The PPP jiyala: An existentialist history

Updated Oct 18 2014

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Contrary to belief that *jiyalas* are 'blind followers of the PPP ', the fact is that jiyalas have also been some of the harshest critics of the party that they so intensely love.
Contrary to belief that *jiyalas* are 'blind followers of the PPP ', the fact is that jiyalas have also been some of the harshest critics of the party that they so intensely love.

The word 'jiyala' has come down to become an iconic term in the realm of Pakistan's populist politics. Almost entirely associated (in this context) with diehard supporters and members of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

So, who or what is a PPP jiyala and where did he or she appear from; and why can such people only be found among the PPP's supporters, in spite of the fact that in the last two decades, almost all mainstream political parties have successfully adopted the antics of the country's first ever purveyor of populist politics, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (the founder of the PPP).

A jiyala is a PPP supporter who is bound to stick with the party or with the Bhutto family's overriding claim over the leadership of the PPP no matter what state the party is in. He or she would defend it passionately, even fight on the streets and campuses for it, and there have also been cases in which jiyalas have died for the party.

Also read: Stage set to launch Bhutto scion into practical politics

Contrary to belief, especially among the party's opponents, that jiyalas are 'blind followers of the PPP ' who unquestionably nod at everything that is dished out to them by the party, the fact is that jiyalas have also been some of the harshest critics of the party that they so intensely love.

There have been a number of reported cases in which jiyalas have publicly confronted the party's leadership over various issues. According to political economist and researcher, Haris Gazdar, the party's traditional voters remain passive and almost impersonal to the fate of the party when it is in power, but become highly active when it is in the opposition or facing a challenge from the establishment or the opposition.

Of course, the traditional voters of the PPP that Gazdar was talking about - mainly the rural peasants, small farmers and folks from the urban working classes - are not all jiyalas, but this shift from going passive to active in the context of Gazdar's initial findings is also reflective of the general jiyala mindset.

Jiyalas are at their most active and passionate when their party is in a political or existentialist crises.

My own experience as an active member of the PPP's student-wing, the Peoples Students Federation (PSF), between 1984 and 1989, facilitated my understanding of the above-mentioned mindset associated with jiyalas.

My close interaction with the party's leadership and support (in Karachi and the interior of Sindh), in the mid- and late 1980s, saw me being left rather baffled by the way many jiyalas switched from being daring, impassioned and uncritical activists and street fighters during the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship to becoming either disinterested or severely critical of the PPP leadership once the party was voted back into power in November 1988.

Also read: Bhutto and I

During the period when I was heading the PSF at a Karachi college, I met the student wing's leading member in the city, Najeeb Ahmed, on a couple of occasions and saw him rise to become PSF's president in Karachi.

He had good relations (as did we all) with the PPP's Sindh leadership and no questions were ever asked of its decisions. Zia and his supporters were the enemies and the party and the Bhutto family was the victim.

Most differences within the student wing were resolved by the party's Sindh leadership, and questioning these resolutions was like betraying the party's cause.

I remember during the massive rally that Benazir Bhutto held in Lahore after her return from exile in 1986, a group of PSF members began torching an American flag (because the US was supporting the Zia regime).

Benazir (from the rostrum) castigated the young men, asking them not to burn the flag because this is what Zia would like to show to the Americans (that what a dangerous militant Benazir was and how she will pull Pakistan out of the anti-Soviet 'jihad' in Afghanistan).

Not a groan or a whine emerged from the flag burners.

 Benazir surrounded by jiyalas on her return from exile in 1986.
Benazir surrounded by jiyalas on her return from exile in 1986.

It was Benazir, after all - the young daughter of Bhutto, the woman who’d spent years rotting in Zia's jails and under house arrest, and now here she was, taking on a powerful military dictator; up against a wily tyrant with a proven taste for getting dissidents tortured, publicly flogged and hanged. Questioning her at that stage by a jiyala was next to impossible.

A passionate ideological myopia grips the jiyala when the party is struggling against a 'conspiring enemy'. But what happens when the party outsmarts the enemy and comes into power?

Also read: Riding the arrow: An ideological history of the PPP

Najeeb Ahmed, the president of PSF's Karachi wing, was born in November 1963, in a lower middle-class, mohajir (Urdu-speaking) family of Karachi. At the age of 23 he rose to become PSF's president in the city, while he was enrolled as a student at the Karachi University.

As I remember him, Najeeb was a highly perceptive and witty man, but also extremely volatile and given to impulsive acts of both bravado, as well as outright violence.

Not much of a reader, Najeeb, however, loved music (especially Jagjit Singh), a good amount of the jolly drink, and was intense about all of his latest romantic escapades.

I last saw him at a PSF rally just before the post-Zia 1988 election, where I advised my batch of the student wing's contingent to join ranks with an MQM car rally at Boat Basin in Karachi. He screamed at me: 'Paracha! Why are you doing this? MQM did not do anything to help us fight Zia!'

 Najeeb Ahmed with a PSF comrade in 1988.
Najeeb Ahmed with a PSF comrade in 1988.

Yes, the PPP was close to grabbing power and that switch in the jiyalas from being unquestioning foot soldiers to becoming angry critics had begun.

In early 1989 when the new Benazir regime decided to make the MQM its parliamentary ally, some Urdu dailies carried a report in which Najeeb was reported to have actually slapped Sindh's new Chief Minster at a public gathering!

I wasn't surprised. And neither was I surprised that Benazir did not expel Najeeb. Contrary to what former PPP jiyala and young advisor to Z A. Bhutto, Raja Anwar, wrote in his otherwise excellent book, 'The Terrorist Prince', Benazir never forgot what young PPP/PSF activists went through during her struggle against the Zia regime.

Throughout her two aborted tenures as PM in the 1990s, I (this time as a journalist), did not find even a single jiyala who'd publicly whine and groan about her regime's shortcomings being reprimanded for this.

I was present on numerous occasions (at Z A Bhutto's residence in Karachi, '70 Clifton'), where I saw Bhutto's widow, late Nusrat Bhutto, addressing the incensed jiyalas' complaints, most of whom went right back to passionately defending Benazir every time her regime was toppled through what she said were 'constitutional coups' (1991; 1996).

Today, jiyalas come in many shapes and sizes. In fact, anyone prepared to defend the PPP is called a jiyala. It's become more of an all-encompassing term than an act. As an act it meant an act of passion and defiance against certain oppressive odds.

It is baffling for the current generation of young urbanites to see how the whole concept of sacrifice is glorified in a party like the PPP. But this culture is ripe in most political outfits that appeared during the Cold War when dictators and regimes in third world countries exercised an unabashed exhibition of brute force through torture and summary trials and hangings.

In parties like the PPP, MQM, ANP, many Baloch outfits and now even in PML-N, jail terms, marks of torture and even deaths are eulogised and explained as proofs of the parties' commitment to a particular cause.

But this is the kind of culture that was the most passionately embraced by the PPP jiyala.

Ironically, in spite of the fact that Z A Bhutto inspired the emergence of a very volatile and emotional brand of supporters, the term jiyala was not in use during ZAB's populist regime (1972-77).

Books written on Bhutto during the period and newspaper reports of the time hardly ever mention this term.

Nevertheless, as authors like Philip Jones (who thoroughly researched the rise of the PPP in 'Peoples Party's Rise to Power'), and Oskar Verkkaik (in 'Migrants & Militants'), mention in their respective writings, it was the adoption of the bohemian and passionate culture of the malangs and fakirs (spiritual vagabonds) found around the popular shrines of Sufi saints by the early PPP to channel a brand new version of populist politics, that gave birth to what eventually became to be known as the jiyala.

Though Bhutto had a very aristocratic side to him as well, his more 'awami' antics and gestures, like the language he used in rallies, the sort of untidy clothing he wore in front of his 'common audience', the way he interacted with the peasants and the working classes, all this was a shock to the subdued middle-class decorum or military styled regimentation that had been the norm in the country's political lingo and aesthetics before him.

Also read: For the love of it

Though a distasteful prospect to his opponents, Bhutto was raised by his peasant and working class supporters to the level of becoming a living saint, kind of a modern Lal Shabaz Qalandar, who was seen to have plunged against the tide of the oppressors of the poor with reckless abandon and bravado.

The famous Sufi anthem, 'Dama-dam Mast Qalandar', became a fixture at Bhutto rallies, and his supporters became disciples of this eccentric saint who encouraged them to ridicule middle-class morality, as well as the conservatism of the clerics with their particular show of passion.

If one reads Raja Anwar's 'The Terrorist Prince' (a book on Murtaza Bhutto's Al-Zulfikar), one understands that the term jiyala became a lot more pronounced after the controversial Bhutto regime was toppled in a right-wing military coup orchestrated by General Ziaul Haq in July 1977.

Also read: Al-Zulfikar: The unsaid history

When Anwar talks in detail about young men who actually set themselves on fire to protest against Bhutto's death sentence by a Supreme Court ruling, one can trace the make-up of the original jiyalas.

The original PPP jiyalas mostly belonged to urban working class and lower middle-class backgrounds and were largely from the Punjab and Sindh. They were highly emotional young men, many of whom lost whatever little they had during the Zia regime's brutal crackdown on PPP workers.

Dozens were publicly flogged, and hundreds were tortured in jails across the late 1970s and 1980s. The jiyalas were the PPP's most active and selfless foot soldiers on the streets and on campuses during Zia's iron-fisted dictatorship.

Another little known fact about jiyalas is that during the testing times that the party faced during that period, the jiyalas, though always ready to heed any call by the party leadership, were given a lot of say in how the party was being run in their areas of influence.

When by 1985 it became clear that Benazir was to have the greatest influence in party affairs, this was a move aggressively endorsed by the jiyalas.

The reason for this was not only the fact that she had impressed them with the way she withstood Zia's jails between 1977 and 1984, but also because the jiyalas - scores of whom that had died, were tortured or jailed during the 1981 and 1983 anti-Zia movements - were not happy with the way the PPP's old leadership had conducted itself during the agitation.

On taking full control of the PPP, Benazir began purging the party's old guard. Jiyalas rejoiced because the so-called old guard had slept through the movements against Zia.

The jiyala mystique and romanticism peaked when Benazir returned from exile, but after the 1988 elections, her interaction with the jiyalas began to lessen. It was as if, with Zia dead, and his legacy avenged by the coming into power of Bhutto's daughter, the jiyala mission had exhausted itself.

Then, the deadly tussle between PSF and APMSO in the early 1990s, in which both sides lost scores of young men (including Najeeb), Benazir made a conscious effort to once and for all, eliminate the more militant dimensions of jiyalaism that had emerged during the party's struggle with the establishment in the 1980s.

Ever since the 1990s, the PPP jiyala is no more than a rally organiser, or if he is close to the leadership, he becomes part of its security apparatus. Mind you, many of them are still willing to die for the party, as witnessed in the way they stood between Benazir and suicide bombers in Karachi and Rawalpindi in 2007.

Also, contrary to popular belief, the party's post-BB chairperson, Asif Ali Zardari, has had more interaction with the jiyalas than BB did in the late 1990s.

There are still a number of the classic jiyalas to be found. But what happened to the original ones who thrived during adversity between 1977 and 1988?

Many were killed. Many experienced police torture and jail and when they were released after Zia's death, they bid farewell to politics. Many vanished from their homes and colleges, never to be found. Some even became leaders and the party's representatives in the Parliament and the Senate.

But as a former PSF comrade of mine who quit politics altogether in 1990 recently told me,

'No matter how much of a distance a jiyala would like to put between himself and the party, a jiyala will always remain a jiyala. It's a spiritual state, as well as an existentialist dilemma.'