Ever The Revolutionary

Najam Sethi recalls his friendship with Mairaj Muhammad Khan

Ever The Revolutionary
I first met Mairaj Muhammad Khan in Hyderabad jail in July 1976 where the notorious Hyderabad Tribunal was set up by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to try the elected leaders of Balochistan and NWFP for “treason”. The Tribunal was holding in-camera trials. Despite not knowing each other, we were both alleged to have entered into a conspiracy several years earlier against the state of Pakistan.

In the dock were over fifty such political prisoners, including two Governors, two Chief Ministers and a couple of dozen MNAs and MPAs. Mairaj was the sole “Mohajir”, and Ali Baksh Talpur, the sole Sindhi representative, in this “galaxy of conspirators” in a trumped up trial.

Equally conspicuous amongst the bristling Baloch and Pakhtuns were three unlikely Punjabis: the people’s poet, Habib Jalib, whose verse lamenting the plight of the Baloch had annoyed Bhutto to the extent of slapping charges of treason; the National Awami Party stalwart, Syed Kaswar Gardezi, from Multan whose lethal dry wit was said to have enraged Bhutto; and yours truly, allegedly “a scion of one of the 22 families”, whose “commissariat role” in the struggle of the Baloch for their democratic rights mystified Bhutto no less than the Pakhtun leader Khan Abdul Wali Khan who was a fellow prisoner in Hyderabad.
Friendships forged in adverse circumstances are special

Friendships forged in adverse circumstances are special, and mine with MM, as I affectionately called him, endured. Our prison cells were next to each other, so we shared meals and confidences. We talked of ideas, ideologies, ideologues. While I also read books and exercised or hobnobbed with the Baloch and Pakhtun leaders, Mairaj would squat on his charpai, drag on one cigarette after another, devour Urdu newspapers and gupshup with whoever was around. His oratorical rabble rousing skills were legendary. He was also steeped in Urdu culture and poetry. We discussed revolutionary “tactics and strategy”. He wanted to know what made Baloch leaders like Khair Baksh Marri and Ataullah Mengal tick. I wanted to learn about the student movement in Karachi that had thrown up truly dedicated leftists, especially someone like Mairaj. I teased him for being a Stalinist. He retorted by accusing me of Trotskyism. It was all in good humour. We never tired of analyzing the phenomenon of Bhuttoism and constantly predicted the end of Bhutto “sooner than later” (I suppose we had a vested interest in seeing his back because we reasoned that we would remain stuck in prison as long as he was in power.)

I was struck by Mairaj’s personal simplicity and political integrity. As a leftist, he was a passionate Pakistan nationalist even as his abiding internationalism was always evident. Like all good leftists, he was a dreamer too about a secular Pakistan in which the rights of the poor and wretched were protected. He had joined Bhutto because, like millions of others, he thought ZAB was the man of the hour. But he parted ways from his mentor after Bhutto showed his fangs in the anti-workers protest in Karachi in 1972 in which the police mowed down over 50 workers in cold blood. When I told Mairaj that Bhutto’s threat – “the power of the street shall be met by the power of the state” – finally convinced me of his latent Bonapartism, Mairaj exploded upon recalling the sight of dead bodies littered across Drigh Road in Karachi that fateful day. In a subsequent protest demonstration against Bhutto’s autocratic ways, Mairaj’s head was bashed in and he lost sight in his right eye. But he never allowed his personal injury to mar his cold analysis of Bhutto’s strengths and weaknesses.

Mir Ghaus Baksh Bizenjo, Kaswar Gardezi and Wali Khan at Mr Gardezi's house in Multan
Mir Ghaus Baksh Bizenjo, Kaswar Gardezi and Wali Khan at Mr Gardezi's house in Multan

Mairaj was always gentle and polite with friend and foe in personal encounters. But his face would contort with rage at any slight or injury to the downtrodden. In later life, hobbled by illness and disillusioned by the bickering and egotistical left “movement”, he became philosophical. His last stab at active involvement with politics was in the early 2000s when he decided to throw in his lot with Imran Khan. But even at the time he privately expressed many reservations about Imran’s dictatorial and elitist attitude. When he couldn’t stomach Imran’s flirtation with General Musharraf, he called it a day.

We didn’t meet as often as we should have because he rarely came to Lahore and I didn’t go to Karachi often enough. But we both knew we were there for each other always. Goodbye, MM my friend, rest in peace. They don’t make them like you anymore.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.