Dr. Ikramul Haq
This is not a traditional obituary of Professor Dr. Mehdi Hasan, my great teacher, mentor and scholar, who left this world for his heavenly abode on February 23, 2022 at the age of 85. This is just a humble attempt to recall some memories of an authentic, sane voice and human being par excellence as well as highlight his valuable work. This is not even his life sketch as the media has extensively covered it.
On joining Journalism Department of the University of the Punjab, now renamed as Department of Mass Communication, in 1979, it was a great privilege to meet a lean, smart, well-addressed man who appeared like a typical professor holding and smoking pipe and flaunting one of the wittiest of expressions on his face. He was full of wisdom that he generously showered upon his students, especially those who could see eye to eye with him, in a way which embedded in their minds without arousing any resentment. Such was the personality of this great teacher that those who loved him always stayed loyal and those who disliked him, did so with all their might. Of course that never bothered him as he weighed these extremes on the altar of the impact of his knowledge and philosophy.
His room at the corner of first floor of the Department of Education & Research shared by the Journalism Department was open for all students and discussion on any issue. No permission was needed to enter the room and there was no censorship on the type of questions or topics for discussion. As a teacher, he never discriminated on the basis of political affiliations of the students. Always open to discourses on any issue, political or otherwise, with reason and logic, Dr. Mehdi Hassan was a rare gem. The Journalism Department was then headed by Professor Dr. Abdus Salam Khurshid and other luminaries were Professor Waris Mir, Professor Dr. Miskeen Ali Hijazi and Professor Dr Shafiq Jalandhari—all well-established columnists and writers. Even in the classroom, Dr. Mehdi Hassan was always eloquent, listening to all viewpoints with complete patience ending the lectures with his own principled stand.
The most trying days during that time were when the military dictator, General Muhammad Ziaul Haq grabbed power in a coup, overthrowing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a democratically elected prime minister. Massive censorship was imposed, the media was gagged and restrictions were enforced on freedom of expression. In these circumstances, students of journalism department along with the journalistic community started agitation. They would visit the Press Club in Lahore where on daily basis speeches were delivered against the martial law regime and its actions against the press. Later the journalists started giving voluntary arrests that was joined by students as well and for the first time, two female students offered their arrests at Regal Chowk. It was covered by BBC and other international media channels. Dr. Mehdi Hasan visited the detainees in Civil Lines Police Station and gave personal surety for their release.
Throughout this period, he was in the forefront of struggle of freedom of press and brutal actions taken against journalists by the military government. The students also formed the Progressive Students Association within the department and defeated the other group led by Jamat-i-Islami that was supporting the general. One senior student went on haj with the dictator and on return was given special waiver of appearing in the final semester exams. The late Professor was the only one who refused to entertain this waiver. He was given life threats by the union but nothing deterred him from his stance. He showed solidarity with the democratic movement and revival of constitution for which he was targeted repeatedly by obscurantist forces. He showed resilience, never compromising on his principles. In his articles and television appearances, he openly defied the political oppression and punishments awarded to the public. While others were reaping benefits for supporting the dictator, he continued to side with the oppressed.
Eman Ahmed, a budding young scholar took his interview in 2018 as part of her university assignment touches upon an issue related to Pakistan’s affairs that highly disturbed the professor, when he was given the task of reviewing school history books in 1994. The errors and falsified historical facts that he pointed out were never corrected. In fact, the report that he had compiled and submitted got ‘lost’ mysteriously. He told her that if the distortions in Pakistani history books were removed, 70% of the country’s problems could be mitigated. He professed the same idea for the media in Pakistan—that it needed good gate keeping.
Besides his social/political activism, the late professor did not ignore his academic duties. He wrote a number of books tracing the history of Press and its evolution in Pakistan and challenges faced by the working journalists during earlier martial law governments. His books Journalism for All and Behind the Headlines are considered as authentic work that students find enlightening for their course. He has to his credit many articles that he contributed to leading journals in Pakistan and abroad. He nurtured thousands of students with higher values of journalism which he upheld throughout his life as teacher and journalist. He practiced what he preached because of which his students anywhere in the world hold him in high esteem.
Internationally also he earned a respectable name for Pakistan for standing up against all restrictions imposed by both military and civil governments on freedom of expression from time to time. As chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, he made extraordinary efforts for protecting the rights of minorities, eliminating discrimination on the basis of religion and for equal rights for women. He struggled for fundamental rights for the citizens of Pakistan especially the less privileged and victims of political manipulations.
Few people leave this world causing an impact that would be felt for many centuries hereinafter. Dr. Mehdi Hasan’s name will be included in that list for his legacy will be carried forward by those who had the privilege to interact with him as students, colleagues, friends and relatives. His tolerant nature and wit will long be remembered by all but most of all, his relentless stand with his principles is something that can never be ignored even by his staunch opponents.
“The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively,” Bob Marley.
Dr. Ikramul Haq, Advocate Supreme Court, is Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Visiting Senior Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).