Together – in hope, and in despair

Published on – March 15, 2018 – 8:36 pm
By

Lyari – the oldest and by far the largest and most densely populated area of Karachi – has always been a mystery zone for the outsider because of the stories connected to this fascinating blend of predominantly Baloch way of life coexisting with Sindhi, Gujrati, Kashmiri, Seraiki, Pashtun, Punjabi, Iranian, Afghan, Muhajir and other ethnic and religious cultures.


Lyari – the oldest and by far the largest and most densely populated area of Karachi – has always been a mystery zone for the outsider because of the stories connected to this fascinating blend of predominantly Baloch way of life coexisting with Sindhi, Gujrati, Kashmiri, Seraiki, Pashtun, Punjabi, Iranian, Afghan, Muhajir and other ethnic and religious cultures.

Siddiq was among the friends who introduced to me this massive human settlement, where – apart from its vibrant social and political environment – the one singular attraction for us would be a late-night visit to Café Jangian, his father’s food outfit. Hospitality abounded and our empty stomachs were filled to our hearts’ content with the kind owner picking up the tab, always with a generous smile.

My friendship with Siddiq Baloch went back over half a century to the time when we were both studying at the University of Karachi. He was enrolled at the department of Economics in Master’s programme, while I was a BSc (Honours) student at the department of Mathematics. Left-wing politics brought us together: Siddiq was a leader of the Baloch Student Organization (BSO), I an activist-sympathizer of the National Student Federation (NSF).

Siddiq earned his degree in 1966 and joined journalism with a desk job at Pakistan premier English-language newspaper, Dawn. But as was the custom in those days, spent most of his morning hours with ideological friends in the university’s Arts Faculty lobby, the hot favorite rendezvous for the politically and aesthetically aroused young women and men of the time.

On the national horizon, ’60s were the Golden Age of liberalism, romanticism and idealism, with our generation’s youth at the forefront carving political space for their ideals of all hues, colours and shades. There were leftists, rightists, religionists, moderates, liberals, nationalists and extremists. You name the ideological leaning and it had its adherents. We even had ‘Shaffaf Tehrik’ (the Transparent Movement).

Closeness Matures

An interesting incident in late 1968 – an eventful year in our nation’s troubled history – cemented my friendship with Siddiq into camaraderie.

Only two decades into deliverance from British colonial yoke and our state had completely messed itself up. The country’s first military dictator, self-designated ‘Field Marshal’ Ayub Khan, had lost his clout with the people and his constituency, the army, through successive embarrassments on the battlefield in entanglements with India over Kashmir as well as the mishandling of the Balochistan issue.

Ayub was also highly discredited for his domestic policies, especially depriving the west-wing provinces of their historical and administrative identities through clubbing them together into ‘One Unit’ in the name of parity, a ploy to deprive the Bengali population in East Pakistan their majority status in state affairs and governance.

A severe paralysis attack that physically immobilized and reportedly mentally incapacitated the dictator gave detractors in the army, and his political opponents, an opportunity to join hands to force him out from a rule that had ruined the nation, brought it to the verge of disintegration, a hole in which it ultimately landed.

Instructed by their parent organizations in Karachi, the so-proclaimed pro-China NSF decided to raise the banner of revolt in November 1068 against Ayub’s nationwide celebrations of his ten-year dictatorship. A week later its rival pro-Soviet NSF jumped in. From the street the demonstrations soon spread to disturbances on campuses. Police crackdown followed. With the major left-wing student leaders swooped up, trade unions and political parties joined in and the protest spread.

All the educational institutions across country were shut down. But strangely, and interestingly, at Karachi University it was business as usual. Under the watchful eyes of vice-chancellor Dr Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi and his security chief Major Aftab Hasan, right-wing students led by Jamiat e Talba enforced campus peace.

Obviously, this situation was embarrassingly unacceptable for us protestors. So, we decided to act, and planned a surprise. Not to alert the opponents, six or seven of us gathered near the cement bench (a usual platform for such events) in the main Arts lobby. In anticipation of an attack by the right-wing students we decided to bend together by firmly gripping each other’s waist belts.

As soon as we raised a slogan and pushed BSO’s Bizen Bizeno up the cement bench to start his speech, the opponents Jamiat-led boys pounced on us from behind, punching our backs and raising slogans to drown out Bizen’s tirade and pull him down. With our hands firmly around each other’s belts, this took them some punching and pounding our backs, during which time reinforcement came from our friends waiting in the wings. Within minutes Jamiat boys were beaten back.

Next day, with the indefinite closure of Karachi University, campus shut down was complete all over the country.

A New Phase

In March 1969, Ayub’s ouster gave the nation another military takeover and a brief perid of frenzied political activity. A press upsurge opened new opportunities and brought my generation to journalism as new newspaper establishments came into being; with less government control, less censorship. In mid-1970, I joined the newly announced The Sun daily as its first cub reporter. Siddiq continued his desk job at Dawn. We would meet at the Karachi Press Club or at political gatherings that abounded in the city.

“One Unit’ was dismantled and provinces were restored. General elections were held under one-man, one-vote universal suffrage. But as nothing good can ever come out of a military rule, this second martial law ultimately gave us a nation halved by a brutal fratricide, an aggressive attempt at crushing an internal strife, and another war with the enemy uniquely straddling the 11,000 miles of land mass between our two wings.

The majority wing snatched its liberty and established its natural identity as the land of Bengalis, Bangladesh. The Pakistan of Iqbal’s vision and Jinnah’s leadership vanished and we were left with a truncated ‘New Pakistan’ which saw another brief interlude of maverick Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s antics and a second army action in Balochistan with a vengeance, wiping away, with one stroke, sanity from the province’s politics.

Siddiq was among the victims. Four precious years of his youth wasted, first in dark chambers undergoing unspeakable torture, and then in dirty, smelly prison cells. But, being Siddiq, he came out a better man, with a renewed vigour to serve his life’s cause. He returned to journalism as a reporter. Soon after in 1978, I also joined Dawn as a sub-editor.

Struggle Sharpens

These were the times of complete, and most damaging, army rule of General Ziaul Haq, a demented, conniving creature, who destroyed vital national institutions, and completely changed the rules of the game with his hypocritical shenanigans.

Zia replaced the liberal national narrative with an orthodox world view absolutely alien to our cultural, intellectual, religious aspirations. Student politics, trade unions and press were his main targets. Ruthless bans, crackdowns and blanket censorships were his tools. He also involved the nation in a foreign war and brought in hordes of refugees and bred terrorism,

During this decade as we shared the same editorial floor, Siddiq and I teamed up on numerous occasions to push, practice and promote progressive ideas and ideals through pen and professional trade union platform. This team work continued till I left the organization and moved to Islamabad for better professional opportunities in March 1988.

On August 17 the same year, Ziaul Haq’s military plane blew up in the skies over Bahawalpur bringing this infamous period in our history to an end. The country returned to civilian rule.

Siddiq left Dawn during this period, first establishing daily Sindh Express in Karachi in collaboration with senior journalist Nasir Brohi, and then moving on to Quetta for his solo venture, Balochistan Express, the province’s first English-language daily.

A Gem of A Person

Our contacts became occasional and less frequent. But we always kept ourselves updated about each other. Time and space never seemed to matter much.

During 2011-12, when my daughter, Eman bente Syed, stayed for three months in a mostly sub-zero Quetta  (mercury for days remaining at -10 degrees C) for the shoot of her first feature film, Siddiq was the only person I  contacted to take care of her and he arranged things as he would for his own daughter. In 2014, once again Eman was in Quetta for her documentary on terrorism. Siddiq personally saw to it that she stays comfortably facilitated.

His concern for me and my family was also evident when he rang me up one early 2016 morning to advise and warn me about the side effects of a cancer drug he had used and now my wife, Yasmin Syed, was prescribed after recurrence of advanced cancer.

We last talked a few months back while he was in Quetta. While going through the day’s edition of the Balochistan Express I had felt a need for improvement. And as I have taken up freelancing from home for the past some time, I suggested to him that we could come up with a viable setup for rewriting and final editing of his newspaper’s content.

Siddiq responded positively. We decided to meet and brainstorm the idea when he would come to Karachi during winter months. He came and stayed in the city. We had a brief encounter at a book launch at the Press Club, but somehow the meeting on BE affairs could not materialize. On February 5, he left us forever.

Post-Script                         

I have always attributed my closeness to Siddiq – apart from our ideological and mental affinities – to his flexibility to accept the other person’s right to hold a different opinion. In any argument, or discussion, he would readily concede the point if he saw any weight, merit in other’s opposing point of view, to gracefully agree to disagree another time. He would be firm in his views, never rigid; always willing to seek improvement. A trait I closely witnessed during our time together at Dawn.

Post-Script 2

As I am penning down these memories (March 12, 2018), the television screen in my study is flashing images of a Baloch being voted in as the chairman of the Senate of Pakistan – one of the three highest political positions in the country – for the first time in our history. The event is being projected as a grand victory for federalism and national cohesion. I wonder what Siddiq’s succinct take would have been on this. I wish I could know…

                                                                                                                                                                                   

The author is a senior media person. He can be contacted at abidsyed@hotmail.com