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The revolution that never happened

Updated September 26, 2013

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Backdoor of the Communist Party office in Lahore. -Photo by Malik Usman
Backdoor of the Communist Party office in Lahore. -Photo by Malik Usman
The law of resistance is a strange phenomenon of nature – a sapling growing against the weight of hard earth; an animal growing stronger in a hostile environment; the will of life to survive in the face of impending death. Perhaps, this can explain the romance and optimism that many of us felt during the repressive regime of General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s of Pakistan.

We had shifted from Rawalpindi to Karachi when I was five years old. My father, Aslam Azhar, had already established PTV in Pakistan, and had been transferred to the State Film Authority by Z A. Bhutto, who found his ideas too independent. When Ziaul Haq came to power he sacked all progressive minded professionals from government institutions, including my father. I vividly remember the solemn atmosphere in our house when Bhutto was hanged in Central Jail Rawalpindi a few years later.

It was in Karachi that my father was introduced to Mansoor Saeed, who convinced him to actively join the growing Left movement in Pakistan, and our families became joined as one. Mansoor and my father founded the Dastak theatre group in Karachi, which was the only group in Pakistan, besides Ajoka in Lahore, which sought to raise political awareness through theatre, in the face of a brutal regime. This is where Mansoor’s talented daughter Sania Saeed gained her initial experience in acting and went on to become one of the most highly acclaimed actresses of Pakistani television today.

Aslam Azhar and Mansoor Saeed, best friends and pillars of political theatre in Karachi.
Aslam Azhar and Mansoor Saeed, best friends and pillars of political theatre in Karachi.

In those days the doors of our house used to be left open, and there were always people walking in and out. Often in one room there’d be a rehearsal going on, while in the other room, a students or trade union meeting would be taking place. A lot of young people joined our theatre group at this time, and Dastak managed to produce several major productions, on a totally voluntary basis. People were dedicated to a cause and there was no question of making money out of our political work.

The most memorable play produced during this time was the magnificent Urdu translation by Mansoor Saeed of the German play ‘The Life of Galileo’ by Bertolt Brecht. I am still astonished to remember the dedication and energy that went into this massive three-hour production, by people who had little or no prior experience in theatre, and who happily volunteered their time. In fact, my parents were the only ones with real theatre experience and my father directed everybody magnificently. ‘The life of Galileo’, or ‘Galileo ki Daastaan’ as it was called in Urdu, was about the revolutionary 16th Century Italian scientist Galileo, who was able to prove that the Earth revolves around the Sun. His enlightened ideas incurred the resentment and repression of the establishment and the Catholic Church, who feared that if people started questioning the order of the Universe, then there was nothing stopping them from questioning social order also – of why the state revolves around the Church and the poor revolve around the rich!

Galileo ki Daastaan: Nasreen Azhar, Aslam Azhar and Mansoor Saeed on the stage of the Rio auditorium Karachi.
Galileo ki Daastaan: Nasreen Azhar, Aslam Azhar and Mansoor Saeed on the stage of the Rio auditorium Karachi.

‘Galileo’ was the ideal analogy to the state of affairs in Pakistan, where a repressive state regime aided by fundamentalist religious ideology was clamping down on all enlightened ideas, and we were worried that the censor board would completely decimate the script. But to our relief and surprise, the content had gone completely over their heads and the only lines which they did strike out of the script were those that mentioned the drinking and making of wine! By the time they realised their mistake, ‘Galileo’ was already creating ripples in the political and social circles of Karachi.

Aslam Azhar and Usama Azhar during the dress rehearsal of Galileo at the Rio auditorium, Karachi.
Aslam Azhar and Usama Azhar during the dress rehearsal of Galileo at the Rio auditorium, Karachi.

While ‘Galileo’ was performed at the old Rio Auditorium of Karachi, with a nominal ticket fee to cover the rent, Dastak also organised plays in the impoverished locations of Karachi. The biggest production was another Urdu translation of a Brecht play, called ‘Saint Joan of the Stockyards’ – about a fictional Joan of Arc, who is a factory worker leading a workers revolt. Dastak performed this play during the week-long celebrations in Karachi, marking the 100th anniversary of May Day, in 1986. Several workers’ unions had blocked off the main road leading into the Site Area of Karachi, and constructed a large stage in the middle of the road. Four thousand workers sat on the ground in front of the stage and followed the three-hour play in pin drop silence. The set of the play required factories in the background, so for this production my father had designed an abstract outdoor set, which served simply to highlight the actual factories of Site Area, which could be seen behind the stage!

The week-long festivities and demonstrations ended with a massive torch-lit procession in Karachi where thousands of trade union workers, students and activists marched peacefully and purposefully, with the flames of their torches reflecting in their eyes through Sadar Market without a single violent incident.

More recent demonstrations on May Day 2010 by what remains of the left in Pakistan.
More recent demonstrations on May Day 2010 by what remains of the left in Pakistan.

It was at this memorable torch-lit demo in 1986, when I was 14-years-old, that I discovered another use of my voice. I had climbed onto the roof of a truck parked on the side of the street, and sat perched on top, awe struck at the magnificent sight of the sea of humanity lit up around me.

I plucked up the courage and shouted out a slogan, “Mazdoor itihad!

And to my amazement a multitude of voices resounded, “Zindabad!

The feeling was comparable to being on stage in front of a charged and sympathetic audience. I lost all fear and felt the power of my voice, magnified in a thousand voices – and almost drove myself hoarse raising one slogan after another.

It was then that someone from the crowd recognised me and shouted up at me, “Comrade, don’t you know that the ‘Voices’ group is leading the procession and singing songs from the back of a Suzuki pick-up? They’re calling for you also!”

Voices was a music group founded in the 80s by Shahid Bhutto and Bedil Masroor, that used to sing revolutionary songs, including poetry by Sheikh Ayaz and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. I clambered down from the truck and pushed and elbowed my way to reach the front of the procession. And sure enough, in front of the torch-lit tidal wave, there was a Suzuki pick-up, with music blaring through speakers fitted on the top. I climbed on in the back and joined my voice with that of the group, straining to be the loudest.

In the 80s, General Ziaul Haq, having allied himself with Reagan’s imperialist policies and Saudi funded religious fundamentalism, personified all that the Communist Party of Pakistan stood against. And we were all caught up in the fervor of revolution, which, we were convinced, was imminent. At the core of that movement, was the underground and highly secretive Communist Party of Pakistan, the CPP. It had several ‘fronts’ and affiliations – in the form of trade unions, such as the Peoples Democratic Workers Union of the Steel Mills and the Railway Workers Union; the Democratic Students Federation and National Students Federation in the universities; the Progressive Writers Movement and Sindhi Adabi Sangat amongst the intellectuals; the Anjuman Jamhooriat Pasand Khawateen amongst women: the affiliated Mazdoor Kissan Party and the Sindh Hari Committee in the rural areas; and even a children’s’ organisation, Saathi Baar Sangat in the government schools of Sindh, in which I was active. There were also several smaller organizations, as well as individuals who were ‘sympathetic’ to the cause.

The feeling was like being part of a great big family that was about to bring change to Pakistan. When we spoke to each other on the phone, we would sometimes jokingly start the conversation with, “Comrade, the revolution has arrived!”

The Communist Party of Pakistan itself had been formed out of the Communist Party of India, after partition, which thought that the new fragile state of Pakistan was ripe for a Socialist revolution. It had gone underground after the failed coup attempt of 1951, popularly known as the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, in which several of its leaders were jailed, and had actively continued to work underground ever since. It supported the Awami League of East Pakistan and so incurred the wrath of both General Ayub Khan and Z A. Bhutto, during whose time it supported the unsuccessful armed revolt of Balochistan. It also advocated militant trade unionism, and often, blindly, followed directives from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

It survived brutal repression under successive governments by organising itself in a closely-knit underground group, divided into ‘cells’. Each cell would be composed of around five to 15 members, out of which only one person would have connections with a ‘higher cell’, while the rest would only know the names and functions of their own cell members with any certainty. In this way, it managed to keep its organisation secret, even when members were picked up and interrogated under torture. It is ironic that this same organisational method was later adopted by right wing religious militant groups.

In August 1988, General Ziaul Haq, together with other top generals of the Pakistan armed forces, the American ambassador to Pakistan, and the head of the US military aid mission to Pakistan, were killed in a plane crash near Bahawalpur. Two years later, Boris Yeltsin wrestled control from Gorbachev and declared Russia’s sovereignty over its own territories, and thus began the dissolution of the USSR.

These two events took the Communist Party of Pakistan completely by surprise. For the first time in many years, major ideological differences began to emerge within the party. The fact was that though the leaders of the Communist Party were genuinely well-intentioned, they were unable to pass on their ideology to the younger cadre, who were impatient to contest their ideas in open politics, instead of acting as an underground think tank and pressure group.

They had managed to get away with their lack of inclusive debate and open discourse, while there was a vicious and imminent enemy in front of them, in the shape of General Zia. Once that was taken away, they turned to their ideological Big Brother, the Soviet Union, only to find it hollow with corruption and disillusionment.

These concerns were far from our minds during the mid 80s, when we were caught in the dream of a Red revolution. For us junior activists – the notion that our leaders could have been wrong about anything was inconceivable. I was already aware that several people who visited our house in those days were members of the CPP, even members of the Central Committee (though I was never sure) and I would sit in as long as I was allowed, wide eyed, in their discussions, that would stretch on late into the night.

I, therefore, felt privileged, when one day my father introduced us to a senior comrade, Akbar Sahab, and announced that he was going to be shifting in with us for a while in our house in PECHS, Karachi, and sharing my room even; and that if anyone asked, we were to say that he was just a visiting relative. I had guessed that Akbar Sahab was a senior underground member of the CPP, but I cannot express my elation when I discovered a few days later that my new roommate was none other than Comrade Imam Ali Nazish, the legendary General Secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan, who had been underground since the 1950s!

Comrade Imam Ali Nazish was a beautiful old man, constantly sick, because of the hard life he had led as a fugitive, but one of the most ‘alive’ and (hopelessly) optimistic people I have ever met. He had sacrificed his whole life for the cause and owned nothing in the world, except for the conviction of his ideas. He was a poet (writing under the pseudonym of Nazish Amrovi) and a revolutionary at heart, and the humblest of men. In the few odd months that he stayed with us, this intelligent and obstinate old man, with his bright eyes, youthful spirit and his incessant coughing fits (that would keep me up most of the night) became closer to us than family. One of the greatest tragedies of the left movement of Pakistan is the fact that the extraordinary life of Imam Ali Nazish has never been documented and he is hardly even remembered.

In the national elections of 1988 after General Zia’s death, the Communist Party of Pakistan decided to come out of hiding and even fielded a candidate of their own to contest a seat from Tharpakar. This candidate was none other than Comrade Jam Saqi, who had recently been released after seven years of imprisonment. We, from the Democratic Students Federation, Karachi, also went in a few buses to campaign for his election, but Jam Saki didn't stand a chance against his feudal rival from Tharpakar – Arbab Rahim himself.

Comrade Jam Saqi.
Comrade Jam Saqi.

During this time the ideological differences within the CPP became apparent to all, and for a while the Party became divided into two camps called ‘Majority’ and ‘Minority’. The ‘Majority’ (which was not the majority of the CPP but only the Central Committee) formed the old guard who wanted to continue acting as a pressure group and were suspicious of the changes being brought about by Yeltsin in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; while the ‘Minority’ represented the younger cadre, which wanted to move more towards Social Democracy and mainstream politics than old style Socialist activism.

In the end, the Communist Party of Pakistan could not provide a unified ideological answer to the changing political scenario and it eventually became divided into several smaller parties that became irrelevant in the new democratic Pakistan of Benazir Bhutto. Its thousands of committed members became scattered like leaves before a storm. Some joined NGOs, some became journalists or teachers; many more became disillusioned and depressed and resigned themselves to a world of individual gain and profit. But even now when they sometimes happen to meet, they share a secret – through a flicker in the eyes or a nod of the head – that they had once fought together against all odds, and had dared to dream of revolution.