I recently came across this brilliant feature by Shehar Bano Khan on Tahira Mazhar Ali – Tariq Ali’s mother and Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan’s daughter. It is a very interesting account coming from the daughter of one of the most influential politicians of Punjab. Her association with the Communist Party, her meetings with Nehru and Jinnah and her recollection of partition makes her part of our collective heritage. Published 5 years ago in Dawn, we are reproducing it here for the benefit of our readers. -YLH
She is blunt to a fault. Her brusqueness has not lost its sharp edge with time, neither has her witticism surrendered to old age. At 80, Tahira Mazhar Ali’s vivacity, her political ripostes, and her tirades against capitalism define her originality.
She takes pride in being addressed as Tahira Mazhar Ali, widow of the late Mazhar Ali Khan, one of the most progressive journalists this country has ever seen. Her face lights up at the mention of her son Tariq Ali, a writer of international acclaim and an equally fervent activist. She remains secure in her own identity without feeling the need to be dismissive of her role as mother or widow. Her second son, Mahir Ali, is also a journalist and columnist.
Despite their feudal background, both Tahira and Mazhar Ali Khan were drawn into the anti-imperialist struggle early on. Mr Mazhar Ali Khan’s editorship of The Pakistan Times provided new opportunities for Tahira to expand her political horizons.
Tahira’s views on issues of socio-political concern are thus not based on a theoretical framework. She has been part of a long struggle to bring a measure of equality to a society marginalized by the establishment and the political elite.
That is why when she spiritedly voices her criticism of the recently held controversial marathon in Lahore, spearheaded by another activist of immense stature, Asma Jehangir, Tahira sounds unapologetic. Nobody dares question her dissent because her claim to activism and her authoritative manner of speaking out her mind have not dimmed with age.
“Marathon!” thunders Tahira. “I’m sorry but I don’t understand what the marathon was all about or why it took place. I was invited to participate but I refused because I thought it was absurd,” claims the veteran activist.
She thinks even the symbolism of women’s liberation surrounding the marathon was a non-issue. “It’s not as if women are not participating in sports. They have the freedom to swim, play hockey and participate in international competitions. The whole marathon issue simply made other issues less important. I asked the women holding it to come out on the streets against the price hike, unemployment and workers’ rights. I would have been the first to take part in such a campaign.”
And she would have, as she has never lacked courage or leadership. As a schoolgirl at Queen Mary’s in Lahore, Tahira Hayat Khan was the only one in her class to stand up to make an unusual request to the principal, Ms. Cox. She asked her if Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress, could be invited to the school. She was instantly rebuked for forgetting that Queen Mary’s was a purdah school, where men were not allowed.
When the young girl stood up for the second time to say how unfair it was that an important leader could not come to the school, the principal had to discipline her by expelling her for an entire term.
“I had met Nehru at my father’s house and had written to him several times asking why I needed to sit for exams. He always replied saying that exams were necessary for education,” she says amusedly.
A little older and displaying the same fervour for politics, the daughter of Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, leader of the Unionist Party and prime minister of the Punjab in 1937, decided to pay a visit to M. A. Jinnah at Mamdot Villa. By that time, Tahira had developed a keen interest in the Communist Party of India. One of the reasons was her fascination for a young man who often visited her father’s house, and was a member of the Communist Party.
“Mazhar was a good friend of my elder sister. He would come and discuss politics, but I must confess he never noticed me. He was a great debater and more of a hero for me,” her face softens as she recalls. But it was quite difficult not to notice Tahira Hyat Khan for too long.
Bicycling her way to Mamdot Villa, the 14-year-old Tahira told the chowkidar to inform Mr Jinnah that Tahira had come. ”He knew my father and I’d already met him when he came to our house. He was very nice to me and told me that he knew the stance of the Communist Party. I showed him a pamphlet I was carrying in which the Communist Party had declared its support for an independent country. He said that we did not need to fear because we would be able to see our friends just as he was going to visit Bombay
She spiritedly voices her criticism of the recently held controversial marathon in Lahore, spearheaded by another activist of immense stature, Asma Jehangir. Tahira sounds unapologetic. Nobody dares to question her dissent because her claim to activism and her authoritative manner of speaking out her mind have not dimmed with age
regularly. Yes, that’s what he said! Jinnah was an upright, honest and articulate person. He wouldn’t have wanted relations between India and Pakistan to turn out the way they did. I think he was lucky to have died when he did, otherwise we, Pakistanis, would have made life difficult for him,” says Tahira.
Tahira got married to Mazhar Ali Khan when she was barely 17. She was very happy, but her father, Sikandar Hayat Khan, had some reservations about his son-in-law. “Naturally, my father was concerned and wanted to be sure that Mazhar could support me financially.”
The rest of the Hayat family, which included her three mothers and nine brothers and sisters, loved her husband. ”The first thing I did after getting married was to go to my mother and tell her that I was going to the cinema. Marriage meant independence and not asking parents for permission,” laughs Tahira.
After three days of marital bliss, she was hit by an immense tragedy. In 1942, en route to Delhi, she received news of her father’s death. ”I can’t explain what a shock it was. I felt a part of me had died with my father,” says the activist. A devastated Tahira Mazhar Ali found solace in working with her husband for the Communist Party.
“I’d say my life as an activist started after marriage. A year later, by the time my son Tariq was born, I was working for the Women’s Defence League, an organization for women. Mazhar and I had no money. We were living off Rs 300 a month for an entire year, and often ate spinach and daal. I must tell you here that I had no regrets, no complaints and no second thoughts about leaving the luxury of my home. My life with Mazhar was meaningful and complete.”
After partition, Tahira Mazhar Ali worked for displaced women, mobilized women workers, and cautioned them against the perils of capitalism. “Unlike the activism of nowadays, ours was very strong and touched the base of the social structure. During Ayub’s regime, we invited women from Vietnam to visit Pakistan. Led by Mirza Ibrahim, the trade union leader, a huge number of women came to greet them. When we made a call, people would come out on the streets.”
In 1950, supported by the Communist Party and led by Tahira, the Democratic Women’s Association was formed. “Our members were women workers. There was Hajra Masood, Khadija Omar, Amatul Rehman, Alys Faiz and so many countless others whose names I can’t remember now. It was not an elitist organization. We were not getting funds from international donor agencies like the NGOs of today,” says Tahira. “Our work was in the mohallas; there was a perpetual fight against the establishment for people’s rights.”
She vividly remembers the year 1950 when railway workers were ejected from their mud huts to give residential space to officers. “For one whole week, we formed a circle by holding each other’s hands in front of the huts to stop the police from entering them. Eventually, we got the land back for the workers. Till the Zia era we managed to put our force to work, bringing change. Somehow, after Zia that became stagnant. Everybody has an NGO now. I’m not saying there hasn’t been good work. What I’m saying is that there should have been more. The Hudood Ordinances are still there, people have no power and money is all that matters.”
Tahira Mazhar Ali’s own struggle for the rights of the people continues and she attends conventions held by the workers of the Kissan Party and the Labour Party. Summing up her life in a simple statement, she says: “Activism is not a profession for me, it’s my life.”