Labour movement in Pakistan

18 Jul 2011


So let’s talk about the movement of peasants, of workers, labourers, and the bread earners who are faced with obstacles at every turn.

With regard to the Pakistan Labour movement I have a confession to make – a confession of love toward the Marxist ideology, of inspiration toward Lenin and Stalin. It was the year 2008/09 when I started reading Russian history. However, let me be very clear that my support for Russian Communism was a not a love-only but a love-hate relationship. I supported the rise of an agrarian society to a Super Power within 15 years due to the infamous Five Year Plans of Joseph Stalin, but I could not swallow the idea that “a single death is a tragedy, a million only a statistic”. I supported an egalitarian society, but I could not understand how a perfect communist state could survive forever (there would be no competition and no motivation to excel).With such a background, I was coming to hear the famous Secretary General of Pakistan’s only Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear Dr. Taimur Rehman singing Umeed-e-Sahar upon my arrival for our class on Social Development at Harvard, followed by a very detailed and informative history of Communism in the Sub-Continent.

Founded on 6th March 1948 in the second All India Conference of the Communist Party of India, Syed Sajjad Zaheer was elected the first General Secretary of the CPP (Communist Party of Pakistan), only to be banned by the Government of Pakistan in reference to the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951. Major General Akbar Khan had attempted an unsuccessful coup d’état against the government of Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan and was supported by Left Wing politicians, including the intellectual leader of the Communist Party of Pakistan, Faiz Ahmed Faiz as well as Sajjad Zaheer.

It is worth mentioning that the future Prime Minister of Pakistan, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy was defending the case of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Major General Akbar Khan in the court of law. As a result, in 1957 when Suhrawardy became the Prime Minister he reprieved the conspirators. It was the same General Akbar who later went on to become the Chief of National Security in Bhutto’s government.

In 1954 another blow came to the movement when the National Student Federation (NSF) and the Railway Workers’ Union were banned. This brought forth the creation of Azad Pakistan Party under the leadership of Mian Iftikhar ud Din. Three years later Azad Pakistan Party merged with the newly created National Awami Party (NAP). It was formed to oppose the One Unit Scheme that merged West Pakistan’s four provinces into one single unit, hence undermining nationalistic movements of these provinces. For some years that followed, the National Awami Party was believed to be the surrogate of the banned Communist Party of Pakistan. As a result, it faced a crackdown under Ayub Khan’s regime, and its Office Secretary Hasan Nisar was tortured to his last breath in captivity.

While Awami League was the largest party of Pakistan, it was primarily the party of East Pakistan. In contrast, Pakistan People’s Party under the leadership of Bhutto emerged as the dominant political force in West Pakistan, primarily in Sindh and Punjab. In Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; however, it was the National Awami Party that gathered much support. The NAP was outlawed in 1975 for opposition to Bhutto’s government and subsequently it renamed itself to the Awami National Party, and the Communist leaders parted their ways from the ranks and files of the new party. Ironically, it is the same ANP that sits in People’s Party Government now.

Bhutto had a strong support of the working class; he started pension benefits as well as workers’ profit sharing and compensation for injury program. However, by 1974, he threatened the workers’ of the country that if they did not end their protest, “the strength of the street will be met by the strength of the state”. As a result, many activists who had taken part in the movement preceding Bhutto’s government were arrested and shot. He justified the ruthless action against industrial workers by propagating that these unions had foreign agents working to destabilize the country. This was perhaps one of reasons why labour movement has never been able to gain center stage in the political life of Pakistan.

Corruption was seeped into public institutions the like of Railways and Wapda to deliberately ward off any Worker’s Unions. Here, political parties manipulated their public; here in Pakistan, peasants and workers were pushed back into silence; and here, veterans were forced into Golden Handshakes to serve ulterior political motives. Not only Communist ideology was shunned, but labour movement was discouraged by the Essential Services Act of 1958. It was not 20th Century in Pakistan, it felt like the replication of Combination Laws of the 18th Century England. It was history repeating itself.

The world made its fateful decision about communism when the Iron Curtain was lifted in Europe. Members of socialist and communist parties know that in countries like Pakistan where kinship, feudalism, and dynastic politics remains very strong, gaining rights for peasants and workers is a big step forward. As rightly pointed out by an aged worker in Islamabad, Aurangzeb Sahab, who was fired by General Musharraf, and now runs his own registered NGO, until and unless peasants and workers do not find their voice in the political arena of Pakistan, true democracy cannot flourish.

The author is a policy analyst and a social worker from Islamabad who believes that the glass is half full. He can be reached at and

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.