A requiem for Fatehyab

FATEHYAB Ali Khan, Mr Victorious as Nisar Osmani and I often called him, surrendered himself to the final arbiter on Sunday night. He himself might have approved of the time of his departure because apart from the pain in his heart the kind of life he had been restricted to after a complicated surgery on the spinal cord had little to enthuse him. He could no longer be what he wanted everybody to take him for.

Fatehyab Ali Khan came into prominence as a leading member of an intrepid students` group in Karachi who did their people proud by challenging the Ayub regime at the height of its power and its hatchet men in academia and bureaucracy. All of them were externed from Karachi — perhaps the only students in Pakistan to be so honoured — but they succeeded in having their demands met. This group took up in the sixties where the founders of the Democratic Students Federation in the fifties had left off. All of these students went on to achieve distinction in the world of politics, law and journalism, but regardless of what befell them in subsequent years, Fatehyab Ali Khan and his colleagues will be remembered in history among the finest examples of young Pakistanis who have every now and then tried to extricate their nation from the mire of dictatorship and injustice.

As a political worker, Fatehyab Ali Khan shared his leftist colleagues` trials in swimming against the current. But he remained firm in his commitment to the cause of the underprivileged with a doggedness that had something to do with his Rajput origins and a Qaimkhani dressing. For quite some time he held the Mazdoor Kisan Party`s fort while its chief Afzal Bangash was away in self-exile though it was not easy to manage a Hashtnagar-based party from the shores of the Arabian Sea. He was more fortunate in finding increased space in the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (1981). Working in a political milieu where the rules of the game were laid down by the same elite for whose demolition he was struggling, Fatehyab Ali Khan could not have escaped the weaknesses middle class workers are prone to. However, he was able to hold his head high by demonstrating total repudiation of authoritarianism.

The wave of optimism generated among the democratic-minded people on Benazir Bhutto`s return from exile in 1986 did not leave Fatehyab unaffected. For a brief period he could be seen in a group of advisers to the young PPP leader but she was determined to choose her own counsel, regardless of what middle-aged radicals or old `uncles` thought of them. As a person, Fatehyab Ali Khan always loved plunging himself in an argument and liked to seize any opportunity to get the better of his tormentors.

In 1981, he was at the MRD leaders` meeting in Lahore when police arrived to round them up. When after some time I noticed his apparition in the dimly-lit stairs of my flat, the first question naturally was as to how he had managed to escape. “Simple”, he said, “they usually identified me by my glasses, so I took them off, put them in my pocket, and retreated to a corner of the room”. On another occasion, he came asking for a cap as he thought a cap could be as effective as spectacles in giving his pursuers a slip. Despite the battering that was his lot as a non-conformist he retained a bit of innocence. At heart he remained a young student fighter. The imp in him chuckled with delight when he sued a New York hotel for allowing a rat to share the room with him. He could not have been unaware of the ability of the rulers of different hues to bend constitution and laws to their convenience, yet as a lawyer (though largely non-practising) he could not believe that Gen Zia could get away with extensive mauling of the basic law. Armed with a copy of the 1973 Constitution he went round calling on friends to tell them that Zia had no authority to act the way he was doing.

The tragedy of people like Fatehyab Ali Khan is that they have had to sweat in an environment where political performance is judged the way a film`s merit is determined by box-office returns. But it is due to the labours of such workers and many others who fade away unsung (Lal Bakhsh Rind, for instance), that expressions such as democracy and rights of the poor can still be found in Pakistan`s political lexicon.

Dawn (Karachi), 28 September 2010.