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I.A. Rehman: A non-conformist humanitarian!

Huzaima Bukhari

“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind”—Jim Morrison

On an oppressive August day in 1986 on shifting from Karachi to Lahore, when my husband took me to the office of the Viewpoint at 4A Lawrence Road to meet his former colleagues, the first question Mr. I.A. Rehman [Ibn Abdur Rehman, popularly known as Rehman Sahib] asked me with that signature twinkle in his eyes was, “So, how is Lahore treating you?” One single question, fraught with hospitality, concern and above all, the feeling of camaraderie that it swept me off my feet. My brush with the giant of the print media journalism left me in awe. He appeared as the most unassuming character who could easily pass as a commoner in a crowd yet maintain his towering personality. Like in the experience of those who claim their association with him, he was a person, who could proudly be introduced, not just as a prominent professional but as a friend. Since then he became part of that limited edition of intellectuals, whom I hold in very high esteem.

Journalism is a noble profession in the sense that its members have an obligation to speak the truth with responsibility, which is a much-debated element and generally holds importance relevant to the thinking of a news organization and personal opinion of individual reporters. The truth is many a times unacceptable to the governments in power that try to suppress its voice by targeting those who dare to write or speak and Rehman Sahib was among those stalwarts who stoically withstood continuous governmental onslaughts on freedom of expression as against the sold-out newsmen, who gladly harped government-composed tunes.

Mass media in Pakistan has had a long history of battling with the government with respect to exposing major scandals of public interest. On September 2 1963, President Ayub Khan formed the National Press Trust that took over independent papers, with the motto “to raise the standards of journalism in the country” (sic!). It is common knowledge that the main motive was to control the press and reward loyalists willing to conform to the government’s stance. This legacy continued with greater ferocity during the 11-year rule (1977-1988) of General Zia ul Haq’s dictatorship during which mass media were subjected to intense censorship. They were forced to project the government’s position which many happily conceded to in order to sustain, even if it meant making false assertions. Not until 2002, when the concept of free press was introduced, ironically by another dictator Pervez Musharraf, both print and electronic media, notably ones with leftist inclination, continued their struggle towards openness and liberation.

Prior to 2002, Rehman Sahib was one of the few proponents of a free (read truthful) but ethical press and openly condemned the abuse of media, which he considered more disastrous than censorship. He, and his like-minded colleagues were continuously subjected to the wrath of successive governments that felt insecure at the hands of those who tried to expose their real faces. The military rule of General Zia saw journalists being flogged, humiliated, banned and imprisoned on the slightest of offence. Any opposing view, even if it was purely humanitarian, was declared anti-Islamic therefore anti-Pakistan, implying that holders of such views were in fact, traitors. Rehman Sahib too went through his share of ordeals but at no moment did he ever lose his convictions of promoting humanity, peace and general public welfare both in the country and the region which is perhaps why he joined the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in 1990 as director. His life was dedicated in service of humanity as he said while giving an interview in India to The Hindu in November 2007: “I’ve been working to defend people’s human rights all my life. And, I will continue to do so.”

He never refrained from raising his voice against anything that defied humanitarian sensibilities even if it meant being slammed as irreligious or an atheist. His resolve never succumbed to exigency despite losing his lawyer nephew to fundamentalist assassins just because he was defending a university professor accused of blasphemy. He never shied away from criticizing military regimes especially when it came to violation of human rights. Such a thing as partial paralysis of his body could not deter him from pursuing his mission, which he did with an even greater zeal.

Few people practice what they preach but Rehman Sahib actively took ownership of his words by standing side by side with protestors, whether they belonged to Aurat Foundation, landless farmers, families of missing persons or any other camp fighting tooth and nail for restoration of human rights to deprived echelons of society. He definitely understood that during his life-time his challenging tasks would not bear the desired results but his perseverance would become an impetus for its followers. Through his unfathomable commitment to the human rights cause, he has successfully influenced the minds of humanists to never lose their optimism, encouraging them to move forwards even if there are difficult obstacles in the way.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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