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Column: Pakistan and the Cold War

Updated January 05, 2014
Lahore Fort	— Photo by White Star
Lahore Fort — Photo by White Star

ON a sunny evening on November 19, 1960, Major Ishaq Mohammad (the veteran Leftist leader) walked into Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s room in the Lahore Arts Council. Faiz looked very worried and asked Ishaq to accompany him to a restaurant. There he asked Ishaq whether he knew who was imprisoned in the Lahore Fort. Ishaq hesitated and then said that it was perhaps Hasan Nasir. Ishaq, who had also been imprisoned at the Fort for a month, had been released in October. While there, a prison guard had told him that someone from Karachi was being interrogated there, hence the conjecture (see Ishaq, Major Mohammad (1975): Hasan Nasir Ki Shahadat).

Faiz nodded his head and said that indeed Nasir was in the Lahore Fort and was being tortured. Ishaq was aware of the conditions in the Fort and had met those who had suffered torture at the hands of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the branch of the police that was responsible for internal security. Ishaq, aided by Mian Mahmud Ali Kasuri, filed a habeas corpus appeal in the Lahore court to ascertain Nasir’s condition.

Accepting the appeal, the Lahore High Court on November 22, 1960, passed a judgment asking the state to produce the detained prisoner in court. In response to the court orders the government filed an affidavit through the Assistant Deputy Inspector General (ADIG) of the CID on November 24 which stated that Hasan Nasir was bought to Lahore on September 13 after his arrest in Karachi (on August 6, under the Security Act of Pakistan, for a detention period of one year). The affidavit affirmed that this was done at the behest of the CID so that the Intelligence Bureau could interrogate him in Lahore. The interrogation ended on October 29 and a message was sent to the superintendent of police (CID) in Karachi that the prisoner could be transferred back. This message was repeated on November 5. On November 13, at 12:40 pm, the ADIG received a call from the line officer at the Lahore Fort that Hasan Nasir was found hanging in his cell at 11am that morning and that all efforts to revive him failed.

The death in custody had not been publicly acknowledged until the filing of Ishaq’s petition. The ADIG’s affidavit speculated on the cause of the death. It stated that after being informed of his eventual transfer to Karachi, Nasir started remaining sad and was very anxious that the people he had named and betrayed during his interrogation would be now arrested and tortured like him. A further reason for his death was given by the state’s attorney general who said that Nasir had become deeply depressed after receiving his mother’s letter which mentioned his father’s failing health and hence he hanged himself with a pajama cord.

Despite the government officials’ reasons for Nasir’s “suicide,” Ishaq and his colleagues insisted on his body being exhumed. They wanted to determine whether Nasir had really committed suicide or had succumbed to torture.

Hasan Nasir was born in 1928 in the principality of Hyderabad in British India. Young Nasir came to Pakistan in the summer of 1948 and joined the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). He may have been distantly related to Sajjad Zaheer, the designated secretary general of the CPP, and met him in Bombay before leaving for Pakistan. Nasir was one of the first few full-timers in the Karachi District Organising Committee of the CPP. By 1949 he was also one of the members from Sindh on the party’s Central Committee. Hardly 20 years old, Nasir had become active in the CPP’s inner circle, working with the trade union movement, the progressive writers and overseeing the distribution of Naya Zamana, the CPP periodical. During the 1950s, Nasir lived and conducted his politics in Karachi, under conditions of worker suppression. He was first arrested after the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case in 1951, but was released within a year. He spent part of his detention in the Lahore Fort. In 1954, when the CPP was banned, Nasir was picked up again and exiled from the country; most probably, he spent this time in India, returning to Pakistan in 1955. There may have been a few more arrests in the 1950s which he spent in the Karachi Central Jail. After surviving mostly underground and evading arrest since the October of 1958, when martial law was declared in the country by General Mohammad Ayub Khan, Nasir was arrested for the final time in August 1960.

In the late 1950s, the political system in Pakistan was bordering on the farcical. A legitimately elected civilian government may have been the only way out of the social and political impasse the country was in. Instead, on October 8, 1958 president Iskander Mirza, with the support of the army chief Ayub Khan, suspended the Constitution, dismissed the provincial and central governments, banned political parties and indefinitely postponed elections. In a counter coup, on October 28, Ayub Khan sent Iskander Mirza into exile and took over power. After acquiring extra constitutional powers, the army immediately clamped down on all kinds of political activities, put major politicians under house arrest, curtailed press freedoms and other civil liberties. Further, the new regime had a clear anti-communist and anti-labour stance which was partly due to its close alliance with the US as Pakistan had started to serve on the front lines of the US anti-communist policy in the region.

The CPP was formed in 1948, when the Pakistani state was becoming increasingly enmeshed in Cold War politics. British and US intelligence agencies worked closely with the higher echelons of the Pakistani state to curtail the “communist threat.” While Pakistan’s political and military leadership entered the country into US-sponsored anti-communist treaties such as SEATO and CENTO in the 1950s, the high point of this relationship came in the 1960s, during the Ayub era, when US surveillance planes flew over the Soviet Union and along the Chinese border from the Badaber air station near Peshawar, with tactical support provided by the Pakistan Air Force. Ayub Khan’s coup was hence hailed by the US and he was considered a major leader in keeping the communist menace at bay in Asia.

The change in the political atmosphere renewed the fear of arrest among activists in the trade union movement and in left politics, forcing them to go underground. Nasir was by then working as the office secretary of the newly formed left of centre, National Awami Party, but was also active in the by now illegal underground Communist Party and trade union activities. Due to his many stints in prison, Nasir was well aware that the state reacts by arresting political workers in moments of national crisis. He also understood how the law could be manipulated to equip security services with the tools to harass political opponents. Throughout the 1950s, Nasir witnessed scores of political workers, many belonging to the Communist Party, the trade union movement and progressive political alliances, being taken to police stations, jails, lockups and prisons under the Public Safety Act or the Security Act of Pakistan. Among all the sites of interrogation and detention, the most dreaded place was the Lahore Fort.

A Mughal era citadel, since the British period the Lahore Fort had special holding and interrogation cells that were used for the imprisonment and torture of people arrested under the Defence of India Act. After Independence, the Fort was handed over to the CID.

In the 1950s, Lal Khan, an activist in the worker’s front and also a former member of the CPP, was taken to the Lahore Fort for interrogation. In an affidavit submitted in the Hasan Nasir case, Khan said that he was arrested under the Public Safety Act in 1951 and was held for almost two years (see Hasan Nasir ki Shahadat). He was arrested again in 1954 for six months and in 1958 for five months. His last arrest was in 1960, when he spent one month in jail.

During all his detentions, Khan was brought to the Lahore Fort for short periods of time. In his affidavit Khan said that the first time he was taken to the Fort in 1951 he was subjected to various kinds torture, including physical beatings, sexual assaults and people touching his private parts. He was threatened that if he did not listen to the authorities, his wife would undergo the same treatment. During Ramzan, while he was fasting, water was forced down his throat and he would be tortured further.

Khan stated under oath that during September and October of 1960, when he was being held in the Lahore Fort, he could hear people crying and pleading for their lives. Hasan Nasir was also being held in the Lahore Fort during those months. The cries of agony Khan heard may have come from Nasir’s cell. This is, of course, speculation; after all, there could have been many other prisoners in the Fort at that time. However, only one death was confirmed during the next month, that of Hasan Nasir.

It needs to be understood that being in a police lock up or in Karachi’s Central Prison may have been different from being in the Lahore Fort, the seat of power of the dreaded CID and the Intelligence Bureau. Where Nasir could have perhaps resisted the demands of the prison authorities, in the Fort such resistance would have led to more torture. Or perhaps Nasir remained silent, not offering to speak and provide a confession. The prisoner can always remain silent (or be stunned by violence into silence) where speech is needed and thus challenge the interrogator’s power; a mimesis of death (silence), which is the ultimate threat to the body, is enacted by the captive himself, at times increasing the intensity of torture. Silence in this case is the absence of confession, as the prisoner does make audible noises due to pain and agony. Did his silence require an intensification of violence on Nasir’s body by the state structure, to tame through torture and interrogation the “disorder” residing in his specific body, and through the exercise of this material power, spread fear over a larger population? At the same time, the increase of violence is also the failure of interrogation and death during the process breaks the cycle altogether. In these terms, Nasir’s death, a loss for his family and comrades, also became the limit of the interrogation itself — the speaking body with a possible confession was no more.

State-sponsored torture and interrogation is geared toward making the prisoner provide information or confess to a crime. It is a practice through which the state (or power) takes control of the captive’s body and enacts power on it, brutalising it, in order to make it speak. Yet, as anthropologist Allen Feldman argues in his book, Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, there is also another aspect to torture. Whether it generates valuable information through violence or not, torture serves as a method of inscribing fear into captives, and through their example, into the larger community. The state reproduces its power through these bodies; although “worked upon” in intimate spaces, they have a generalised affect on the population and people avoid those “polluted” by this ritual of violence. Writing about the disappearances of political workers in Argentina by the military junta in the late 1970s, anthropologist Antonius Robben discusses how the secrecy of some of the deaths in the confines of the detention centre produced multiple effects of fear, silence, suspicion and terror, although it did also lead to a proliferation of human rights organisations that dared to ask questions, as in the case of Ishaq’s appeal.

Anthropologist Katherine Verdery argues in her book, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, that dead bodies animate the study of politics as corpses represent the lives of complex humans whose curriculum vitae enables us to scrutinise not only their life histories but also of those who were contemporaries of the deceased. Perhaps Hasan Nasir’s death calls for further investigations of life histories in the present historical moment in Pakistan where scores remain disappeared, there is constant news of extra-judicial killings from Balochistan and elsewhere, and deaths in custody continue. Irrespective of the political and ideological convictions of the victims, the state is responsible for the safety and bodily integrity of all who live within its territorial boundaries. The memory of Nasir’s death encourages us to follow Major Ishaq’s daring action in supporting habeas corpus appeals and joining the struggle to ban all forms of torture and cruel and inhumane treatment by the state and its actors.

ON December 4, 1960, Hasan Nasir’s mother, Mrs Zohra Alambardar Hussein, arrived in Lahore from Hyderabad, India. She wanted to be present at the exhumation and after identification, take her son’s body with her to India. After the exhumation of the body in the Miani Saheb graveyard on December 12, 1960, Mrs Hussein gave a court ordered statement claiming that the exhumed body, despite Lahore’s cold weather, was in an advanced stage of decomposition and unrecognisable. She further stated that she did not think the body was that of Hasan Nasir’s and refused to take possession of it. It was handed over to the Anarkali Police Station for reburial. The mother went back without her son.


Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin