Syed Abbas Athar, the group editor of Daily Express, died on Monday at the Combined Military Hospital in Lahore. He was 74. He was laid to rest on Monday after his funeral prayers were offered at 5pm at Abbas Athar Park, Tajpura.
Shah Ji – as he was fondly known in journalistic circles – was diagnosed with lung cancer and was sent to England for treatment last year. Since January, Athar had been in and out of the hospital after he developed pneumonia, according to his older brother Fazal Hussain Shah who was at his side when he passed away.
Athar joined Daily Express as group editor in June 2006. Despite his illness, he remained committed to his work till the very end. He had been conferred with Hilal-i-Shujaat in 2011 in recognition of his services to journalism.
He was known for his poetic flair and play with words that resulted in the kind of headlines that got noticed. When Pakistan National Alliance joined hands with General Ziaul Haq, Tehreek-e-Istiqlal’s Asghar Khan left the alliance and Athar who was then in Daily Awaz gave the headline: Shaheen ka jahan aur, Kargis ka jahan aur.
But he is best remembered for a headline he gave as the news editor of Daily Azad: “Idhar Hum, Udhar Tum ” – a line that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is said to have said to Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman during their last meeting in Dhaka. This is now remembered as one of Pakistani journalism’s most powerful headlines.
Athar leaves behind a wife and five children. He was a man of humble beginnings, whose father was a government servant who shifted to Lahore from Sargodha. The family took up residence in Tajpura, where Abbas was born on May 5, 1940 and lived till his death.
After completing Grade 7, he appeared in the matriculation exam as a private candidate. Fazal Shah, his brother, told The Express Tribune that Athar was 16 when he graduated from Government College, Jhang. He got married at the age of 17 and soon after moved to Karachi. He started his career from Daily Anjam as a sub-editor.
When he returned to Lahore from Karachi in the 1960s, he joined Imroze, then run by the National Press Trust. From there he moved to Daily Azad. By 1971, he had joined the Daily Musawaat, the Pakistan Peoples Party newspaper. He was news editor of the paper till the end of Bhutto era. As Musawaat’s news editor he succeeded where his great predecessor Shafqat Tanvir Mirza –scholarly, rational and circumspect – had struggled. The hawkers loved his headlines which resonated with a new ‘readership’. By the late 1970s, he was back at Daily Azad, brought back to life by Tehreek-i-Istiqlal’s Asghar Khan.
Between 1977 and 1979, Athar – who also used to own a press – published a book ‘If I am Assassinated’ written by ZA Bhutto. After he continued to speak against martial law, he was arrested. Recalls Jang-columnist Mohammad Saeed Azhar, who was with him when he was arrested, “We were in a small room behind the Old Anarkali mosque from where an intelligence officer took him to the Lahore Fort.” He was later shifted to Camp Jail.
When he was released, Abbas Athar left the country. First he went to Dubai and then moved to America “where he worked at different places – from chai khanas (tea house) to bars – to make a living”, says Azhar. Athar returned to the country in the late 1980s.
In 1988, he started a paper, Sadaqat, with Munnu Bhai as editor. Munnu Bhai said that the paper brought together “several like-minded journalists to address progressive issues”. Journalists like IA Rehman and Hussain Naqi were contributors. “He considered himself a center-leftist and always looked to use that in his analyses,” recalled Munnu Bhai. By 1990, Athar left Sadaqat after a falling out with the owner, Munnu Bhai told The Express Tribune.
Afterwards, he worked at the Khabrain Group and Nawai Waqt before joining Daily Pakistan. After a few years at Daily Pakistan, he once again joined Nawai Waqt before joining Daily Express.
His decision to work at Nawai Waqt – a paper known for its anti-socialist stance – was a surprise for many but more astounding perhaps was his success at the newspaper. Majid Nizami, the paper’s editor-in-chief, says of Athar, “He made a place for himself through his professional skills. Whatever his personal beliefs, he followed Nawai Waqt’s policy while working here… [During his two stints] he never tried to impose his ideology on [the paper]. He admitted himself that it was Nawai Waqt which established him as a columnist.”
“In my opinion there have been just two great Urdu newspaper columnists Abbas Athar and Nazir Naji,” says Saeed Azhar, “The rest are just popular columnists.”
“His journalism was of a different class. [Even after he had established himself as a columnist] he did not want to be limited to writing columns. He remained associated with the newsroom,” says Latif Chaudhry, the opinions editor at Daily Express.
For journalist Nusrat Javeed, Athar’s biggest success was how he changed the newspaper industry. During a time when newspapers had failed commercially, he was able to drive the business.
“He changed this industry by bringing creativity into news-making,” he said.
Publisher-editor Mujeebur Rehman Shami said of him, “He was also a poet you could see that in the headlines he gave. He brought in a new style of journalism that accentuated the language and improved the craft.”
“In a country where a lot of people go hungry,” he would say of himself, “my genius is political relevance.”
A less known aspect of his life was his poetry. Athar did not publish a lot of his work. ‘Din Sharhay, Darya Charhay’ was the only collection he lot of his work. ‘Din Chargay, Darya Charhay’ was the only collection he published. He used to say that journalism had gotten in the way of his ‘real’ vocation: poetry.
Among his most memorable poems were written on the death of ZA Bhutto. He also wrote Bhutto ki beti aye thi, one of the PPP’s 2013 campaign songs.
Poet Zafar Iqbal recently wrote, “Jin logon ki shairee sahafat nay nigal lee, un main Abbas Athar ka naam faramosh nahi kia ja sakta” (Among those people whose poetry was usurped by journalism, Abbas Athar’s name can never be forgotten).
This year, again, the group having his backing won the Lahore Press Club elections.
Azhar also remembers him as “a loyal friend”. “He would go out of his way to help friends,” he said. And he took care of his workers. Azhar remembers that once when Asghar Khan was discussing Aazd’s affairs with Athar he complimented an associate editor for his editorials and then added, “But I have heard that he sometimes drinks.” Athar’s reply was, “The editorials are good, right?” to which Khan said yes. “That’s all that matters,” Athar is said to have told Khan.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2013.