Hassan Nasir: The man who wasn’t there

Published November 8, 2015
A political party poster with Hassan Nasir’s image
A political party poster with Hassan Nasir’s image

On October 31, during the first phase of the local bodies’ elections in Sindh and Punjab, I was going through the many images (of the event) that were being uploaded on my Facebook timeline.

Since the PPP (in Sindh) and the PML-N (in the Punjab) were clearly sweeping the polls, most of the uploaded pictures were of workers and supporters of the two parties celebrating their big wins in the elections.

However, as I was flicking through the photos on my iPad, I suddenly came across images of two celebratory gatherings — one in Sindh and one in Punjab. In these pictures more than a dozen or so supporters were carrying posters of a bygone communist activist, Hassan Nasir.

His face has become a symbol of defiance on political parties’ posters, since the 1970s

What is this, I wondered? Initially I supposed that the photos were of some PPP workers trying to link their party’s victory (in the area where the photo was taken) to the PPP’s distant socialist past. But I couldn’t see any PPP flags in the photos.

Intrigued, I messaged the young gentleman (on Facebook) who had uploaded the pictures. I asked him who the folks in the photos were.

The young man was a Sindhi and a student at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro. He told me that he was a member of the Awami Workers Party (AWP) — a leftist grouping of various small Marxist outfits who had merged in 2010 to form the AWP.

One of the photos was taken in the city of Okara in the Punjab, and the other was taken in Naseerabad, a town in upper Sindh’s Qambar Shahdadkot District.

The AWP had won a seat in Okara, Punjab so the Okara photo was of young AWP workers celebrating their contestant’s victory which they claim was achieved by putting up a committed party worker.

The other photo was of Naseerabad where the AWP had won a couple of seats in the mentioned elections. But I pondered, what was Hassan Nasir (who passed away in 1960) symbolising in a gathering of a left-wing group in this day and age; and / or 25 years after the demise of the Soviet Union and with it, communism?

I had first come to know about Nasir when I was a teenaged college student in Karachi in the early 1980s. Posters with his image had continued to crop up during the many movements that emerged against the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88).

At the time, the posters were mostly being issued by left-wing student groups such as the NSF, and parties such as the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP), and also the PPP.

In 1985, a MKP activist had told me that posters of Nasir had even emerged during the 1977 movement against the first PPP government of Z.A. Bhutto (1971-77). Some leftist groups, after being incensed by Bhutto’s ‘authoritarian personality’ and his regime’s ‘betrayal of its socialist agenda’, had joined hands with the right-wing alliance (the PNA) in a bid to topple Bhutto.

Ironically, before all this, Hassan Nasir’s image had actually first been used on PPP posters during the 1970 election when the party was positioning itself as a socialist alternative to the religious right and the ‘capitalist / feudal statuesque’.

So Nasir’s face continued to crop up (as a symbol of defiance) in the early 1970s, the late 1970s, and the early 1980s. It continues to pop up even today.

However, unlike Che Guevara (the celebrated Latin American revolutionary who was killed in 1967), and whose image too continues to be used by various protest groups around the world, Nasir’s image is yet to get his very own ‘post- modernist’ makeover by also appearing on coffee cups and on baseball hats!

But who was Hassan Nasir?

Hassan Nasir was born into an aristocratic Muslim family in Hyderabad Deccan, India. After finishing school in his hometown, Nasir got admission in UK’s prestigious Cambridge University where he came into contact with various young British and Indian Marxists.

On his return to India, and against his family’s wishes, he plunged into a peasants’ uprising against feudal lords and British Colonial overlords in the Telangana region.

When the movement collapsed after the departure of the British in 1947, Nasir decided to migrate to Pakistan. In 1950, he arrived in Karachi and joined the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). His family stayed back in India.

Though just 22 years old at the time, he greatly impressed the CPP leadership with his profound knowledge of Marxism.

Soon, Nasir’s revolutionary outlook and charisma made him popular among college students, peasants and factory workers. In 1954 he was arrested by the government, jailed, tortured and then forcibly flown back to India.

However, in 1955, he quietly slipped back in. Since the CPP had been banned, Punjabi and Urdu-speaking leftists began joining progressive Sindhi, Baloch, Bengali and Pashtun nationalists to form the National Awami Party (NAP). In 1957 Nasir was made the party’s secretary general in Karachi.

He turned his office into a busy working and planning area for leftist students and trade unionists. Though his aristocratic background could have easily guaranteed him a rich and comfortable life in Karachi, he chose to live among labourers cramped in and around the make-shift shanty towns that had sprung up in the glittering metropolis.

In 1958, when Field Marshal Ayub Khan launched a military coup, he ordered a crackdown against leftists as well as against the religious parties. Nasir went underground.

Veteran communist leader, Jamal Naqvi, in his 2014 memoir writes that in 1960, Ayub, while being briefed by Karachi’s police chief, lost his cool when Nasir’s name came up. He is reported to have lashed out and shouted, ‘How is that bloody communist still free … ?’

The Ayub regime was equally harsh towards the religious parties. But Nasir’s activities and his popularity among the students and labourers had begun to greatly perturb the regime.

Nasir was finally located, hiding in a shanty town in Karachi. He was picked up by the police and then flown in chains to a special cell that had been set-up by the police in Lahore’s historical Lahore Fort.

Naqvi informs that here Nasir was continuously tortured, beaten up and refused food and water for days. Then finally, he was slayed in his muggy, tiny cell. He was just 32.

The Muslim aristocrat’s son who had become a communist rebel was never seen or heard from again.

The press was told that Nasir had died in an accident. The news of his death left his father suffering a mental breakdown. He had wanted his son to become a civil servant. His mother refused to believe that the body that the police had shown to the press was his.

With Nasir’s father indisposed, his mother travelled alone to Lahore to reclaim the body. ‘This is not my son’s body,’ the ailing old woman shouted and then fell to the ground. She was escorted out by the police and put in a waiting rickshaw.

She returned home empty-handed. Till this day, nobody is quite sure what happened to the young man’s body and where is it buried. His father passed away and the family eventually lost its aristocratic status in India. The mother too died soon after.

The country’s leftists consider Nasir to be their first modern ‘martyr’. That’s why his face has continued to emerge on posters ever since the 1970s.

‘He still symbolises defiance and clarity of purpose beyond the political cynicism and rightest demagoguery of today,’ (sic). This is how the young man who had uploaded the pictures described Nasir when he wrote back to me.

Indeed. Well, as long as Nasir (like Che) too doesn’t end up on coffee mugs …

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 8th, 2015

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