Karachi Press Club – the country’s very own Hyde Park
Karachi: Many years ago, Josephine Campbell, a very senior American journalist, sent this scribe an e-mail asking about the significance of the Karachi Press Club because she was intrigued that many news stories originating from the financial hub of Karachi were somehow related with the club.
Sadly enough, Campbell, an accomplished journalist who wrote for Urdu newspaper Nawai-Waqt during the Ayub era, is now dead. Her obituary was published in the Washington Post.
Campbell’s query should not be astonishing because the Karachi Press Club has earned the status of the country’s very own “Hyde Park” and most of the demonstrations in the city are held in front of this 115-year-old historic club and it also happens to be the culminating point of many rallies.
The political clout associated with the club could be gauged from the fact that Pakistan Peoples Party’s founding chairman and former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto initiated his campaign against military dictator General Ayub Khan from Karachi Press Club and General Mujeeb-ur-Rehman, the information minister of yet another military dictator, General Ziaul Haq dubbed the club as “enemy territory”.
Established in 1958 by a group of enthusiastic journalists in a Victorian style bungalow on what was then the Ingle Road and now Sarwar Shaheed Road, Karachi Press Club has today more than 900 members and has played a vital role in the democratic struggle in general and the struggle for press freedom in particular.
“The Karachi Press Club was inaugurated by late General Azam Khan, rehabilitation minister in the Ayub Cabinet and a former governor of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). We are the product of Martial Law but we are deadly against Martial Law,” says Habib Khan Ghouri, a senior journalist and a former president of the club.
“Prior to 1977, permission had to be sought from the deputy commissioner if a meeting using microphone was organized in the club. Once I was summoned by Inter Services Press Relations (ISPR) department to explain why speakers in the club were directed towards the Coast Guards building and would constantly denounce the government. I said KPC was not a public place and was our home. I was asked to stop propaganda against the government. I asked the ISPR people to issue a directive in writing. We never received a directive,” says Ghouri. “And we continued our activities.”
Ghouri pointed out that KPC’s role as a bastion of freedom came to the forefront in 1970 when journalists went on a 10-day hunger strike across the country for implementation of Wage Board Award. Not surprisingly, many leading journalists for instance IA Rehman, Ibrahim Jalees and Minhaj Barna were sacked by their employers. But KPC became the hub of political activity after 1977 during the era of General Ziaul Haq when a movement was launched for the restoration of daily Musawaat and daily Hurriyat that were banned by the military government and hundreds of journalists were arrested across the country. Sadly enough, some journalists were even flogged after a summary trial in a military court.
Known across the country for its defiance, KPC has always opened its arms for the downtrodden. No wonder that May Day has been celebrated in the club with gusto and trade union workers, students, teachers, lawyers, fisherfolk and peasants always found solace in the club whenever they faced any problem.
Today a Baloch activist are on “Hunger strike until death” in front of KPC in solidarity with “missing” Baloch activists and his life is in danger.
The club is proud to offer honorary life membership to luminaries such as Prince Karim Aga Khan, scientist and Nobel laureate Prof Dr Abdus Salam, Prof Dr Saleemuzzaman Siddiqui, Justice Dorab Patel, Justice Fakhruddin G Ebrahim, Prof Karrar Hussain, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Alys Faiz, Habib Jalib, Ahmed Faraz, Josh Maleehabadi, Jahangir Khan, Imran Khan, and Javed Miandad. Abbas Khalili and Air Marshal Noor Khan were among the first members on this roll of honour.
The KPC is housed in a double-storey building and is a majestic heritage monument. The ground floor comprises the main hall where press conferences and functions with large audiences are held. The upper floor houses a well-stocked library, a committee room, a TV lounge. There is also ample room for carom board and chess enthusiasts, a card room, and even a small bar.
Characters such as Sattar, Qayyum, Riaz, Shehbaz and Saleem who have been associated with the club since long as waiters serve the members with love and affection and mingle with many of them like old friends. Then the KPC had another waiter Meezan who is also a brilliant painter and activist and despite the fact that he has now joined an NGO, is equally loved and pampered by the members.
Then there have been members such as eminent artists Bashir Mirza whose painting on Faiz is prominently displayed on the staircase of the club. The club had also paintings by Sadequain (unfortunately it is has gone missing!) and other prominent artists.
In December, 1958, General Azam Khan offered this building to the journalist community at a monthly rent of 110 rupees. In 1961 the upper storey was also handed over to them for 110 rupees per month. It was the property of Dinshaw, a relative of Ardeshar Cowasjee. Pakistan’s President Iskander Mirza has also lived in this building.
Since its inception, the KPC has undergone through tremendous problems but coercion has not been able to subdue the spirit of its members. It was the KPC that published Zamir Niazi’s remarkable book “Press in Chains” when military dictator Ziaul Haq ruled the roost and even Quranic verses were censored by the Press and Information Department of the Government of Pakistan.
The club also hosted Mushairas that attracted poets such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib and Munir Niazi and organised musical programmes with eminent singers such as Iqbal Bano, Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Fareeda Khanum, Nayyara Noor, Nazia Hasan etc.