His lanky frame eased into a comfortable chair, his face wreathed in a big smile, his eyes twinkling behind his glasses, Mubashir Hasan would typically begin our conversations with: “Batao, India mey kya ho raha hai” (Tell me, what’s happening in India?). It was more like appearing for a viva, because Dr Mubashir really knew it all as a principal actor in one of the biggest and most ambitious people’s movements for India-Pakistan peace over nearly three decades.
Dr. Mubashir, who died in Lahore aged 98 Saturday, was an exemplary warrior for India-Pakistan peace, whose unstinting commitment and efforts toward the cause inspired peace activists on both sides for over 25 years.
But he was also a hard-nosed realist who knew it would take years of struggle if not generations for that elusive peace to be achieved, and that he would not be around to see it in his lifetime.
That was because Dr Mubashir had a clear-eyed, insider’s view of the nature of the beast which he called the “South Asian state”. In Pakistan, he had been Finance Minister in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s cabinet as well as a founding member of the Pakistan People’s Party – its first meeting was held at his home in Lahore over two days because no hotel was willing to provide the space. He had a big role to play in the party’s initial socialist vision.
“Only later we discovered that we are in the Assembly, we are ministers, we are the government, but we have no power. The power was in the hands of those who stay permanently, the combine of military-civilian services, and it remains there,” he told this reporter in a 2009 interview, at a time the PPP had come back to power and Asif Ali Zardari was the President of Pakistan.
As an Indophile, and a frequent visitor to Delhi until about five years ago, Dr Mubashir knew well India’s internal faultlines too, and often said that the post-colonial legacy of both countries, which he called “mere clones of their colonial predecessor”, were hardwired to thwart the real aspirations of their citizens.
That did not discourage him from throwing himself into a grasssroots campaign for peace. In 1994, he was in a group of 10 public intellectuals from Pakistan, many of them including him founding members of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and 10 more from India, who formed the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, the first attempt at forging a cross-border civil society consensus on the imperative of India-Pakistan peace.
“He was the main spirit behind the initiative. It was a totally unique idea. Other Track Twos that existed then were statist and elitist. This was the first time a joint India-Pakistan forum was involving ordinary people,” said filmmaker Tapan Bose, also a founding member of PIPFD. In India, the forum has chapters in several cities.
The PIPFPD met regularly, holding massive conventions in both countries through that decade, undeterred by the suspicion from both sides. At a time when the situation in Kashmir was at boiling point due to cross border militancy, here was an India-Pakistan group, made up entirely of members of civil society that boldly called on Pakistan to end its material support to the militancy, even as it asked the India to withdraw its Army from civilian areas and end the human rights abuses. A decade before the first bus service rolled across the LoC and Musharraf spoke of his “four point solution” to Kashmir, PIPFPD had declared that it was non-territorial dispute, called for establishing cross-LoC contacts and for involving the people of Kashmir in a solution to the problem.
The Kolkata Convention of December 1996 was a particular high point. It was attended by over 300 Indians and Pakistanis. Unthinkable now, delegates from both countries walked through Kolkata chanting Ek Mata Do Santan: Bharat aur Pakistan. The convention demanded that both countries celebrate the 50th anniversary of their Independence by pledging to devote the second half century of freedom to strengthening peace, justice, equality and democracy. They asked the two countries to sign on 14-15 August 1997, a no war treaty, and even declared that in the 50th year celebrations, the people of each country must rejoice in the other’s freedom and integrity. Today, when visas have dried up for over two years, and being labelled a traitor is the territory that comes with even visiting the Pakistan High Commission in India in Delhi, such demands seem out of this world.
“The no war stand was something PIPFPD initiated. And that was what we stood for even when the November 2008 Mumbai attacks took place. We have always condemned terrorism, but war is not the answer,” said Bose, recalling the human chain for peace organised at the time by PIPFPD from Taj to CSMT, both of which were targeted by the terrorists.
Dr Mubashir belonged to a well to do Shia family that went from Panipat to Lahore at Partition. A Columbia University doctorate-holder, quit as a civil engineer in the 1960s to join forces with Bhutto, when he was forming the Pakistan People’s Party He parted ways with it when Benazir took charge of it after he father’s hanging, and in the 1990s, joined PPP (Shaheed) started by Ghinwa Bhutto, the wife of Benazir’s slain brother Murtaza. Their daughter Fatima, now an acclaimed writer, once described Dr Mubashir as a “political treasure”.
In a country as known as India for its corrupt politicians, Dr Mubashir refused to change his 1966 Volkwagen Beetle till the end, and did not own a house or a piece of land. When he challenged the National Reconciliation Ordinance in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, leading to the cancellation of Musharraf’s 2007 decision to erase corruption cases against Benazir, her husband Zardari and hundreds of others, enabling her to return to Pakistan towards a power sharing deal with the military ruler, he was accused of weakening elected politicians and putting Pakistan back on the path of military rule.
The staunch democrat was unmoved by the criticism. Such fears, he said, were akin to trying to prevent a doctor from amputating the legs of a man suffering from gangrene. The judgement gave the patient a “slight chance”, he said, “to reconstruct or perish”. Alone among the intellectual elite of the country, he viewed the 2007 lawyers’ movement as a set up by the establishment to force Musharraf out as he had become inconvenient to it, and said the scenes of the protests on the streets were “all an illusion”. In hindsight, he was right.
He wrote continuously. One of his early books was a tour de force called The Mirage of Power. His last big project was a 120-page book co-authored with 16 other like minded Pakistanis called “Making Pakistan a Tenable State”.
He was engaged with South Asia till the end. In December 2019, he signed a statement by South Asian citizens on India’s Citizenship Amendment Act.
On Saturday, as news of his passing reached India, his vast network of friends, who have also worked as tirelessly for India-Pakistan peace and continue to do so, mourned the loss of a friend, guide, and mentor.
Tapan Bose described Dr Mubashir as a “people’s man who had a clear commitment and totally dedicated to strengthening democracy at the grassroots on both sides, and with that move towards dpeace”. Syeda Hameed, a former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, who was related to Dr Mubashir as well as being a close friend, said his death had left “a huge big void” in India-Pakistan ties.
The writer is National Editor, Mumbai, The Indian Express. She was Pakistan correspondent of The Hindu, 2006-2010. This piece, originally published in The Indian Express, 16 March 2020, is reproduced with permission.