By Mahlia Lone

This is the story of Tahira and Mazhar Ali Khan, fellow idealists, humanists, activists and Communists who shunned a life of wealth to work for the betterment of the working class and for women’s rights

We are of course a product of our environment and our families. In order to understand the mindset of the rebellious heroine of our story Tahira, we must first delve into her antecedents.

Khan Bahadur Capt. (retd) Sardar Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan, KBE (Knight of the British Empire) was the younger son of Nawab Muhammad Hyat Khan of Wah (then a village), who had been awarded the title and lands for his unswerving service and loyalty to the British and the East India Company. Muhammad Hyat hid and tended to the mortally wounded British army office Brigadier-General John Nicholson, whose personal native orderly officer he served as, from further Sikh attacks during the War of Independence (1857). Nicholson on his deathbed recommended to Brigadier-General Sir Henry Montgomery Lawrence KCB (Knight Commander of the Bath) the Chief Commissioner of the Punjab at the time to reward and assist Muhammad Hyat in his career, which then took off.

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Muhammad Hyat Khan circa1860s Sir Sikander Hyat Khan, Knight of the British Empire

The Hyat family belonged to the Khattar tribe of Attock, North Punjab. A friend of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Muhammad Hyat helped him set up the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh that later became the Aligarh Muslim University. Accordingly, Sikander was educated at school in Aligarh, then at Aligarh Muslim University and briefly studied in England as well, till he was recalled home in 1915 due to World War I. During the war, he served as one of the first Indian officers to receive the King’s Commission with the Punjab Regiment. For his valour during that war as well as the Third Afghan War in 1919, he was awarded a knighthood.

Most Excellent Order of the British Empire

In 1920, Sir Sikandar turned his financial and managerial talents to business and soon became a director of several successful companies, including the Wah Tea Estate, Amritsar-Kasur Railway Company, People’s Bank of Northern India, Sialkot-Narowal Railway, ACC Wah Portland Cement Company, Wah Stone and Lime Company, Punjab Sugar Corporation Ltd, Lahore Electricity Supply Co. etc. In this way, he added to his father’s agricultural estate with cash from lucrative businesses helped by his British contacts. In addition, Sir Sikander became an honorary magistrate, Chairman of the Attock District Board and briefly acting Deputy-Governor of the newly established Reserve Bank of India in 1935.

All this time, Sir Sikander, not one to sit on his laurels, was also simultaneously consolidating his position as a Punjabi Unionist (pro-British) politician. This was an all-Punjab political party representing the interests of the landlords of Punjab, whether Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus. Secular minded Sikandar Hyat Khan would say, “I am a Punjabi first then a Muslim.”

Leading his party the Unionist Muslim League to victory in the 1937 elections, held under the Government of India Act 1935, Sir Sikander became the Premier of Punjab in coalition with the Sikh Akali Dal and the Indian National Congress and carried out many reforms that benefitted the Punjabi zamindar (feudal landlord).

In October 1937, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Sir Sikander signed the Jinnah-Sikandar pact at Lucknow, merging the Muslims of his Unionist party with the All India Muslim League to pursue a united front safeguarding Muslim rights and interests. Sir Sikander was also one of the chief supporters and architects of the Lahore Resolution, March 1940, which at that time called for an autonomous or semi-independent Muslim majority region within the larger Indian confederation and only later led to the demand for an independent Pakistan. Being a part of the British establishment, not surprisingly Sir Sikander opposed the Quit India Movement of 1942. Believing that by politically co-operating with the British was the best way to gain independence of India and maintain the unity of Punjab, he supported the British during World War II. But maintaining the balance of power between the different religious communities in Punjab proved to be an onerous task and life draining for him.

Sir Sikander, the Premier of Punjab, in 1940 Lahore: Mr Jinnah (center), Sir Sikander Hyat Khan (right), Sir Nizam-ud-Din (left), Liaquat Ali Khan & other Muslim Leagues Leaders

This is the affluent and politically powerful family that Tahira was born into in 1924. A younger sister to Sardar Shaukat Hyat Khan and Begum Mahmooda Salim Khan, she was educated at Queen Mary College in Lahore.

Shehar Bano Khan writes in an article on Tahira, “As a schoolgirl at Queen Mary’s in Lahore, Tahira Hyat Khan was the only one in her class to stand up to make an unusual request to the principal, Ms. Cox. She asked her if Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress, could be invited to the school. She was instantly rebuked for forgetting that Queen Mary’s was a purdah school, where men were not allowed. When the young girl stood up for the second time to say how unfair it was that an important leader could not come to the school, the principal had to discipline her by expelling her for an entire term.

‘I had met Nehru at my father’s house and had written to him several times asking why I needed to sit for exams. He always replied saying that exams were necessary for education,’ she said amusedly.

Mazhar Ali Khan, editor of the Pakistan Times with the Frontier Gandhi Badshah Khan Mazhar with Faiz Ahmed Faiz & Abdullah Malik

“A little older and displaying the same fervour for politics, the daughter of Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan, leader of the Unionist Party and Prime Minister of the Punjab in 1937, decided to pay a visit to M. A. Jinnah at Mamdot Villa. By that time, Tahira had developed a keen interest in the Communist Party of India. One of the reasons was her fascination for a young man who often visited her father’s house, and was a member of the Communist Party.

‘Mazhar was a good friend of my elder sister (and a second cousin). He would come and discuss politics, but I must confess he never noticed me. He was a great debater and more of a hero for me,’ her face softened as she remembered,” according to Khan’s article. “But it was quite difficult not to notice Tahira Hayat Khan for too long.”

“Bicycling her way to Mamdot Villa, the 14-year-old Tahira told the chowkidar to inform Mr Jinnah that Tahira had come. ‘He knew my father and I’d already met him when he came to our house. He was very nice to me and told me that he knew the stance of the Communist Party. I showed him a pamphlet I was carrying in which the Communist Party had declared its support for an independent country.’”


“I had given away my entire trousseau, including the family jewels, to the Communist Party. We were penniless but content. We lived off just Rs 300 a month for an entire year, and often ate spinach and daal. I had no regrets, no complaints and no second thoughts about leaving the luxury of my home. My life with Mazhar was meaningful and complete. Our home may have been empty of material things, but life was full in every way that mattered,” Tahira told Jugnu Mohsin

“In 1941 Muhammad Ali Jinnah went to see her father Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan, Prime Minister of the then undivided Punjab, at his office on the Upper Mall in Lahore,” Omar Waraich writes in an article for The Independent. “‘I know all about you,’ Jinnah said reproachfully when introduced to her. ‘You prefer Jawaharlal to me.’ Tahira secretly maintained a correspondence with Nehru. He would write back, discussing the freedom struggle against the British Raj and offering reading suggestions. Tahira’s letters are preserved in the Nehru Museum in Delhi but Nehru’s letters were destroyed after reading. Tahira was fearful that her father, a noted opponent of the Congress, might discover them.”

With their grandson and Tariq’s baby Chenghiz Ali

This was the idealistic, willful girl who had a crush on her older cousin Mazhar Ali Khan, son of Nawab Muzaffar Khan belonging to the senior branch of the family. On paper, it was an ideal match, but in reality Mazhar lacked a profession and means to support a wife. On top of that, as a committed Communist, he publicly spoke out against Sir Sikander. At a public rally Mazhar accused Sikandar of “getting up on his hind legs to plead with the British.” Tahira’s brother, who was present, quickly reported it back to his family and they were livid at the public diatribe.

Jugnu Mohsin, who personally knew Tahira, quotes her in her obituary in The Friday Times, “‘Mazhar was born with the Revolution in 1917. His father, Nawab Muzaffar Khan, was my father’s cousin. Our family lived in Wah, the elders thought the tribe came to India from Ghazni with Sultan Mahmud. They also believed that (the Mughal emperor) Jehangir stopped by the springs on their land en route to Kashmir and exclaimed, ‘Wah!’ We were brought up in Lahore, we were a large brood, ten children off three mothers. Abaji (Sir Sikander) was very keen that we be constructively employed in after-school hours. He encouraged an interest in the arts and culture. I went to Queen Mary’s College with my sisters and had a passion for sport. We spent the weekends at our family home in Lahore where the other cousins also gathered.

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Tariq, the New Left of the 1960s Student activist Tariq Ali demonstrating against the Vietnam War in London in the ‘60s Demonstrating alongside Vanessa Redgrave

‘Mazhar was 8 years older than me. I must have been 14 or 15 when I first noticed him. He was tall and quiet. He was already a well-known debater and student leader. I remember I tried several antics to attract his attention. He ignored me. I think he began to notice me a year or so later. We married when I was a little over 17 and he 25. Abaji would’ve been happier had I married Mumtaz Daultana. It was an unspoken understanding between his father Chacha Ahmedyar and Abaji. Don’t forget, Mazhar was unemployed. But I made my preference known to Abaji and he agreed. We went to live in Wah after we married.’”

Sikandar finally gave his conditional consent that Mazhar could marry his daughter if he joined the Allied Forces in the Second World War. As luck would have it, the Soviet Union was invaded shortly after and the Communist Party of India asked all its members to join the war effort. This way neither father-in law nor son-in-law needed to back down from his stance. The couple was duly married before Lieutenant Mazhar Ali was sent to Italy to fight.

“‘The first thing I did after getting married was to go to my mother and tell her that I was going to the cinema. Marriage meant independence and not asking parents for permission,’ Tahira laughed” Shehar Bano writes, “After three days of marital bliss, she was hit by an immense tragedy. In 1942, en route to Delhi, she received news of her father’s death. ‘I can’t explain what a shock it was. I felt a part of me had died with my father,’ said the activist.”

Sir Sikandar’s final days as Punjab’s Premier were mired in controversy. He was desperately trying to keep together an increasingly fractious province during an incendiary, volatile time. Literally exhausted, his heart gave out on him in December 1942. To commemorate the restoration of Lahore’s Badshahi Masjid, he is buried within footsteps of it. He had been the Premier of Punjab for five years till his death. While a supporter of Independence, he wanted it granted with the support of the British, as they had  rewarded him for his loyalty. His daughter and new son-in-law, on the other hand, remained staunchly anti-establishment, shunning an easy life of affluence to achieve their idealistic utopia through Communism.

Mazhar, publisher of Viewpoint With Faiz Ahmed Faiz Benazir, Hillary & Tahira

Tahira told Jugnu Mohsin, “Mazhar was a Communist sympathizer although he never joined the party. In Wah, he worked with the peasants and workers at Khaur. Of course the family was distinctly uncomfortable with this line of activity but they didn’t object openly. Those were happy days. We lived on virtually nothing. I remember the time Ghaffar Khan was externed from the Frontier. He came to live with us in Wah for two months. Shortly after that, Mazhar left for the Middle East on military service. I was very pregnant by then. We didn’t see each other for two years. I started working for the Women’s Defence League. Our son Tariq was born (in 1942) while Mazhar was away. By the time he returned, I had joined the Communist Party. I had given away my entire trousseau, including the family jewels, to the Party. We were penniless but content. We were living off just Rs. 300 a month for an entire year, and often ate spinach and daal. I must tell you here that I had no regrets, no complaints and no second thoughts about leaving the luxury of my home. My life with Mazhar was meaningful and complete. Our home may have been empty of material things, but my life was full in every way that mattered.

“One day Mian Iftikharuddin came to Wah to see Mazhar. He said he wanted to launch a daily newspaper, The Pakistan Times. He and Mazhar discussed it for days and eventually agreed to put an organization together. It was called Progressive Papers Ltd (PPL). This was the year before the Partition. Mazhar became editor of PT and then went to the news desk when Faiz (Ahmed Faiz) took over the editorship. We moved to Lahore; we had another child, a daughter, Tausif. I worked with women and trade unionists. I used to cycle all over Lahore. Our children were raised by Mazhar’s wetnurse, Jan Amma. I don’t think I could have managed without her. The children called their father Majo and me Maa.”

Tariq Ali, activist, novelist, script writer, and documentary film maker

After the Partition, Tahira worked for displaced and working women. “Unlike the activism of nowadays, ours was very strong and touched the base of the social structure,” she said.

In 1950, supported by the Communist Party and led by Tahira, Fahmida Butt and Naseem Shamim Ashraf Malik, the Democratic Women’s Association, the country’s first women’s rights organization, was formed. It was Tahira who for the first time in Pakistan observed International Women’s Day publicly, openly demanding that women be given equal status and their rights be established.  “Our members were women workers. There was Hajra Masood, Khadija Omar, Amatul Rehman, Alys Faiz and so many countless others whose names I can’t remember now. It was not an elitist organization. We were not getting funds from international donor agencies like the NGOs of today,” Tahira said. “Our work was in the mohallas; there was a perpetual fight against the establishment for people’s rights.” Remembering when railway workers were ejected from their mud huts to give residential space to officers in 1950, she said. “For one whole week, we formed a circle by holding each other’s hands in front of the huts to stop the police from entering them. Eventually, we got the land back for the workers.”

Tahira and Mazhar’s home became a salon for writers, poets, activists and foreign visiting socialist leaders and was also the birthplace of the Progressive Writers’ Association. Tahira said, “Our apartment on Nicholson Road overflowed with life. The Progressives were constantly in and out of our home — Sajjad Zaheer, Sibte Hassan, Mirza Ibrahim, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was friends with Mazhar and visited him in Lahore to warn him that the military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan was poised to snatch control of the newspaper he edited, The Pakistan Times.

“In 1959, General Ayub Khan nationalized PPL and Mazhar resigned immediately. We were lucky to have had our own house but the going got tougher and tougher, so we rented out our house and moved to an apartment on Nicholson Road. Ayub sent messages through General Sheikh who was his interior minister and Mazhar’s brother-in-law for him to return to PT. But Mazhar declined, saying he couldn’t collaborate with a martial law regime. By then I was expecting our third child, Mahir.

“Mazhar remained unemployed for years together. He kept his sanity by observing a strict regime of exercise. We swam regularly in the summer and played tennis in the winter. He also read voraciously. It wasn’t possible to write anywhere in those days. It was much later that Mazhar began to write for The Bengali Weekly Forum. His great pride and joy was Tariq, our elder son, who at 12 had led a demonstration of schoolboys to protest the murder of Patrice Lumumba (Congolese independence leader and first PM). He was also a keen debater, another thing he had in common with his father,” she said.

“During Ayub’s regime, we (DWA) invited women from Vietnam to visit Pakistan. Led by Mirza Ibrahim, the trade union leader, a huge number of women came to greet them. When we made a call, people would come out on the streets,” Tahira said. But soon after in the ‘60s, Ayub Khan banned the DWA because it opposed his rule.

Family friend and rights activist, Neelam Hussain writes in a tribute, “My earliest memories are of Tausif and Tariq’s birthday parties at the Nicholson Road flat, where poetry recitation was part of the evening’s entertainment, and we — Nina, Kauchi, Chhammi, Shelly, Cheemi, Mizu and others quite literally had to ‘sing for our supper’ even as the seeds of future friendships were sown. Great ‘walkers’ – long before walking became trendy and branded attire a mandatory given – Tahira Chachi in khadar suit and ‘fleet’ shoes and Mazhar Chacha in baggy blue shorts and tee shirt were familiar figures of the canal and Jail Road landscape. They would often stop by at our house during these walks and we had come home once to find them quite comfortable on a charpai near the gate. Judging them on sartorial merit, the cook, a new man, had not let them into the house.”

While studying at the Punjab University, Tariq Ali organized demonstrations against General Ayub’s military dictatorship. A relative who worked in the ISI (Interservices Intelligence) warned Mazhar and Tahira that Tariq was in danger, so they decided to get him out of Pakistan. Tariq went to Oxford, where he studied Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. A clever, fiery young man sharing his parents’ convictions and oratory skills, he was elected President of the Oxford Union in 1965. Tariq’s stint at the Union included a famous meeting with Malcolm X in December 1964 during which the latter revealed that he was under threat of assassination. Quickly becoming famous and popular as a student leader, in 1967, Tariq Ali was one of 64 high profile personalities, including The Beatles, who signed a petition calling for the legalisation of marijuana. Tariq debated against the Vietnam War with such figures as President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and American author Michael Stewart. He became friends with influential political figures such as Stokely Carmichael, Trinidadian-American revolutionary who was a part of the Civil Rights Movement, and later, the global Pan-African movement and pop culture icons John Lennon, wife Yoko Ono and English actress Vanessa Redgrave.

“The 60s closed on an optimistic note. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto won a landslide victory. Sometime in the early 70s, newspaper Dawn’s management asked Mazhar to fill in for their editor Altaf Gauhar, who had been imprisoned by Bhutto. When he came back to Lahore, he launched a weekly called Viewpoint. We sold our house, retaining the patch with the annexe, to get Viewpoint going. It was a labour of love for Mazhar. The children were growing up; Tariq had been to Oxford and won his own recognition. I was busy with the Democratic Women’s Association. Viewpoint was a bottomless pit though; we ended up selling almost everything we had to keep it going. I did protest that we couldn’t carry on like that but I just couldn’t say no to Mazhar in the end. It was his life,” Tahira recalled in her interview with Jugnu Mohsin.

Neelam Hussain writes, “Tahira consistently upheld the workers’ cause to take a stand against her own class including personal friends and she was among the handful of people who had come out on Lahore’s Mall in 1971 to protest army action in East Pakistan and been spat upon for traitors by passersby. And there was WAF – women from her daughter’s generation – whom she had disagreed with, criticised, and stood with in common cause against military rule, Islamisation and unjust laws.”

Though Z.A. Bhutto had been a friend, he apparently was threatened by Tariq. When he became Prime Minister in 1972 he blocked him from landing in Lahore from the UK. Tahira wrote Bhutto an angry and bitter letter, accusing him of betraying the people’s cause, and he quickly lifted the travel ban.

Usman Khan, a family friend, said, “My grandmother and Tahira were friends since Queen Mary College. The relationship between Tahira and Mazhar was strained many times. Tariq was approached by Bhutto to join the PPP’s Youth Wing, which he refused to do. Bhutto never forgave and never forgot. Enormous pressure was put on the family, and due to that, Tariq decided to live in the UK for good. Something died inside Tahira on that day and she never recovered from Tariq’s departure.”

Then, during Z. A. Bhutto’s term as PM, he reinstated the DWA and it picked up where it had left off. Tahira was the DWA General Secretary and traveled to international conferences. On one occasion, she met the Turkish dissident poet, Nazim Hikmet, who kissed her hand and charmingly said she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen..

The General Zia era, starting with a coup in 1977, imposed restrictions on all political life, and the DWA was no exception. In reaction to Zia’s retrogressive laws against females, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) was formed in 1981 as a new resistance movement. “Till the Zia era we managed to put our force to work, bringing change,” said Tahira. For her opposition to his oppressive military dictatorship, Tahira was jailed. “The pressures were enormous. Mazhar was arrested and imprisoned in 1978 and then again in 1981, following the hijacking of the PIA plane. He developed a heart problem and had to have bypass surgery the following year.”

Sharing the same birthday, 5th January, Tahira sent Bhutto a symbolic and conciliatory gift, a box of Cuban cigars, when he was in jail in Lahore awaiting his trial, following the General Zia’s 1977 military coup. It was a reminder of their common socialist convictions, the times they had shared and a gesture that meant she had forgiven him. Bhutto must surely have appreciated the kindness of an old friend.

Tahira said, “We kept Viewpoint going for as long as we could. Eventually, it became such a strain that we had to close it down in 1992. Mazhar went back to writing a weekly column for Dawn. On the afternoon of January 28, 1993, he complained of a feeling of ‘heaviness’. I took him to hospital. He asked me to call his editor at Dawn and tell him that he wouldn’t be able to send in his column on time. He died the same night. I wouldn’t say he was broken by the closure of Viewpoint. No, he’d come to terms with it. He had watched the Cold War thawing with great interest. Although he’d been a member of the Pakistan-Soviet Friendship Society for years, along with Faiz, he was not uncritical of what passed for Communism in the USSR. He was enormously heartened by Gorbachev’s appearance. When the Soviet Union broke up, he said it was the dialectic at work. Communism had had an enormously salutary effect on capitalism. The welfare state and ‘caring capitalism’ were the West’s response to the threat of Communism. No, we did not mourn the demise of the Soviet Union.”

Tahira remained a champion of workers’ rights and was an activist for 60 years, working for the Railway unions, Kissan Party and Labour Party. She also mentored Benazir Bhutto and even made it clear to her that she did not approve of Asif Zardari, warning her that he would be her ruin. Tahira was extremely proud of her son Tariq, a novelist, filmmaker, journalist and political activist who continues to live in London. While her younger children, daughter Tausif and son Mahir, sort of lived in Tariq’s shadow, their own quieter qualities of loyalty, consistency and stoical perseverance in their chosen professions made them no less successful and exceptional. To her dying day in March 2015, at the ripe old age of 91, Tahira was cared for by her daughter Tausif.

The couple’s partnership was exemplary, the tapestry of their lives rich and fulfilling. In Tahira’s own words, “Activism was not a profession for us. It was our life.”


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