By M Ghazali Khan
Veteran Urdu journalist and broadcaster Asaf Jilani passed away in London at his home on 3rd April 2023. He was 89. He had been battling cancer for the last two years.
Mr Jilani started his career as a sub-editor and later as a reporter with the Daily Imroze, after which he joined the Daily Jang. He also worked for Lail-O-Nahar, Karachi, as a reporter and worked for a children’s programme for Radio Pakistan.
After the launch of the London edition of Daily Jang in 1973, he was appointed its news editor and later as its editor. Although he authored a few books and wrote for several publications, he was known for his long association with the BBC Urdu Service. He and his cohost Raza Ali Abidi, had come to be identified more with Urdu Service’s two top-rated programmes, Sairbeen and Jahan Numa.
In 1959, Asaf Jilani was sent to Delhi as Daily Jang‘s correspondent, where after the breakout of the 1965 India-Pak war, he was arrested and locked up in the notorious Tihar Jail. In 1983 he resigned from the Daily Jang and joined the BBC Urdu Service as a Senior Producer.
Born in Aligarh in 1934, he migrated to Pakistan with his parents in 1948 and completed his education at Sindh Madarsa and Sindh Muslim College, obtaining a master’s in economics.
He received his early education at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, during the vice chancellorship of Dr Zakir Hussain. In his writings, he often wrote about his Jamia days and the impact of the partition on Delhi and Jamila itself. His book Vast Asia: Nai Azadi Nai Challenge is a testimony and reflection of his experiences and observations in which he has described his journey from Delhi to Moscow in an engaging style. Another of his books Saghar Sheeshe Lal-o-Gohar is a comprehensive analytical account of the events and upheavals since 1947.
My first meeting with Asaf Jilani, or Asaf Saheb, as I used to call him, was at my parents-in-law’s house. The two families were friends with each other. My second meeting with him was at the office of Impact International, where I used to work and where he used to come to see its editor and his friend Mohammad Hashir Faruqi and my mentor. In the informal meeting variety of subjects were discussed. Others who were part of the weekly meeting were Jalil Ahmad khan, Asaf Saheb’s former colleague at the Jang and BBC, and Saleem Siddiqui, Impact’s manager and former Mayor of London Borough of Hackney.
I like reading autobiographies and have a fascination with listening to the experiences and stories of knowledgeable personalities. In these discussions, I often asked Asaf Saheb about his experience in journalism. Narrating an incident relating to his lack of knowledge of Hindi, he often laughed and made others laugh. He said: ‘In the news bulletin from Akashvani, whenever I heard “Pakistan ne seema ka ullanghan kia” [Pakistan has violated the borderline], I wondered who this Seema is with whom ullanghan has been committed.’
He also narrated his experience at the Tihar Jail. Later he penned it on his Facebook wall. Many Urdu dailies carried the article. I am producing below the translation of the story as narrated by him. He writes:
‘When I was presented before the jailor, he was surprised to see the internment orders handed to me at the time of my arrest. He could not understand why I was sent to jail. According to the rules, I should have been interned in a house or an internment camp.
‘It was Maghrib [prayer] time. Right at that moment, blackout sirens went on at the Palam Airport, located on the backside of the jail.
‘The jailer called one of his staff members and ordered him grumblingly: ‘Put him in Qusoori Chakki.’ Hiding his lantern in his blanket, the staffer led me to the other end of the jail. He knocked at one of the doors. A man opened the door, and the staff member handed me to him. On the left hand in this enclosure there was some greenery in front of nine cells. All of the prisoners were in shackles. They were sleeping in standing position and leaning against the bars. These cells used to be called chakkis because at one time [during the British era], inmates used to be made to grind flour using chakkis [grinding stones]. Even Hasrat Mohani was made to grind flour during his imprisonment. Only dangerous inmates or those involved in fighting were kept in Qusoori Chakkis.
‘My entrance into the enclosure disturbed the sleep of these prisoners, and they asked each other in confusion: “Who is the newcomer?” But none of them knew about me and why I was locked at the extreme end of the Chakki.
‘At the time of my arrest, I wore a half-sleeved terylene shirt and heavy Peshawri chappals. My Peshawri Chappls caught sight of a prisoner. “He is a Pakistani commando.” He exclaimed. “He was arrested near the Palam Airport.” Said another, giving his input. And the rumour of the arrest of a “Pakistani commando” spread everywhere in the jail.
‘My being a Pakistani commando scared them so much that when the shackled prisoners were let into the lawn for morning exercise, none dared come close to my cell and ask . The manner in which they were shackled gave the impression that they were dangerous prisoners. Later I learned that many of them had committed murders, so much so that in their fights against each other, they boastingly said: “Don’t you think that I a [petty] thief. I have committed four murders.”‘
A sad and revealing incident he shared with me was about the active opposition to girls’ education of Pakistani Vaderas. He said after migrating to Karachi, he and his parents lived in a rented house belonging to a Vadera, otherwise a friendly and sociable man. His two little daughters used to come to see Asaf Saheb’s mother. She started to teach them reading and writing. But when the Vadera and his wife found out about it, both showed their strong disapproval and sent the girls back to the village where their family came from. Asaf Saheb’s father Maulana Abdul Wahid Sindhi was himself from Sindh province and had migrated to Aligarh sometime before the partition. From there, he moved to Delhi and joined Jamia Millia Islamia as a teacher.
In another story Asaf Saheb said that after being appointed as Daily Jang‘s Delhi correspondent, when he and two other Pakistani journalists, also working as correspondents in Delhi, were visiting Pakistan, they were called by the then President of the county Field Marshall General Ayub Khan. He asked these journalists about their experiences and observations in India. ‘I was young and, perhaps, a bit blunt.’ Asaf Saheb said, ‘I told him without mincing my words that we felt embarrassed when we read stories in Pakistani newspapers that India was about to be disintegrated when it was steadily progressing. Ayub Khan’s displeasure was evident, and my colleagues thought I had brought disaster upon myself. But Ayub Khan called his personal secretary and said, “Listen to what they are saying.” Ayub Khan then asked us to suggest publications and magazines that he should read to get an accurate picture of India and ordered his PA to note down the names of these books and publications.’
I had my last long telephonic chat with Asaf Saheb at the death of Hasihr Faruqui Saheb when he read my article on him and praised it, saying: ‘You have covered every aspect of his life that I would have written. Now I do not need to write anything.’
This was when he had almost stopped writing and had become inactive on his Facebook. When he liked a piece by me, he praised and encouraged me, but this was the first time I observed his unwillingness to write anything and that too about his good friend. He had not attended Faruqi Saheb’s funeral either. He said he was not feeling well and apologised for not attending the funeral but did not mention the deadly disease that had caught him.
I have been planning to write the profiles of senior journalists and activists in London for quite some time and wanted to start the series with Asaf Saheb. About one month before Ramzan, I phoned him and requested a meeting. He agreed and said he would call me to fix a time. He sounded low but said nothing about what he was going through. After this, I got busy with other tasks, and Asaf Saheb did not phone either. I did not feel like disturbing him by phoning him and kept waiting for his phone call. It was only after his death that I found out that he had stopped writing and had become inactive on Facebook because he was suffering from a life-threatening ailment. He did not let anyone realise it except for his family members.
Asaf Saheb’s daughter, Mariam Jilani, a former journalist turned teacher, told me that he had been lying on his bed for the last two days before his death and did not talk much. When his pain persisted, he was given morphine injunctions. ‘I, my mother and two brothers sat near him reciting shahadah and the Qur’an. I was holding his hand when he took a last deep breath and his soul left for heavenly abode.’ She said Inna Lillahi Wa Inna Iaihi Rajioon. (From Allah do we come and to Him we shall return.)
Asaf Saheb is survived by his wife, Mohsina Jilani, Urdu poetess and fiction writer; daughter, Mariam Jilani, former Arabic TV MBC producer, now a teacher, and two sons—Ubaid Jilani, who has worked as sub-editor for the Financial Times and The London Evening Standard; and Junaid Jilani working as a Press Officer with the Muslim Aid.