IN thinking about how to honour the recently deceased Jam Saqi — a giant in the annals of this country’s history, irrespective of how the tyrants that he challenged branded him a traitor — I came across a photo of the great communist leader being tried by a military tribunal with one Benazir Bhutto in the ‘courtroom’ to put her weight behind Jam.
It was a reminder of just how different the world of politics was back in the 1980s. Those were certainly dark, dictatorial days, but they were also days when progressive forces more often than not closed ranks and a wide cross section of society — particularly young people — recognised and responded to ideological politics.
Transpose that image of politics onto a present in which the handful of progressives occupying positions in mainstream parties seem isolated. It has been reported in the aftermath of a Senate election tainted by apparently unprecedented buying and selling of votes that all talk of the Senate chairman Raza Rabbani continuing in his position, through which he has consistently asserted the basic principle of popular sovereignty in the face of judicial overreach and the establishment’s unending manipulations, has been quashed by his own party leadership.
Simultaneously, we heard about the resignation from his party post of another man who has been at the forefront of the struggle against praetorianism, Farhatullah Babar. All of this follows hot on the heels of an intense few months when internal divisions within the ruling party PML-N have been exposed for all of Pakistan to see. At one end is the Nawaz Sharif faction — which has (belatedly) realised the folly of pandering to the establishment and at the other are the ‘electables’ that couldn’t care less about democracy and want only to make sure they remain palatable to our uniformed guardians and thereby secure access to the state’s political and economic resources.
Once feared, the leftist challenge is now absent.
It was almost 40 years ago that a dog-eat-dog logic was reasserted in Pakistani politics by the Zia regime, following a period of great political upheaval. For a decade from the late 1960s, Pakistan’s political landscape featured mobilised social and political movements — of workers, peasants, students, women, intellectuals and artists. Those who think that Ziaul Haq’s regime was concerned only with eliminating Bhutto and cutting the PPP down to size should reconsider — what the dictatorship really wanted to do was to demobilise popular movements which had forced the electoral result in 1970, and thereby restore the establishment to kingmaker in all subsequent electoral contests.
There are certainly autonomous social and political movements in Pakistan today. But the problem is that the ideal of a systemic alternative to capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism and oppression of all other kinds has withered, and so it is often the case that ‘women’s rights’ are the concern of only women, ‘labour rights’ only of workers, ethnic-nations emphasise their own specific grievances rather than coming together, so on and so forth.
Look at the response to an alleged blasphemy case in which cousins Patras and Sajid Masih suffered the wrath of state functionaries clearly operating on the principle ‘guilty until proven innocent’. Yes there were a handful of small protests, but even the Christian community did not come out in full force, let alone progressives at large.
Jam Saqi and also Asma Jehangir, who passed away recently — and, yes, to an extent even Benazir Bhutto — were politically groomed in an era where there was still great hope that human beings could come together and build a world that was peaceful, democratic and egalitarian. It was precisely because the leftist challenge was so real that prominent leaders like Jam were subject to brutal repression for challenging the status quo, for mobilising the wretched of the earth to overthrow the existing order. Today’s repression is as bad, if not worse — think enforced disappearances, internment centres, and the overall surveillance regime — but the once-feared leftist challenge is now conspicuous by its absence.
What is happening in our corridors of power should make clear that no matter how many former protégés of dictators change tack, it is only when ordinary people are mobilised to change society that even elections will become a meaningful indicator of the popular will. Otherwise money and manipulation will remain the name of the game.
Thankfully, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The Pakhtun Long March continues to break ground, the long-suffering people of Fata finally having broken their silence about all that has happened in their region in the name of the ‘greater national interest’. Yesterday was International Women’s Day, with women coming together for the Aurat March in Karachi and the inauguration of the socialist-feminist Women’s Democratic Front in Islamabad. One hopes that such initiatives represent the beginning of a genuine alternative to our dog eat dog political world.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2018