Zafar Iqbal Lund: The poet environmentalist

Published July 24, 2016
Zafar Iqbal Lund. —Photo by the writer
Zafar Iqbal Lund. —Photo by the writer

Zafar Iqbal Lund, 55, a social and rights activist from the Seraiki belt of Southern Punjab, was murdered this past week by target killers.

Two young men came to his house in Kot Addu in Muzaffargarh, called him out and shot him dead at the gate. A case has been registered by his brother, who feels his lifelong work in spreading education and more recently in opposing the nuclear and coal power plants being set up in the area must have upset the local influential people.

There is not much in the news about Zafar Iqbal’s life, just the bare facts about his activism for the displaced people of Taunsa Barrage and the fishermen of the area. However, Zafar Iqbal was a well-respected environmentalist of his area.

For decades, he worked to spread awareness about the detrimental effects of pesticides in this cotton growing region and the need to bring back safer, more traditional methods of farming.

A poet at heart

Zafar Iqbal, who hailed from the Lund tribe of Dera Ghazi Khan in Southern Punjab, had even formed a street theatre group with a number of his like-minded friends. These were all local residents; engineers, teachers and doctors who were committed social activists.

The group called itself Hirak, the Seraiki word for the sound made by the hill torrent as it descends the nearby Suleiman range of mountains and irrigates the parched earth below. In a barren land that was historically cultivated by the flood water of the River Indus, Hirak also symbolises hope.

The Hirak Development Organisation (HDO), which he founded, used Sufi poetry and traditional folklore to raise awareness among local farmers about the importance of safeguarding the environment by returning to centuries-old practices of farming.

They campaigned against the harmful long-term effects of insecticides that are polluting the land, disrupting the traditional way of life and causing disease.

Street theatre is a living tradition in the Seraiki-speaking belt. It is usually performed at local festivals and hundreds of people gather around and participate, laughing and crying as they are moved by its power. In street theatre, the actors rely on mime and poetry to try to involve the audience through participation in the skits.

Hirak’s performances were effective because of their use of deeply moving Sufi poetry, delivered in Seraiki by the actors.


Zafar Iqbal Lund’s murder in Southern Punjab shows he paid a heavy price for his activism


The organisation used street theatre to educate people about the importance of maintaining cultural traditions and remaining close to nature. Zafar Iqbal believed that: “Sufism is still very strong in the Seraiki belt, there are many tombs of saints scattered around this region and each year, devotees celebrate their saint’s urs (or death anniversary) with zeal.”

During their street performances the actors would appeal to the spirituality in their audience. They would remind people of the bond of love they have with each other and living creatures as a manifestation of God.

Reared on the love of his mother tongue and its mystic humanism, Zafar Iqbal had a strong sense of cultural identity. He had also been involved in the local politics of the region for many years.

The forests have disappeared, as have the animals

His family came from Shadan Lund, a village located at an hour’s drive from Dera Ghazi Khan. Today, Dera Ghazi Khan is still a feudal stronghold; the tribal heads are Baloch in origin and they own vast tracts of lands. They still wield enormous power over the people and control the local politics. The most influential tribes in the district are the Khosas, Legharis, Mazaris and Dreshaks.

For his higher studies, Zafar Iqbal attended Karachi University where he became involved in left-wing politics and also discovered his leanings for acting. It was the (late) ex Pakistan Television Chairman Aslam Azhar, who told him that he was naturally gifted and that he should develop his talents further. Upon his return to Dera Ghazi Khan, Zafar Iqbal set up his own street theatre group.

Hirak began advocacy work at the grass roots level by performing in folk festivals and soon their interest in socialist issues led to environmental concerns.

In local Seraiki poetry, many references are made to the forests and the animals that live in them. As Zafar Iqbal would say, “These forests have disappeared, as have the animals. We only remember them in our folklore. We are destroying our natural environment.”

The local villagers of the areas often complained of the middlemen who were cheating them off their farm profits and of the widespread sale of fake insecticides. They would point out that by the time they have paid off their loans, they have barely made enough money.

The HDO tried to educate farmers about appropriate farming techniques and formed community-based organisations in two districts, Kot Addu and Shadan Lund. Their rallying cry was, ‘Pool in savings, form a bank account, buy your own seeds, and get the fertilisers and insecticides directly from the manufacturers.’

The organisation also encouraged farmers to reduce chemical applications by reviving traditional methods of pest control like drum beating and lanterns, which farmers once used to ward of pests.

Over the years, the HDO would often come into conflict with the local landlords and the middlemen that exploit small farmers. With its agenda of democratic rights for all, the organisation mobilised the farmers and the educated middle class of the area, and began to challenge the authority of those in power.

Unfortunately Zafar Iqbal has today paid a heavy price for his activism. Let’s hope that Multan’s Counter-Terrorism Department where his murder case has been registered succeeds in bringing his killers to justice.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 24th, 2016

Opinion

Editorial

By-election trends
23 Apr, 2024

By-election trends

WHILE it is too early to deduce a definitive political trend from the provisional results of Sunday’s 21 by-polls...
Privatising PIA
23 Apr, 2024

Privatising PIA

FINANCE Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb’s reaffirmation that the process of disinvestment of the loss-making national...
Suffering in captivity
23 Apr, 2024

Suffering in captivity

YET another animal — a lioness — is critically ill at the Karachi Zoo. The feline, emaciated and barely able to...
Not without reform
Updated 22 Apr, 2024

Not without reform

The problem with us is that our ruling elite is still trying to find a way around the tough reforms that will hit their privileges.
Raisi’s visit
22 Apr, 2024

Raisi’s visit

IRANIAN President Ebrahim Raisi, who begins his three-day trip to Pakistan today, will be visiting the country ...
Janus-faced
22 Apr, 2024

Janus-faced

THE US has done it again. While officially insisting it is committed to a peaceful resolution to the...