Despite his 90 years, he pursued his mission of advocating peace in the region and sanity in national politics. Just four days before he died, in an article in Dawn titled Both Sides Unaware of Their Role, he passionately advised political parties for one more and last time to “march towards maturity.”
Tributes have been pouring in from all over Pakistan, indeed from the South Asian region, for this legendary public intellectual. It is hard to figure out from where to begin and where to end in paying homage to him.
A measure of a truly extraordinary person is that anyone who comes in contact with him feels instantly bonded in some indescribable special relationship with him. Rehman Sahib was extraordinary in this regard.
Rehman Sahib generously shared his wisdom and knowledge with anyone who sought it. He believed that sharing multiplied, not subtracted, from the gifts of the giver. And it came effortlessly to him. This made him stand tall and apart from most others who hold back knowledge and wisdom fearing that it will detract from their pre-eminence.
In his last article also, Rehman Sahib warned against the common human failing that may be characterized by ‘Apres moi le deluge’ (Let there be a deluge after I am gone).
“In Pakistan, the leaders of political parties are too afraid of losing their berths to share their wisdom with the party rank and file and as a result they end up as leaders of a herd of ignorant followers,” he said in this article.
Again, “One becomes richer and certainly not poorer by sharing one’s wisdom with less fortunate human beings. Let the leaders adopt a system of regularly talking to their seconds in command and encourage them to do the same with their juniors. We would then see the party transformed in no time.”
Whenever I called Rehman Sahib to seek guidance, no matter where he was at the time, he would readily share from his memory whatever he remembered. Not only that, but he would also come back later with more detailed and precise information after consulting documents. His capacity and readiness to genuinely share his knowledge and wisdom was truly amazing.
It was one of Rehman Sahib’s persistent endeavors that Pakistan signed the Convention Against Torture. When it was signed in 2008, he sought that it be ratified also
Rehman Sahib also gave practical advice to anyone needing it.
In the late 1980s, during Zia’s dictatorship, I was Managing Editor of Peshawar-based English daily The Frontier Post. Journalists like him were on the watchlist of the military dictator. He regularly contributed columns to the Frontier Post under his son Asha’r Rehman’s name. Asha’r later himself became an eminent journalist.
When the noose was tightened around the Frontier Post and it appeared that the newspaper may be shut down, we sought Rehman Sahib’s advice. He said that the most likely way to shut down the newspaper would be the administration pressuring the printer to refuse to print it. He gave invaluable advice on how to circumvent this. Following on his advice, The Frontier Post escaped the likely shutting down by the administration.
During the first government of Benazir Bhutto in 1988, Rehman Sahib was appointed Chief Editor of Pakistan Times. Together with Mr. Aziz Siddiqi, he turned the hitherto official mouthpiece into an independent newspaper, criticizing the prime minister also. Serving as Speech Writer to the Prime Minister at the time, one witnessed it from close quarters.
But when Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in August 1990, Rehman Sahib wrote a powerful piece in Pakistan Times denouncing the dismissal of elected institutions through executive orders and left newspaper. Not long thereafter the newspaper died and ceased publication.
After quitting Pakistan Times, both Rehman Sahib and Aziz Siddiqi joined the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as Director and Joint Director to the great delight of late Asma Jehangir.
Rehman Sahib was Editor of Urdu daily Azad in 1970-71. It was one of the very few publications in then West Pakistan that opposed the military action in the former East Pakistan. Baang e Haram of Peshawar run by Master Khan Gul was another.
It was one of Rehman Sahib’s persistent endeavors that Pakistan signed the Convention Against Torture. When it was signed in 2008, he sought that it be ratified also. When the Instrument of Ratification was signed by President Zardari in June 2010, he called me expressing huge delight and satisfaction.
He then pursued two other related goals. One; to adopt domestic legislation outlawing torture and two; ratification of the 2006 UN protocol on regular visits by independent national and international bodies to places where suspects were kept to see that there was no torture and degrading punishments. These goals, however, have still remained elusive.
Rehman Sahib always raised his voice for the citizens of Pakistan and India incarcerated in each other’s jails, often on frivolous charges and to settle political scores. That injustice had become commonplace did not deter him from raising his voice.
A famous case involved a young Indian software engineer Hamid Ansari who traveled to Pakistan in 2012 to meet a girl he had befriended online. Ansari was arrested as an Indian spy. Rehman Sahib wrote a mercy plea to President Mamnoon Hussain. Ansari was freed in 2018.
Ansari, on his death, said “Rehman Sahib was one of the chosen ones who brought happiness in the dark lives of many broken houses.”
It will be a tribute to the memory of Rehman Sahib to open up the internment centres in the merged tribal districts, the Guantanamo bay prisons of Pakistan, to the members of Parliament at least, if not to national and international observers. It is doable.
Rehman Sahib was a pillar of strength, a moral compass, a conscience keeper of the nation and a true inspiration and guide to many. May his soul rest in eternal peace.
The writer is a former senator