OVER the years the National Students Federation (NSF) stood up against dictatorship, religious orthodoxy, espoused egalitarianism and produced leaders such as Meraj Mohammad Khan, Dr Rasheed Hasan Khan and many others who remained true to their initial calling all their lives.
The ongoing PIA-government showdown over plans to privatise the heavily indebted and grossly mismanaged national flag carrier has brought into focus two former NSF leaders. One chose a totally different path in his later life, while the other remained constant to his earlier beliefs.
The first was the NSF secretary-general in Rawalpindi in 1970. Some 45 years later, it would be difficult to believe he was ever part of the pro-worker student party. Yes, he was the one who famously said just this week that striking workers of PIA will be treated no better than thieves breaking into one’s home.
One chose a totally different path in his later life, while the other remained constant to his earlier beliefs.
Not content with this rather loaded description, he proceeded to say that anyone who opposed government plans on PIA was anti-state. On day two of the strike he also couldn’t see any disruption in PIA flights. Of course, given the clues, by now you have guessed that this could only be Pervaiz Rasheed, the federal information minister.
The idea here isn’t to argue for or against privatisation, but to look at how the government is executing its plan. Privatisation blueprints exist which had earlier served to maintain peace and accomplish the task of privatising a non-performing nationalised bank which was heavily unionised too.
But today, God knows who is advising the prime minister, the government seems committed to creating a crisis for itself. When the PIA staff started to agitate against the privatisation plan, some of us had asked if the employees were shooting themselves in the foot, given the lack of public sympathy for their cause.
One doesn’t know whether the government’s riding roughshod on the issue has changed the public mood but there are far more voices in the media now critical of its handling of the situation.
The killing of two members of PIA staff when they were demonstrating at Karachi airport has clearly created a crisis for the government as both sides now seem to have drawn red lines.
We were talking about two NSF leaders. The day after the PIA shooting, Mansoor Raza, someone with whom I have exchanged thoughts on many national issues, sent me an email with this profile of the PIA IT manager Inayet Raza who died of a bullet wound in the airport Rangers-employees tussle. (I share an edited version)
“May 1983 … I was 16, a pre-engineering student waiting to apply once NED University admissions opened, when a smart, confident young man in his early 20s approached me ... and asked me why my parents and I hated Ziaul Haq … (situated in a North Nazimabad neighbourhood of predominantly Jamaat-i-Islami supporters, our household was known as one of PPP supporters.)
“‘Because he hanged Bhutto,’ I responded.
“‘It is not a clash of personalities ... it is a battle of ideas,” he said impatiently. That day onwards he continued to educate me, many others about the rights and wrongs of society.
“The man was Inayet Raza, the former President of the Shipowners’ Government College Students’ Union, Karachi (1977-78) and the head of the Progressive Students Council of National Students Federation (NSF), comprising 22 educational institutions. He is said to have revived NSF in what had been an IJT stronghold for years.
“Fast forward to February 1984: Gen Zia banned the student unions; NSF shook Karachi and put a halt to all academic activities for 100 days. Inayet Bhai remained a mentor suggesting protest strategies and advising how to keep safe while keeping up the momentum of the struggle against the dictator. When the ever-increasing cosy relationship between the dictator, Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT) and state-sponsored Islam betrayed the cause of students, he’d often say: ‘Never bow down to injustice’.
Fast forward to the night of April 15, 1985. He came after dusk and was upset that following Bushra Zaidi’s death (in a road accident involving a negligently-driven minibus), police lathi-charged protesting girls and that this needed to be stopped. Many responded to his call and pushed the police on the back-foot. ‘Always fight for the helpless,’ he told me more than once. His thunderous voice and the earth-shaking slogan Martial Law ke aewanon ko aag lagado … aag lagado, resonated in the streets of North Nazimabad, on many occasions.
“By the mid-1990s we both were married working men. He took to task one of his colleagues because the latter sexually harassed a woman co-worker. ‘Women should be supported so that they can live their lives the way they want, shape their own destinies,’ said Inayet Bhai as he narrated the incident.
“Throughout his 58 years of a well-lived life, he remained a fighter, a relentless supporter of the poor and a diehard opponent of religious orthodoxy. He often said to me he didn’t want to die lying on the bed and he kept his promise … he is gone now. Does it matter who fired at him and from where? He remained a man of dissent and his legacy continues … his message will live on.”
Given the levels of violence in society, we have reduced human life to a mere statistic. I share the lines above in the interest of giving a human face to a victim. In the end, whether privatisation is at all a viable option given the Rs300 billion-plus debt burden the airline carries or whether a more imaginative solution will have to be found will be up to the government.
Bystanders like me can only hope that whatever is done is done without further bloodshed. Workers will call Inayet Raza a martyr, by Pervez Rasheed’s definition he may be a traitor. But to his family and friends he was a loved man they’ll never see again.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2016