It so happened that I was reading the very readable WW2 memoir of Major Ishaq Muhammad on the 6th of October: i.e. the day when Zafar Ullah Poshni, passed away in Karachi at the age of 95. He was Major Ishaq’s fellow army-man and co-conspirator in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case.
As I heard of Poshni’s demise the next day, I immediately recalled two things. One was how Poshni was the sole survivor of all the 15 co-accused of the Case – and the only one who thus fulfilled the vow of loyalty alluded to in Faiz’s posthumous tribute to Major Ishaq:
“Lo tum bhi gaye hum ne samjha tha ke tum ne
Baandha tha koi yaaron se paimaan-e-vafaa aur”
(Lo you too went, so we had thought
That some other vow of loyalty was under your consideration)
By his sheer longevity (well into the 21st century) and by writing about it, Poshni bore witness to one of the most tumultuous periods in Pakistan’s 20th-century history. In the 74-year history of Pakistan, countless cases have been heard in big and small courts. Among them, some are of purely private nature, in which the mutual disputes between the accused parties brought them standing in the dock; a few are of robbery and dacoity, etc. about which people come to know from the news in the newspapers. But the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case is the sole case of its kind in the history of Pakistan whose proceedings were a close secret.
Now with the passage of time, a few researchers who accessed the documents relating to this infamous or renowned case have made some guesses about this case and have shone light on a few of its legal and factual aspects. But a lot of confusion is also being spread with reference to this case till date. It is the only case in the judicial history of Pakistan for which the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan had made a special law. A special court was created whose inauguration and proceedings were very much held in Hyderabad jail where all the accused were jailed. The entire proceedings of this case were kept secret, but now 70 years afterwards, access to the documents of this case is somewhat possible. The result is that a late high officer Hasan Zaheer even wrote a book with the title of The Times and Trial of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy 1951. Nevertheless, even now, many important documents referring to this conspiracy case and the banning of the Communist Party have been deemed ‘secret’ by the government. More recently, Kamran Asdar Ali, too, has written a book. Another book by Ahmed Ali Khan has also come out. But the purpose of this piece is not to exercise a critical eye on any such book but to rather talk about Poshni’s position as the last survivor of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case – and looking at the case’s legacy and its position as a cultural marker.
I called Poshni to ask him if he had read my humble centenary tribute to his old comrade Major Ishaq, published as a cover story in this very newspaper. He said that he had, and was very glad that the Major was being remembered, before adding, “He was always a hothead”
There were a total of 15 individuals in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case: 14 men and 1 woman were arrested. Out of the 14 men, 11 were military and 3 were civilian. The names of the mentioned ‘conspirators’ are as follows:
- Major General Akbar Khan
- Major General Nazeer
- Air Commodore Muhammad Khan Janjua
- Brigadier Muhammad Siddiq
- Brigadier Latif Khan
- Lieutenant Colonel Ziauddin
- Colonel Arbab Niaz Muhammad
- Major Ishaq Muhammad
- Major Hasan Khan
- Captain Zafar Ullah Poshni
- Captain Khizar Hayat
- Faiz Ahmad Faiz
- Sajjad Zaheer
- Muhammad Hussain Ata
- Begum Naseem Akbar
Among these 15 persons, nobody survived the new millennium except Poshni.
A forgotten memory from 1952
Here I want to mention Poshni and his first book. I have mentioned earlier that even before the revelation of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy due to the opposition of the government of Pakistan, many members of the Communist Party kept going to jail and were in touch with the late Abdul Rauf Malik (who predeceased Poshni earlier this year in May at the age of 94 in Lahore). These members included Syed Sibte Hasan, Ferozuddin Mansoor, Hameed Akhtar, Dada Amir Haider, Mirza Ibrahim and many others. When the Secretary-General of the Party Sajjad Zaheer along with Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Muhammad Hussain Ata were jailed in the Hyderabad Jail after being accused in the alleged conspiracy, they, too, were in regular correspondence with Malik.
This is an incident of probably 1952 that Malik – being the owner of the renowned Progressive Peoples Publishing House – was busy in the publication of Faiz’s second poetic collection Dast-e-Saba. At that time, he received a letter from Sajjad Zaheer in which he wrote that the manuscript of a book of his jailmate Zafar Ullah Poshni is being sent to Malik; read it and make arrangements for its publication. Likewise he also wrote that he is satisfied with the contents of the book so he has also written its foreword. In other words, it was an order for Malik by the Party Secretary to publish this book. A few days after this dispatch, an aged man arrived and he introduced himself to Malik as Poshni’s father. He said “Zafar Ullah has sent this manuscript for you. In this connection, he himself or one of his friends must have written to you too.” Malik replied “Yes, I have received the letters. I will publish the book.”
Malik read the book and found it interesting. This was the story of the creation and evolution of the world in the light of the principles of historical materialism. Malik speculates that this book had been written based on notes from Sajjad Zaheer’s lectures, whose language was very clear and easy to understand. In this manner Malik published the two books by the ‘two conspirators’ Faiz and Poshni namely Dast-e-Saba and Dunia Ki Kahani, one after the other, in 1952. Afterwards Poshni also wrote Zindagi Zindan Dili Ka Naam Hai, which is an interesting book constituting memories of jail; he later translated it into English as Prison Interlude. A few years ago, his autobiographical novel Daurta Chala Gaya (I Kept Running) was also published, which is distinct from everything else.
What can be learnt from the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case
The Case can be reviewed and analyzed from different angles. In fact, this incident is a turn in the history of Pakistan which helps in understanding how the country reached its present state. To understand this incident, it is of key importance to understand the Cold War of that period and these are the same aspects which help us understand the relation between political economy and defence on one hand and the cultural war in the decade of the 1950s and 1960s on the other.
The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case dealt a fatal blow to the Progressive literary movement of left-wing intellectuals and the communist movement in Pakistan. The manner in which Liaquat Ali Khan accused Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz of being involved in this conspiracy gave the state the opportunity under which it achieved the goal of banning the Communist Party and then eventually the movement of Progressive Writers. This accusation gave not only the leaders of the Muslim League, but also writers like Muhammad Hasan Askari – who supported the state – the opportunity to say that the communists are the enemies of Pakistan.
The cultural war of the Cold War period was fought against the communists on the basis of a liberal consensus – and it became a movement (for the crushing of communists during the Cold War) in the period of the McCarthyite paranoia.
Pakistan had become an important ally of the US since the beginning of the 1950s. Till 1953, the US had very much been given an invitation to interfere in Pakistan. In 1954 in the month of April, Pakistan had signed the Mutual Defence and Assistance Pact, which was the beginning of systematic defence agreements with the US.
In the US, a Pakistani branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom was established: an organisation of CIA-supported liberals whose target were communists. A new chapter in the history of Pakistan was to be inaugurated afterwards.
At the back of this cultural war in Pakistan, the growing tendency of nationalism in the Pakistan Army also had an important role. The kind of problems which the nascent Pakistani state had to face because of the British General Gracey in Kashmir had deepened the feeling within the Pakistani officers of the army to change their institution into a national state army.
Furthermore, in 1948, a conference was held in Karachi of all the provincial Ministers of Interior, Information Directors and IGPs. The agenda was that according to reports, communists were arriving in Pakistan from India. The very fact of this conference taking place reflects the thinking of the establishment of that period.
Be that as it may, the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case was used to crush the communists – which essentially meant that much of the critical intellectual thought in Pakistan was to be crushed.
But all of this was far away as I remembered another thing upon hearing of the passing away of Poshni. I remembered my sole meeting with him in Lahore on the pleasant winter evening of October 4, 2019 after the launch of his book at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, when I told him about my own maternal link with Amritsar and offered to take him the very next day to meet his old friend and fellow 93-year old, the aforementioned Rauf Malik. But he declined citing his ill-health and the fact that he had an afternoon flight to Karachi.
Fast forward to the 4th of April, earlier this year, when I called Poshni to ask him if he had read my humble centenary tribute to his old comrade Major Ishaq, published as a cover story in the Dawn newspaper. He said that he had, and was very glad that the Major was being remembered, before adding, “He was always a hothead.” I responded by saying that some like-minded friends were planning to mark Major Ishaq’s centenary in Karachi later this year, and that we would ask him to preside over the event. He said that he was too old for that. That was the last time I spoke to him.
On a lighter note, given that he passed away in the birth centenary year of Major Ishaq and the 70th anniversary of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case they were both a part of, what a ball Poshni would be having up there with the remaining 14 of his fellow conspirators, having finally rejoined them in eternity! Rest in peace Poshni sahib, for well over 50 years you bore witness to a forgotten episode from our torn and tattered history – and you did it with dignity and grace!
All translations from the Urdu are by the author.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2021. His recent cover story for Dawn on Major Ishaq Muhammad can be found here. He can be reached at: email@example.com