A’ez Azizi (if he were alive), Mujahid Barelvi and Aslam Khwaja come across as three very different individuals whose entry into the thick and thin of Pakistan’s political struggle and social movements is also a decade apart from each other. Azizi, who entered practical politics in the 1950s, passed away two years ago as a septuagenarian. In the 1960s, Barelvi started his political career as a student politician, soon to become a journalist. In the 1970s, Khwaja joined the student wing of the then-proscribed communist party of Pakistan and began to participate in the struggle for the restoration of democracy at a tender age. Between the three of them, they were associated with different political outfits at different stages in their political association.
Azizi and Khwaja started off as firebrand communists while Barelvi was more of a socialist student leader who turned towards social democracy sooner than the other two. What brings the three of them together now is the almost simultaneous launch of their books. The three books chronicle in their own ways the people’s movements for democracy and equality and record individual contribution and sacrifices made by leftist political workers and leaders, feminists and trade unionists, writers and journalists.
Rafiqan-i-Sidq-o-Safa [Friends, truthful and pure] by Azizi is a tribute to more than 30 of the earliest organisers and workers of the communist movement in the country, from Hasan Nasir and Dada Amir Haider to Haider Bux Jatoi and Nazeer Abbasi. While the writer seldom gives in to sentimentality even when speaking about his closest comrades who were tortured or killed or who continued to live in abject poverty, readers will find a lump in their throat after every few pages. This is perhaps the most extraordinary feature of this account, that the writer exercises constraint, but the reader gets overwhelmed.
Fasana Raqam Karein [Let us write the story] by Barelvi is a candid collection of pen portraits of those associated with the ideals of parliamentary democracy, civil liberties, people’s empowerment and journalistic freedoms in Pakistan. These individuals represent a different generation of left-wing politicians and a slightly different hue of progressive politics from the ones mentioned in Azizi’s work. Barelvi writes about Fatehyab Ali Khan, Fauzia Wahab, Minhaj Barna and Fahmida Riaz. His passionate association with the poetry, politics and person of Habib Jalib comes out strongly. But somewhere between the sketches of Benazir Bhutto and Khair Bux Marri, Professor Ghafoor Ahmed of the Jamaat-i-Islami sneaks in. His mention in the book is a tribute to the character and magnanimity of Prof Ghafoor, which made him accept his political mistakes and write about the real circumstances in which Gen Ziaul Haq imposed martial rule in Pakistan. It is also a reflection on Barelvi’s inclusivity and respect for difference.
People’s Movements in Pakistan by Khwaja is narrated in English, unlike the other two books being discussed which are in Urdu. Not only is it by far the most comprehensive collection of information on significant political and social movements waged in West Pakistan — which became Pakistan after 1971 — it offers a fresh description of old events that continue to shape the choices Pakistan makes as a state, and the radicalisation that has firmly rooted itself in our society and body politic. Khwaja is primarily a journalist and while this fact makes his rendition more accessible, his work can also be considered as providing basic material for further academic inquiry into each of the movements and the role of individuals that he discusses — from peasants’ uprisings to women’s movements.
I read these books in the shadow of defeat. The tendency to liberally shift from rational to emotional, or abruptly move from one analytic category to another, bothers me less because none of these books are academic treatises. What pains me is the feeling that like the rightists believe in a world that never was, our leftist predecessors believed in a world that never could be. But what may bring optimism back is that it is this pain that makes creation possible.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 12th, 2017