Noor Israr Mahmood Aslam recollects a remarkable public life
The current Remembering Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan Pakistani political line-up consists of politicians who lack the kind of commitment to democratic ideals exhibited by the generation of democratic political stalwarts who never compromised on their principles throughout their long political careers despite going through travails of every kind. Dubbed as the father of democracy Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan was such a quintessential politician of the bygone era who never flinched from the ideals of democracy and remained steadfast to them though he suffered for his strong beliefs. Erudite yet extremely soft spoken he was the consistent voice of dissent and a diehard opponent of authoritarian governments throughout the history of Pakistan. He retained a healthy opposition to authoritarianism throughout his life and stood up to arbitrary tendencies wherever they cropped up in Pakistan and vocally opposed it from every public forum.
Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan was an old-style politician deeply steeped in the traditional institution of politicking and never wavered in his belief that it was essentially the people who matter in the democratic governance and rest is all procedural. He insisted that obtaining the opinion of the people and remaining in touch with them was the primary duty of political operatives and their task was incomplete if they fall short of doing that. Due to his extremely democratic views and beliefs, he was held in awe by successive military regimes who knew how inflexible he was about opposing any tampering with democratic traditions. The extraordinary thing about him was that although his political career spanned five decades, probably the longest ever of a politician of Pakistan, he never aspired for high office.
Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan was recognised nationally owing to his widely famous Huqqa (hubble-bubble), dark achkan and Turkish cap though he was never known as a typical constituency politician and always endeavoured to play a role on national stage. On the contrary he possessed an innate capability to unite diverse parties around the fundamentals of rule of law, constitution and undiluted democratic governance. He was a charismatic figure seeped in traditional virtues of tolerance and simplicity. To add to his lustre was his absolute incorruptibility, scantily found in the annals of Pakistani political milieu.
Scion of a feudal family based in Khangarh, in rather neglected part of south Punjab, Nawabzada Nasrullah was sent to the elite Aitchison College in Lahore established to impart education to sons of landed aristocracy. Possessed of an independent temperament he soon developed feelings of disgust for the colonial rule and vented his feelings by joining religiously influenced but anti-colonial political party Majlis-i-Ahrar (Organisation of freedom fighters) in 1933. When Pakistan became independent he switched over to the ruling Muslim League and successively won 1952 provincial and 1962 national assembly elections from its platform.
It was during Ayub Khan’s military rule that he made his mark on national politics but he got quickly disillusioned by military dictatorship and it was at this juncture that he made his oft-quoted remark that either there is democracy or there’s no democracy and that there is no third situation reiterating his strong commitment to the purity of democracy as an ideal form of governance. There was no turning back for Nawabzada from then on and rest of his life was an epic struggle against arbitrary rule and he consistently kept the flag of resistance flying even when he was not supported by many supporters.
Nawabzada did not believe in sitting idly and he very soon started voicing his disenchantment with Ayub Khan’s arbitrary rule. He did not only voice dissent but started gathering together all opposition parties under one banner in opposing the dictatorial dispensation. He soon saw his efforts turning into success when he cobbled together a countrywide Democratic Action Committee which prepared ground for fall of the seemingly infallible Ayub government through popular uprising which ultimately collapsed in 1969. Earlier, Nasrullah encouraged Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah, the revered sister of the founder of Pakistan, to challenge Ayub Khan in presidential election in 1965 that he managed to win by adopting bullying tactics. The daring initiative of the Nawabzada became a benchmark for future pro-democracy struggles in Pakistan. Though the arbitrary forces won the elections but Nawabzada Nasrullah emerged as a strong voice of democratic governance in the country that was well-respected.
Nawabzada Nasrullah sprung to action again in when the democratic government of PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto turned dictatorial. He was the primary spirit behind 9-parties Pakistan National Alliance that agitated against Bhutto for rigging 1977 elections. The agitation did remove Bhutto government but brought in General Zia’s military government in its wake. The agitation against Bhutto was based on principles as Nawabzada was convinced that PPP regime was acting against democratic norms and struggle against it was justified. The Zia takeover was the only instance which sullied Nawabzada’s democratic reputation. In his zeal to punish Bhutto he joined Zia’s regime but soon made amends by withdrawing his support.
However, in the 1980s, Nawabzada Nasrullah realised his mistake and began assembling democratic forces to challenge the military rule of the general Zia and was instrumental in engineering Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) aimed at dislodging military dictatorship. Mostly due to his efforts MRD turned into a popular grass-root movement that launched a successful countrywide civil disobedience movement in 1983 but it was ruthlessly crushed by Zia regime. In the process Nawabzada had to face prolonged periods of incarceration in his house but he did not relent in his struggle.
Nawabzada was not pleased with the way arch-component of MRD, PPP, went its own way to fight 1988 elections after death of Ziaul Haq and although he was elected to National Assembly but did not grow close to Benazir Bhutto. However during the second tenure of Benazir Bhutto he made up with her and was assigned the responsibility of running Kashmir Committee, the cardinal body to keep Kashmir issue alive. Nawabzada had to struggle again when General Musharraf grabbed power in 1999. His final political act of defiance was formation of Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) and he did his utmost to strengthen it as a credible pro-democracy force against the military dictatorship.
He travelled to Saudi Arabia and London to galvanise support of two former prime ministers, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, who were living in exile there. He impressed upon them the need to support and strengthen ARD for its struggle against non-democratic forces. Nawabzada Nasrullah was greatly inimical to engineered democracy perpetrated by Musharraf regime after holding rigged elections in 2002. His undaunted courage of conviction made him to castigate the so-called democratic government by saying that it is like painting dictatorship as democracy. He castigated the efforts of the military dictatorship to rule under the garb of democracy by co-opting willing and opportunistic politicians.
Nawabzada Nasrullah was an interesting and engaging personality known for his poetic temperament and aesthetic disposition. He often punctuated his public addresses with apt poetical verses and was known as a versatile poet having two volumes of poetry to his credit. Though hailing from aristocratic background he was grounded into social mores of the common man and lived in humble surroundings though practiced dignified social practices. He lived an austere life and was a model of prudence, eloquence, tolerance and sagacity and is remembered very highly in social and political circles of Pakistan. TW