Although Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, a veteran politician who was respected even by his political foes, breathed his last on September26, 2003, he continues to live in the hearts of the people of Pakistan because of his relentless struggle for the cause of democracy.
He spent a considerable part of his life fighting against dictators, military as well as civilian, and struggled to strengthen parliamentary democracy, bothering little about how he would go down in history for targeting governments. He was a consistent voice of dissent, being a crusading democrat who stood against authoritarian rulers throughout the history of Pakistan. Military dictators feared him more than opposition leaders, mainly because of his uncanny ability to unite diverse parties around the fundamentals of the rule of law and the Constitution.
Nawabzada always used to say during the oppressed days of martial laws imposed by Ayub, Zia and Musharraf: “Either there is democracy or there is no democracy. There’s no third situation.” He was of the view that it would take the democratic system a long period to take root in the country. He always held the army responsible for the fragility of the political system, saying if you uproot a plant (of democracy) every now and then to see whether it has taken roots, it will dry up and never grow!
I had the honor of staying very close to Nawab Sahib during the last six years of his life, being the Central Secretary Information of three opposition alliances, namely Pakistan Awami Ittehad (PAI), Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) and alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD), being a nominee of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Shaheed. I also accompanied Nawabzada during his last international trip. We remained with him during all the meetings that held with Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif, and learned a lot from him.
Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan was born in Khangarh in 1918. He was educated at the the Aitchison College, Lahore. He emerged as a student leader in politics around 1933. He had opposed the British rulers and joined a revolutionary group ‘Majlis-e-Ihrar’ till the creation of Pakistan. He was present at the annual session of the Muslim League held on March 23, 1940, in which the famous ‘Lahore Resolution’ was passed. After independence in 1947, he joined the Muslim League, from whose platform he successively won the 1952 Provincial and 1962 National Assembly elections. It was during General Ayub Khan’s military rule (1958-68) that he made his mark on national politics.
He joined the opposition party, Jinnah Awami League, and later on, this party was renamed as Awami League. He was selected as its Vice President when Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardi was the President. He strongly supported Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah in the presidential elections of 1964 against Ayub Khan. Disenchanted by the heavy-handed military dictatorship, he set about gathering together all opposition parties under one banner. His first foray into building an opposition coalition resulted in the highly-effective Democratic Action Committee, which prepared the ground for the fall of the seemingly solidly entrenched General Ayub in a popular uprising. The success of this alliance became a model for other pro-democracy movements that he became involved in.
In 1969, he founded his own party with the collaboration of four other parties and named it as Pakistan Jamhuri Party and became its Vice President. In 1977, Nawabzada was one of the senior leaders of the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA). In the 1977 polls, he was elected as Member of the National Assembly, but following the party, policy refused to take oath. He was one of members, who negotiated with the PPP government for holding new elections. But unfortunately, when the government and the PNA had reached an agreement to hold fresh elections, General Zia imposed martial law. Nawabzada stood against Zia’s martial law.
The formation of the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) was reflective of the Nawabzada’s political craftsmanship, as the platform was shared by the PPP and the parties responsible for the ouster of the Bhutto government. In the 1980s, Nasrullah began assembling the democratic forces to challenge Zia’s military rule. This resulted in the MRD’s formation, which developed into a highly successful grassroots pro-democracy movement. In 1983, the MRD launched a successful countrywide civil disobedience movement that was ruthlessly suppressed by the military regime. In this movement, thousands were killed or imprisoned
The most retrogressive of the dictators, Ziaul Haq, ensured that Nawabzada remained under house arrest for a little under five years. During this time, efforts were made by government stooges to bend his will. And when that did not work, they tried to bribe him. But Nasrullah Khan remained steadfast and refused all overtures. Like G.M. Syed, he believed that whatever he was doing was right and that he should defend his principles with honor and dignity.
He participated in the presidential election of 1988 in which Ghulam Ishaq came out as a winner, while Nawabzada got 98 votes. In I990, he made an alliance with Pakistan Peoples Party to oppose Nawaz Sharif’s government. In the 1993 elections, once again he was elected as the Member of the National Assembly. He was made Chairman of Kashmir Committee and his son was also made minister in thePunjabduring Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure.
Nawabzada visited many countries as the head of a delegation to highlight the Kashmir cause. On many occasions, he said that it was because of his efforts that the OIC Summit at Casablanca had unanimously adopted a resolution, seeking a just solution to the Kashmir dispute in accordance with the UN resolutions. He also proudly mentioned that as a result of his efforts, the Labour Party of Britain had included the Kashmir issue in its manifesto and had committed to make all possible efforts to have the matter resolved.
Nawabzada formed many alliances during his 50 years or so of active political career. He used to say that it is beyond a single party to challenge dictatorship and thus parties of all shades of opinion should join forces. He associated the democratic struggle to the construction of a house where bricks, gravel, steel, cement and even shrapnel are needed to complete the project. This argument he used to offer to reject suggestions that one-man parties, or what are tauntingly called ‘tonga parties’, should not be included in alliances set up for the achievement of lofty ideals.
Nawabzada’s final act as an anti-establishment figure was the formation of the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy (ARD) after General Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999. He deftly succeeded to bring together two rival parties – Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Pakistan Peoples Party – under the Alliance’s banner. He became its Chairman, which opposed the Legal Framework Order (LFO). His role has invariably been that of a catalyst, whether it involved taking up cudgels with a dictator or exercising his uncanny ability to forge alliances out of often disparate political elements
However, once he had got together the knights of his round table, he became their undisputed leader. The way he brought ARD and MMA into APC was marvelous. Under his direction, the ARD spoke with one voice and from one platform. That was his great contribution to opposition politics. He was very gregarious and loved to be surrounded by people, enjoying his role of éminence grise immensely. Whatever the occasion, one instinctively knew who was in charge. Such was his charisma. Father Copleston, the author of that excellent treatise Medieval Philosophy, had a phrase for such people. He referred to them as “prime unmoved movers” – people who made things happen without giving the impression that they were directly involved.
Nawabzada was a politician in the true sense of the word. Politics was his vocation and his life. His humility and simple living endeared him to people of all walks of life. Many will remember the years he spent in that large room of that modest house on Nicholson Roadin Lahore, in which he lodged, boarded, held meetings, and met visitors. Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan will certainly be missed.