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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 6 New Delhi January 26, 2019 - Republic Day Special

Pakistan: An Alternative Perspective

Monday 28 January 2019, by Gargi Chakravartty



People’s Movements in Pakistan by Aslam Khwaja; The Marginalised Publication, Wardha and Delhi; 2017; Rs 800.

At a time when there is so much communal polarisation in our country with a spate of hate politics towards minorities, particularly the Muslims, manufactured by a series of distorted historical facts and endorsed by a Right-wing government whose sole aim is the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra by poisoning the minds of the ordinary people with slogans of ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’, Aslam Khwaja’s People’s Movements in Pakistan breaks the stereotyped image of our neighbouring country with mines of information about the struggle of the common men and women for their democratic, economic and political rights. Each chapter gives an account of the history of struggle, covering vast areas from the working class, peasantry, women to the intelligentsia and students. Their battle against the military dictatorship or autocratic government hardly finds any space in our media, such is the appalling lack of information about our next-door neighbour! In this regard Noor Zaheer’s perceptive Introduction is a valuable addition.

This book traces the history of the Baloch people’s struggle since the 1940s. There are interesting information about how the Soviet role in the Second World War was being looked upon as a force to break “the chain of slavery of the Baloch fastened by British imperialism”. There are detailed accounts of the Kalat State Nationalist Party (KSNP) and its association with the All India State People’s Conference in the mid-forties. Later the demand for a full provincial status for Balochistan was included in the demands charter of the Pakistan National Party (PNP) that was formed in 1956 with Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan as its first President. But from 1958 onwards the Pakistan Army moved in and since then it has been a story of resistance, arrests and rebellions. From the days when General Ayub Khan had handed over power to the Army Chief Yahya Khan in 1969 to the emergence of General Musharaff in 1999 with the determined fight to finish off the struggle of Balochistan, this chapter, replete with political happenings having international implications, offers a fascinating spectrum of the people’s struggle to the readers.

I am not going into the details of the turmoils in the political history of Pakistan—the declaration of Martial Law on October 7, 1958, with enforcement of PRODA, resignation of Ayub Khan in 1969 amid the uprising in East Pakistan, handing over power by General Yahya Khan to Z.A. Bhutto on December 7, 1970, declaration of the Simla Agreement between India and Pakistan in 1972, recognition of Bangladesh by Pakistan on February 21, 1974, enforcement of Martial Law by General Zia-ul-Haq on July 5, 1977 and suspension of the Constitution with a ban on political activities, followed by the arrest of Z.A. Bhutto.

The struggle against Zia-ul-Haq with two jail bharo movements of 1983 and 1986 respectively reflects the era of the people’s struggles for democracy, for the end of Martial Law, for elections and, above all, for socio-economic rights. The author has shown with facts and figures how the Left support tilted the movement towards restoration of democracy by forging an alliance of many parties and projecting the issues of the general masses in the charter of demands. A 12-page booklet, titled ‘Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD)’, by Marxist intellectual Dr Feroz Ahmed and other Pakistani exiles in the USA being smuggled into the country had huge repercussions. Apart from the reports of the arrest of MRD workers, mass murders, protest rallies, this chapter gives a day-to-day account of the massive struggle by the people. Finally, general elections were held on November 16, 1988 in which the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won 91 and the Islamic Jamhori Ittehad (IJI) secured 54 seats. On December 2, 1988, Benazir Bhutto was sworn in as the first woman Prime Minister of Pakistan. But she was dislodged in the next general elections which saw Nawaz Sharief becoming the Prime Minister. These political ups and downs may be known to the people at large but the most precious feature about the book is the document of struggle by the common people in their respective areas.

BESIDES an overall narration of the formation of early communist groups and elaborate description of the RIN rebellion of 1946, less known accounts of sweepers’ movement, formation of the ‘Khidmatgar Union’ of the domestic female workers, Municipal Women Sweepers’ Union, female bangle makers, Female Fabric Workers’ Association in the 1940s are presented in detail. But those chapters in which the author delves deep into the post-independence trade union struggles arising out of industrial disputes comprise the most important part of the book. Only 7.3 per cent factories out of a total of 14,677 in united India came within the territory of Pakistan. Though in 1947, only 1.5 per cent of the overall population of 33 million were industrial workers, the Communist Party of Pakistan played a pivotal role in industrial disputes. Description of the formation of the Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF) in January 1948 with 50 trade union bodies organising several strikes, demonstrations on various labour issues, railway workers’ protest, strikes by the Karachi Port Trust, Karachi Tramway Service, formation of the Post and Telegraph Union gives us an idea of the wide range of trade union activities, not just limiting to demands for nationalisation of big industries and other trade union activities but more importantly taking up such political issues as criticising Pakistan’s foreign policy as well as pressing for a democratic government and release of all political prisoners. The battle for economic rights and the subsequent and continuous suppression of the workers’ movement by the government is a story not known to the people on this side of the border. What comes out very clearly from the analysis is how the working class movement influenced the overall struggle for democracy in Pakistan.

Z.A. Bhutto’s regime was a mixture of different trends, initially positive with the nationalisation of private companies and right to strike etc. being guaranteed; but soon he came out in his true colours, brutally dispersing labour demonstrations, killing a few workers in Karachi etc. The outcome was a complete strike by the latter for 12 consecutive days and Bhutto’s party was forced to bring about labour reforms mainly due to the pressure of the trade union movement. In spite of repression 6000 workers of the Karachi shipyard went on strike in 1979 for two-and-a-half months. In August 1980 there was a strike by the Municipal Workers’ Union in Rawalpindi for 15 days, and this was followed by the arrest of the leaders. These are just a few of the workers’ struggles at that time. At the same time it is an eye-opener for all of us to know how the formation of the Labour Alliance in Karachi sparked a democratic struggle against the Martial Law regime. (p. 321) It is interesting to note that “the monopoly on wealth and resources by a few pushed not only the working class but middle classes, students, lawyers, teachers” into struggle under the local socialist leadership. (p. 295) Adoption of the new Constitution in 1973, that gave equal status to all citizens, was in itself a victory for the democratic forces.

The chapter on peasant struggles is equally replete with countless information, starting with the Sindh Hari Committee’s slogan of Adho Adh Batei (equal share in produce) in 1947, observing January 15, 1950 as a day against feudalism and zamindari, formation of the Mazdoor Kisan Awami Rabita Committee by the Communists, the West Pakistan Kisan Commitee in 1968. One of the female activists of the movement, Akhtar Baloch, wrote her prison diary in Sindhi. Though the Communist Party was banned in June 1954 and the Kisan Committees were also banned because of their earlier movements, “many mainstream political parties were committed to bring about some sort of land reforms”. (p. 357) There are descriptions of huge kisan conferences in 1962, and also the formation of the East Pakistan Krishak Samity and Anjuman Mazareen Punjab (AMP), clashes with the police in the later period, marking the emergence of women’s leadership in the AMP, participation of women and formation of the Peasant Women Samity in 2008 spreading its units in seven districts of Punjab. The author, in his analysis about the failure of the peasant movement in the initial days of General Zia’s rule, mentions about the collusion of the feudal class with the military against the peasantry.

The chapter on the role of progressive writers and artists is highly interesting, as the perspective of those intellectuals was not confined to the realm of art only, but they took up political positions. The first Pakistan Progressive Writers’ Conference in Lahore on November 11-13, 1949 discussed in its manifesto on how “to break down the existing capitalist and feudal system and establish a people’s democratic system based on a socialist economy”. A feature film, Jago Hua Savera, that was not allowed to be screened for more than three days in Karachi, won the Gold Medal at Moscow Film Festival in 1959. Besides the narration of such accounts of cultural and literary upsurge, the author critically appraises the role of the Pakistani progressive writers for their silence on the issue of the massascre in Bengal by the Pakistani Army. Ironically none of those writers raised the issue of the right to self-determination for the East Pakistani populace while they had been demanding the same right for the peoples of other Asian, African and Latin American nations. But it has also been mentioned that soon after books written by Bangladeshi writers highlighting the atrocities against the Bengali people were translated and came out in Pakistan. In this chapter one finds the inner story of the PWA and also a list of 28 books written from behind the prison walls by prisoners including the women serving sentences there.

WE also come to know about the struggle of Muslim women for their right to divorce, against the feudal mentality and patriarchy, also the role of Jahanara Shahnawaz (one of the two women members in Pakistan’s first legislature) in particular. As early as in 1948 the Muslim Personal Law of the Shariat recognised women’s rights to inherit property including agricultural property. A panoramic view of events—inception in Lahore of the Democratic Women’s Association (an affiliated body of the Communist Party of Pakistan), a member of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) in 1968, celebration of the International Women’s Day on March 8, the All Pakistan Women’s Association, a welfare-centric organisation enjoying full government support, the United Front for Women’s Rights in 1955 pushing for pro-women legislations, role of women in the language movement in East Pakistan in 1952 with special mention of Anwara Khatun (who participated in the movement as a close associate of Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy, Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), the ultra-feminist activism during 1974-75—has enormously enriched the book. [Besides fighting for their gender rights, many political activist women suffered for their resistance to the military governments. Several of them were arrested for violating the ban on political activities.]

Similarly, the movements by press workers and students throw light on so many incidents in Karachi, Balochistan, Sindh etc.

This book is a must read particularly now when people here in India are obsessed with the baggage of Partition and influenced by the poisonous propaganda against Indian Muslims being agents of Pakistan with a manufactured narrative of ‘othering’ and divisiveness. People need to know the real story of Pakistan, of the struggle of the Pakistani people for democracy and good neighbourliness with India. The author has chronicled the sacrifices made by a large number of men and women, their successes and failures and the stories of those who had the courage to pursue their dreams of equality and justice.

I wish the book was divided into sections and sub-sections with historical background, the political history of the movements for democracy with special references of the role of various classes as has been meticulously portrayed. The book undoubtedly carries a huge treasure of information, facts and data. A separate chapter on the Partition and its impact, especially the reactions and responses of the common people to a theocratic Constitution and the fight of the Left democratic forces on this issue would have presented us with yet another alternative story to be conveyed to the people at large. However, the publication in itself provides an alternative perspective of Pakistan quite distinct from the prevailing narrative of anti-Pakistan rhetoric one finds in large sections of the Indian media today.

In view of the intense cold war propaganda currently affecting India-Pakistan relations, I would like to conclude with what Nikhil Chakravartty wrote years ago:

“The Partition has not only divided the country between two territorial entities but has succeeded in instilling into us with amazing emphasis the fear and hatred of the image of a monster living across the frontier. Whatever the politicians may say or do, it is time that at the level of the common people, there must spread the fresh air of freedom. It’s time indeed for people-to-people diplomacy between Pakistan and India.” [From an article “Pakistan: Reporter’s Jottings” in Mainstream (May 13, 1995) and included in India-Pakistan: Themes beyond Borders—Selections from Nikhil Chakravartty’s Writings (published in 2004 by Konark Publishers Private Limited, Delhi-110092), pp. 322-323]

This book is indeed a milestone in that direction, a departure from the stereotyped view of our neighbouring state.

The reviewer is a former Associate Professor of History, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi. She is presently a Vice-President of the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW).

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