idea of a truly independent and liberal
paper was born one night as I lay fuming
under the stars on a hot and sticky
August night in Kot Lakhpat Jail in
Lahore in 1984. The country was writhing
under martial law. Not a single
newspaper editor had dared to write the
truth about why General Zia ul Haq had
used “preventive detention” laws to jail
me. In fact they had all readily
clutched at the officially sponsored
lies about my case. One day, I silently
raged, I would have my own paper and it
would stand up to tyranny and expose the
lies and fear that stalk our everyday
Zia ul Haq didn’t like me. I had
published “From Jinnah to Zia” by
Justice (retd) Mohammad Munir after
every major publisher in the country had
turned it down because it was overly
critical of the dictator. After the
author’s death a couple of years later,
a khaki emissary advised me to quietly
withdraw the book from sale. “You can
ban it”, I had demurred. Then I
published a book on US-Pak Relations
whose cover was taken from a painting by
the famous artist Mian Ijaz ul Hasan. It
showed the US Aid emblem in which there
are two clasped hands in friendship,
except that Mian Ijaz had rendered one
of the hands as a skeleton and squeezed
a drop of blood out of it. The then US
Ambassador to Pakistan protested to
General Zia and the dye was cast. When
Henry Kissinger complained about his
book being pirated by a bookseller in
Karachi, they went instead for me in
Lahore and bunged me in as a
“terrorist”. Amnesty International and
BBC investigated the case and rubbished
the authorities. But not a single
Pakistani newspaper was prepared to
expose the lie. In the event, no charges
were formally pressed and I was released
a month later. But by then an idea had
begun to germinate whose time would come
There is a passage in Emma Duncan’s
wonderful book on Pakistan written in
1987 (Breaking the Curfew) that
describes the path Jugnu Mohsin, my wife
and TFT’s publisher, had to take during
1985-1988 for permission to publish TFT.
In order to start a magazine, an
applicant has to have his form cleared
and stamped by, in turn, the city
magistrate, the local police, the city
magistrate, the provincial press
information department, the chief
minister’s office, the provincial press
information department, the federal
press information department, the
intelligence bureau, the federal press
information department, the provincial
press information department, the deputy
commissioner and, once again, for luck,
the provincial press information
In order to start a magazine, an
applicant has to have his form
cleared and stamped by, in turn,
the city magistrate, the local
police, the city magistrate
Several decisions were critical and some
moments were noteworthy. Jugnu had to be
the listed as the “publisher” because I
was too notorious an offender for
comfort. Then we waited to apply pending
the arrival of a City Magistrate who
might be more sympathetic than curious.
As luck would have it, Mr Sher Afghan,
with antecedents in Okara from where
Jugnu’s family hails, arrived on the
scene in 1985 and helped push the
application along. Then a friendly
Director General Public Relations Punjab
nudged the file to chief minister Nawaz
Sharif’s office where it lay in cold
storage for months until Jugnu’s
cousin-in-law Javed Bokhari was
appointed principal secretary to the CM
and put up the file to Nawaz Sharif.
When Jugnu was called for an interview
with Mr Sharif, she was pregnant with
Mira and looking sufficiently benign.
Nawaz was pleased to note that she was
the niece of Syed Sajjad Haider, a
stalwart of the Muslim League from
Okara. But he was more than a little
curious when she confirmed for him that
she was Syeda Abida Hussain’s cousin.
“Ah”, said Nawaz, his eyes narrowing,
“is this going to be a political
paper?”. “Of course not”, Jugnu smiled
back, feigning innocence, “it’s going to
be a social chit chat thing, you know,
with lots of pictures of parties and
“Good”, advised Nawaz, adding “I hope
you won’t get me into trouble”. And with
a flourish he signed the paper.
A month later, there was a knock on my
office door and in walked a thick set,
rather ominous looking Police Inspector
with a file under his arm.
“Najam Aziz Sethi, s/o Abdul Aziz
Sethi?”, he inquired in an officious
manner. “Yes”, I mumbled.
“I’m from the IB”, he explained in Urdu,
“Have you applied for permission to
start a weekly paper?”
“No”, I said quickly, my heart skipping
a beat. “But my wife wants to take out a
social chit-chat thingie”, I volunteered
His eyes twinkled. He smiled wryly and
leaned over the table.
“Same difference, Sethi Sahib.”
Silence. I rubbed my hands under the
table. He smiled, surveyed my office,
pulled out a chair and made himself
“Would you like some tea?” I asked.
“No sugar, please, I have diabetes”.
“Is there a problem with the
permission?”, I asked innocently.
“There could be”, he pursed his lips
mysteriously, “if you are involved”.
“But I’m not involved. You see…”.
“Come, come Sethi Sahib, we know all
about you. You’re a trouble maker,
aren’t you, always upsetting people and
going to prison”, he said menacingly.
“Your wife is fronting for you, isn’t
she? There’s no way you can be cleared.”
“Hmmn”, I nodded glumly, not to affirm
that I was a “trouble maker” but to
confirm to myself that the game was
The tea arrived. He stirred it, helped
himself to a handful of biscuits.
“How did my book sell?” he asked.
I was nonplussed and couldn’t place the
Urdu book in question. It must have
showed on my expression.
“Forgotten about it, haven’t you?” he
chuckled. “I’ve seen a lot of unsold
copies lying about in your shop”, he
“But if they haven’t sold out, why have
you paid the supplier in full?”, he
inquired. Then he proceeded to pull a
book out of his file and placed it on
the table in front of me.
“Oh, this, yes, yes, some fellow came to
see me some months ago and said he was
hard up and wanted me to sell this book.
It didn’t sell at all but I gave him the
cash anyway because he seemed genuinely
in difficulty”, I explained.
“Do you remember who that fellow was?”,
he grinned mysteriously.
Oh no, I thought, maybe there’s some
subversive material in this book and
they’re going to pin it on me.
“No, I don’t remember”, I said flatly.
“I see”, he said softly. Silence. A long
silence. He slurped his tea with evident
“This book, Sethi Sahib, is written by
my deceased father”, he finally
explained, “I was in civvies when I
brought it to your shop three months ago
after every bookseller in Lahore had
refused to stock it, let alone sell it.
I didn’t tell you I worked for the IB.
But you not only took it, you gave me
full payment in cash last month even
though many copies remain unsold”.
“Really?”, I said dumbly, with vague
recollections of someone imploring me to
buy the book because he needed the money
“Really!”, he exclaimed emphatically.
“You may be a trouble maker for some but
for me you’re an angel”.
Relief. Smiles all round. More slurping
of tea. He got up, shook my hand, and
turned on his heel. At the door, he
turned around, bowed, and said: “Good
luck with your paper, sir, the IB is
going to say that Jugnu Mohsin Sahiba’s
father is in the clear and we shall omit
to note whether she is married or not”.
Permission to publish TFT arrived in the
post to Jugnu in 1987, three years after
the application was submitted in 1985.
But General Zia was still around. And
there was no sign of any press freedom.
In fact, only months earlier, Aziz
Siddiqui, the gentle editor of the
Frontier Post in Peshawar, had been
relieved under ISI pressure because he
had published a small item about how Mrs
Zia ul Haq had drawn on the public
exchequer for medical treatment abroad.
So we determined to lie low.
But that was easier said than done.
Under the law, we were obliged to
publish the paper within three months,
failing which the permission would
lapse. So Jugnu did the unprecedented
thing of writing for permission to the
DC to delay the publication of TFT for
one year because of circumstances beyond
her control. She explained that she had
just had a baby and was too busy being a
mother to be an editor or publisher. The
usual “family” strings were pulled and
permission was duly granted. We were in
the throes of asking for another year’s
extension when General Zia ul Haq
perished in an air crash.
That night Jugnu and I sat up until the
early hours of the morning planning the
new paper. In the following weeks, we
marshaled our meager resources and by
December were ensconced in a small
office on Turner Road, just behind the
Lahore High Court. I went around Lahore
and Karachi to the offices of the Big
Wigs in the media asking for advice. One
media baron bluntly said “If you’re got
money to throw away, give it to
charity”; another advised “It’s more
difficult than a daily, that’s why we’ve
not ventured into an English weekly”.
But five months later, in May 1989,
Jugnu and I launched TFT without a
thought of how it would survive in the
big bad world out there.
Najam Sethi is the Editor-in-Chief of The
Friday Times. He is based in Lahore
and wrote this editorial for the 15th Anniversary of
The Friday Times