“In the history of Pakistan — at least in my opinion — two years stand out, when it seemed as if the country might go down another, more progressive path; when there wasn’t a single political dissident in the prisons of Pakistan. I speak of the period between 1956 and 1958, just before the military toppled the civilian government and changed this country’s trajectory forever.
“On September 12, 1956 Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy became prime minister. I’d moved from Karachi to Lahore by then — I’d found myself a very good job — and I joined the Awami League there.
Suhrawardy was also part of the League and his prime minister-ship was generally regarded by progressives as a good thing — the Awami League and the Pakistan National Party (which had been formed recently, in Lahore in 1956, and was an amalgam of smaller nationalist parties coming together in West Pakistan) were the only two liberal, democratic forces in West Pakistan at the time. We supported him, we supported his 14-point programme — and for a while, it seemed as if he would push forth the liberal agenda. But Suhrawardy was in the minority; the government was dominated by the Republican Party, which in turn was dominated by the feudals. And this conflict of interest became most apparent when it came to formulating the official response to the Tripartite Aggression, when Britain, Israel and France joined forces to attack Egypt following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
“The Suez crisis unleashed a storm of protest in Pakistan — there was a great deal of popular support for Egypt and against the western powers, led by Bengal, where anti-imperialist sentiment was most pronounced. I remember the rally that was held in Karachi, bringing together huge numbers of students and trade union members. We set out from Tower and ploughed our way through security and tear gas and succeeded in reaching the prime minister’s house — what is now, as you know, the chief minister’s house. When we gathered at the gate, Suhrawardy emerged from inside — he was a popular leader, he had public support and so he came out standing, in an open jeep. He assured us that Pakistan would extend full support to Egypt, that it would condemn the aggression and would send forces if the need arose.
“But the very next day, the government began to waver on this promise; within a few days it reversed its stance vis a vis the Suez Crisis completely. After attending a conference in Tehran, Suhrawardy returned and convened a meeting of party workers. We met at his house, where we issued a slew of indignant statements against US policies. Suhrawardy sat quietly through the onslaught — then, as if he’d suddenly been yanked awake, he called out over the din: ‘Now, look here, listen. I have only 14 members in the National Assembly. I cannot run this government solely on the support of you communists.
‘I need the nawabzadas, the pirs and the mirs — I don’t need Comrade Azizullah,’ he continued, referring to the one pro-communist member of our Karachi wing. ‘So now you all decide what you want to do — if you wish to continue supporting me, you’ll have to bear with these people.’
“And that’s when everything started unravelling. In East Pakistan, the section of the party that was under the leadership of Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani, and which held considerable clout there, rebelled. Here, in West Pakistan, there were similar pockets of resistance. I had formed a Kerala chapter of the Awami League when I moved to Karachi; it comprised beedi workers and was, in some respects, more powerful than the central League, because its workers were hard-core leftists, militant by nature, willing to be beaten up — we were, in fact, the guardians of the League’s central office.
We renounced our allegiance to the Awami League, exhorting other chapters to do the same, and joined the Pakistan National Party.
“In July 1957, a convention took place in Dhaka, bringing together members of the Pakistan National Party and Bhashani’s section of the Awami League. I was part of the delegation from West Pakistan, which comprised a hundred or so people; I went with Mahmoodulhaq Usmani, a wonderful man, who had earlier been the Secretary-General of the League. During the mid-1950s, his bungalow in Garden East, Karachi, was a public place; we were free to wander in and out at will. Mujibur Rehman, when he’d visit West Pakistan, would sleep at his house.
“That convention in Dhaka became the birthplace of the National Awami Party: the only progressive political party in the history of Pakistan, I believe, to have a national outreach and an agenda that was clearly anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist, in support of women and workers. NAP is a party that people remember even today; it became, I feel, the voice of the people of Pakistan — the oppressed nationalities, ethnicities and classes. It began agitating for expanded markets with a focus on the Soviet Union’s eastern republics, a non-aligned foreign policy and a review of Pakistan’s membership of Seato and Cento — its proposed policies rapidly gained popularity with the masses of the country. And then in the midst of all of this, came an announcement: elections would be held in March 1959.
“And so electioneering began, suddenly but with full force. Meetings were held all over the country — from Peshawar to Karachi in the west and from Chittagong to Sylhet in the east. It was a great time for politics in Pakistan. But it also caused a great deal of trepidation within the establishment: there were elements that became convinced that if these elections were allowed to take place, NAP would emerge as the clear winner — and what would that mean for the country’s existing military alliances, political allegiances and policies, set in place by Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951? No, the elections had to be sabotaged. And so the coup of October 7, 1958 took place and General Ayub Khan assumed power.
“In some respects, the signs had been there. The army’s political appetite had been whetted earlier in the decade: during the anti-Ahmadiyya riots of 1953, the administration of Lahore had been handed over to military under Lieutenant General Azam Khan. The martial law lasted for 70 days — and it was ruthless. Khan authorised indiscriminate firing on peaceful protestors — namaaziyon ko maara ussney (at Wazir Khan Masjid), like the British. The mosque, they say, was shut for two days so that it could be rinsed of the blood. I was in Lahore at the time, working for Volkart Brothers, a Swiss concern. I remember sitting in a thatched hut, just off Fain Road, eating lunch with a colleague — we heard slogans being shouted, then the sound of gunshots. A man appeared over the wall, fell to the ground and started running away, in an attempt to avoid the spray of bullets. Then another body was flung over the wall, half here, half there.
“October 1958 marked the end of what were the two most promising years for Pakistani politics. The ten years that followed are often referred to as the ‘decade of development’. I, however, call them the ‘decade of decadence’ — the time when 22 families came to rule virtually all of Pakistan and when people power was decisively stifled in the country, seemingly forever.