The way it was: Naukhar Kissan conference and our brush with law

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

I learned later that one of the federal ministers had cautioned the Punjab administration about the people attending the Kissan conference saying they were planning an uprising at the time of the 1977 elections

The Punjab Council of Arts was proposing to hold a drama festival. Various theatre groups from all over Punjab were to be invited to compete for the first, second and third positions. At the time I was president of the Pakistan Artists’ Equity, which represented artists, musicians, actors and writers. The Equity acted as a liaison between artists and the radio, television and other organisations with cultural concerns, such as Pakistan National Council of the Arts, the Punjab Council of Arts, the Lahore Arts Council and similar other bodies.

The Governing body of the PCA comprised the late Safdar Mir, Fareeda Khanum, Syeda Abida Hussain, Bano Qudsia, a few others and myself. When the proposal for the festival was presented for discussion by Sajjad Haider, the executive director and himself a respected Punjabi writer and playwright, I suggested that one of the plays be staged and judged at a Kissan conference which was to be held at Naukhar in the Gujranwala district. I also informed the Board that the Equity had already accepted an invitation from the organisers and agreed to hold an exhibition of pictorial works and a music concert. After all it was the corner stone of the new cultural policy of the Peoples’ government to help artists descend from their ivory towers and take art to the masses. Everyone agreed that it was a good opportunity to put the policy into practice. Little did they know that all governments, howsoever radical, tend to become cautious and conservative when in power.

The three-day Kissan Conference was organised in a rice sheller, situated in a four-acre compound, and was attended by over five thousand delegates. I believe they were served daal (lentils) for lunch and dinner for all three days. When someone complained, the person in charge of the mess was furious at the bourgeois nature of the complaint. He was partially appeased when the complainant patiently explained that he was not complaining about daal but about the lack of imagination that was being demonstrated in successively serving the same type of daal at all meals. Such was the zest for Revolution.

The exhibition was mounted by the Equity as promised. Artists had resourcefully executed on bolts of cotton, larger than life-sized figures striking different attitudes in their struggle against exploiters. At the end of the morning session on the final day, the planned cultural show was presented and was generously applauded by the delegates. A Faisalabad Theatre Group was scheduled to present their play later in the evening. All arrangements to welcome and provide refreshments to the committee designated by the Punjab Council to judge the play, which included Sajjad Haider and Amjad Islam Amjad, had been double-checked. After lunch, everyone retired to recuperate in the two-hour break. I retreated to a small room at the back and lay down on a floor mat with my eight-year-old son Ahmed who complained of a slight headache. My wife and our six-year-old daughter Mina strolled with other ladies who had come from Lahore to a house located adjacent to the sheller to wash and rest.

I had just stretched next to my son and was gently massaging his head hoping that would help abate his pain, when my ears were alerted by a strange sound that made me a little nervous. Soon the sound became louder. A group of persons could now be heard stampeding in our direction. Soon enough, before I could make any move, I saw a few young men leap in and out of the room, followed by policemen. I was up in a matter of seconds and cautiously peered out of the door from where they had ejected. I was delighted to see that Prof Kamil Khan the architecture head of NCA had outrun the policemen. But at that very moment he fell skidding over the slippery rice straw, which was strewn around the compound. He made another attempt to flee but by now a policeman had caught up and lunged the barrel of his gun into his stomach. Dr Muneer of the Geology Department of Punjab University dodged his pursuer and disappeared over the wall, leaving the constable panting in his boots. Dr Hamid Qizilbash of political science got apprehended without giving the police a run. He just stood there hoping to overwhelm his captors with his amiable smile.

I was approached by an inspector, who seemed to know me, and asked me to leave because my young son was with me. I naturally declined and sauntered to the DSP who was conducting the operation requesting him to take custody of my son and have him delivered to his mother. Many of my friends and students, and actors, singers and musicians, including almost the whole cast of the play to be staged in the evening had been arrested. How could I just leave? The Committee that was to judge the play was lucky to reach an hour late and thus escaped the hospitality extended to us by the police on the directives of the deputy commissioner.

I learned later that one of the federal ministers had cautioned the Punjab administration about the people attending the Kissan conference saying they were planning an uprising at the time of the 1977 elections. What an irony that a People’s government, which should have tried to enlist support of all those gathered at the Conference, was regarding them as enemy.

More than forty of us were taken to the Naukhar Thana and locked up. To keep everyone’s spirits up, I suggested that we put up our cultural programme in the hawalat; everyone agreed. In the meantime my wife with my little daughter along with the cousins, sisters and spouses of those who had been locked up strode into the thana. They created quite a crisis for the police and us by refusing to leave unless the men were released. To add to the problems, my little daughter kept insisting, ‘I also want to come in’. Noticeably all the action was inside the hawalat. The cultural programme uplifted everyone’s’ spirits. Even the portly SHO, who I later discovered aspired to be a poet in his youth, got himself seated outside the steel bars, surrounded by his staff who all visibly enjoyed the show.

Later, all the inmates were transported to the Gujranwala jail and deposited there. Hamid Qizilbash, Saeed from Faisalabad and myself were brought back to Naukhar and grilled by interrogators sent from Lahore. One of the questions repeatedly asked was, ‘What are educated people like you doing in a place like this.’ Gulzar, who owned the sheller where the Conference was held, was carried to the Lahore Fort and tortured.

Finally, partly through the efforts of Aitzaz Ahsan who was then the Punjab Information Minister and partly through the agitation of NCA students and protests of Worker’s Unions the administration felt compelled to release us. This was done in stages. But the experience left all of us stronger, wiser and better. I didn’t mind being the last one to be bailed out which saved me from providing endless explanations to the relatives of our interned heroes. It was about Naukhar that a poet wrote, ‘Naukhar pind Jawanan da / Naway Naway insanan da.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee