Viqar Ahmad’s Demise, Great Loss in Era of Shouting Journalism

Qurban Ali for BeyondHeadlines 

Viqar Ahmad, the most outstanding broadcaster and an authoritative voice of the BBC Urdu Service for many decades passed away on March 13 this year after a prolonged illness in a London hospital. He was 90. Viqar Ahmad was born in Sitapur in Awadh in 1929 in undivided India to Nisar Ahmad, a prominent lawyer of his time in Uttar Pradesh (then known as United Provinces). Viqar was educated at Lucknow and Aligarh universities in the years before independence and developed an early interest in politics and history. After the Partition, the family moved to Pakistan in 1950, where they settled in Karachi.

Soon afterwards, Viqar and his wife Rehana set off for London, where he studied B.A. in European History at Birkbeck College. At the same time, he began broadcasting for what was then the BBC’s Pakistan Service, first as a contributor and later as a member of staff. There he worked alongside Amjad Ali, Siddiq Ahmad Siddiqi and other early pioneers of Urdu broadcasting. But the service was devoted largely to cultural programs and did not have a mass following; that only came with the transistor revolution of the 1960s.  After working with BBC, Viqar Ahmad extended his stay in England to nine years.

In 1961, Viqar Ahmad returned to Pakistan to take up a job as a lecturer in European History at Karachi University.  There he broadened his knowledge of world affairs and developed his own analytical skills and distinctive personal style of teaching. He also became a regular contributor to discussion programmes on Radio and TV. In 1970, he was invited to be one of the leading presenters involved in the coverage of the general election, which eventually led to military action in the then Eastern wing of Pakistan (now Bangladesh), war with India and the division of the country. Viqar’s questioning of politicians and government officials in Pakistan was not always welcomed but his reputation grew as an independent commentator.

In 1971, Viqar returned to London again to join the BBC Urdu Service, by now with an increase in his audience because of his commentary of the recent political and military upheavals. 

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, through some of the most turbulent years in the politics of South Asia, Viqar was the regular presenter of the BBC Urdu service’s flagship daily current affairs program, Sairbeen.

During that period his distinctive, magisterial style of broadcasting became the hallmark of the BBC Urdu Service and his knowledge and judgment informed understanding of events in South Asia for BBC World Service audiences.  In those years, BBC broadcasts were an almost compulsory listening for millions of South Asians and Viqar’s voice became one of the most familiar on the airwaves.

During the liberation of Bangladesh war in 1971, Viqar Ahmad was criticised by many of his friends for his objective broadcastings of the event in the then East Pakistan. According to Viqar Ahmad, “most of my colleagues thought that the BBC was biased against Pakistan and was even instrumental in the breakup of the country. I thought differently, and I also knew that East Pakistani people had suffered a lot under the rule of West Pakistan. I joined the BBC Urdu service in February 1971. By that time Pakistan was fast sliding into a crisis born out of the complete polarisation between the two wings of Pakistan, East and West. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had already presented his six-point programme for autonomy for East Pakistan. So, the atmosphere was very tense. All the foreign journalists were excluded from East Pakistan and their own media was telling them that everything was under control and returning to normal.”

Some reports that did seep through all these restrictions, Viqar recalled, “for instance, Anthony Mascarenhas, the eminent Pakistani journalist, reported the army brutality in East Pakistan. He managed to come to England. His article in the Sunday Times was the first detailed account of army brutality and had a profound effect on public opinion in Britain and this, in turn, was reflected in the BBC’s broadcasts.”

Many of Viqar Ahmad’s colleagues felt that he was ‘betraying Pakistan’, and his relations did suffer with some of them. They received many abusive letters from listeners.

He said, ‘I remember especially one letter which was personally addressed to me. It said that ‘people know you by sight because of your television appearances in Pakistan, and it would be wiser for you not to visit Pakistan.’

Interestingly other Urdu service broadcasters were also critical of the BBC coverage, including their own output, and voiced their concerns to senior BBC managers at that time.

According to Dr William Crawley, former Head of BBC Eastern Unit (South Asia), Viqar Ahmad recorded his memoirs of that era in which he said “after the Pakistan army surrendered before Indian Army, I went to Pakistan and I was really scared but I was very careful not to reveal my identity. Somehow someone recognised me and to my great surprise, some officials at the airport came out of their room and were very keen to shake my hand, and greeted me very warmly, I was absolutely astounded, and this experience was repeated throughout my stay there. Wherever I went, I found people very warm towards me. So, what had happened was that they had felt by believing their own media, their own media had let them down completely and BBC was telling the truth on the whole”.

According to David Page former Head of BBC Urdu Service “with his intimate knowledge of South Asian politics and his deep understanding of European history, Viqar soon assumed a critical role in the expanded current affairs output of the service. His analytical skills, his clear unhurried delivery and measured style, his ability to draw together the complex strands of a fast-moving story and to probe the inconsistency of political positions helped to win Sairbeen a large regular audience not only among the intelligentsia but also among the masses.” 

Viqar Ahmad made a significant contribution to the manner of reporting, the choice of idiom, and the style of speech delivery by which BBC’s Urdu broadcasts were recognised all over the world. He will especially be remembered for designing and perfecting the report-and-analysis daily current affairs program, Sairbeen, one of BBC’s most popular programs.

According to his longtime friend and veteran BBC journalist, William Mark Tully, “Viqar sahab was a great broadcaster and scholar. He had a unique style of broadcasting. He was a gentleman, never getting excited, very clear and so welcomed in this era of shouting journalism. He was a fine man and a wonderful friend. I knew him since 1971 when he joined BBC Urdu service and it was a lifelong friendship.”

According to his friend I.A. Rehman, “Viqar was a well-read scholar and he liked devouring books on a variety of subjects. Known for his commitment to secular, democratic, and egalitarian ideals and his emphatic to a fault likes and dislikes, he was a perfect raconteur and a charming conversationalist. These qualities, unfortunately, prevented him from compiling his writings in book form.

Apart from his daily work as the anchor of Sairbeen, Viqar Ahmad produced many memorable series of programmes on cultural and political issues, often compiled on visits to the Subcontinent.  A series on the status of the Urdu language in India and another on the future of the stranded Pakistanis left behind in Bangladesh were both important contributions to the knowledge of these issues.

But he was proudest of the major series he produced in 1985 as Pakistan returned to a form of party-less democracy after eight years of military rule.  In that series, he interviewed most of the leading politicians of the country, including some like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who had never been heard on the Pakistan Government-controlled media.  It was encyclopedic in scope and drew on both his educational strengths and his political knowledge, adding real value to political discourse in Pakistan at that moment.” 

Outside the studio, Viqar was a man of many friendships across the Urdu, Hindi and Bengali Services of the BBC. He was also a must-see person for many academics, journalists and poets from across South Asia visiting London, whom he would entertain after the day’s programmes in the BBC Club at Bush House. He and his wife Rehana are also fondly remembered as wonderful hosts in their family home in Harrow, where Faiz, Ahmad Faraz and Zehra Nigah would sometimes be found reciting their poems late in the evening.

According to his former colleague at BBC Urdu service Prof. Obaid Siddiqui “Viqar bhai (as he was popularly known among his colleagues) was a caring husband, the much-loved father, an enlightened, liberal, humane man, a much-loved friend and colleague, a wonderful host and a remarkable broadcaster, whose influence on BBC broadcasts to South Asia is still felt today”.

A few years ago, Viqar Ahmad suffered a stroke, lost his great fluency of speech and had to lead a much more restricted life.  But he continued to follow events in the subcontinent, and, ever the teacher, spent his time teaching his career how to play chess. He is survived by his wife, Rehana Ahmad, a highly valued librarian, two daughters and a son.

(Qurban Ali is a senior tri-lingual (Hindi, Urdu, and English) journalist with more than 33 years of experience across all traditional media viz. TV, radio, print and the Internet. This includes over 14 years with the BBC World Service, and tenures with reputed media organisations like Rajya Sabha TV, Doordarshan News, ETV News, UNI, Observer Group of Publications, Anand Bazar Patrika Group, etc. He is accredited by PIB, Government of India and by Parliament of India as ‘Long & Distinguished journalist’ for covering proceedings of both the houses of Indian Parliament. He can be contacted at qurban100@gmail.com)


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