahira apa was only 16 when she became radicalised after meeting and marrying Mazhar Ali Khan. Both belonged to the same “very old, crusty, feudal family”, as their eldest son Tariq Ali, the leftist writer and political analyst, has put it. She had to wait until turning 18 in 1943 to formally join the Communist Party — an event she termed a “great occasion”. She also worked with the Women’s Self-Defence League, raising awareness about imperialism, colonialism and new ideas about India and Pakistan. She was not particularly enamoured of the idea of a separate country but when the CPI passed a resolution supporting a separate homeland for Indian Muslims, she was tasked with delivering the resolution to Jinnah when he visited Lahore.

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She talked about that meeting in a 2007 interview for a book I was working on. Speaking in her no-nonsense, rapid-fire way, she recalled bicycling over to Mamdot Villa on Habibullah Road where Jinnah was staying. “I told him, Mr Jinnah this is a resolution passed by the Communist Party and I was asked to give it to you because they have agreed that if the Muslims want a separate homeland they should have it.”

“‘Have they come to their senses?’ he asked. Then: ‘You’re not with us. I hear you’re with the Congress.’

“I said, ‘Yes, very much so Mr Jinnah, because the Congress talks to the whole of India but you only talk to the Muslims, so I am with the Congress.’

“I was very young and talking back. But he said to me, ‘But why are you worried? All your friends will come and meet you here from Amritsar and Jalandhar and Bombay and India and you can go there when you want to, as I will be going to Bombay every year.’

“So I think Mr Jinnah had a different vision of how Pakistan would be made. I don’t think he could cope with his ill health and he was also in a hurry, like Mountbatten. He was going to die (of tuberculosis). His physician was a Hindu who promised him he would never let this secret come out, so this secret never came out. If it had, things might have been different.”

During the early years of Pakistan, Tahira apa, just 22 in 1947, was among those who worked at refugee camps in Lahore. Many wanted to go back but were not allowed to return, she recalled, saying perhaps it was the same on the other side.

The real issue, she believed, was based on class and economics rather than religion. Partition “was a middle-class thing mainly. Punjab didn’t want to partition… Frontier didn’t want to. Baluchistan didn’t want to. Sindh — ask the Sindhis now and they will tell you it was wrong, ‘We did it because we owed a lot of land to the Hindus and we thought they would go and we would then have the land to ourselves’. It was economic.”

Tahira apa was one of the founders of the Communist Party-supported Democratic Women’s Association (DWA) in 1950, Pakistan’s first women’s rights organisation. DWA focused on mobilising women at the community level and was part of the umbrella group, Women’s Action Forum, formed in 1981 against Zia’s controversial laws imposed in the name of Islam. She was also a stalwart of the movement for peace between India and Pakistan.

I last met Tahira apa a couple of years ago at her house in Lahore. Inside, her lovingly collected treasure of books, art works, Gandhara sculptures and rugs and textiles from around the region reflected a lifelong struggle to reclaim spaces and assert a secular, pluralistic progressive Pakistan. The struggle continues against all odds, inspired by people like Tahira Mazhar Ali.

The writer is a Pakistani journalist

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