By Nadeem F. Paracha
07 Dec, 2014
A few months back I received a hand-written letter addressed to me but delivered at the Dawn office. It was from a man I last met in 1993 but had first come to know in 1985.
His name is Sohail Rathore and he remains to be one of the most remarkable men I have ever had the honour of befriending. In the letter he told me that he was in Karachi and asked if we could meet over a cup of tea. I immediately called him on the phone number that he scribbled in his letter and invited him to come meet me at my office.
Today, Sohail is about 64 years old. He was 35 when I first met him in 1985 — in a police lock-up!
In April 1985 I, along with a dozen or so boys from the state-owned college in Karachi that I was a student of, were arrested by the police for agitating against the Zia ul Haq dictatorship and locked up at the then notorious ‘555 police station’ in the Sadar area of the city.
After being punched, kicked, slapped, spat upon and accused of being ‘KGB/Soviet/Communist agents’ by the cops, we were all thrown into one of the many dirty, wet and windowless cells of the police station.
But we weren’t the only ones in that malodorous little cell. Three men were already there. One was a pick-pocket, one was a car thief and one was Sohail, a political activist who had been rotting in that cell for over two weeks and was scheduled to be taken to Karachi’s Central Jail.
After spending almost a whole day in the cell, my fellow comrades and I were finally bailed out by the progressive student organisation that we belonged to. But throughout our stay there, Sohail kept us enthralled with his rather intriguing tale.
Sohail was in that cell after he had been arrested the moment the plane he was travelling on (belonging to the now defunct BOAC) landed at the Karachi airport.
Sohail had been facing charges of setting a police bus on fire and of attacking two policemen (with a knife) in Rawalpindi in October 1978. Sohail told us that all he was doing was taking part in a small but highly charged protest rally against the then one-year-old Zia dictatorship when he was picked up, charged (of destroying police property and attacking cops) by a military court and thrown in a jail in Rawalpindi.
He was still in jail when in March 1981 the anti-Zia left-wing urban guerrilla outfit, the Al-Zulfikar Organisation (AZO), hijacked a PIA plane and negotiated the release of over 50 political prisoners stuffed in Zia’s cramped jails. Sohail was one of them.
Sohail was born into a deprived family headed by a struggling fruit vendor in the rural outskirts of Faisalabad in the Punjab province. He first went to a madressah and then to a run-down school before he was taken to Lahore by one of his uncles who owned a minor rickshaw and motorcycle mechanic shop in that city.
Sohail was about 16 years old when he first came to Lahore in 1966. But by 1968 he had had a falling out with his uncle when he decided to quit working at the shop and try his luck at becoming an actor in the then thriving film industry of Lahore.
He began to sleep on the benches of Lahore’s many parks. One evening he was woken up by a passing procession. The procession was of supporters of the PPP, a party that was formed by Z.A. Bhutto in 1967.
After befriending a few PPP supporters, he was smitten by Bhutto’s populist and socialist rhetoric. He volunteered to work for one of the many PPP offices that were being set-up across Lahore by the party’s two leading leftist ideologues, Dr Mubasher Hassan and S. Raheed.
In 1968, the PPP was at the epicentre of the movement against the Ayub Khan regime, and Sohail was often arrested by the police. He also became a prominent member of the ‘Red Guards’, an organisation formed by the PPP to ward off attacks by thugs employed by the regime and by the youth members of the right-wing Jamaat-i-Islami.
Sohail returned to work at his uncle’s mechanic shop soon after Bhutto came to power in December 1971. But his love affair with the party evaporated when a group of PPP thugs patronised by the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Mustafa Khar, roughed up his uncle. Sohail never told us why his uncle was beaten up by the thugs.
Though after the episode he kept himself away from politics, his resentment against his once beloved PPP boiled over when an alliance of right-wing parties began a protest movement against the Bhutto regime in 1977.
Sohail wholeheartedly participated in the movement and was even arrested and thrown in jail. He was released after the regime fell to a reactionary military coup in July 1977.
However, within months after Bhutto’s fall, Sohail fell out with his uncle again when he began to participate in protest rallies against the new military regime.
In 1978 he was arrested and booked for arson and sentenced by a military court. In 1981 he was one of the 50 or so political prisoners who were released on the demands of the notorious AZO.
Sohail was put on a plane along with other prisoners and flown to Syria. Some joined the AZO in the then Soviet-controlled Afghanistan, some stayed in Syria or moved to Libya and some made their way as asylum-seekers in various European countries.
Sohail hung around in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and then travelled to Libya where after working as a mechanic for a few months, he managed to make his way to London.
He did odd jobs in London and also joined the PPP’s London chapter before deciding to fly back to Pakistan after he was told that his mother was seriously ill.
On his return to Pakistan (in 1985) he was immediately arrested and only released in December 1988 when Benazir Bhutto formed her first government after Zia’s demise.
After his release Sohail tried to set-up his own mechanic shop in Lahore and reconciled with his uncle. His mother had passed away in 1987.
I met him again in 1993 in Karachi. I had gone to late Bhutto’s home in 70 Clifton to interview Benazir’s estranged brother Murtaza Bhutto for a newspaper. Sohail told me he had now joined Murtaza.
That’s the last time I met him until a few months ago after I received his letter. He was still struggling to set-up his own shop but had worked hard to expand his uncle’s set-up. I asked him what else he was up to after I met him in 1993.
He said he quit politics all together, got married and became very religious. So much so that for a while he decided to become political again and work for the large alliance of religious parties, the MMA, in 2002, until he witnessed a suicide blast orchestrated by religious extremists at a tea stall in Peshawar in 2006.
‘It was terrible,’ he told me. ‘This was not politics. This was not revolution. This was sheer murder!’ he said (in Punjabi).
He was in his 60s now and I asked him if that was it for this once robust political animal?
He laughed: ‘Why do you think I’m in Karachi?’
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Merey Dost (my friend), I am here for Khan Saab’s rally!’ He announced. Sohail was now following Imran Khan. He tried to convince me that Khan was like Bhutto.
‘But you ended up being disappointed by Bhutto,’ I said.
He sighed: ‘Ghalti Ki Thi (I made a mistake).’
‘You followed Bhutto, then his opponents, then his daughter, then his son, then the Maulanas in the MMA, and now Khan …’ I jokingly said.
His smiled back: ‘I made a deal with myself many years ago. In whoever’s Badshahi (regime) I am able to set-up my own mechanic shop, is going to be the leader I will follow for as long as I live.”
The truth is, Sohail could have (and still can) easily set-up his own shop. But this eccentric fellow would only do it once he believed Pakistan has finally found a reliable and honest leader. That is when he will finally close his shop of constant hope (and agitation).