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A man called Azad Hussain

One learns from unlikely sources. A person who unfailingly gave me pause for thought is Azad Hussain. He was a man of humble means but was blessed with the ability to think deeply about the problems afflicting the country. Azad had never been to school and the only English phrase he knew, which he often repeated to me, was: “Just as I would never be a slave, so I will never try to be a master.” He claimed that “this was what an American by the name of Abraham Lincoln once said.”

I am not sure who taught Azad this doubtful Lincoln quote which had impacted on his inner consciousness so profoundly. Whenever I visited my late parents-in-law in Lahore, the film celebrities Nazir and Swaranlata, Azad was always around. He had been with them as a member of the domestic staff for almost fifty years, and was loved and cherished as a part of the family.

He would walk into my room unannounced, squat on the floor, light a K-2 cigarette, which he always placed between his middle and ring-finger, and then inhale the smoke deep into his lungs as if to stimulate thought. The conversations were always stirring, and I often felt as though I was chasing the delights of the rainbow.

On these occasions Azad, who had a subtle sense of humour, would talk about family matters as a prelude to a discussion on politics and he would, at times, end with a flourish by reciting his favourite Urdu verses, one of which translates roughly as: “This majestic mansion that exults in false glory, this lush-green sprawling garden, those ruby-red roses sprouting from ornamental flower pots are wondrous to behold. But the petals are without sweet fragrance, for they reek to heavens with the blood, sweat, and tears of the poor.” Azad was a diehard socialist.

Those years were the late 1960s, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had captured the hearts and minds of the masses with his promise of roti, kapra, makan (bread, clothing, shelter). Azad, like millions of others, believed him. The Savile Row-suited socialist, a feudal lord in every sense of the word, promised change, as do politicians of contemporary Pakistan. But things remained the same.

The 1970 elections, said to be the freest and fairest in Pakistan’s history, yielded a bitter harvest. Bhutto emerged as the 9th prime minister of the country, but at enormous cost. East Pakistan broke away and, from its carcass Bangladesh emerged, baptised in blood. The senseless slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians could have been avoided.

The rightful head of government should have been Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League, who had swept the polls in East Pakistan and secured a majority in the National Assembly. Mujib’s election manifesto was built around his six-point agenda, which envisaged maximum autonomy for the two wings of the country, and even separate, but freely interchangeable, currencies.

Gen Yahya Khan, whose dictatorial rule was legalised by the Supreme Court so long as he remained in the saddle, permitted the leaders of all the political parties to explain their respective manifestoes to the nation on state-controlled Pakistan Television, the only channel available at the time. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman spelt out his controversial six-point programme, and should have been arrested, or, at least prohibited, from contesting the elections if his intention was the breakup of the country.

But no such action was taken, and Mujib emerged as the victor in the elections. The outcome was unexpected, and the tragedy that rapidly unfolded is all too well known. Jinnah’s Pakistan ceased to exist. It was born in the violence of Partition in 1947, and it died in the violence of war in 1971. Never before in recorded history has a majority community ceded from a minority.

After the traumatic events of 1971, the citizens of what remained of Pakistan found themselves hopelessly immersed in the Slough of Despond from which they desperately wanted to emerge. Most looked towards the charismatic Berkeley- and Oxford-educated Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to lead them out of darkness towards light.

But Azad thought differently, though he was still an ardent Bhutto admirer. During one of my frequent visits to Lahore in those years, he spoke his heart out. “Us poor people,” he murmured, “are clowns whose hearts are broken. It is so easy to take us for a ride. We believe what the high and mighty say, because there is no other option. Bhutto is undoubtedly immature and has the mind of a brilliant undergraduate. But his political rivals do not even match up to failed matriculates.”

Azad explained that had Bhutto accepted the outcome of the elections and played his role as the leader of the opposition, he would have outsmarted Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in less than six months and become prime minister. There would have been no war, no heartless massacre of civilians, and more than 90,000 Pakistanis would not have been languishing as prisoners of war in India. Azad paused, and from his crumpled clothes, fished out a packet of K-2 cigarettes. He lit up, and after a few thoughtful puffs, said that he was convinced that the tragedy could have been avoided.

This unlettered man could not have known about resolution S/10453 tabled by Poland at the UN Security Council on December 15, 1971 which, in a puerile display of emotion, was torn up by Bhutto, who then stormed out from the Council session accompanied by the Pakistan delegation. Two days after this inexplicable stupidity, Dacca (Dhaka) fell to the advancing Indian troops.

In a superbly argued article carried by the April-June 2012 issue of Criterion Quarterly, A G Noorani of India observed with the precision of a skilled lawyer that had the resolution come into force, it would have resulted in the withdrawal of troops to the status quo ante bellum, not a single prisoner of war would have been taken, there would have been no surrender of Pakistani troops to the Indian command, there would have been no Simla Accord, and the ceasefire line in Kashmir would have stayed put.

Similar views were expressed by Sardar Sherbaz Khan Mazari in his book A Journey to Disillusionment, as well as in the May 25, 1974, issue of the prestigious Karachi-based weekly Outlook. Bhutto’s dramatic walkout from the Security Council was welcomed with a sigh of relief in New Delhi. In their thoroughly researched study titled War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh, professors Richard Sisson and Leo E Rose wrote: “Several key figures in India could not understand why Pakistan did not readily agree to the proposal, since it would have left India in a most difficult and compromising position.”

Despite this, Islamabad’s top diplomats justified the rejection of the Polish resolution on the ground that it “would have been of no help to Pakistan in its hour of need.” In hindsight, it seems that Azad had more common sense than the Talleyrands of the foreign office.

After the adoption of the Second Amendment to the constitution on September 7, 1974, under which Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims, Azad became progressively disillusioned with Bhutto. In one of our conversations at the time he predicted: “The day is not far when Shias like me will be branded as kafirs (infidels) and brutally killed.” He was not wrong.

Six days after the hideous carnage of Shias in Quetta on February 16, Azad – well into his eighties – passed away. Though uneducated, he was blessed with a razor-sharp intellect that concealed itself in self-effacing modesty. He could have soared to dazzling heights, but he was never given the chance. He lived and died unknown. The import of Thomas Gray’s timeless words, “full many a flower is born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air,” rings true yet again.

The writer is the publisher of Criterion Quarterly. Email: iftimurshed@gmail.com

S. Iftikhar Murshed, "A man called Azad Hussain," The News. 2013-03-04.