Just a few days before I. A. Rehman left us, we had been speaking about him at a journalism event – the second Razia Bhatti Memorial lecture at the IBA’s Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ). Rehman sahab had been the very first speaker in this series – he spoke at the inaugural event, in 2019, and at this year’s lecture he was mentioned not just in that specific context but also as a beacon of hope in a country that is becoming increasingly intolerant and authoritarian. In his opening remarks, the IBA’s head Dr Akbar Zaidi called Rehman sahab “one of the greatest pillars of journalism, democracy, human rights that we have in Pakistan today.”

And then, as Akbar Zaidi continued, he articulated the unspoken fear all of us had: the fear of Rehman sahab no longer being there – “One of the greatest pillars of journalism, democracy, human rights that we have in Pakistan today …and hopefully we’ll have for some years to go.”  Alas, that was not to be, because two days later Rehman sahab had exited with his usual quiet dignity.

Two weeks later we are still having the memorial meetings and the tributes for him because, for so many people, the passing of I. A. Rehman is a devastating loss. This sense of immense bereavement is due to the fact that he was one of the sanest and bravest people working for the cause of democracy and social justice in Pakistan. 

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During his years as a journalist, he stood firm on principles and was part of the team of which set up and ran the Independent Azad in 1970-71. Then there was Viewpoint and then there was his support for Newsline — a journalist-owned publication, Newsline was headed by first Razia Bhatti and then Rehana Hakim and was founded by the team of journalists who left The Herald in 1988 when PHPL management asked Bhatti to leave. Rehman sahab was a staunch supporter and a regular contributor to the new magazine unlike some other contributors (unnamed here, but you know who you are) who didn’t want to risk the wrath of the Dawn group by writing for us. Mohammed Hanif who joined the magazine in 1989 summed it up succinctly in a recent tweet recalling: “When Razia Bhatti sent I.A. Rehman a cheque for his first contribution to Newsline, he mailed it back with a note: You can start paying me when you make your first million. Newline never made a million and Rehman sb never stopped writing.”

At the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), he continued to fight against oppression and along with Asma Jahangir, Aziz Siddiqui and so many other lesser-known heroes, he was able to create a credible organisation that documented and raised awareness of human rights violations in the country.

Much has been written about Rehman sahab over the past fortnight and the shared grieving has been somewhat cathartic yet the sense of loss persists. The void he leaves behind him is very great. Rehman sahab was a key part of the bulwark protecting rational and democratic thought in Pakistan – and indeed in South Asia. His passing has weakened the fortification that helped movements for social justice, human rights and constitutional reform to survive. He led the way in these efforts and he was so highly respected because he also walked the talk: he lived life simply and treated others, regardless of their social class or age, with consideration and generosity. He never wavered from the pursuit of peace and reason and his writings are truly remarkable for their clarity and intellectual depth. 

He was one of the Titans who kept the flame of social justice movements alive, a flagbearer and a key leader in the fight against dictatorship and tyranny. Over the decades he stayed the course and continued the struggle despite all the tragedies and losses along the way, some of them very close to home. One that I remember was the murder of his nephew — the heroic lawyer and human rights activist Rashid Rehman in Multan in 2014; Rashid Rehman had been the defence lawyer for a young academic accused of blasphemy and he was shot and killed in his office after he had refused to give up the case despite receiving death threats from militant groups. 

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But despite all the losses, the injustices and the cruelty all around, Rehman sahab remained steadfast in his attempts to make the world a more just and compassionate place. 

Truly he fought the good fight.