In early 1951 when I was a young, 25-year-old Captain serving in the Army School of Signals at Rawalpindi, providence suddenly pitch forked me into a highly dramatic event which later came to be known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. While it terminated my career progression in the military and I had to spend over four years in jail, I still consider it to be my great good fortune. Why? Because it gave me the opportunity to spend a long time in the company of such icons of literature and culture as Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Syed Sajjad Zaheer, whose names will forever be resplendent as stars in the firmament of Urdu literature.
I came out of prison a far more mature, well-read and in every way a better human being than what I was before I was thrown behind the bars. Today in 2011, as our country – and dozens of countries around the world – pay homage to Faiz by celebrating his centennial, I, (now approaching my 85th birthday) feel an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia about that period and the six decade-old scenes from my life flash before my eyes. All my other 14 prison mates have passed away long ago leaving me as the sole survivor; but I vividly remember each one of them with genuine love and affection, and none more so than the unique and incomparable Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was not only a very great poet, but a gem of a man, in fact a man in the real sense of the word.
As I have explained in the initial pages of my prison memoir book, Zindagi Zindaan Dili Ka Naam Hai, the entire Rawalpindi Conspiracy was the brainchild and concept of one person, the then Chief of General Staff, Major General M Akbar Khan, who had managed to persuade, cajole, seduce and `half-convince’ some other military officers to string along with him which they did up to a certain point, and then refused to go forward any further.
The first time I ever saw Faiz was in a meeting held at Major-General Akbar Khan’s house on February 23, 1951, where a number of army officers and three civilians were present and where Akbar Khan presented his plan, which was to arrest the Governor-General Khawaja Nazimuddin and Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, both of whom were expected to be in Rawalpindi after a week. The Governor-General was to be forced to announce the dismissal of the incumbent government and the formation of an interim government, presumably under General Akbar Khan, and general elections were to be held after some months, though no precise time frame was given. The general also spoke on this occasion at some length about Kashmir, land reforms, eradication of corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and other national problems.
Even today 60 years later I can recall the immense tension under which everyone was placed after hearing the general’s discourse. Apparently no one, except the general, was psychologically prepared for the highly adventurist plan unfolded by the Chief of General Staff. There was palpable hesitation on the part of everyone present. Objections were raised about what would happen in East Bengal even if the coup succeeded in the West. I don’t remember Faiz Ahmed Faiz saying much; he seemed to be listening most of the time to the ferocious argumentation of the military officers to and fro, pro and con. The meeting lasted eight hours, at the end of which the general’s plan was disapproved. The participants dispersed without even deciding to meet again. The “conspiracy” thus never took place, because there was no agreement:
Woh baat sare fasane mein jiska zikr na tha
Woh baat un ko bohat nagawaar guzri hai
My second meeting with Faiz took place in a police bus, months later, when we had all been arrested and brought to Hyderabad to stand trial before a Special Tribunal. We had been taken from Lahore to Hyderabad in a highly guarded train, every prisoner in a separate compartment. At Hyderabad we were unloaded and escorted into a police bus. Lt Colonel Niaz Mohammad Arbab, Captain Khizer Hayat and I were already seated in a bus when Faiz Ahmed Faiz was also brought there and told to sit with us. Unlike the rest of us who had been all together in Lahore jail, Faiz had been kept in solitary confinement for about three months and was delighted to see civilised human beings once again, people whom he recognised.
Solitary confinement is extremely depressing and demoralising and Faiz had obviously been under great stress all these months. Now that he was with us, a great load seemed to have been lifted from his soul. When we entered the jail premises and were taken to the ward where we were going to reside for the next few months (or years). Faiz was elated; he was laughing and smiling, almost chirping. I said: “Faiz Saheb, you look exceedingly happy here in prison. What’s the reason?”