Tahira Mazhar Ali: The Peerless Communist
TAHIRA Mazhar Ali passed away in Lahore on March 23. She was an eminent Communist leader. She was the first woman political prisoner, who was arrested in Pakistan along other comrades and writers in 1948. On the day she died, a young friend called from London and gave me the bad news. The next day a few of us met at a small place and held a meeting in her memory. It was a homely meet. At the most, 20-25 people attended. Most of them hold positions as sociology faculty in colleges and universities abroad, or as researchers in sociology. They at least know who she was. Some of them know her better as the mother of firebrand student leader of 1960’s, Tariq Ali. A few seniors knew her husband Mazhar Ali Khan who was a renowned Leftist journalist in undivided India. However, it turned out that I was the only one who had met her in person. In 1998 I had the opportunity to visit Lahore as a member of a parliamentary delegation. Accompanied by some other members of parliament, I called on her. During my second visit I could not meet her but we talked on the phone. She felt happy to know that I would be meeting renowned human rights activist Asma Jahangir.
All of us present in the memorial meeting deplored that no Kolkata newspaper carried the news of her death. The meeting ended on the sad note that nothing could be done. Today’s mass media will go by its own rules. These great women shall be pushed to the sidelines.
The grand old lady died at the age of 90. She had joined the Communist Party in 1943. Brought up in Lahore she went to Queen Mary’s College. Even in her teens she was a natural student leader. She had been expelled by the authorities for demanding that Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress, be invited to speak at a students’ meeting.
Her husband Mazhar was a committed Marxist of Lahore. Both of them were quite close to the Communist Party. At some point during 1943 she became a member of the Communist Party. In a short time she became a leader of the Communist movement. Though her husband never joined the party, he always remained a fellow traveller of the Communist movement in Pakistan. Mazhar was born with the Socialist Revolution in Soviet Union in 1917. This was a fact that Tahira often pointed out with pride while reiterating their lifelong commitment to the November Revolution. Before joining the party, Tahira aapa worked with the Lahore branch of Mahila Atma Raksha Samity (MARS). After Partition in 1947 when Lahore became a part of Pakistan, Tahira joined CPP (Communist Party of Pakistan). In 1950 the Democratic Women’s Association (DWA) was formed and led among others by Tahira.
Born in Lahore in a prominent family, Tahira's father was Sir Sikander Hayat Khan, the prime minister of united Punjab from 1937 to 1942. As the leader of the Unionist Party, Khan represented a united front of Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh landlords. Being born in an affluent family did not deter Tahira from involving herself with the communist movement. She later courted and married Mazhar Ali Khan at the age of 16. The marriage was a turning point in her life.
When Tahira fell in love with Mazhar Ali Khan, her father and her family disapproved of the alliance as Mazhar was a Communist. But political considerations forced Táhira’s father to reconsider his stand. The Unionist Party opposed the concept of Pakistan and Sikander Hayat Khan found that his would-be son-in-law’s position in this regard was quite similar. This settled the match.
In Tahira’s own words:
We married when I was a little over 17 and he 25. Abaji would’ve been happier had I married Mumtaz Daultana. It was an unspoken understanding between his father Chacha Ahmedyar and Abaji. Don’t forget, Mazhar was unemployed. But I made my preference known to Abaji and he agreed. We went to live in Wah after we married. Mazhar was a Communist sympathizer although he never joined the party. In Wah, he worked with the peasants and workers at Khaur. Of course the family was distinctly uncomfortable with this line of activity but they didn’t object openly. Those were happy days. We lived on virtually nothing. I remember the time Ghaffar Khan was externed from the Frontier. He came to live with us in Wah for two months. Shortly after that, Mazhar left for the Middle East on military service. I was very pregnant by then. We didn’t see each other for two years. Our son Tariq was born while Mazhar was away.
“By the time he returned, I had joined the Communist Party. I had given away my entire trousseau, including the family jewels, to the Party. We were penniless but content.
When Partition became imminent in 1947, Tahira Ali never accepted the idea of partition from her heart. She and her husband Mazhar Ali were among the prominent Muslim intellectuals in undivided India who stayed outside Muslim league, joined the Communist Party and fought for national liberation. Among others the person who deserves special mention is Sajjad Jahir.
The editorial in The News International, March 25, 2015 reads: Daughter of Sir Sikander Hayat Khan, landlord and premier of pre-Partition Punjab, and wife of famous leftist journalist Mazhar Ali Khan, Tahira Mazhar Ali charted out her own path and, some would argue, surpassed the legacy of the two men. Tahira Mazhar Ali, once she had chosen the path at a very young age of fighting for the rights of the people, continued to do so till the very end – devoting her energies to the rights of the working class, especially women...
I have mentioned earlier that Tahira was a founder and leader of democratic women’s movement. It was hoped Pakistan would be a democracy. Jinnah, at the time of partition, wanted Pakistan to be a democratic secular country. He himself said so in his first official address.
But that was not to be. Pakistan's Islamization began and it was executed in a very negative way. Islam’s universal egalitarian principles were ignored. Islam was used to mobilise and attain power, and it was utilised, as a means of maintaining power. In Ziaul Haq's regime, religion was used nakedly to bolster a dictatorship. Tahira Mazhar Ali became the relentless voice of protest against the take-over of Pakistan by religious fundamentalists. She joined other leading women rights activists to form the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in 1981 to resist the Islamisation agenda. Even when she was getting infirm, ill Tahira Mazhar Ali remained irrepressible. Till her last breath she remained a stalwart of Pakistan’s democratic movement.
She dreamed of close friendly relations with India and forging ties between the peoples of Pakistan and India. The Pakistan-India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) was held in Peshawar in 1998. There we could observe her principled stand on this issue before meeting her at Lahore. Time and again she wanted to know from us the news of her closest Indian friend, Perin Ramesh Chandra. They had worked together as leading activists of the Students Federation and thereafter in the peace movement. Perin had passed away some days ago. She had one more close comrade - Parvati Krishnan.
She never distanced herself from people’s real issues. Communists will naturally work in the interests of the people. In 2008 Punjab (Pakistan) was in the grip of food crisis. She went there and mobilised the peasants. She said that if the farmers committed suicides in Punjab, the food bowl of Pakistan, this showed the gravity of the situation. She attended peasant rallies in almost every region of Punjab and demanded government intervention.
When it came to fighting for human rights, and for prevention of violence against women, Tahira was inflexible. During Zia-ul-Haque regime she vehemently protested when misinterpretation of Islam was used to undermine the status of women, lash innocent victims who opposed Martial Law and imprison those who refused to bow their heads before a tyrant. She thundered when women were captured, raped and converted into slaves by some mujahideen groups. She also raised her voice and led movements against temporary marriages (Mut’a). She sent letters to the secretary-general of the United Nations, the Amnesty International and the Red Cross in Geneva. After Zia’s death Benazir Bhutto became the prime minister of Pakistan. She wrote her that now with a woman prime minister heading the country the mothers and sisters of Pakistan might expect justice.
She was a communist, out and out. Though she was old and feeble she was still a threat for the State.