STM: One year on and the fight continues

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Nov 20, 2013

On this day last year Shafqat Tanvir Mirza passed away at the age of 80. Yet today he remains a revered figure for it was him who wrenched his mother tongue from the grasp of “official neglect” by the status quo and “obscurantist protectionism” by intellectuals posing as puritans of the language.

This is no mean feat in one lifetime. But then to achieve this there was the need for a selfless man steeped in the language and culture of his land. That man was Shafqat Tanvir Mirza. To understand his contribution let us delve into his life, study the forces he faced and understand just where he left off to join the immortals. In an article just before his pen stopped moving he says: “One day the issue of one’s mother tongue as the best medium of learning, especially in one’s childhood, will be resolved in Pakistan as it has been all over the world. It is only a matter of time. Only then will the creative imagination and productive forces of the people be unleashed”. His optimism was infectious.

Shafqat Tanvir Mirza’s family originally belonged to Rajouri, now in India, where he himself claimed his ancestors were Rajas of the land. In the time of Akbar this Rajput family was allowed to name their first son as Mirza, a name used only by Mughal royalty. His pedigree, and thus his tenacity, he was aware of. And so it was that he was given his name. His father was a Range Officer in the Punjab Forest Department, and during one of his transfers STM was born in Domeli in Jhelum District in February, 1932.

In 1947 the family shifted home to Wazirabad, but the bright student was to study all over the Punjab - in Chakwal, Khushab, Wazirabad, Attock, and even down south in Bahawalnagar, ending up in the Potohar Plateau in Rawalpindi. His understanding of the Punjabi language surely was honed by the immense exposure fate had provided him.

From Wazirabad he made an abiding friend in the famous writer Munnoo Bhai, and both of them graduated from Gordon College, Rawalpindi. He started his career in Rawalpindi as a journalist in the daily ‘Tameer’, moving on to ‘Hilal’. After a stint in Radio Pakistan he felt the progressive change coming and shifted to Lahore in the 1970s to join the daily ‘Musawat’. This was the beginning of a career in journalism and trade unionism, standing up for the rights of the exploited with the pen and by direct action. As the PPP shifted its basic stands, STM was slightly at sea. But then he got the best break possible when he joined the prestigious daily ‘Imroze’, known for its editorial excellence and outstanding editors and journalists.

This journey in excellence provided the exact fodder that an enlightened STM needed. Besides producing excellent copy and being a dedicated journalist, the environment provided him room to stand up for the rights of newspaper workers, joining a host of famous colleagues noted for their honesty and dedication. In the process as they clashed with military regimes he saw himself locked behind bars a number of times. But each experience only steeled him for the future. The proud Rajput was at home in any environment.

In the peace of prison he researched and thought through issues. His first book in Punjabi: ‘Tahreek-e-Azadi vich Punjab da Hissa’, was an instant success and opened the way for an array of excellent books to follow. His translations of Garcia Lorca, Jean-Paul Sartre and Sachal Sarmast are recognised the world over.

As the daily ‘Imroze’ collapsed he joined the weekly magazine ‘Viewpoint’ edited by Mazhar Ali Khan. From there in the mid-1990s he joined the daily ‘Dawn’ in Lahore. His column ‘Punjabi Notes’ opened up a discussion on the issues that the language confronted. His excellence now came to the fore as Punjabis battled to reason on how to proceed with their mother tongue.

On the one hand was the virtual ban, which is till in place, on using the language to teach the young, imposed after the East India Company took over in 1849 and strictly followed by British and Pakistani bureaucrats since. On the other hand he faced the awakened Punjabi intellectuals doomed to protecting their own language by running into an “intellectual cul de sac”. To make sense of this madness fell to a pragmatic STM, and this is why his stellar contribution essentially stands out.

As research into educational issues all over the world clarified and one’s ‘mother tongue’ was recognised by the United Nations as a human right in which to educate a people, STM was, in a way, the leading force to bring Punjabi in Pakistan to the forefront. On the way he got official recognition when in 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Pride of Performance for his contribution to the Punjabi language.

At the end of his eventful life he battled to get his pension from the National Press Trust. The honourable court backed his fight. His colleagues in ‘Dawn’ and his admirers supported the fight of the veteran trade unionist. The kind human being, the amazingly loving husband and father, the giant of a Punjabi intellectual, and the pragmatic linguist that he was, his fight ended on his 80th year. His spirit still lives on in those who continue the fight.




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