The way it was: Remembering Azad Kausri

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

As soon as the phone rang, I knew from the manner it rang that it was my friend Azad Kausri. His soft and slow tenor of speaking would instantly soothe riled up muscles and feelings

I wondered why Azad Kausri had not called for the last three weeks to comment on my article. To be rudely woken up early morning by the relentless buzzing of the telephone is a trying experience, flog as one has to a disobedient body out of bed and then pressure a groggy head to guide it across blank space towards the source of affliction. But on Wednesdays it was different.

As soon as the phone rang, I knew from the manner it rang that it was my friend Azad Kausri. His soft and slow tenor of speaking would instantly soothe riled up muscles and feelings. He would begin by announcing, ‘I have read your article,’ and then take his time to casually unfold his mind. More often he was supportive but whenever he didn’t care about any frivolous passage he would simply say, ‘It is nice, but outside my social experience.’ I have not known Azad Kausri to ever flatter anyone. It is perhaps one of the reasons that while everyone respected him, only a few tried to engage him intellectually and socially.

I met Azad Kausri for the first time at 4 Mozang Road at the Punjab Office of the Pakistan People’s Party. Later when Mustafa Khar became the Punjab governor, a parallel office was opened at Olympic House on Temple Road. Sheikh Rashid and Mustafa Khar were not the best of friends. The Sheikh wished to strike feudalism down but he found Lord Khar defending it. The Sheikh-Khar tussle led to the war of offices. Mr Khar systematically countered the old party offices established by Sheikh Sahib, with those of his own. Since Ghulam Mustafa Khar enjoyed more clout with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, he finally prevailed. At the close of his marathon political career, Sheikh Sahib was a bitter man. He was galled at his party for abandoning the land reforms. ‘Land reforms or nothing!’ He refused to budge till the bitter end of his life, even when the party had begun to flirt with the forces of market economy.

Sheikh Rashid represented progressive thought in the Party, which was allowed to hold sway in the early period, because the slogan of Roti, Kapra aur Makan helped mobilise the masses. Later, when the party was in power, its policies veered to the right. Sheikh Rashid, Meraj Mohammad Khan and other socialists had done their task.

Thereon, greater space was created for people who may have been politically weak, but hailed from established feudal families. This was supposed to lend respectability to the PPP and make it more acceptable to the Establishment. I wonder why that was deemed necessary and desirable?

Such was the transformation that it lost sight of an innocuous monument — I believe it still exists — outside the entrance to the bungalow of a notable Multan feudal, where a student was gunned down by his armed retainers. Later when this eminent feudal joined the Party he was soon appointed the chief minister of the Punjab.

Maulana Kauser Niazi was appointed the information minister. His first directive was to censor class issues on TV and Radio because they were likely to create social tension. Amazing that a party, which had come to power on class slogans, should find it politically incorrect to address them. There were others who were put in key positions and so on. It is a long, sad tale of compromises, lost opportunities and betrayals.

During the early period of the mass anti-Ayub movement, when the iron was hot, intellectually and politically motivated students and teachers felt an urgent need to work closely with the people. The purpose was to learn about their problems and in turn educate and organise them into a social and political force. One of the projects undertaken was to produce pamphlets on basic topics like, ‘The Meaning of Socialism,’ ‘People’s Democracy,’ ‘Colonialism and Neo-colonialism,’ ‘Social Imperialism,’ ‘Feudalism in Pakistan,’ etc, considered pertinent for enhancing political awareness, a sense of history, culture and knowledge of social and economic issues. Later some of the intellectuals pooled in their resources to publish a journal named ‘Dehqan’. Sheikh Rashid agreed to lend his name to the publication. This was to be edited by Azad Kausri.

This is how I met Kausri for the first time. He was escorted there by Professor Aziz ud din, political mentor to a host of students and teachers of the time. Azad Kausri was a frail, short person of dark complexion. I have never ceased to wonder how a modest unassuming person like him managed to undertake the journey from Dadhial to Chakwal and then to Lahore.

Kausri always stated gently what he felt or believed. He believed firmly but never got angry with others who differed. He critically examined and reflected on what he regarded was precious. Above all he continued to strive, even during the closing years when his health failed him, to organise conferences and meetings. He liked to encourage intellectual interaction; have current issues dispassionately argued and established beliefs challenged.

He also found time to write and translate several books on history, poetry and literature, cultural issues and criticism. In other words, he didn’t merely expound or declaim, which has become an irritating habit of ours, but made the effort to put his thoughts to the pen.

I must say working with Sheikh Rashid was without any irritations. No one ever saw him at the office except when he came to claim his copy of the journal. He never paid for his copy, but also never took away an additional one. He was a proper person. His only weekly worry used to be the editorial. He worried that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto might find it deviating far to the left. It must be admitted that after an arduous discussion and persistent pestering he always submitted to the editorial committee, inaudibly mumbling, ‘Yar meinoon mar na denan.’ Sheikh Rashid was such a gentleman.

The weekly Dehqan was published for over six months. After the PPP government had come to power and Sheikh Sahib moved from Mozang Road in Lahore to his office at the Health Ministry in Islamabad, the project was disbanded. The Party supposedly now had at its disposal the entire state media, full-time salaried officials headed by a federal minister in the form of Maulana Kauser Niazi that could serve it better than a rag of a journal produced by volunteers. The Dehqan had served its purpose. It prized its independence and right to criticise, but refused to become a mere spokesman of the government, which it voted and cheered into power. That was the Azad Kausri I knew.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist