By Afzal Khan ISLAMABAD: Minhaj Barna was an indefatigable warrior in the struggle for press freedom and rights of workers in Pakistan. He worked ceaselessly for improvement in working conditions in the newspaper industry. He led some memorable movements of journalists against curbs by military dictators including Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Ziaul Haq. He was equally dedicated to waging struggle for protection of rights of workers and peasants.
My first direct association with Barna began in 1967 and spanned next two decades. Barna had been penalised and transferred from Lahore to Dhaka as correspondent of Pakistan Times. The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) held its biennial delegates meeting in Dhaka that year which proved to be the last in eastern wing.
Traditionally top leadership of the PFUJ alternated between East and West Pakistan. The Bengali journalists decided to get Barna elected unopposed as secretary general. I managed to win support from both contesting groups and was elected senior assistant secretary general.
In his new capacity and later as president of PFUJ (1973-80) Barna radicalised journalists’ trade union movement. Because of leftist past during which he actively participated in trade union activities in undivided India and later after he transitioned to Pakistan, Barna campaigned for bringing PFUJ under a broader umbrella of labour union activities in the country. Those were heady days of strong labour movements across the globe and Barna wanted journalists to be active part of a revolutionary world phenomenon.
Though he met resistance within the PFUJ whose mainstream leadership wanted to keep its peculiar identity intact, Barna finally succeeded in laying the foundation of All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation (Apnec) in Ziarat.
He argued that in 1970 a 10-day successful shut down of newspapers across the country was made possible by active participation of non-journalist newspaper workers. Secondly, he was completing his two terms as president PFUJ and was barred from seeking a third under the constitution.
Barna could not sit idle and conceived the idea of Apnec embracing all employees in the newspaper industry and became its chairman after 1980. It overshadowed the PFUJ where Nisar Osmani, one of the most courageous journalists of all times, succeeded him as president and me as secretary general. Though both remained close friends till Osmani’s death, a kind of friction persisted on the issue of Barna’s insistence on subordinating PFUJ’s role to that of Apnec.
Minhaj Barna was man of strong will, steely nerves and great tenacity in pursuit of his goals. No amount of pressure and coercion could bend him or force him to yield. Under him the journalists’ movement became more proactive and resorted to frequent strikes and rallies against authoritarian measures to stifle and gag press. He particularly upheld the cause of non-journalist newspaper employees and ensured that they got much higher benefits than journalists in every wage board. He spearheaded two historic movements, one in 1970 when newspapers in East and West Pakistan shut down for 10 days and the other in 1978 when Zia closed down eight newspapers. Defying martial law, newsmen and others courted arrest, were convicted by military courts and awarded harsh sentences. It evoked worldwide condemnation and praise for the courage shown by Pakistani journalists.
When Zia failed to suppress the regular flow of volunteers courting arrest, he ordered the most shameful act of lashing a batch of four journalists.
The infamy he earned would live down in history. While we were sent to jail, Barna was picked up from Musawat office and extradited to Karachi from where he helplessly watched the progress of the movement that won international acclaim.
Senior Indian journalists would laud determination of Pakistani journalists to stand up to military dictators and compared them with their own compatriots who caved in tamely when Indira Gandhi imposed emergency.
He had great capacity to suffer pain, persecution and incarceration. In 1978 Zia succumbed to international denunciation and released us after about 40 days by creating a parallel PFJU and concocting a fake agreement. Several top journalists in the PPL were, however, sacked. Barna then launched second phase of the movement from Karachi. It could not pick up enough momentum. Barna resorted to hunger strike in jail to bolster the agitation. He observed it for several days and finally the government caved in. But the hunger strike left permanent health problems from which he never recovered.
For three decades Barna symbolised newsmen’s struggle for freedom and economic rights. The slogan: “Teray saath jeena, Teray saath marna/ Minhaj Barna Minhaj Barna” that remained the inspiring battle cry of this struggle is a befitting tribute to the contributions he made.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad