To say that Hussain Naqi has a sharp memory would be an understatement. Sitting in the Lahore office of HRCP (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan), the 78-year-old veteran journalist and human rights activist remembers each and every person and moment in his life. He can recount every single thing about his activism since the student days.
Born in Lucknow, India, he moved to Pakistan with his uncles and sister in 1950, leaving his parents and other siblings behind. His father was a well-known practising lawyer and eldest brother an engineer who rose to head the small dams department in U.P. Naqi visits his ancestral place almost every year except the years when there was a ban by the government and his passport was confiscated. Those were the days when his parents passed away and he could not attend their funerals.
The objective of his struggle and activism has always been equality, human rights, democracy and free media. He was president of Karachi University Student Union when he was rusticated from the university for protesting the removal of three Baloch students. He left his MA in Political Science unfinished and entered the field of journalism.
In his journalistic life, too, he lost many jobs for fighting for the rights of working journalists and making media independent and more diversified. Naqi immediately joined Pakistan Press International and was later transferred to Hyderabad and then to Lahore in 1967 for his activism and bold and ‘awkward’ questions to the ruling elite. He was moved from Hyderabad because he exposed South Punjab’s feudal lord Makhdoom Hassan Mahmood as a loan-defaulter.
He also remained associated with Viewpoint, The Sun and contributed articles to Outlook, Karachi, edited by I.H.Burney, The Muslim, The Frontier Post and a couple of English weeklies of Dacca besides editing and publishing Punjab Punch. His last stint in regular journalism was with The News International. He joined as an editor and left in 1992 after disagreements with the management. As editor, he demanded 50 per cent share of jobs for women in the paper’s editorial departments, providing them pick and drop service and security during odd hours at work. In the same year he brought out the first ever daily Sajjan, a Punjabi Daily for the Punjabi Promotion Trust. It was the first daily after the establishment of Pakistan in Punjabi language.
Naqi was put behind bars many a time for his activism and struggle for free press. Once, he was sentenced by a military court. He always stood against the role of intelligence agencies in manipulating the Pakistani press. A man of principles, he remains associated with the HRCP which he joined soon after leaving The News in 1992.
Talking to TNS in a long discussion at the HRCP’s committee room, Naqi expressed his views on many issues pertaining to Pakistan.
The News on Sunday: You were a vibrant student leader in the 1950s. How do you compare the student unions of your time with the politically barren student life today? How did these unions become violent and do you think they should remain banned in Pakistan?
Hussain Naqi: Pakistani establishment has always discouraged movements that strengthen a free state. Pakistan came into being through a democratic struggle in which every person of the society participated. The tradition of this activism continued among the students after the making of Pakistan. When Ayub Khan imposed martial law in the country, there was no ban on student unions. Gradually, they were banned in Ziaul Haq’s regime and later the Supreme Court, sadly, endorsed this ban.
In our time, there was no money involved in elections. Students’ political activism was conventional and in line with the Pakistan Movement. Jinnah, in his August 11 speech, had said Pakistan would be a democratic state, with equal rights and respect for all religions and will have the supremacy of civilians. The very same day, Ch Muhammad Ali discarded that speech and tried to remove the quotes of Jinnah on equal citizenship for Hindus and Muslims. They also tried to remove that speech from the record. There was an attempt to steal Quaid’s papers.
Democratic Students Federation was the first national level student organisation in Pakistan which replaced the All India Students Federation. Muslim Students Federation also existed but could not compete with DSF in Karachi. Later, DSF was merged in All Pakistan Students Organisation (APSO) which was later banned resulting into the emergence of National Students Federation in 1955 as a progressive students organisation. There was no violence at that time. There were no fire arms. Violence systematically increased after the Bhutto’s rise in the Ayub’s era.Use of fire arms started from Punjab when the Pakistan People’s Party started activism and a student of the party was killed in the PunjabUniversity.
But you cannot ban student unions for violence. The ban is not justified at all. Had the student unions been allowed to flourish, there would have been no ethnic and religious groups in universities. The whole motive of this ban is to destroy politics and its roots.
TNS: How do you see the development in the media? How free and independent is it?
HN: This freedom was won by working journalists. At one time, I was handcuffed on The Mall during Zia’s martial law. A man passing by asked me about my crime for which both my hands were cuffed. I said I had robbed Ziaul Haq’s bank. We were taken to the fort.
If the media does not mend its ways, it will lose its freedom. The media should not play to the gallery; it is the job of politicians. A large segment of media spreads less information and more disinformation. There are so many sacred cows now. Can they run news against the owners?
There is a difference in recklessness, anarchy and courage. If you call a reckless thug brave and treat him like a pehlwan then it is insult of a pehlwan. A free media benefits the owners the most. Ratings increase the benefits for owners at the cost of photographers who do not have life insurance. Why can’t the media organisations have their photographers insured if they can get the cameras insured?
TNS: How do you see the current standoff between a media group and the security establishment after attack on Hamid Mir?
HN: I consider this pressure on the media a continuation of the policies followed by military dictators. I don’t consider Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan or its chief a scared cow. The ISI chief is an employee of the government and paid for by the taxpayers’ money. He has been accused and Hamid Mir has no authority to send him to the gallows. No one should be given impunity. The episode has created a serious situation for some federating units where people have disappeared. The allegation of forced disappearances, normally, is also against intelligence agencies, primarily the ISI.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has taken a proper course by appointing a judicial commission. But, unfortunately, a member of the prime minister’s cabinet endorsed a complaint to the improperly-constituted PEMRA seeking a ban on Geo TV.
There are some individuals who want the struggle of working journalists for freedom of expression curtailed. They have moved the court to seek action against the channel under treason charges.
I think times have changed now. You cannot close down any television channel or hang its owner. The issue will settle down. Even the working of internationally notorious intelligence agency CIA is publicly criticised and discussed. The activities of ISI have been discussed earlier in the case of bribing politicians. I think the ISI’s reaction to Hamid Mir’s accusation is harsh because it feels there may be prosecution. It wants to pre-empt the prosecution.
TNS: You have been struggling for human rights for the past six decades. Do you see the human rights situation improving? People say awareness is growing about such issues; would you agree?
HN: Things go side by side. Evolution of the human society is an ongoing process and everyone goes through this process. Human rights situation is not good in Pakistan but yes awareness is increasing. The media has also realised that if you don’t bring issues in front of people, then you will also not be able to function. I think this will improve in the future. People have contributed a lot to this.
TNS: Do you think political parties are doing their job and people are getting empowered at the grass-root level?
HN: Political parties do not organise themselves from within. You cannot strengthen democracy without strengthening local governments. I told Benazir Bhutto to hold local government elections. Her words were “we’ll lose two cities in Sindh”. I said yes you will lose Karachi and Hyderabad, but otherwise you will lose the entire country. I reminded her the second time she came into power. In Pakistan, people who wield power are bureaucrats, civil servants and military generals. The military hierarchy is something the common man does no have. Anti-democratic forces separated the biggest democratic province, East Pakistan, that comprised middle class and supported the democratic process. People still believe that military is a threat.
Pakistan Army is an organised force so it will always be a threat. People have proved that they want continuation of the democratic process.
TNS: Do you think extremism has grown in our society?
HN: It has grown because, in the beginning, it was an American objective. The establishment rented it out to the Americans. When I was president of student union in Karachi, SEATO and CENTO’s vice-chancellors had a conference. There it was decided that religious-minded people should be hired as the teaching staff and more students with religious inclinations should be given admissions.
Tonnes of books by Maulana Maududi were distributed because the Americans wanted the Muslims to stand up against the Soviet Union. It started in the 1950s and 60s when Liaquat Ali Khan accepted mullahs’ 21 points instead of Quaid-e-Azam’s plan and introduced Objective Resolution.
The Americans supported religious fundamentalism and the obedient establishment listened to them. The establishment is still obedient to them. Religious extremism is the reality of this time but it is not shared by the majority. It has never received votes in double digits. The phenomenon of their power is that they were allowed to organise. Even Bhutto told us that the establishment did not let his party organise. They (religious groups) were given opportunity to organise and they were funded.
TNS: Currently, the Pakistani government is engaged in talks with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Do you think it is the right approach?
HN: You are negotiating with the killers and occupants of our territory. The militants have brought fugitives from other country and settled them here. I think action should be taken against them. And this action cannot damage Pakistan. Pakistan has already been damaged as 50,000 people have been killed. Everyone lives in fear and sectarianism has gripped the society.
America’s own interests have also changed. Now they don’t require these people.
TNS: Where do you see Pakistan in the coming 10-15 years?
HN: In the next few years, we want to further democratise it. Pakistan is a multinational state and it should accept the rights of nationalities and give them equal status. They should also be trusted. I foresee that if this is not done, Pakistan will be dismantled again. International forces have interests in Pakistan. If Balochistan leaves Pakistan, it will be one of the richest states of the world because it has so many resources with least density of population. We hope these people see and behave.
We need to make people understand that Pakistan is an all-weather country; it has so many resources. I have always been an optimist. One has to be an optimist for living in Pakistan. I am 78-year old and still work because I feel there is hope.