In Memoriam
Altaf Husain : “The Maker and Breaker of the Governments and Powers”
By Syed Muazzem Ali
San Diego , CA

Altaf Husain, an outstanding journalist of South Asia, was born on 26 January 1900 in Sylhet, Bangladesh. His father Maulvi Ahmedullah was a prominent lawyer before he joined the coveted Assam Civil Service.  Maulvi Ahmedullah had two sons, Altaf Husain and Anwar Husain and a daughter, Zebu Ahmed.  Altaf Husain had his earlier education in Calcutta, graduated from Murari Chand (MC) College in Sylhet and, when Dhaka University was established in July 1921, enrolled himself in the first batch for the Master’s degree in English literature.

Altaf Husain is known as the legendary editor of Pakistan’s largest and oldest English Daily Dawn, but what is little known is that “Dawn” was first born during his student days at the Salimullah Muslim(SM) Hall of the Dhaka University.   This needs some elaboration.

My father late Syed Mustafa Ali, a close friend of Altaf, was a student in the first batch of Honor’s class in English literature at the Dhaka University that year, and from his autobiography “Atmokotha” one gets a glimpse of Dhaka University student life during the early years. Once the University was established in Dhaka the Muslim students started taking active interest in various literary and cultural activities and Altaf Husain played a leading role in organizing all such events.

Maybe in their youthful exuberance they went too fast for the conservative group of students at the University who could not keep pace with them when these students, within two months of establishment of the University, wanted to organize a Bengali drama called “Bongonari” by famous writer D.L. Roy in the dining hall of the S.M. Hall.  The conservative group protested, and the first provost of the Hall, Ahmed Fazlur Rahman tried to intervene and stop the drama on the date scheduled. But as a compromise, he allowed the organizers, led by Altaf, to hold the play during the summer recess when most of the students were away from the Hall. 

Altaf Husain did not forget the drubbing that his group suffered at the hands of the conservatives and he decided to strike back at an opportune moment. Once the examinations were over in March 1922, and the students were relatively free, a wall paper by the name of DAWN appeared near the stairs of the S.M. Hall.  The main thrust of the wallpaper was to oppose ultra-conservatism and to criticize actions of the members of that group. There was no mention about the name of the editor of the wallpaper or its contributors but everyone knew Altaf Husain was behind it. The wallpaper gained some popularity among the students for its interesting contents and some more issues appeared later.

His friends and contemporaries believe that this wallpaper episode had aroused the interest for journalism in him and Altaf had realized for the first time how public opinion could be molded through the power of pen.

After finishing his studies at the University, Altaf Husain started teaching at the Islamia College in Calcutta but his passion for journalism continued. It was at that time that he began writing his weekly column “Through Muslim Eyes” in the prestigious Daily Statesman under the pen-name of Ain-ul-mulk.  Through this immensely popular column, he cogently put forward hopes and aspirations of Muslims in British India.  In no time, his passionate and inspiring column caught the attention of Muslim League President Mohammad Ali Jinnah who appointed him as the Editor of the Dawn which he had founded in Delhi.

The paper was originally a weekly but within a year it became a daily and its first editor was Pothan Joseph. Altaf Husain took over in 1944 and was given complete freedom to run the paper and pursue an independent editorial policy. Soon the paper gained huge popularity and its circulation went up phenomenally. Altaf, through his powerful pen and immaculate articulation, played a critically important role in the Pakistan Movement which led to the creation of a separate homeland for Muslims in British India in August 1947.   Earlier, for a short time in 1942, Altaf also served as a Press Advisor to the Government of British India, and was a member of a three-member panel along CP Johnson of the Statesman and SA Govindarajan of the Hindu.

As the partition dates were finalized Altaf was sent to Karachi in early August 1947 with some senior members of his Delhi office to set up the Dawn office.  Yusuf Haroon, a budding industrialist and an energetic member of the Muslim League Central Committee, was asked to provide necessary logistic facilities.  Altaf and his team brought out the first issue of Dawn from Karachi on 15 August 1947 carrying the news of the birth of Pakistan. Today, the street in Karachi where the first office of the Dawn was set up is named after him.

My eldest brother late S.M. Ali, also an outstanding journalist of international fame, served under Altaf in the editorial section of the Dawn office in Karachi from mid-1952-to mid-1953 before he left for London.  In his writings he fondly recalls his former boss and colleague: “The greatest contribution that Altaf sahib made to journalism was that he gave the editorship of Dawn a unique prestige built on power and authority” with “scrupulous fairness, strictly according to his own judgment and not under the dictates” of the owner of the paper.  Yet, he laments this power and authority could not save democracy in Pakistan when Ayub Khan put the country under military dictatorship, or help solve the problems between the center and what was then East Pakistan and sums up that it was not Altaf Sahib’s individual failure but the failure of the press as an institution in Pakistan.

Despite institutional limitations, Ali had noted that Altaf called shots in his dealings with each succeeding government in Pakistan from 1952 and that whenever a central government was in real crisis in Pakistan, an editorial in Dawn “could make a crucial difference between its survival and downfall.”

As regards Altaf’s exit from the editorship of Dawn and the profession, Ali believes it was “somewhat forced” as Ayub Khan had been trying to dislodge the “independent minded” Editor from Dawn by offering him Cabinet portfolios for some time and finally succeeded in bringing him in the cabinet in March 1965 as the Minister in-charge of Industry and Natural Resources. 

Altaf did not care for the job that had robbed him of much of his authority and power.  After three years he resigned owing to ill health, and just ten days later, on May 25 1968, he died of heart attack in Karachi.  It is indeed sad that Altaf Husain, who had all along fiercely opposed the tyranny and corrupt politicians and military dictators in Pakistan, had to succumb to pressure at the end of his otherwise illustrious career. The International Herald Tribune, in an obituary note on his death, had described him as “the maker and breaker of Governments and powers.”   

Altaf Husain is dead but his greatest love “Dawn” is alive.  In Ali’s farewell party from Dawn in 1953, Altaf had somewhat proudly observed that one day  SM Ali would be the Editor of a daily paper that “may well be as good as Dawn, but nothing better than Dawn, because there can be no newspaper better than Dawn”.  Happily, the high standard set by Altaf has largely been maintained by Dawn. On his birthday we remember this legendary journalist for his outstanding journalistic skill, eminent personality above all, sheer brilliance.

(Syed Muazzem Ali is a former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador of Bangladesh )


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.