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The fighter Sheikh Rashid was

September 12, 2003

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Today, Sept 12, marks the first death anniversary of Sheikh Muhammad Rashid.

FAIZ Ahmed Faiz told the story of the debate the founders of the Azad Pakistan Party had on its charter that he had drafted. Agreement on the draft was easily achieved except for a word which Sheikh Mohammad Rashid alone wanted changed. He insisted that a particular expression be used for the distribution of land among peasants, and he sustained the debate for many hours.

The incident nearly sums up the personality of Sheikh Rashid who died this day last year. Uncompromising is an inadequate word to describe him; he was inflexible and unforgiving. He had no faith in multi-class politics, and this brought him into conflict throughout his political career with fellow party leaders who shared his ideas but had different views on strategy. Through sheer perseverance and single-minded fight for his convictions he secured a niche in national politics and his place in the history of Pakistan.

Recognized throughout his career as a defender of peasant rights, Sheikh Rashid tried several outlets for his active spirit. In his early life he was attracted by the Khaksar Tehrik but was not converted to it and entered politics by joining the Muslim League. His contribution to its organization in Lahore was significant and impressive. He was among the first politicians who were alienated from the Muslim League for its failure to honour the pre-independence pledges to the poor and the underprivileged, especially the peasantry. He then joined Mian Iftikharuddin and Sardar Shaukat Hayat in founding the Azad Pakistan Party. Soon he developed differences with other party leaders similar to those he had with the Muslim Leaguers. The last political party be joined was the People’s Party and he stuck to it till his last days despite many running disagreements with its high command, including Mr Bhutto and Ms Benazir Bhutto. Perhaps this was due to the party’s contribution to his image as a national leader and for enabling him to do some of the things he wanted.

Whatever the party Sheikh Rashid joined, his first, and often the sole, commitment was to the cause of the peasantry. He demonstrated his organizational capacity fully in the 1950s when he made his Kisan Committee into an effective outfit and won several battles for small cultivators. This phase was terminated by the martial law of 1958. By the time normal politics was resumed Mr Bhutto had raised a large pandal under which many West Pakistan socialists, including Sheikh Rashid, found seats of honour. The Kisan Committee was eventually merged with the PPP and virtually got lost. After that Sheikh Rashid had to be content with fighting for the recognition of his supporters who had worked for peasants.

As a member of Mr. Bhutto’s cabinet, Sheikh Rashid’s role was highly creditable. He was maliciously ridiculed for launching the generic drugs scheme which was a serious attempt to address one of the people’s main concerns. That the scheme was sound in concept was confirmed by its subsequent introduction in quite a few countries, including Egypt and Bangladesh, and its endorsement by WHO. The withdrawal of this scheme not only caused personal injury to Sheikh Rashid, it also dealt a blow to public interest.

The area where Sheikh Rashid had greater room to display his reformist zeal was his task to enforce the land reforms of 1972 in his capacity as chairman of the Land Commission. Exercising his suo motu powers, he went for the big landlords and forced them to yield vast tracts of land they had retained under one pretext or another. The target group included some PPP heavyweights. They received no quarter from the frail Sheikh and could not get his work undone till an authoritarian regime and an adulterated judicial system came to their rescue. They became as energetic in attempts to sideline him as he had been in trying to clip their wings.

In political councils Sheikh Rashid could be counted upon to take a principled stand even if it was unpopular. An early example was his opposition, as one in a very small group, to Mr Liaquat All Khan’s decision to assume presidentship of the Muslim League along with the office of the Premier. He was among the first to advise Mr Bhutto to concede Sheikh Mujib’s Six Points and to accept the latter’s offer of coalition because it offered possibilities of ending landlordism in West Pakistan. Only he was surprised at being shouted down by new-born politicos in Mr. Bhutto’s train.

Sheikh Rashid swore by socialism, but he could not be described as a doctrinaire socialist. He did not share contemporary Pakistani socialists’ emphasis on theoretical formulations. He was concerned largely with the end-result of socialist reconstruction. Besides, he kept reverting to his roots in religion and often argued that there was no conflict between socialism and Islam.

What endeared party rank and file to Sheikh Rashid was his resolve to live like them and his immense capacity for personal sacrifice and for extracting similar sacrifices from his kith and kin as well as associates. He suffered a great deal but he was also more fortunate than any other person in Pakistan’s once large community of leftist politicians. He not only forced his way into the halls of power, he used opportunities that came his way to put his ideas into practice.

One of the best things done by Sheikh Rashid was to offer, a few months before his passing, a published account of his life. Although somewhat more self-centred than an autobiography must by definition be, it is an extremely valuable record of some essential aspects of our history. For instance, Sheikh Rashid’s service in the revenue department of Bahawalpur and his efforts to make a living by selling buffaloes in as far away places as Ahmadabad and Mumbai offer a glimpse of the limited openings young men had before the Second World War. Likewise his industrial enterprises in the 50s reflect on the opportunities created by the war and independence. One is also introduced to the nature of communal conflicts around partition. There is an excellent account of the ground-level Organization the Muslim League and PPP initiated and then allowed to wither away. And there is evidence of happy days 50 years ago when a detainee could be driven out of jail to take his Munshi Fazil, F.A. and B.A. examinations — all in a single year. There is a great deal of honesty in this autobiography because Sheikh Rashid was not afraid of saying what was unlikely to win approval of even favourably disposed readers.

It is perhaps too early to make an objective assessment of Sheikh Mohammad Rashid’s political work. The controversies ignited by him and the wounds caused to both friend and foe by his version of truth are still fresh in many minds. Pakistan’s politics, and the world’s too, have moved much too far away from the context that determined Sheikh Rashid’s choices or of others like him. Once the transitory fallacy of denying the strength of egalitarian ideals dies down it may be possible to better acknowledge what is due to Sheikh Rashid and also to look at areas where he was found wanting. A future historian may wish to critically examine his directive to workers to seize factories in 1968-69 especially in view of his less than due interest in the role of industrial labour and in the requisites of peasant-worker unity, or his inability to fully realize that women did not deserve kindness alone and had rights and a role in politics. A more critical question might be that while Sheikh Rashid trained a fairly sizable cadre of activists, none of them was equipped with qualities to take over where he left off.

But there is no need to hurry with the scalpel that belongs to tomorrow’s historian. While the values of democracy, social justice and political integrity are at a huge discount in Pakistan and the national scene is dominated by mediocrities, deficient in mind and character both, the moment calls for celebrating Sheikh Rashid’s unflinching devotion to the rights of his people, especially the weakest of them. Noble causes are made nobler if consistently pursued with determination. Sheikh Rashid did just that.