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IN MEMORIAM: THE SUFI COMMUNIST

March 11, 2018

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Benazir Bhutto appeared in a military court to defend Jam Saqi when he was charged with treason | Dawn
Benazir Bhutto appeared in a military court to defend Jam Saqi when he was charged with treason | Dawn

It was a nippy morning and the so-called Super Highway to Hyderabad was blocked due to a massive gridlock. While patiently waiting for the traffic to resume, I was magically drawn back to the ’80s when the world seemed like a different place. It was a bipolar world, clearly divided into two blocs: communist/socialist and capitalist. Concepts such as neo-liberalism and privatisation had yet to make their mark on global politics.

Pakistan was firmly in the capitalist camp and communism was viewed as a grave danger to the country, with the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) banned. At the height of this frenzy, a conspiracy case called the Jam Saqi Case was filed by General Zia’s regime in the military courts in 1980 which generated much national attention.

A firebrand communist leader, Jam Saqi — then the Secretary General of the CPP — along with other illustrious members of the party such as Professor Jamal Naqvi, Nazeer Abbassi, Shabbir Sher, Sohail Sangi, Kamal Warsi, Amar Lal and Badar Abro were charged with “destabilising the country.” Nazeer Abbassi was killed by torture soon after his arrest. Saqi, who was already serving a 10-year sentence passed down by another military court, was then considered the longest-serving political prisoner in Pakistan. And his personality acquired nearly mythical proportions after the case, in which politicians such as Benazir Bhutto, Wali Khan, Ghous Bux Bizenjo, Mairaj Muhammad Khan, Fatehyab Ali Khan, and the JUI Secretary General Maulana Shah Muhammad Amrothi, as well as journalists and women’s rights activists, came to testify on behalf of the accused.

One of Pakistan’s iconic leftists and the man who defined an era of firebrand activism, Jam Saqi passed away on March 5 after protracted illness. Eos conducted what was possibly his last-ever interview…

Saqi, who was acquitted in 1984 but not freed until December 1986 on a constitutional petition filed by his father, came to be regarded as ‘a prisoner of conscience’ by Amnesty International and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) and there was widespread support in the global media for his release.

In fact, he remained immensely popular in the student community until the end of his politically active days. From Karachi to Peshawar, college campuses often resounded with slogans such as “Tera Sathi, Mera Sathi, Jam Saqi, Jam Saqi” [Your friend, my friend, Jam Saqi, Jam Saqi].

There was a reason I was thinking back to this time. I was on my way to meet Saqi in Hyderabad. Saqi had been in failing health for some time and the first part of the interview was held at his modest home, in various sessions spanning a number of days, necessitated because of his frail health. I would meet him again in Karachi a few weeks later after he was rushed to the city to be hospitalised. On March 5, as this piece was being readied for print, news came that he had passed away.

Jam Saqi during his final days at his Hyderabad home | Tahir Jamal/White Star
Jam Saqi during his final days at his Hyderabad home | Tahir Jamal/White Star

With him, passed an era of ideological politics.

ROLE IN POLITICAL DISCOURSE

In his Hyderabad home, with strains of lilting Sufi music filling the background, Saqi was in his element, notwithstanding various ailments and a failing memory.

Looking at him bedridden, I could not help think that there was a time when this frail-looking man had challenged the might of the state and faced the repression of three martial law governments and one civilian regime which were hell-bent on arresting him at any cost. I recalled the famous picture of him in the military court when a young Benazir had come to testify on his behalf, with Saqi standing, his iron handcuffs slung across his shoulder like a shawl. He had been subjected to relentless and brutal torture, which was partly responsible for his continuing physical ailments. And I could not help but think about how he lay forgotten by a new generation that is not aware of his contributions to the restoration of democracy and other basic human rights we now often take for granted.

Considering his political struggle, and the hard and perilous life he had lived, I asked him what he thought had been his major contribution to political discourse in the country.

Students raising slogans to welcome Jam Saqi | Jam Saqi’s personal albums
Students raising slogans to welcome Jam Saqi | Jam Saqi’s personal albums

He answered after a long and studied silence. “I think my foremost contribution was that I raised my voice against tyranny and the exploitation of oppressed groups such as minorities, women, labour and haris [landless peasants] and that I strived to change the exploitative system,” he finally replied. “I demanded equal rights for smaller provinces and insisted on making Pakistan a true federal state. I was also among the few people in West Pakistan who unequivocally condemned the army action in East Pakistan [Bangladesh]. I openly called for an end to feudalism and tribalism and demanded land reforms and distribution of state land to peasants.

“I also openly challenged American influence in the country and its internal affairs. I worked actively to unite all progressive forces and worked with the Hari Committee, the trade unions, women’s organisations and literary organisations such as the Sindh Adabi Sangat, etc. In all these roles, I raised awareness and political consciousness.”

It is perhaps inherent in the nature of raising political consciousness, that those who are successful make themselves redundant.

EARLY LIFE AND POLITICAL CAREER

The former Communist Party leader belonged to a village near Chachro in Tharparkar district, Sindh, one of the province’s poorest areas. His father was a primary-school teacher and a social worker. “He played a vital role in my upbringing,” Saqi told me. Enrolling at the Government College Kalimori in Hyderabad in 1962 was the beginning of a long career as a political activist.

“My first political campaign was about educational problems,” Saqi recalled. “We made many demands to improve the system which became very popular among students. In 1964, we formed the Hyderabad Students Federation with other like-minded friends to organise students at the provincial level.”

In 1966, Saqi joined the Communist Party and became active in the leftist National Awami Party (NAP). He also began to organise labour unions and haris, with the help of the Sindh Hari Committee. On March 4, 1967, the students of Sindh University staged a procession protesting the appointment of the vice-chancellor. Police unleashed brutal force against them. But Saqi and his friends turned this incident into a political movement that would have a long-lasting impact on the province in the coming years. “There were different students’ organisations in various cities,” explained Saqi, “we merged them and formed the Sindh National Students Federation (SNSF) on November 3, 1968. All progressive political forces, including the Communist Party, were against the dictatorial policies of the Ayub regime and demanded the abolition of One Unit, and the holding of free and fair elections. The SNSF provided the vigour and momentum of youth to that movement.”

As a student leader and political activist, Saqi was imprisoned many times during the 1960s. In order to buy his loyalties and reduce his political influence, he was also offered a job and scholarships. He, however, remained steadfast in his commitment and declined all such offers.

In 1969, with the help of other comrades, Saqi organised the historic Hari Conference in Sakrand, the first congregation of peasants which called for sweeping land reforms. At the conference, Saqi announced he would formally join the peasants’ front of the Communist Party i.e. Hari Committee. After he completed his education, Saqi was asked by the CPP to mobilise and organise the Hari committee after the death of its founder Hyder Bakhsh Jatoi as Saqi was considered an excellent mobiliser.

Jam Saqi with his wife Akhtar Sultana | Tahir Jamal / White Star
Jam Saqi with his wife Akhtar Sultana | Tahir Jamal / White Star

In the landmark 1970 polls, he contested from his native constituency in Thar, but lost to a feudal landlord due to lack of resources. Explaining the course of events, Saqi said, “All these policies and actions [of the government in East Pakistan] had brought great turmoil to the country and Pakistan was discredited in the comity of nations. I talked against military action and organised many public meetings and agitations. I was sentenced in absentia by a military court for one-year imprisonment. It brought me into direct confrontation with the government and its agencies. I spent most of the Bhutto regime years underground and playing hide-and-seek with police and law-enforcement agencies.” Despite being in hiding, he was politically active and was part of many political movements and campaigns and regularly published press releases.

NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND

Saqi still recalled a wealth of anecdotes from that era and he remembered his time on the run with much fondness. For example, he told me that once, while he was travelling to Tando Jam disguised as a maulvi, he had got up to offer his bus seat to an elderly and ill Bheel passenger. “Nazeer Abbassi said to me, ‘If there were any intelligence personnel in the bus they would have recognised you by this act’,” he laughed.

Saqi remained immensely popular in the student community until the end of his politically active days. From Karachi to Peshawar, college campuses often resounded with slogans such as “Tera Sathi, Mera Sathi, Jam Saqi, Jam Saqi” [Your friend, my friend, Jam Saqi, Jam Saqi].

At another time, while staying in a rest house, he’d overheard two officers talking about how ‘Jam Saqi had also proved to be a traitor and had left for India for greener pastures.’ Saqi joined the conversation without disclosing his identity and asked them for evidence for their claim, to which they replied that they had heard his speech on All India Radio. “I said to them that I’d met him [Jam Saqi] once, and had also got the feeling that he was a defector.” The twinkle in his eyes clearly showed that these memories, from 50 years ago, were still crystal clear for him.

THE BHUTTO ERA

When Bhutto came into power, Saqi resurfaced after completing his one-year jail sentence. He joined the NAP and was elected as its joint secretary. But after Bhutto dissolved the Mengal government in Balochistan and banned NAP, he went underground again. In his statement filed against the ban, he wrote: “You can understand where my loyalties lie, as I [have been] Sindhi for 5,000 years, Muslim for 1,000 years and Pakistani [only] since three decades.”

THE REPRESSIVE MARTIAL LAW

The arrival of Gen Zia’s military government in 1977 began a new phase of brutal repression. The military was determined to arrest Saqi and to silence the influence of the Communist Party once and for all. In December 1978, they were finally successful in arresting him from Hyderabad. But ironically, his two statements in the military court — published in Urdu as Zameer ke Qaidi [Prisoners of Conscience] and in Sindhi as Akhr Fateh Awam jee Theendi [Eventually Victory Will Be the People’s] only added to his popularity.

MAJORITY/MINORITY SPLIT

What Gen Zia could not achieve, however, came to pass after the dictator’s death. A split in the CPP in the late ’80s divided the party into two factions called Majority and Minority. Saqi was in the Majority faction which rejected the demands by the Minority members to transform the party. In the course of the discord, Saqi became a target of malicious attacks and was accused of being unclear on the question of nationalities and of lacking intellectual depth, among other allegations.

Saqi was surprisingly candid about the split. “The CPP was not allowed to work openly due to state repression and recurring martial laws and, after 1988, when it was allowed to operate freely, differences emerged,” he said. “It was an era of great political upheaval and technological change. The whole capitalist system and factors of production were changing. We were standing at the crossroads and were unable to understand the change. Even in the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev had launched Glasnost and Perestroika to deal with simmering discontent and defection.

“Most of the Minority members who went to the Soviet bloc and had international exposure and were aware of these realities were mid-level leadership. Moreover, our party workers and leaders who went to the USSR had come back disillusioned and dejected, because it seemed like more of a security state than a welfare state. In summary, it took me some time to comprehend these realities after my visit to the Soviet Union and, in 1991, I revisited my position. However, our other party members weren’t ready to accept it. So, in 1991, in the Fourth Congress, I resigned as the secretary general and left communist politics for good.”

Nevertheless, Saqi was blamed for this stance and held responsible, along with others, for the break-up of the party. Aside from a brief stint in 2009 with Socialist Revolution (IMT) of Comrade Lal Khan, Saqi would never venture back to active socialist politics.

LAUNCHING THE JAMHOORI TEHREEK

Instead, Saqi formed the Jamhoori Tehreek (Democratic Movement) in 1991. “Sindh was in great turmoil at that time. In the rural areas, dacoits were ruling the roost and, in urban areas, ethnic division was at its peak. I tried to work for peace and solidarity in society as I convened a long march which started from Kamu Shaheed — which is the last station on the Sindh-Punjab border — towards Karachi. The march was a great success and brought people together on one platform.” The great sense of pride in him when he talked about this was almost palpable.

ADVISER IN PAKISTAN PEOPLES PARTY GOVERNMENT

In 1993, after suffering a brain haemorrhage, Saqi was sent to London for treatment by the PPP government in Sindh. Upon his return after convalescence, he joined PPP and the Sindh government as an adviser on Benazir Bhutto’s request. He was given charge of the bonded labour department. “I held many conferences and formed numerous committees to improve the conditions for this most disadvantaged section,” he explained. However, these committees became dormant once the PPP government was toppled in 1996.

He later joined the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which “gave me a lot of satisfaction and sense of self-fulfilment” he told me.

THE SUFI CONNECTION

In his last few years, Saqi had become a strong adherent of Sufism, saying it had given him strength and solace. I asked him if adherence to Sufism, a branch of organised religion, was a contradiction to his past beliefs in dialectical materialism and Marxism. “I believe that Sufism is beyond any religion and that Sufis are found in every faith,” he replied wryly. “They preach humanism and, in fact, they are the people who led class struggle before communism.” For him, communism was a continuation of Sufism because both call for pursuing the rights of common people. “All Sufi poets such as Baba Bulleh Shah, Baba Fareed Ganj Shakar, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Sachal Sarmast, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and numerous others preach universal love and humanity.”

FAMILY LIFE

There was perhaps more than one reason Saqi needed such solace — his domestic life had had its share of tragedies as well. He had been married in 1972 to his first cousin Sukhaan. They had had two children. “My wife was a party worker but was very insecure about my safety,” he recalled. “The intelligence personnel had told her categorically that if they were successful in arresting me, they would kill me right away. On hearing the news of my arrest, Sukhaan committed suicide by jumping into a well, leaving behind two young children.”

According to Saqi, he got news of her death after a long time — he was in solitary confinement at that time — and was naturally devastated. “Sukhaan believed in the power of the regime and its agencies, but she didn’t realise the power of the masses,” he said ruefully.

Saqi later on married Akhtar Sultana, commonly known as Indara among her friends, in 1987. They had four kids, two daughters and two sons, and also adopted one daughter. His widow, daughters and daughters-in-law are all highly educated working women.

PARTING NOTE

After a whirlwind tour through his life and times, as I was getting ready to leave, I asked if Saqi had any regrets about his personal and political life.

He kept quiet for a long time. Then he began by quoting Faiz Ahmed Faiz. “‘Har daagh hai is dil mein ba-juz daagh-i-nadaamat’ [My heart is fraught with blemishes, except the blemish of regret]. On the personal level, I have no regrets as I have lived my life on my own terms. But on the political level, I always have had this regret that due to the split in the party I lost many of my close friends and comrades with whom I had a long association and with whom I shared a common dream — that of a just society.”

The writer is a member of staff.
She tweets @MonizaInam

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 11th, 2018