The hosts that day were the Manzur Qadir society. The venue was the Pearl Continental hotel and the speaker, Khushwant Singh, the famous Indian journalist. He was in Lahore to deliver the annual Manzur Qadir memorial lecture in late and illustrious remembrance of his friend, Mr Qadir.
Mr Ijaz Batalvi, one of the organisers, had invited 300 or so people to the event. In a perspicacious move, the hotel management arranged seating for an extra 100. In the end, the extra seating fell short by the score. Altogether, there were upwards of 450 people at the PC, hanging on to very word Mr Singh cared to utter. Mr Batalvi introduced Mr Singh in his habitual civilised style, with a dig or two at the anarchic start to the pre-partition legal careers of Messrs Singh and Qadir in Lahore. Khushwant Singh was both younger and older than I had expected. He was older for the youth and pep of his columns and younger than his experiences would suggest. He started with a sensitive evocation of his late friend’s qualities, taking the liberty as Manzur Qadir’s best buddy to suggest that the lawyer had not much enthusiasm for international affairs. Mr Singh regaled the audience with an anecdote in which Mr Qadir expressed ignorance about one Dr Sun Yat Sen. When his Sikh friend persisted with his query, Mr Qadir expressed his complete indifference by stating, “Chhoro yaar, mujhe kya? Koi ho ga sala Bengali daktar…”
At that there was laughter all round and not without relief. We hadn’t, after all, forgotten haw to laugh at ourselves. “And so”, Pronounced Mr Singh, ‘When General Ayub Khan appointed Manzur Qadir Pakistan’s foreign minister, I was more than a little surprised. I sent him a cable saying, ‘Congratulations and best wishes from Dr Sun Yat Sen”! It had been a captive audience from the very start but with this anecdote, Mr. Singh had us all in thrall.
[quote]Mr Khushwant Singh giving the annual Manzur Qadir Memorial lecture. His speech on Indo-Pak relations electrified the audience, although one Prof. obviously preferred to let sleeping dogs lie.[/quote]
He then went on to talk about what was wrong with India and Pakistan. “We in India”‘, he said, “have been a functioning democracy for all but two years of our post-independence history. You in Pakistan have had 24 years under military dictators”. In this, and in the parallels he drew, he was unsparing in his criticism of both countries. He talked of the cancer of corruption, more virulent in its Pakistani form than its Indian. He spoke of the Indian electorate’s effective rejection of this sort of venal rule. In contrast, he spoke of the silence, in the face of loot and pillage, of the Pakistani people. He declaimed fearlessly on the silence of the national press, of our respect for authority, of our failure to keep to an agreed constitution. To this, the audience listened in sullen silence.
Khushwant Singh then talked of factors which provide Pakistanis with some badly needed satisfaction. He said, “The rate of your industrial growth has been better than ours, your per capita income is higher than ours. In Pakistan you eat better, dress better, live better than we do in India”. That, he also implied, seemed to compensate in Pakistan for the absence of real progress. At this point, I turned in my chair to look at the audience. There was not one face that expressed the slightest bit of boredom. Mr Singh had cast a spell.
The talk moved to India and its problems. “If you think you have problems of national integration, we have all those magnified ten times over”. Long known as a friend of Pakistan in hostile India, Mr Singh spoke of the time in 1971 when his home was attacked by those who saw him as a defender of a country with which they were at war. He said gallantly, “I considered that a small price to pay for my principles”. So far so good. It was with the Kashmir issue that Mr Singh really set the cat amongst the pigeons. He had long thought, he said, that Kashmir should be left with India, otherwise India would shatter to pieces, not without serious and adverse implications for Pakistan. By now, the audience was beginning to strain at the leash. There were a few uncomfortable grunts, there was some shifting around in chairs, there were several raised eyebrows. Khushwant Singh’s wisdom was too bitter a pill to swallow without protest.
At the conclusion of Mr Singh’s lecture, the generosity of the Punjabi people and the very real affection they harbour for their erstwhile compatriots from across the border, was very much in evidence: Khushwant Singh was given a tremendous ovation. Of the few who stood up to applaud him, there was Raza Pervaiz and his bride from India, Sadia Dehlvi.
And now for questions, pronounced Mr Batalvi. With that, it was as if an ocean of hysteria had burst its banks. Mr Z A. Sulehri of the vitriolic pen poured scorn on Mr Singh’s claim that India had actually accepted Pakistan as a sovereign state. After him a frenzied young man got up with more of the same. Mr Toosi, of WAPDA, wanted to ask not one but two questions.
Mr Batalvi did his best to dampen Mr Toosi’s ardour but to no avail. One young woman shouted “Sit down!” in her exasperation with Mr Toosi. The gentleman persisted and eventually resorted to his native Punjabi in saying that India was depriving Pakistan of badly needed river water. One middle-aged man walked up from his seat at the back to ask a rhetorical question, “Yeh jo Sardar Sahib nae aaj yahan Pakistan kay baray mein itni khushasloobi say tanqeed kee hai, kya koi Musnlman Hindustan mein Hinduon kay baray mein aisay bol sakta hai?” Throughout, the spontaneous and outspoken Mrs Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan kept up a running commentary of caustic comments. Her comparatively sober husband and life-long progressive Mazhar Ali Khan, tried more than once to quieten her enthusiasm. Mrs Khan’s was not lone voice, there were many amongst the audience who fell protective of this candid and brave Sikh for his march into the lion’s den and every now and then there were exclamations of protest at the clearly emotional and obsessive tilt to the questions. There were mercifully, one or two sensible queries and those came from the very young, the kind that are not infected with the bash-India virus.
At one point, Khushwant Singh took refuge in his array of anecdotes. “Sardar Swara Singh was asked if Zakir Husssain could actually become president of India. He replied in his Punjabi English, ‘Why naat? After all, India is ay secular state’. All told, Khushwant Singh took his questions in sporting spirit, even the more hysterical ones. He was never apologetic, never defensive; He said it like he thought it was. His sincerity, above all, was not lost on the audience. Once again they applauded him madly. Batalvi called upon Justice Javeed Iqbal to wrap up that meeting. The Allama’s son made an opening statement that brought a quick rejoinder from one spectator. Mr Javeed Iqbal claimed that he had tried to adopt the sterling qualification for which. Mr Manzur Qadri had become so deservedly famous. “Jhooth!” shouted a voice from the audience.
In the end, Khushwant Singh was mobbed and was taken in a procession to the hotel lawns where tea had been laid out. I might say in conclusion that for all his urbanity and humility, Mr Singh was modestly clad in a Pakistani swami suit which could have traced its origins back to the 1970s, at the least.