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September 19, 2020

Qaisar Mahmood: a caring soul has passed away


September 19, 2020

Qaisar Mahmood has passed away!!!!!!! It looks so unbelievable. How can it be? Knowing life is fragile, is sniffed out in a flickering moment, but once again I found myself to instinctively deny that before the reality ultimately sunk in.

I had spoken to him only on Wednesday evening, (a day before death). I could not recognize his voice when he picked up the phone, it was so different... and cracking, that I had to introduce myself, requesting to speak to Qaisar sb. The voice turned out to say Amjad, this is Qaisar Mahmood and we spoke for a few minutes. He had returned home from the hospital after a second long stay three days ago.

My association began with Qaisar sb or Qaisar bhai, or plain Qaisar, a liberty he allowed all of us to take from him, when I had joined The News in November 1990 as a junior sub-editor on the National Desk and he was a very accomplished first chief reporter of The News. He very soon allowed the formalities to melt away into a friendship which he nurtured till the very last.

Reporting is a very serious and stressful job, requiring an understanding of the subject, its various dynamics and timing and demands tenacity, dexterity and accomplishing all that within the paper’s deadline.

The newsroom and the reporters room in those early days comprised boisterous youngsters flowing with tremendous energy, passionate and determined to carve their niche. Here enters Qaisar of the ‘old school’ who would push those prepared for it to the limits to get essential facts and help them write the story to perfection, even if it needed repeated versions of one.

Above all work defined his management of reporters, there was neither malice nor nepotism for any. He also particularly used to emphasise to the reporters never to ignore events on their beats for frivolous reasons. Not known to raise voice or use intemperate language, he would also take their angry responses with dignity.

While Qaisar would unfailingly point out our inaccuracies, he would always defend and advocate for us too with the senior management, be it the confirmation of our contracts to permanent or getting motorbikes for the reporters.

But it wasn’t that he only expected better performance from others, but had set higher bars for himself as well. When he became the city editor, he took pains to ensure the layout of city pages reflected the content and a reader-friendly design. He could write a crisp copy and his exclusive, investigative stories would easily capture space for the front page top stories. Qaisar’s personal take off was one such story he did back in mid-’70s for daily Jasarat. It was about the Haji Charo boat tragedy. In those days, launches were used to traffick people to Gulf destinations.

Charo was one of the traffickers operating on the Oman route. He took a large number of people on the boat, denied them food and water for days, due to which many people died. Charo ruthlessly threw them overboard, most of whom were never found but some bodies washed up ashore revealing the atrocity.

Unlike today’s technological advancements, there was hardly any easy access to sources of information for journalists those days, except tenacity and footwork. Qaisar worked endlessly to compile information on the victims, Haji Charo and his trafficking operations and did a series of exhaustive exposes on the network of facilitators and the traffickers and victims.

He had access to credible information and had a bunch of excellent sources who would give him exclusive information. In the mid ‘90s, a dispute arose between the army and judiciary in Sindh, prompting the SHC Chief Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid to form a single bench tribunal to address it. The presiding judge of the tribunal was Justice (retd) Akhtar Ali G Kazi, who had remained the Sindh chief minister as well. The political background disturbed Qaisar Mahmood who was of the view that the selection of the particular judge might raise valid questions about his neutrality. He did an analytical piece on the issue, which though did agitate the chambers of the lordships the next day, but caused the presiding judge of the tribunal to repeatedly emphasise that he would strictly maintain neutrality.

Qaisar was a fearless and a bold chief reporter in a violently driven Karachi who had unleashed the same spirit among the whole battery of reporters who would go after the scalp. But no amount of pressure from the government circles would make him discourage his reporters. There was Tando Bahawal tragedy in 1992 when an army major had gunned down nine villagers declaring them as RAW agents, leading to his court martial and eventual execution, while derailing the careers of a major general, two brigadiers and scores of junior ranks.

In Pakistan’s conditions, it was truly a seismic event. But he not only guided the reporter from Hyderabad to do the expose on the issue, but after getting the basic facts from him, rewrite the story to perfection and, to top it all, gave the byline to that reporter. The News drew ire for the reportage, but neither Qaisar nor the Editor Imran Aslam ever flinched.

He was a warrior for the fellow newsmen. His compassion, empathy and concern for the newsmen community never stopped. On Thursday, a friend passed Qaisar’s video shot in the hospital some days ago. It was in reaction to an incident with a reporter and a cameraman who survived electrocution while doing a beeper in the knee deep water when an overhead live wire snapped and fell right next to them. They had a truly miraculous escape. The issue agitated Qaisar so much that despite his illness, he got the video recorded advising the managements of news channels and the journalists to “resist” pressures to perform in hazardous conditions.

It was painful to see Qaisar, with circles beneath his eyes and the weakness written large on his face, struggling to breathe with the oxygen tube and a heaving chest, but even in that condition from the hospital bed, he used all the energy left, to advise newsmen not to expose themselves to jeopardy. Rest in peace Qaisar. Knowing you was a privilege, parting is an endless, bottomless pain.