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Lahore 1980: A protest by female college students against General Zia regime's treatment of women

Reviewed by Asha’ar Rehman

“I remember. It was you who had shut the door on us that day,” the white-haired gentleman is admonished in a voice that is determined but without any trace of bitterness. “We had gathered to protest the closure of Musawaat and you had blocked our way.”

This is the year 2011 and the old gentleman is being blamed for an incident from the fading 1970s, when he was working for the management of Musawaat, the Pakistan People’s Party daily in Lahore. The long-overdue censure is from Farkhanda Bokhari, a certified PPP jiyali. Clearly, the memories are still fresh in her mind and probably Z. A. Bhutto’s mission, too. Some three and a half decades later, she still has unfinished business to discuss with the opposite side.

This unfinished business and Bokhari’s commitment to the Bhuttos form the basis of her autobiography, Yeh Baazi Ishq ki Baazi Hay. The book is the latest addition in a series about the relentless persecution of progressive forces by General Zia, the one man Pakistanis cannot quite avoid, whatever route they take, however far they may have travelled since those horrifying times.

Many resented Zia’s rule. Some opposed him openly and a handful confronted him head-on. Bokhari is one among the few destiny plucked from their milieus for a much celebrated get-together of rebels. Her book is the first-hand account of the factors that went into the making of the rebel we know and must celebrate. This makes her narrative useful for students of Pakistani history.

The autobiography recounts how a purdah-observing wife of a famous poet and the mildly rebellious daughter of an apolitical government official took on a martial law regime. The manner in which it is narrated, the transformation looks natural; its protagonist, a girl from the old city inclined to do things differently from an early age, going with her own sentiment and the force of events around her.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is ousted and jailed and the PPP mantle effectively shifts to Begum Nusrat Bhutto. By the time she receives the infamous blow to her head at Qaddafi Stadium, Bokhari has emerged from her home to be by her leader’s side.

In the fast track of political activism, Bokhari quickly progresses to a prison cell by the time Bhutto is executed. And when Al-Zulfikar demands the release of a group of people in return for a plane full of PIA passengers in 1981, Bokhari is the only woman among the 50-odd people to be set free and sent abroad by Zia’s regime. She arrives first in Syria and finally ends up in London.

In between is hectic political activity in the face of a regime that is at its most oppressive, including a still-mysterious visit to Libya. Involving a senior Pakistani military official and his sister, an educationist, the small group of which Bokhari was part has been linked to an attempt to bring about a revolution in Pakistan. In Yeh Baazi, Bokhari chooses mostly to react to the little literature available on the Libya trip and refrains from telling her story in full. The only information she conveys is that she had been trapped and didn’t know where she was headed and why.

London entails yet more hardship for Bokhari, her husband Shohrat Bokhari and their three children. Yet, in comparison with books by political workers from the same era, Yeh Bazi is a matter-of-fact account of an activist’s ordeal during the darkest hour in Pakistan’s history. The narrative is by and large free of melodrama. The details of the torture suffered by the author under Zia are tempered with relief by the mention of the good souls she meets along the way, such as the young soldier who performs his job as her escort with moist eyes.

There are plenty of emotions in Yeh Baazi but the outburst is reserved for moments such as when Bokhari remembers how she and her jail mates reacted to the news of Bhutto’s hanging. This devotion is again on display when she writes about other Bhutto deaths and those of her own brothers. The brief chapter about her brother, trade unionist Iftikharul Haq, reads like a tribute by a true admirer and follower.

Another occasion on which Bokhari chooses not to hold back is when she relates the episode of her forced departure from Pakistan on the demand of Al-Zulfikar. And she has no problem in sharing that she allowed herself a dance of joy upon hearing the news of Zia’s death in August 1988.

Bokhari says Benazir had wanted her to write this story which began with the coup against Bhutto in July 1977. She certainly took her time getting around to it. She also seems to hold certain things back. At many places in the book it seems that Bokhari’s version is heavily constrained.

There seems to be an effort to avoid blurting certain things out and she is selective in unfolding before her readers certain events, leaving much unsaid. The Libya visit is one such example. Another is her cautious approach while recalling the events after her return from exile during Benazir’s first government. She does hint that not all PPP people were happy with the closeness she enjoyed with Begum Bhutto and Benazir and also talks about how her husband didn’t quite approve of her continuing in politics after her return from London. She leaves the readers craving a disclosure of sorts, leaving them at times to read too much between the lines. It is as if hers is as yet a suppressed account about a life where the personal was so entangled with the political.

There are, on the other hand, details which do not reveal so much as reconfirm. Bokhari recalls how surprised Begum Bhutto was at not finding her name in a PPP list of candidates — presumably for an assembly seat in 1988 since the writer is not partial to specifics such as dates, etcetera. She indicates she was denied access to the assembly — by powers unknown — despite being a nominee of both Begum Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto.

As Bokhari talks about how it was left to a few individuals to fight for Bhutto’s life, her story reinforces the impression about the PPP as a party that exists and operates without too much order and in spite of its organisation. During all these years, the gap between the diehard workers and the party organisation has remained. If anything, despite Bokhari’s decision to not highlight it in her book, in her case this gap appears to have widened over time. n

The reviewer is resident editor, Dawn, Lahore

Yeh Baazi Ishq ki Baazi Hay


By Farkhanda Bokhari

Sange Meel Publications, Lahore

ISBN 9693524969