Illustration by Samiah Bilal
Illustration by Samiah Bilal

Is andhiyari, dukhi raat mein
Kahaan chalay Mehar!
Ab nahin saath nibhaoge kya

Itna dukh de jaoge kya
[In this sad night of darkness
For where did you put on your harness
Will you now stand by no longer
Will you leave us with so much distress]
Fahmida Riaz, Nauha — Major Ishaq ke Intiqal Par [Dirge — On the Death of Major Ishaq]

Major Ishaq Muhammad was born on April 4, 1921, a hundred years ago today, in a village, Akhara, located 16-17 miles from Jalandhar. As I write this piece remembering the revolutionary founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Party, the ongoing farmers’ protests in neighbouring India have entered their seventh month. And various peasant organisations in Pakistan are planning a ‘tractor march’ to the federal and Punjab capitals if their demands for the support price of wheat, reduced power tariffs for tube-wells and fertiliser rates are not accepted. Later this month, April 17 will also mark the International Day of Peasant Struggle.

Many consider Major Ishaq — himself the son of a Punjabi peasant — an integral part of the history of the peasant struggle in this region. A history that, as is sadly proven by a quick Google search, remains underexplored.

EARLY EDUCATION

Major Ishaq’s father, Noor Muhammad, was altogether illiterate, meaning a simple peasant. But Major Ishaq studied till his BA before joining the British army. He received a scholarship from fourth grade till BA, and got his education by walking on foot or riding a broken bicycle to school, while staying in the homes of relatives. Without the scholarship, his family could not have afforded his education.

He attended MAO College Amritsar and wore a turban and shalwar qameez to college. Dr Taseer, father of former governor Punjab Salman Taseer, was the college’s principal and Faiz Ahmad Faiz was a professor of English there. Faiz, on the one hand, was Major Ishaq’s teacher; on the other, both of them studied Marxism from comrade Fazal Ilahi Qurban, who was underground at that time.

Major Ishaq received a very good milieu at MAO College Amritsar — teachers such as Taseer and Faiz, and classmates such as future poet, journalist and filmmaker Zaheer Kashmiri. He also wrote literary articles at that time, which were published in magazines. In 1940, he wrote an article on unity of Sikhs and Muslims, which was published in the daily Ehsan of Lahore. This was perhaps the first article on this topic.

Today is the 100th birth anniversary of Major Ishaq Muhammad, who fought for the British in Burma and for Pakistan in Kashmir, who became entangled in the infamous Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and went to jail multiple times, who investigated the killing of leftist leader Hassan Nasir, who wrote dramas and became a celebrated peasant leader in his own right. Eos remembers his life and times…

AFTER COLLEGE

After completing his BA, Ishaq Muhammad was recruited as Second-Lieutenant in the army and, from the Officers Training School, he was sent to the Burma front with the 16th Punjab Regiment. Dr Taseer and Faiz too went into the army and Zaheer Kashmiri was left behind.

In 1944, Ishaq Muhammad became a Major in Burma and, on the same front, attained the Military Cross (the second highest military medal of the British army). He also lived in Calcutta for six months as the aide-de-camp (ADC) of the commander-in-chief. From there he was sent to Malaya to fight against the Japanese.

On August 6, 1945, the US bombed Japanese cities with atomic bombs and the war ended. Ishaq Muhammad was then sent to the North West Frontier Province upon his return from Malaya. When Pakistan was created, he was in Kohat.

In 1948, he was sent to the Kashmir front. Major-General Akbar was the brigade commander in the Kashmir war and Major Ishaq was the brigade-major. In 1950, Ishaq stayed in the state of Kalat.

‘CONSPIRACY’, CAPTIVITY AND POLITICS

In 1951, along with several other army officers, he was arrested in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. The allegation was that he had wanted to overthrow the government. He remained in jail for four years. He spent the jail period in Hyderabad, Lahore and Montgomery (Sahiwal).

In 1955, Ishaq entered the Law College Lahore, and with it politics as well, initially joining the Awami League which was led by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy. When the Suez Canal was attacked, he created the National Awami Party (NAP) along with Maulana Bhashani and other leaders who disagreed with Suhrawardy’s policy.

Ishaq started practising law in 1957, but was re-arrested soon after, when martial law was imposed in 1958. This time the charge was that he was a communist. During this six-month captivity, he also stayed in the torture chambers of the Lahore Fort.

In 1960, once again, imprisonment became his lot. This time too, he was sent to the Lahore Fort. The proscribed Communist Party leader Hassan Nasir was also in the Fort at the time. After his release, Major Ishaq fought a case against the government regarding the death in custody of Hassan Nasir. Later, in 1975, he also wrote a now-classic book with reference to this case titled Hassan Nasir Ki Shahadat [The Martyrdom of Hassan Nasir], which has been recently republished.

In 1968, after a split in NAP, he founded the NAP (Mazdoor Kisan Group). In 1970, abandoning the name of NAP, he founded the Mazdoor Kisan Party (MKP).

Major Ishaq was arrested again during the Yahya Khan regime in 1971 and remained in Faisalabad jail. During this captivity, he wrote the drama Mussalli.

He was imprisoned yet again during the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto regime and then during the martial law of Gen Ziaul Haq.

FINAL IMPRISONMENT

During his final imprisonment, first he remained in Faisalabad, then the jail term was increased and he was sent to Bahawalpur Jail. It was there that he had a paralytic stroke. After a delay of 48 hours, he was admitted to Faisalabad Hospital. A fighter by nature, he fought bravely with the illness. But death had come looking.

Ishaq started practising law in 1957, but was re-arrested soon after, when martial law was imposed in 1958. This time the charge was that he was a communist. During this six-month captivity, he also stayed in the torture chambers of the Lahore Fort.

At 2.30 pm, on the afternoon of April 2, 1982, Major Ishaq breathed his last. He was buried by the side of his dear mother in Chak 644 GB Tehsil Jaranwala, District Faisalabad, on April 3, 1982. It was not far from where fellow-Punjabi revolutionary Bhagat Singh had been born, 75 years earlier.

Aanay mein taammul tha agar roz-e-jaza ko
Achha tha thehar jaatay agar tum bhi zara aur

[If Doomsday wanted to come with hesitation
It was well for you too to delay your final destination]
— Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Major Ishaq Ki Yaad Mein [In Memory of Major Ishaq]

A TESTIMONY OF HISTORY

Major Ishaq Day is celebrated on April 2, 2012 | Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party Pakistan, YouTube
Major Ishaq Day is celebrated on April 2, 2012 | Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party Pakistan, YouTube

Further proof of Major Ishaq as perhaps one of the few true revolutionaries in Pakistan’s history is to be had when one reads the incendiary sketch of the man by writer Ahmad Bashir, in his book Jo Milay Thhe Raastay Mein [My Fellow Travellers].

Here, the portraits of the policies of our initial governments with reference to the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and Kashmir are a testimony; such a testimony of history that, despite being before us, is invisible. It thus has the status of an authority for any historian who compiles our political or literary history, and can aid him or her in doing so.

A fresh re-reading of this sketch on the occasions of the birth centennial of its protagonist Major Ishaq, the 70th anniversary of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and the silver jubilee of the publication of Ahmad Bashir’s aforementioned work may thus not only be necessary but inevitable:

“Major Ishaq Muhammad contracted eczema on the hand. I said do not have the eczema treated from some allopathic doctor. It will press that poison, which your body is trying to eject outside, within the body, and then either you will get asthma or have a heart attack or paralysis will seize you. Do treat it through homeopathy. It will reject the poison.

“Major Ishaq Muhammad got homeopathic treatment. But he did not improve. Then other friends advised him that homeopathy was no method of treatment. It consisted of one type of sweet small hand-made envelopes, which are considered to be the cure for every disease and are given to every patient. Do not waste time. Go to some allopathic doctor. At least those people had systematic education.

“The allopathic doctor put Ishaq Muhammad on cortisone. The eczema disappeared at once and Major Sahib made fun of my advice. I could not satisfy him; could not reason with him that the homeopathic doctor who treated you, he could not find the right medicine, that homeopathy could not be blamed for it.

“Two to four months passed when it transpired that Major Sahib had contracted paralysis on the right side. Though the eczema did not reappear, the cortisone had pressed its poison within the body, which emerged in the form of paralysis. A few more months passed. Major Sahib’s tongue became all right and he became able to talk; so he said that when he was paralysed, the first thought that came to my mind was that, ‘chalo, I have been discharged. I have escaped the responsibility for revolution. Now I am not serviceable any longer.’

“Some more time passed, Major Sahib began to walk with a limp and go on tours as before. He also met me. At that time I did not know that this would be my last meeting with him.

“His right hand was totally senseless. But he was trying to write something by sticking a pen in his fingers. Major Ishaq Muhammad was just such a stubborn man. He was not willing to be defeated, to accept defeat under any condition. He did not even accept defeat as the commander of the Hyderi Brigade in Kashmir. He stuck it out in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case too and kept trying to defeat the paralysis so much so that death lifted him off the charpoy.

“He did not die of paralysis. When he had fever, the doctor gave him a more powerful medicine, due to which his blood pressure reached near zero. He died of reduction in blood pressure.

“His age was above 60, but he was a healthy, fit, active and lively man. He was continuously on tour and remained busy in revolutionary work. He read a lot. He also wrote a lot. He wrote very beautiful dramas in Punjabi and produced them with the help of illiterate peasants in villages.

A rare photo of Major Ishaq delivering a speech | Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party Pakistan, Twitter
A rare photo of Major Ishaq delivering a speech | Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party Pakistan, Twitter

“Major Ishaq Muhammad was a revolutionary since birth, though he came to know about this very late. Had he lived, he would have done a lot but he was slain in the dark alleys. He has left a tiny revolutionary group which does not compromise and whose ideological education is correct. Major Ishaq was one hundred percent a Pakistani revolutionary. Before the creation of Pakistan, he was a servant in the Indian army and had also received two medals for his bravery.

“Until he was arrested in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and tortured, he had no knowledge about the scientific ideology of history and revolution; he was a simple soldier. He bravely participated in the Kashmir war and did so as a volunteer. He had a smooth career in front of him. He could have progressed very far in the army. But then fortune woke him up with a jolt and made him identify himself.

The greatest accomplishment of Major Ishaq is the book written on the murder of Hassan Nasir in jail. He had been slain in some death cell of the Fort. Major Ishaq doggedly investigated the murder.”

“Major Ishaq Muhammad was a soldier but he also had the ability to think and comprehend. He had great love for Pakistan, but his Pakistan was its inhabitants. Despite his long training, he was not just a loaded gun but a human who believed in the greatness of his country. This was the very reason for his volunteer role in Kashmir.

“He would select the most difficult fortifications for himself in the Kashmir war. He would fearlessly jump in the middle of a barrage of bullets and fire with great courage and become an example for his comrades. He never panicked or became afraid. He would keep smiling while jumping into the hardest entrenchments and, even at the very time of battle, would keep telling Punjabi jokes to his fellows. His personal perspective was of the middle-class, but his mind was a creative and rebellious one. Owing to his skill and spirit, he would convert his weak position in war to a strong one. He took the fortification of Jhanger in the same manner.

By disposition he was a people’s soldier and he was glad to be among the untrained warriors of the Mehsud, Waziri, Orakzai and Afghanistan, who had come to fight the war in Kashmir, than a regular army. It is written in a book of GHQ that “Major Ishaq was never just satisfied with a war of resistance. He stabilised the sensitive fortifications of Jhanger and Nowshera by his diehard raids and night ambushes upon the entrenchments of the enemy, and forced the Indian armies on the backfoot.”

“Major Ishaq took the command of the Hyderi Brigade, which was composed of tribal adventurers. Tribal volunteers do not obey anyone. They fight of their own will. But Ishaq Muhammad had obtained their confidence and they would be prepared to go according to his word. With their assistance, Major Sahib cut the route of the advancing Indian army in the north and west of Sarhoti. Gulab Khan Mehsud was his fellow traveller at this front. There are many accomplishments of Ishaq Muhammad in Kashmir. People who want to know about them in more detail should read the GHQ book The Kashmir Campaign 1947-48.

“Major Ishaq Muhammad was a Pakistani nationalist soldier. He intensely hated the neocolonial system of Pakistan. He wanted to see Pakistan as a free and self-sufficient country in the true sense. He was an intellectual who used to take pride in his history and traditions. This is the reason that, despite being a total Punjabi, he obtained the trust of Afghan forces. He taught his comrades the knack of risking life for great ideals. He trusted the common people of Pakistan, however much different their culture and their languages may be. He had figured out those secrets in his youth, which the politicians of Pakistan could never learn.

Book cover of Hassan Nasir Ki Shahadat  [The Martyrdom of Hassan Nasir] | Courtesy the writer
Book cover of Hassan Nasir Ki Shahadat [The Martyrdom of Hassan Nasir] | Courtesy the writer

“He was a soldier of an army that had been taught for a hundred years that the army has no relation to politics, but he was a conscious soldier of a political sort. He wanted a cure to the sorrows of his people. The British had conquered India through the Indian army. This became possible by means of an army that had been taught that you have no relation to your people. It was very much the Indian army that converted the country into heaps of dust and took away the right of life from their brothers. Major Ishaq Muhammad considered this philosophy to be wrong. He was the most beautiful flower of the Pakistani nation.

“The destruction of Kashmir and the relinquishing of it, which proved traitorous, was a British ploy, but it was the civil and military bureaucracy of Pakistan that made its people swallow this poisonous pill. With this feeling that the government of Pakistan had preferred humiliation and dishonour for itself, the military volunteers of the Kashmir war were severely jolted. They began mutual consultations to overthrow the government of Liaquat Ali Khan, to continue the Kashmir war.

“The leader of this group of rebels was General Akbar Khan who was famous as General Tariq in the Kashmir war. Major Ishaq was extremely close to him. He concurred with the idea, but disagreed with the plan of General Akbar Khan. It had many hurdles. The biggest defect was that the people of Kashmir and Pakistan were not part of this plan. This was an emotional plan. It was not scientifically mature. It was based on a pleasant misconception. It was practically incomplete.

“More than anything, Major Ishaq thought that a few displeased officers of Kashmir would be unable to face the conditions created after the overthrow of the Liaquat Ali Khan government.

“Major Ishaq Muhammad also knew that some grandees of the Communist Party, e.g. Syed Sajjad Zaheer, were close friends of Begum Shahnawaz, General Akbar’s mother-in-law. She also had some personal interest in overthrowing Liaquat Ali Khan. Liaquat Ali Khan had totally overlooked her. She wanted to take revenge for it as well. And also because of that the overthrow of Liaquat Ali Khan was not a good thing.

“Major Ishaq did not know Sajjad Zaheer. He did not know any member of the Communist Party. He came to Lahore in order to find some communist who would go tell Syed Sajjad Zaheer not to be part of this quarrel. He met one communist. Alas, his name has slipped my mind. Major Ishaq sent a message to Syed Sajjad Zaheer through him. Syed Sahib replied by saying that you should explain your case in written form. Ishaq Muhammad wrote Syed Sahib a long letter and then he forgot about that letter because General Akbar Khan and the displeased military officers of Kashmir had abandoned their aim. The Pakistani government had some other intention. Liaquat Ali Khan did not want to let slip the opportunity. He arrested all the rebel officers.

“Major Ishaq was not held in the first rush. His turn came afterwards, when his letter, in which he had advised Sajjad Zaheer to refrain from this conspiracy, was found from Syed Sahib’s house. This letter was very detailed and explained the reasons because of which the conspiracy would have failed. But Major Ishaq was arrested, despite the fact that he had opposed the conspiracy.

“The government hoped that he would be made an approver by scaring him with the death sentence. But they did not know Major Ishaq. He never compromised on principles and was not afraid of death. He flatly refused and left the matter to fate, in that, ‘if my death is decreed like this, that I be hanged while being innocent, then so be it.’ He did not get a death sentence though, but four years in jail. After four years, all the prisoners were released, because there was no conspiracy to begin with, just talk of conspiracy, after which the decision to abandon the plan had been taken.

“Major Ishaq took full advantage of the four-year imprisonment. Day and night, he remained in the company of Marxist intellectuals, who also understood the historical process. He spent this time in ideological education and analysing ideological practice. Major Ishaq was a communist since birth but he got educated in the company of Faiz and Sajjad Zaheer. They solved the mental puzzles of Major Ishaq. But he was not a follower. He thought and understood for himself too.

“Major Ishaq’s idea of revolution was not mechanical and automatic. He dreamed about a pure Pakistani revolution based on Marxist principles in the journey of history. He also had knowledge about the material conditions of Pakistan. So after release from captivity, he did not join the Communist Party. Moreover the Communist Party till that time had composed its requiem. Its people had scattered.

“Ishaq Muhammad joined Maulana Bhashani’s National Awami Party because Maulana Bhashani was basically a peasant leader; a revolutionary whose ideas were similar to the leader of the Chinese Revolution, Mao Zedong. Major Ishaq left the family and household and, assuming the manner of a wandering fakir, began the attempt to organise the peasants in Pakistan. He started his work from Punjab.

“Wali Khan too was with Maulana Bhashani but, when Maulana Bhashani talked about ending the zamindari system and made a plan to bring revolution by a peasants’ organisation, Wali Khan separated himself from Maulana Bhashani.

“Major Ishaq and Afzal Bangash, who was the leader of the Hashtnagar movement, founded their Mazdoor Kisan Party. Both of them together began to work throughout Pakistan like brothers. The source of their strength was the people. They were not such revolutionaries who make the people walk on their path. They believed in democratic centralism, in which decisions go from the bottom to the top. Both Major Ishaq and Afzal Bangash tried to transfer leadership to the workers and peasants. Both were complete revolutionaries. But during the process, disagreements developed between the two over the imposition of Marxist principles and the construction of history. Their movement weakened due to this. In Punjab, the Mazdoor Kisan Party came under the control of middle-class intellectuals, which made adventurism its method. Major Ishaq became very worried but he did not lose heart.

“Then he started paying greater attention to Punjabi language and culture. He himself wrote dramas on revolutionary themes as well, and performed with the help of illiterate workers and peasants. A few dramas are included in the curriculum of the universities of Eastern Punjab. Some have also been published here. I have seen one of them being performed by workers breaking stones in Sangla Hills. Major Ishaq was of the view that our most backward areas and people are our most forward lines of entrenchment.

“The greatest accomplishment of Major Ishaq is the book written on the murder of Hassan Nasir in jail. He had been slain in some death cell of the Fort. Major Ishaq doggedly investigated the murder. He knocked on the doors of various sorts of kutchehries [courts], he was not successful; but this tale of the pursuit of Major Ishaq, the panic of the government and the police and the lawlessness of the law, could be the cause of pride for any investigative reporter. After reading it one can guess the different ways in which a revolutionary can be tortured and murdered. The head of civilisation and humanity is bent with shame over the story of Hassan Nasir.

“Major Ishaq was an enemy of the existing system. He went to jail some six times but the charge-sheet could never be proved upon him. When paralysis seized him, even at that time, he was imprisoned in Faisalabad Jail. He had been arrested, not in retaliation for some crime but merely as a dangerous man. Dangerous he certainly was. He organised the poor and the deprived and waged a jihad for revolution. When he fell suddenly, no jail doctor held his pulse. For a long time, he remained lying on the chest of Mother Earth with his face down — the Mother Earth which was the most dear to him. After a long time, his brother was informed, who took him away.

“Major Ishaq was the possessor of a strong willpower. So he began to recover quickly. He could not talk because his tongue had lost sensation. He also could not walk. But he forced himself to talk, stand and walk. In the beginning, nobody could understand his speech. He also could not stand and he dragged himself while attempting to walk. When I met him in Lahore after six months, he had won over his illness. He was getting ready again, though his organs were not as capable as before.

“He told me that ‘the revolutionary movement in Pakistan is very slow-paced. But now I am content. I did what I could have done. My party carried on the work, so I should return to the field for work.’

“A month after this meeting, he met me for the last time. He talked with me about Pakistan’s material condition. But mostly he listened to me. He was not in the habit of talking much. He was a hopeful man. He had faith in the dialectic nature of history. Like a social scientist, he knew that truth, whether it be Marxist, if it does not keep blooming, becomes a robe of lies and that every evil eventually ends. What man can do at the very most is to sharpen this process and he himself was doing the same.

“Major Ishaq was, perhaps, just the one revolutionary who was a pure Pakistani product. He did a lot, though he did not achieve any solid success. But he has fixed a path for the future caravans so that they can live creative and fruitful lives. He used to say that I am just a paving stone. But even this stone has smoothed the way for the passage of the caravan of history. May God give peace to his soul.

“Your work will not be wasted Major Ishaq Muhammad. Keep faith that Pakistan will change and workers and peasants will rule over it; in the 21st century or the 22nd century, it does not matter. You did your work. You should remain at peace. History has to move forward.”

Unfortunately, in the absence of unifying figures such as Major Ishaq, the ‘change’ that Major Ishaq so fervently worked for and Ahmad Bashir had hoped for has merely been reduced to a ‘Naya Pakistan’ on the coattails of the establishment. And while Major Ishaq was obsessed with maintaining a strong left presence in the Punjab, the left of today, even in Punjab, is divided as well as polarised.

Meanwhile, history continues to move forward. But it must not forget the likes of Major Ishaq, who never compromised on their principles and spoke truth to power, irrespective of the consequences.


All translations are by the writer.

The writer is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is also a long time member of the Pakistan Mazdoor Kisan Party and was elected as the President of its Lahore District Committee two times in the past. He is currently working on a book Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2021.

He can be reached at razanaeem@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 4th, 2021

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