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The Incorrigible Drifter

Sayeed Hasan Khan, known to many as Nawab Sahib, was well-respected for his vast knowledge of a host of issues. He died peacefully at his home in Karachi earlier this month. A friend for nearly 50 years looks back on his illustrious life.


A thinker, an intellectual, a socialist and an internationalist with friends across the world, Sayeed Hasan Khan’s life spanned the modern history of the subcontinent.

He knew many of the leading politicians, journalists and poets from both India and Pakistan, but he was equally at home in the West, particularly in London, where he spent many months each year from the 1960s onwards. His sympathies were always on the Left, but he had friends across the political spectrum, and in the world of diplomacy, medicine and the arts, along with a remarkable gift for keeping in touch with them. H

e was born in Bareilly, where his father was a local nawab who served in the provincial legislative assembly in colonial times but retained contacts with the nationalist movement.

One of Sayeed’s earliest political memories was taking meals from the family kitchen to the leading Muslim Congressman, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, then imprisoned in Bareilly jail during the Quit India movement. Sayeed’s own sympathies were with the Pakistan movement and, at Independence in 1947, at the age of 16, he and his elder brother set off for Lahore, where he enrolled as a student in Government College.

In these years he was known as Sayeed Jinnah though, as he grew older, his sympathies shifted to the Left. His first and only political involvement was with the Republican party of Dr Khan Sahib, who was briefly chief minister of West Pakistan in the mid-1950s. He served as joint secretary of the party but resigned when Dr Khan Sahib was forced out by feudal interests. In his very readable autobiography, Across the Seas, which is subtitled ‘Incorrigible Drift’, he recounts his lack of interest in academic studies and preference for social encounters.

In his early twenties, after graduation, he invested some money his father had given him in the Orient restaurant in Lahore, where he entertained his friends and got to know many of the leading journalists of the day. Sayeed was always hospitable, and the house he shared on Racecourse Road in Lahore became a meeting place for all sorts of people. So began a life of extraordinary connections, of understanding events by getting to know the main players and, in the process, acquiring a unique knowledge of the minutiae of subcontinental and, later, of international history and politics. He was also blessed with a remarkable memory and would enliven any discussion with anecdotes based on his own rich experiences.

Sayeed travelled by boat to England in 1961. He had a miserable time initially in a small room in Stamford Hill and thought of returning home. But after visiting friends in Germany, Austria and Sweden, he became involved in the work of the International Association of Socialist Youth (IASY), which was headquartered in Vienna.

Through the IASY, he began to make lifelong friends in many countries, including Olof Palme and Ingvar Carlsson, who both later served as prime ministers of Sweden. In the UK, he developed close ties with several Labour Party members of parliament, including John Austin and Alan Lee Williams, and took part in campaigns for nuclear disarmament and an end to the Vietnam war. He also became a friend and supporter of the veteran Labour politician Fenner Brockway, who had known Gandhi and Nehru, and who founded the Movement for Colonial Freedom, which had strong Labour Party support. During the 1960s, Sayeed was a regular participant in the World Assembly of Youth and stood to be its president at the Tokyo session in 1964, though the United States successfully backed a rival candidate.

As a result of his international work, he travelled extensively and got to know many emerging world leaders and prominent intellectuals and academics, including Edward Said, whose work on Orientalism helped reframe the academic understanding of colonialism. Sayeed could often recall vivid conversations with these intellectuals, which provided a unique insight into their thought processes.

In Pakistan, to which he returned most winters, Sayeed remained in close contact with his old friends from his Government College days, including Masood Nabi Noor, Fazlur Rahman Khan and Masud Zaman. They had joined Pakistan’s Civil Service in 1952 and, by the 1970s and ’80s, were already in senior positions. Another very close friend from those days was Muhammad Alauddin, who served as the Commissioner of Dhaka from 1968 to 1971 and paid a heavy personal price for trying to build bridges for the Bengali community and for refusing to go along with the Pakistan government’s narrative.

Sayeed always maintained strong links with people in Pakistan’s media and counted as friends some of the great journalists of those days, who were at the forefront of the defence of freedom of expression, including Iqbal Hassan Burney, Zamir Siddiqui, Nisar Usmani, Minhaj Barna, I.A. Rehman and Aziz Siddiqui. He not only shared their values but was able to bring his own perspectives to their thinking, based on his international experience and his insights into the workings of government.

Sayeed also regularly visited India — particularly Delhi and Kolkata. M.L. Kotru, the news editor of The Statesman in Delhi, became a close friend, as did Ravindra Kumar, who eventually took over as editor in Kolkata. In Kolkata, Sayeed knew many of the leaders of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM) government, including Jyoti Basu, the chief minister, whom he described in an obituary as “the best prime minister India never had.” He was also a friend of Hashim Abdul Halim, who served as speaker of the West Bengal Assembly for 29 years and became the longest-serving speaker in India and the Commonwealth.

I first met Sayeed in the 1970s when working in Bush House, the home of the BBC World Service, and was immediately impressed with his knowledge of South Asian politics. He became a good friend and helped me deepen my understanding of the region. He was a regular visitor to the Eastern Service, which broadcast to Pakistan and India and neighbouring countries. He already knew Viqar Ahmad, Mahommed Ghayur and other colleagues in the Urdu Service and after the broadcast of the evening programme, Sairbeen, we would often spend time in the BBC Club or the India Club restaurant in the Strand, digesting the latest developments.

Sayeed also got to know many of the BBC correspondents who reported on India and Pakistan, such as Mark Tully and Lyse Doucet, and leading British commentators on the wider region, such as Anthony Hyman, an expert on Afghanistan. His extensive knowledge of the region made him a valued source of information and interpretation, whether for BBC journalists, parliamentarians trying to understand their Pakistani constituents or young European scholars keen to understand the complexities of South Asian politics, religion and culture. In the early 1980s, Sayeed became a historical adviser to the ground-breaking Granada television series End of Empire, which looked at how Britain retreated from its colonial possessions.

The series featured special programmes on the Subcontinent, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Sayeed worked closely with the brilliant but mercurial director of the series, Allan Segal, helping to identify key individuals from the Partition period. He also travelled to India and Pakistan with the production team for the filming of the interviews. The series was broadcast in 1985 and won many awards. It also resulted in a deep friendship with Segal, who came to regard Sayeed as his elder brother.

Sayeed was never a prolific writer but, after 9/11, he developed a very productive partnership with his friend, the American academic Kurt Jacobsen, with whom he regularly wrote articles for Dawn and The Statesman on international politics and the US interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East. These hard-hitting articles were eventually published in two separate books, titled No Clean Hands and Parables of Permanent War. Sayeed never married: perhaps he was too much of a bohemian for that. He enjoyed the company of many women friends and that enjoyment was clearly reciprocated. He was a man of great warmth, charm and humour, a trusted and sympathetic confidant and a source of wise and practical advice.

Above all, he had time for his friends, made them feel valued and was never judgmental. Though he was known to many of his Pakistan friends as Nawab Sahib, he lived simply and would arrive in England for a six-month stay with only a small suitcase. Away from Pakistan, he had learnt to be a competent cook and was cooking curries well into his 80s for parties in Kentish Town, where he stayed with his friend Sabby Saggal. He did, however, retain some of the positive characteristics of his forebears: he would regularly use his influence to help others and he was always a most hospitable and generous host.

When his European wanderings ceased about 10 years ago, he retired to the family home in Karachi, which his ageing parents had established in 1970 when they finally joined their children in Pakistan. He lived there, supported and cherished by his younger brother, Asad, his wife Nasreen and his four nephews and nieces, of whom he was immensely proud. Earlier this month, after a short illness, his extraordinary life of “incorrigible drift” came to an end. He is mourned by his many friends in Pakistan, India, the UK and across the world. It will be a much duller place without him.