Mairaj Mohammad Khan (Part 1) – The man who threw flowerpots at British soldiers

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By Faisal Sayani

The late Mairaj Muhammad Khan on his early, formative years, in his own words.

I saw Mairaj Muhammad Khan for the first time in the late 1990s, leading a candlelight vigil for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) in Karachi. I can’t deny that I was overwhelmed by his fiery and loud manner but at the same time I found there was more substance in his speech than that of the party chairman. There was a world of difference between the two Khan sahibs. Mairaj was one of Pakistan’s strongest voices of dissent, a politician who, among other accomplishments, was one of the founders of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP).

More than a decade later, I found myself sitting with him at his house in Karachi, enjoying his hospitality and listening to the stories of his past. Thanks to technology and Mr. Khan’s willingness, I was able to record more than 10 hours of his absorbing monologues over a period of about seven months in 2012. He passed away, at the age of 77, in Karachi this summer.

The material for this piece, edited for clarity, has been taken from those recordings which are part of an unfinished documentary film on his life.


Childhood in India and migration

My father (Taj Mohammad Khan) had been practicing hikmat (traditional medicine) in Quetta since 1942 and one of his daughters was living in the city after getting married. She fell sick and he went to Quetta from Qaimganj, UP, to treat her himself. He eventually set up his clinic in Quetta and would visit Qaimganj twice a year. I, with my two sisters and elder brother Minhaj Barna, lived in Qaimganj with our mother. The rest of our siblings were in Bombay.

My mother told me she could not imagine that traveling from Qaimganj (India) to Quetta (Pakistan) will be an issue after the Partition, and that passports and visas would be a prerequisite. She did not see it coming that the properties of those [people] who are temporarily or permanently living on the other side of the border could be confiscated.

Zakir Hussain, who headed Jamia Millia and later went on to become President of India, was a major influence on a young Mairaj

Zakir Hussain, who headed Jamia Millia and later went on to become President of India, was a major influence on a young Mairaj

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“You think you can come back here anytime? No, you can’t. Now it’s two different countries. But you will not get it”


She, being of a very democratic school of thought, had asked us, “See, your father stays in Quetta most of the time; would you want to move to Quetta?” We unanimously replied in the negative, so we remained in Qaimganj after Partition. It was not to last.

One day in 1949, a Sikh custodian knocked at our door along with a few more men. He asked my mother about the whereabouts of my father and she told him the truth.

“Ma’am, think again before you answer my question,” he replied. “Where is he and when is he coming back here?”

My mother was puzzled. “Son, he’s been living in various cities for years – Karachi, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, and now Quetta. I can’t decide on his behalf when he will return.”

“I want to tell you something,” the Sikh custodian said. “I am a refugee (sharnarti) from the part of Punjab which is now in Pakistan. I came plundered and ruined. And, I am sorry that I have been given a task I am not happy to carry out. Now, think again and tell me whether your husband will stay here or there?”

She grew more confused. “He will decide that himself. We have been living in India, and we will go to Pakistan whenever we please,” she said. “Why is it a problem?”

“No, That’s not the case anymore,” he replied. “Do you know who owns this house?”

“My husband does.” The Sikh custodian then asked her to consult a lawyer. She refused and insisted on finding out what was going on.

He said, “We [the Government of India] know that this house is in the name of your husband but I am here to confiscate it on behalf of the government.”

A scene from the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946

A scene from the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946

My mother resisted. “Are you declaring us homeless in our own house? Should we not protest?”

At that point, the man burst into tears. “I am a refugee and am homeless myself and I can feel your pain. You are a simple woman. You won’t understand why I am doing this. You think you can go there and come back here anytime you want to? No, you can’t. Now, it’s two different countries. But, you will not get it. You’re like my sister and I want to offer you a concession. I can write an agreement of minimal rent for you so you can stay in this house with your children.”

I used to study in Jamia Millia, Delhi when I was little. When Gandhi went on his ‘fast unto death’ (to protest British support of the caste system in the Indian electorate in the Indian Constitution), Dr Zakir Hussain sent us kids to chant slogans like “Gandhi-ji ka barat turaao, Gandhi-ji kee jaan bachao” (Let’s end Gandhi’s fast, Let’s save Gandhi’s life). He offered Gandhi a glass of milk and flowers. This is the kind of love and harmony I was raised with. We learned catchphrases like ‘Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Eesai, Aapas main hain bhai bhai’ (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, They are all brethren) at Jamia Millia. There was no concept of Hindu-Muslim riots in Qaimganj. Pathans were mostly feudal lords and Kolis and Bheels (Hindus) worked as labourers on their lands. And, there was harmony among them. I did not know the differences that caused Partition and neither did my mother. Hence, she was devastated and her desire to stay in India despite everything was crushed. She gathered all of her children and told us we would have to migrate to Pakistan.

Fighting back - Mairaj Muhammad Khan

Fighting back – Mairaj Muhammad Khan

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My niece and I (at eight years of age) threw a flowerpot at a truck full of British soldiers


So, in 1949, four of us – my mother, me, my brother Minhaj Barna and my sister Qudsia Khanum – migrated to Quetta. The rest of my siblings decided to stay back: two brothers and a sister in Bombay and a sister in Kanpur. We came to Lahore first and then boarded a train to Quetta. Most of Pakistan I saw out of the window was a desert. I’d ask my mother, “How come there are no trees here?” The stations before Quetta such as Aab-e-Gum and Saryab looked deserted. Neither a station master nor a coolie was in sight. No one would get down or hop on there. That would make me anxious as I had seen scores of people everywhere while traveling on the train from Delhi to Qaimganj. And, here I hardly saw anyone. I’d ask my mother nervously, who I would play with because I couldn’t see any children, a park or a tree. And she’d say, “Present all these questions to your father politely when we reach Quetta.” But, Quetta turned out to be a beautiful city. In the summers, every house would smell of roses.

Asghari Khanum: Bombay before Partition

My elder sister Asghari Khanum had a huge flat at 3 Sankli Street in Bombay, which was frequented by authors, poets and intellectuals such as Majrooh Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Krishan Chandar, Sibte Hassan and Josh Malihabadi. She was the one who introduced Sahir Ludhyanvi to the film industry. There’d be literary gatherings every Saturday at the flat. More than Urdu literary gatherings, they were anti-British meetings.

In 1946, the Royal Indian Navy mutiny against British rule by the Indian sailors was in full swing in Bombay. British soldiers could be seen in every street. When the mutiny began, sweets were distributed in every nook and corner of the city. I ate a laddu too. And I didn’t stop at just a laddu. My niece and I (at eight years of age) threw a flowerpot at a truck full of British soldiers from Asghari Khanum’s flat’s balcony. The annoyed soldiers came running upstairs. Sensing I had something to do with it, my sister asked me. I said, “You kept mentioning in your conversations that they are bad people, so I threw a flowerpot at them.” The soldiers were very upset but Asghari Khanum handled them well. She asked them, “If during this world war (which was in progress then), Germany takes over your country, what would you tell your children to do? Throw flowers or fling flowerpots at them?”

“We will fight them,” the soldiers replied and started to laugh. They said they got the message and asked us not to throw flowerpots at them again. I believe children’s minds get developed at such an age.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan as a young man with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, attending a mushaira event at Dow College

Mairaj Muhammad Khan as a young man with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, attending a mushaira event at Dow College

‘Dukhi Prem Nagri’

My father was a conservative man. We had to be home before sunset by any means. At that time, keeping long hair was fashionable among boys but my father didn’t like it. He used to sport a Turkish cap (fez) or a Dopalli Topi (Lucknow cap) and he loathed bare heads. One day, the postman handed him an envelope. My father, not recognising the name written on it, returned it to the postman and told him that no one by that name lived there. “Hakeem sahib,” said the postman playfully, “You don’t know, but it’s your son Wahaj Muhammad who writes short stories and uses this name, ‘Dukhi Prem Nagri’ (Gloomy Love City).”

My father was shocked. He summoned Wahaj Muhammad in the evening and asked him: “What’s ailing you? What disease do you have? I am a physician. Perhaps I can cure you. Do you want to get married? Do you want me to increase your pocket money? And, show me where is that Prem Nagar located on the map of India? We are Pathans from Qaimganj. What’s Prem Nagar?”

Needless to say, the next day at 10am, he took all three of my elder brothers to the barber and had their heads shaved. All three had long hair and were forced to go to college with their bald heads.

[Wahaj Muhammad Khan, widely known as Dukhi Prem Nagri, became a famous poet, lyricist and film journalist. His celebrated ghazal ‘Dunya kisi kay Pyar main Jannat say Kum Nahi’ was immortalized by Mehdi Hassan Khan]

Mairaj Muhammad Khan was a lifelong opponent of unconstitutional rule, especially military regimes

Mairaj Muhammad Khan was a lifelong opponent of unconstitutional rule, especially military regimes

Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and Sandeman School in Quetta

I received my early education in Jamia Millia, Delhi. Minhaj Barna was the first among my siblings to study there. He was in college and I was admitted to the primary school. I take pride in this. I sat next to Gandhi. I have witnessed Jawaharlal Nehru kicking Gurkha soldiers who were deputed at Jamia Millia to protect students from possible attacks because of the riots at the time of Partition. He caught them sleeping at 6 am. Then, he called in the Madras Regiment. The soldiers would give us books and toffees. Hindu and Sikh children were also enrolled at Jamia Millia. We were given training to build temples for the refugees who came from Pakistan. Though the general atmosphere there was religious, we were never taught to hate. There was harmony among all sorts of believers. They would make us meet prominent personalities of the time in order to boost our confidence. My friends, Saiful Islam and Mujahidul Islam’s father was the secretary of Abul Kalam Azad. I’d heard so much about Azad that I urged them to arrange a meeting with him, which did materialise eventually. Dr Zakir Hussain – who headed Jamia Millia for many years and who later became the President of India – also had a major influence on me as a child. Such dedicated teachers who wouldn’t take salaries and would live on a single meal a day so the institution could function were a part of Jamia Millia. Such were the traditions of that establishment.

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NSF activists would talk about inequality and the rights of the poor. They wouldn’t treat politics as forbidden fruit


After moving to Quetta, I was enrolled in the sixth grade. Most of the teachers were Punjabi, with the exception of one or two Urdu-speaking ones. The mathematics teacher spoke in a Punjabi dialect. Once, he was dictating figures which we were supposed to take down. Since the numbers he uttered were alien to me (like unhanvay or 89), I’d just sit there dazed. He walked up to me and asked why I wasn’t writing. “Because I can’t comprehend anything,” I responded. He let out a few more ‘arhanvay’ and ‘ninnanhvay’ which I still could not get. Then I got a beating.

At Jamia Millia we were told that Akbar was the greatest emperor and reformer of India. We were also told that Aurangzeb, who has his leanings toward religious fanaticism, was responsible for the Mughal Empire’s downfall. So, one day at my new school in Quetta, the history teacher asked, “What were the causes of the demise of the Mughal Empire?” I quickly raised my hand and went on to list Aurangzeb’s misconduct – “he had his brothers killed, he did this, he did that, and so on.” Needless to say I was thrashed. “How can you be disrespectful to Aurangzeb?”

Of fasting and parents

My childhood friends in Quetta had cherry orchards. I would especially spend time there during Ramazan. I would tell my mother that I wouldn’t fast. She would say, “Okay, don’t. But do wake up early and have Sehri with your father.” I would comply.

Once, I refused to go for Friday prayers to the mosque and my father confronted me. “Are you denying praying to God?”

“No, neither do I deny God nor prayer,” I replied. “It’s that fellow who spews poison in his sermons.” Though I was young I could tell when the maulvi would go off on a tangent to spread hatred. I didn’t like that. So my father made me promise that I would pray at home, which I did.

My father, Hakeem Maulvi Taj Muhammad Khan, was a self-made and very well-travelled man. He studied traditional medicine/hikmat at Hakeem Ajmal’s Tibbia College, Delhi. He had a good command over Persian, Arabic, Hindi and Urdu. Titles such as ‘Hakeem’ and ‘Maulvi’ were synonymous with the well-educated. He would forbid me to play with children belonging to the lower castes (Kolis and cleaners), making the case that we were not equals. I came back home crying one such day and told my mother. She said, “I am telling you there’s no difference among children of any caste, of any kind. All children are angels. But you must respect your father. So play with them when your father is not around and come back home before he returns.” Perhaps, that is when I was introduced to the harsh realities of class strife.

Coming to Karachi

In keeping with tradition, my father wanted me to learn hikmat from him. But my mother warned me. “He will do two things to you: hikmat and marriage.” Hence, on her advice in order to avoid my father’s two frightful obsessions, I came to Karachi on the pretext of getting a better education.

Though I was accepted as a second year student at S.M. College, it was my own brother (Minhaj Barna) who, after conducting a test, declared me to be a ‘total duffer’, forcing me to start as a freshman. I wasn’t very happy about that.

An affair with NSF (1957)

The National Students’ Federation (NSF) was already quite an effective and strong organisation when I joined S.M. College. Thousands of students were part of it and the leadership consisted of kind and affectionate people. They were not just vigorous activists but also brilliant students. Most of them had nationalist, liberal and democratic mindsets and there was a considerable presence of socialists and communists. Many of my friends, such as Ahmed Bashir and Agha Jaffar, belonged to NSF and they would talk about its activities time and again.

Meanwhile, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) campaigners also came in contact. I had recently won an award for being the best at debater and every student organisation wanted me to join. On an invitation from IJT members, I met them and asked why they didn’t protest against fee hikes. Why did they brand strikes to be un-Islamic? Why was there so much emphasis on praying five times a day only? What about doing something for an oppressed common man? They couldn’t provide satisfactory answers. Meanwhile the NSF activists would talk about inequality in the country’s education system and the rights of a poor man. They wouldn’t treat politics as a forbidden fruit. Naturally, I was inclined towards such ideas. And in 1957, one day in the backyard garden of S.M. Arts College during an NSF meeting, somebody nominated me for unit secretary, and everyone voted. Though I resisted, saying that I was a very un-disciplined and disorganized person and could not assume such responsibilities, no one listened to me. That’s when I formally joined the NSF.

Students and youth played a major role in the Pakistan movement before British colonialists left the region. After the creation of Pakistan, the Muslim League went in the government and for years there was no strong voice in the opposition. That created a space which was filled by these students and youth. They were the ones who would raise important questions.

The story of the early years of Pakistan features three villains—Ghulam Muhammad (Governor General 1951-1955), Iskandar Mirza (Governor General 1955-1956 & President 1956-1958), and Pakistan’s first military dictator, Field Marshal Ayub Khan (President 1958-1969). Hence the story of students politics and their struggle revolves around these three devils.

Faisal Sayani is a freelance journalist, teacher and filmmaker with experience in current affairs television production

Published in The Friday Times, September 9, 2016.


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