Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Media: My feudal lords

Amnesty honoured him with its Journalism Under Threat award, but in Pakistan Najam Sethi is still persecuted.

Peter Popham
Monday 19 July 1999 23:02 BST

The hottest book in Pakistan's history hit bookshops around the world in 1994. Titled My Feudal Lord, and described on the cover of the Corgi edition as "a devastating indictment of women's role in Muslim society", it was an exhaustively frank account of the author's marriage to a feudal landlord who was also one of Pakistan's top politicians: Mustafa Khar, nicknamed by his followers "the Lion of Punjab".

Their marriage began with a passionate affair, adulterous on both sides. But it descended rapidly into nightmare, by Tehmina Durrani's account: a horror of bullying and beatings, over a period of 14 years. After five children and numerous break-ups, Durrani finally tore herself away for good to write the memoir.

The book yokes together some of the most powerful and influential people in Pakistan. Besides Mustafa Khar, the villain, there is Nawaz Sharif, the present prime minister of Pakistan and Mustafa Khar's deadly political enemy. And there is the rumpled figure of Najam Sethi, journalist and publisher.

Najam Sethi was the notable absentee at Amnesty International's Media Awards ceremony in London last month. He had been chosen for the "Journalism Under Threat" award, for his courage in continuing to bring out his irreverent Lahore weekly, The Friday Times, the only paper in Pakistan that dares to tease (and chastise) the increasingly dictatorial and paranoid government.

Sethi was about to board a plane to fly to London for the event when his passport was confiscated and he was forbidden to leave the country.

Najam Sethi and his wife, Jugnu Mohsin, who is the managing editor and publisher of The Friday Times, were in a roundabout way the original publishers of My Feudal Lord in 1991, long before Corgi or anyone else got wind of it. Book publishing is Sethi and Mohsin's core business; their imprint is called Vanguard, and as publishers they were familiar with controversy. An earlier title they published so infuriated the late military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, that he threw Sethi in jail for a month.

With her politically explosive story to tell, Tehmina Durrani was in need of a publisher with guts, and a mutual friend introduced her to Sethi. Amid much trepidation and fear of lawsuits or worse, the book came out in Pakistan in June 1991. As a legal precaution, the publisher's name appeared nowhere in the book, and in the contract Jugnu Mohsin was named as publisher (Sethi says that all three of them felt that Mustafa Khar would hesitate to take two women to court).

Durrani vested all foreign rights with Sethi and Mohsin, in exchange for a 50 per cent royalty on foreign sales. It was a happy, fruitful collaboration; in a coded acknowledgment in the first edition, Durrani thanked "four people without whom [the book] could not have seen the light of print... I cannot take the responsibility of naming them. I am indebted to them all." They included Sethi and Mohsin. The book was an instant sensation in Pakistan.

A happy ending? Fast-forward eight years, to 19 May 1999 in Lahore. The scene: Tehmina Durrani had called a press conference. The room was packed. Even the cameras of PTV, the state-controlled television network, were present.

There followed a long, rambling denunciation by Durrani of her former friend and publisher, Najam Sethi; a long list of crimes. The man had stolen her royalties, she said; he had insisted that the book was his; he had thrown away pages of the original contract and forged new ones in order to cheat her on foreign rights. His "blatant injustice" caused her "mental torture", she said. "Mr Sethi continued to take all the earnings from my life story while I brought up five children without any financial support from their father," she went on. Mr Sethi's behaviour was "an even bigger case of hypocrisy than my experience with the feudal system."

Reports of the press conference duly appeared the next day. But even Lahore's docile hacks could not resist remarking on its timing.

For Najam Sethi was missing, presumed in government detention. Ten days previously, government goons burst into his house, beat him up, tied up Mohsin and locked her in the bathroom, dragged Sethi outside, beat him some more, then blindfolded him and drove him away. Ten days on he was still being held at an unknown location. Mohsin went from court to court to get the authorities to produce him. So far no luck.

This was the moment their former friend chose to denounce Sethi.

Today, Tehmina Durrani is unrepentant. She is now suing Sethi for damages, claiming pounds 128,125 for mental torture (Sethi is countersuing her for defamation, claiming pounds 875,000). "All my liberal friends told me not to do it, that I would look bad, my image is bad, that people would feel I'm being used by the government," she told The Independent at her home in a Lahore suburb. "I told them, whoever wants to stop being my friend should go... I flatly deny being used by the government in this matter. I am never used by the government."

Najam Sethi finally came home on 4 June. The charge of sedition on which he had ostensibly been held was dropped. But he is not off the hook. He is now being buried alive under a blizzard of actions, legal and extra- legal. More than 50 demands for income tax, reviving long-agreed settlements, have landed on his desk. His phones are tapped. Every day for weeks his home phone line was physically cut - every day he had it repaired, the same night it was cut again. His journalists have been detained and threatened, one of them with death; three of them have quit in fear. A ruling party MP has urged that Sethi be declared a non-Muslim and banned from voting in elections because of "treachery". The unprecedented case comes before the Election Commissioner on 28 July.

The Independent has seen all the documents in the case of Tehmina Durrani versus Najam Sethi and his wife and company. Photocopies of cheques and receipts indicate that Sethi paid Durrani with un-publisher-like promptness. A dispute over foreign rights - when Durrani realised how much money she could make, she rejected the contract she had signed, which gave her 50 per cent of foreign earnings, and demanded the whole lot - was settled out of court in May 1992.

Since then, it is Sethi and Mohsin who have been the injured party: though retaining Pakistani rights in the book, they have been unable to shift copies because of slick, and cheaper, foreign paperbacks of the book flooding the country. Numerous letters to Durrani complaining of this went unanswered.

And now, after seven years of silence, Tehmina Durrani chose this moment to strike: at Sethi's moment of greatest vulnerability. The timing, she says, was because of income tax demands which suddenly arrived demanding tax on royalties Sethi was meant to have paid her. But by a bizarre coincidence, the tax officer who sent these demands, one Aslam Bhatti, is the man who has recently sent 50 demands to Najam Sethi.

It's all very odd. The hushed talk in Lahore is of secret deals, friends in high places. Maybe it has the makings of another book; maybe Tehmina Durrani is the person to write it.

Najam Sethi cannot shake off the memory of his detention: no contact with the outside, no idea whether it was night or day. "I sat looking at the ceiling," he said, "thinking of all the horrible things in the world... It was one of the most excruciating experiences in my life."

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in