From Pothohar to USSR: Dada Amir Haider Khan’s Odyssey
By Asif Javed MD
Z. A. Bhutto was once asked as to how he would like to be remembered. “As a poet and a revolutionary,” he said. Dada Amir Haider considered himself a communist only but his credentials, as a revolutionary, are a lot stronger than Bhutto’s and many others of the kind.
Now that I think about it, I cannot recall the first time, I heard of DAH; it may have been a review of his autobiography but I am not sure. It was probably 2-3 years ago that a nephew of mine sent me Dada’s autobiography. I started reading it and found myself mesmerized. On my last trip to Pakistan, I asked this nephew to accompany me to Dada’s desolate village --Dada once described it as a remote God forsaken place. Deep in the Pothohar region of Northern Punjab, about 20 miles north of Gujjar Khan, is Kalian Sialian, the place of his birth as well as his last abode.
DAH’s life story is fascinating. What inspired a poor, orphan boy from such a remote area to endure life’s long struggle? The answer is not simple. It seems that early on, he became a drifter. Having lost his father at a very young age, he never got along with his stepfather. Having spent some time in a madrassa, and experienced the mullah’s cruelty, greed and fanaticism, he ran off to Calcutta and then on to Bombay. He was too young but managed somehow to get himself enlisted as a fireman on a commercial ship. The year was 1917 and the First World War was raging. Thus began his long career in the shipping industry that was to take him around the world more than once; in the process, he transformed himself from a naïve teenager into a trail-blazing communist revolutionary.
It is not easy to put a label on DAH’s multi-faceted personality: he was a communist, revolutionary, trained pilot, marine engineer, auto engineer and a businessman — he once owned a dry cleaning shop in NY City. He was perhaps, all of these but above all, he was a humanist; having seen the exploitation and suffering of the masses around him at a tender age — his own paternal uncle dispossessed him from his inheritance -- he embarked upon an epic journey that took him from shores of Asia to Africa, Europe, North and South America, many times over. In the process, he came across momentous events and had had the good fortune to see gigantic personalities. DAH wanted to change the world around him for the better but he did not succeed in his aim; what he did experience in the process was a metamorphosis that changed him.
DAH’s autobiography brings to life the first half of the 20 th century for the reader and is full of astonishing stories of the bygone era. Here are a few of them: he witnessed numerous cases of racial discrimination in his journeys; he reports merciless beating of a fellow Indian ship worker by a British officer for a minor mistake; the British crew were paid five times the salary of the Indians for the same job. The crew of his ship that had just docked at a port, was separated in two; the Indians were segregated for quarantine while the British were just let through despite both having come from the same port. The fresh water for the Indian crew members was limited despite the fact that they were toiling in the boiler room of the ship in burning hot weather in the tropics while no such restriction applied to the whites.
In Trinidad, West Indies, he came across descendants of Indians who were lured to the West Indies by the British to work on the plantations a generation earlier; DAH notes with great sadness the plight of these wage slaves and their longing for their distant ancestral homeland of India. Over the years, DAH developed immense hatred for the British; instances like these were perhaps the reason for such an attitude.
The USA of 1920’s that DAH experienced was in the throes of great depression and had its own discrimination; DAH once saw the Negro crew of an American navy ship at the French port of Brest working overtime to unload the supplies during the WW1; to DAH’ surprise, they were not welcomed at the white’s restaurants despite being there to fight with the French and were not given time off at Christmas. There were plenty of surprises in store for him down the road: While recuperating in a rural Indiana hospital from a plane crash, DAH saw a KKK procession with their dreaded hoods; he left the hospital in a hurry having been informed that the hospital admin were KKK sympathizers. DAH happened to be in Detroit when the infamous murder case of the Negro Dr White came up for hearing; this case made headlines across the USA for months and created great tension along racial lines.
DAH came across scores of people in his travels but the one to have influenced him the most was Joe Mulkane, an Irish sailor whose father had fought in the Irish uprising of 1916. Joe had strong anti-British views that he passed on to DAH. For DAH, Joe became a sort of a political mentor; their association was brief but it had a lasting impact on DAH. The other luminaries whose paths crossed that of DAH included Lala Lajpat Rai ( he was visiting NY before his tragic death in Lahore by police beating, later avenged by Baghat Singh by the killing of a British police officer), Dr. Syed Hussain who spoke in Detroit about India’s freedom struggle and Agnes Smedley, that firebrand political activist who sympathized with freedom movements all across the world. It was also in NY that DAH met a Sikh activist based in San Francisco who worked for the Ghadar party of India; it was at his instigation that DAH agreed to carry secret anti-British literature to be distributed at various seaports during his travels. DAH carried out this assignment at great personal risk. Years later, while traveling on a ship from Bombay to Europe, DAH saw an old and ailing Rabinder Nath Tagore; being in disguise, and traveling on a fake passport, DAH did not try to talk to the Nobel Laureate.
DAH’s career as a sailor ended abruptly in Staten Island in 1922 after yet another incident with racist undertones. Never the one to tolerate discrimination lying down, he resigned and moved on to other adventures. After a brief stop at a Dupont factory in NJ, he ended up at Oleans, upstate NY, and it was there that he experienced what he calls real America. He made friends in the community, lived as a paying guest with an American family while working at the local railway yard. Being interested in aviation, he learnt to fly and bought a small airplane that he flew over Oleans to the great delight of the inhabitants. DAH describes with great relish his solo flight over Manhattan’s skyscrapers. Having spent some time in Detroit, where he worked at the GM plant, DAH’s path crossed that of Comrade Owen and Charles Ruthenburg; it was to be a watershed moment. Henceforth, the young man from Pothohar was to leave American shores for good and was to embark upon a new journey that was to take him to the USSR and make him a diehard communist.
In 1926, DAH bid a final farewell to the USA and boarded a ship from NY harbor. He made it to Moscow having traversed the Atlantic Ocean, Strait of Gibraltar, Mediterranean and Black Seas in 2 ½ months having been stranded at Istanbul for weeks. DAH was enrolled in the University of the Peoples of the East in Moscow and became Comrade Sukharoff.
DAH has left some interesting details of life in communist Russia of the time: He took part in the May Day parades in the Red Square; there is a passing reference to John Reed’s grave in the Kremlin Wall; he reports seeing Liu Shao Che — the future President of communist China — as well as Thomas Mann in Moscow; there was a naked dip in the Black Sea with some fellow students. Overall, he found Russians in general and females in particular, well disposed towards foreigners. His training completed, DAH was shipped to colonial India, in disguise, to begin his revolutionary work.
The British were wary of this new communist philosophy and were on the lookout. Dada spent most of his time underground, in Bombay and Madras, having had numerous narrow escapes. His narrative has some heartbreaking details of the difficulties experienced by his fellow communist workers. Read on: “Dr. Adhikhari opened his tiffin carrier and I saw some dry, stale chappaties which he was going to consume. His father was a provincial Bombay gazetted government officer; he could have lived a very comfortable life, had he decided to serve exploitative colonial system.
“At Calcutta, three of them lived in one room in a congested area, slept on mats, and survived on cheap Bengali food.
“His body was only a living skeleton covered with skin but no flesh. If anything was left over, his wife gave it to him, otherwise he used to go without food and mostly starved.”
As far Dada himself, “Matthew, in the morning used to take some milk and bread. I had not much money to afford to pay to eat anything in the morning. I did not want to be a burden on Mathew. I used to pay six rupees per month to him for my share of food. This food had very little nutrition and even my eyesight was getting affected. These were the hardships faced by the men who, in the beginning, sowed the seeds of communism in the sub-continent while being accused of working for the Moscow gold,” he laments.
There were lighter moments in his sojourns too: he once had a one night stand with a young Italian woman in Naples who “was at par with me in every respect,” he writes with youthful exuberance. There were brief friendships with Jenny and Helen in Oleans, NY and with Lolia Matrsova in Moscow. DAH calls the association “my cherished memories”; but he was on a mission, had no time for courtships or marriage and apparently, his female friends understood that.
DAH’s memoir stops abruptly in 1936 when his luck ran out; he was arrested and imprisoned for long periods. After the creation of Pakistan, he based himself in Rawalpindi while continuing to work for the communist party. The circumstances were bleak and the party was soon banned. More periods of incarceration followed. His fellow prisoners, at various times included Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Hyder Baksh Jatoi, Allama Mashraqi, Qaswer Gardezi, Ch. Afzal and Zaheer Kashmiri. Eventually released, he was forced to stay in his village under mandatory surveillance. It is not clear from his memoirs as to what type of treatment did he receive from the government of Z.A. Bhutto. During his last illness in 1989, he was treated at PIMS, at PPP govt.’s expense. He was laid to rest, in his ancestral village, in one corner of his beloved school that he had founded and saw to completion in his life time. Ironically, his beloved USSR came crashing down a few months after his death.
“DAH lived and died virtually unsung. That did not diminish him. It makes the rest of us look more small,” was the tribute paid to him in Pakistan Times. He was a committed communist revolutionary in the mould of Sajjad Zaheer, John Reed and Che Guvera, people who devoted their lives to a cause that they believed in. Communism may have been thrown into the garbage can of history but will their dream of freeing their ancestral homelands from mass misery be ever realized? One can only wonder.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)