AZIZ SIDDIQUI (1934-2000)
A Fatal heart attack on 7 June in Lahore deprived Pakistan of a journalist and human rights activist who was a guide, mentor, and inspiration to so many. Aziz Siddiqui, Joint Director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and a former editor of two national dailies, was a staunch supporter of India-Pakistan peace and forceful opponent of the nuclear policies of the two countries.
On 20 February, he wrote in his column: “If it reads the lay of the land correctly, Islamabad should offer no grist to BJP mills. There is no cowardice in helping cool down the temperature a bit. The worst thing that can happen just now is for the Indians to be given an excuse to cross the international border or the line of control. We may be able in that case to ‘teach them a lesson’, but we should not be too keen on any ‘lesson’ that may come our own way. Let’s face it, we can afford a war — any kind of war — much less than the Indians. The bravado of the so-called jehadi groups will also therefore have to be curbed. Islamabad has to be wary about piling new pressures.”
Born on 26 January 1934 in Hyderabad, Deccan, Aziz Siddiqui did his Junior Cambridge from Hyderabad Deccan Grammar School and Intermediate from Lucknow, completing his Bachelors and Masters after moving to Karachi. He started his career as a school teacher in Karachi, and also worked with the Government of Pakistan in various publishing and research capacities till joining the Pakistan Times as assistant editor in 1967.
An active trade unionist, Siddiqui went on a hunger-strike in 1970 to press for better wages for journalists, and against the repressive Press and Publication Ordinance of 1963. He was fired, along with colleagues like I. A. Rehman, Tahir Mirza and Abdullah Malik. The expelled newsmen were re-employed in 1971 by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s newly elected Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government. Siddiqui agitated against the management of Musawaat, the PPP mouthpiece, and was jailed in 1974 for his efforts.
During Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime, Siddiqui’s was a regular presence in the protest rallies on The Mall of Lahore. When the protest movement shifted to Karachi, he went to the port city. His wife Shahida, a teacher, supported him in his unionist crusade and participated in the rallies.
Away in Dubai for five years editing the Gulf News, Siddiqui returned to Pakistan in 1985 to edit The Frontier Post in Peshawar. This small-town newspaper shot to prominence for the quality of its copy, and as the biggest irritant to the military regime of General Ziaul Haq. Siddiqui and his family were harassed and their house raided by government intelligence. He was forced to resign in 1988 when the owners could no longer withstand pressures from the Zia government.
After Zia’s death, and the election of Benazir Bhutto as prime minister, in 1989 Siddiqui was appointed editor of The Pakistan Times, by then a government newspaper. True to form, he continued to criticise official policies he saw to be misguided. He resigned, along with LA. Rehman who was chief editor, when the Benazir government was dismissed in August 1990. Crusading lawyer Asma Jehangir was quick to welcome both the stalwarts to join the HRCP. Journalism remained Siddiqui Saab’s first love, one that he left reluctantly only because there was no room for someone like him. In a press that thrives on speculation and unsupported reportage, Siddiqui’s analytical abilities and balanced presentations were prized.
When he passed away at age 66, Siddiqui was at his intellectual prime, as was clear from his introduction to the latest HRCP annual report, which he used to compile and edit. He wrote, “The forces of status quo and retrogression are still strong and can become stronger, while the process of people finding their voice is slow. But this process can be speeded up, and it makes a difference because it has a ripple effect. Improvements in the state of human rights in the next decade, and even in the direction this country takes over that period, will depend on that more than on any other factor. It will depend, in short, on the basic good sense of the people finding a way to assert itself.”
When a journalist colleague went to him and expressed her frustration that no amount of hard work seemed to make a difference in the long run, Siddiqui Sahib looked up bemused, held his pipe away, and replied, “Phir kiya karain? Hathyar daal dein?” (So what should we do? Surrender arms?) Siddiqui Sahib himself never surrendered arms, writing with courage and conviction on what is wrong with Pakistan today.