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Halchal in the ranks

January 29, 2013

FOR all the fuss he created in his life ‘Maulvi Halchal’ bowed out rather quietly.

A TV channel ran a bit about his passing away recently, just enough to send memories of his highly agitated presence on the local political stage flashing through the mind.

He was an agent provocateur of the most popular kind, a familiar face at PML-N’s public rallies in Lahore.

Maulvi Halchal’s job was to arouse the crowd’s sentiment until the people were in the right emotional state to noisily welcome the star speakers at a rally. The speeches would be the operational part and they hogged the attention of the supporters generally.

To those for whom a political rally was a cultural event more than just a platform to convey high-sounding political statements, Maulvi Halchal was a source of some brash, pure entertainment.

The old-timers in the crowd would speak of him as a man who had been doing service for many decades. ‘Halchal’ was said to be a gift from the heady Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) movement days in Lahore in the 1970s.

The PNA, or Qaumi Ittehad, had the hal or the plough as their election symbol in the 1977 general election. That is from where Maulvi Halchal derived his political identity and this is how he was to be known in public for the rest of his life.

His signature line back in the PNA days used to be ‘Hal nay macha di halchal, halchal’ (the plough has kicked up a storm), customarily accompanied by a vigorous shake of the body for effect.

In time, the farmer’s hal was to be replaced by the more urban Nawaz Sharif symbol of the bicycle. This necessitated a slight adjustment which was efficiently carried out and Maulvi Halchal was there on the stage with his ‘cycle nay macha di halchal halchal’.

That would be the highest pitch that a Muslim League rally would attain, with Maulvi Halchal in command. The few occasions that one saw him striving to lift the spirits of those in attendance, his antics were not necessarily a crescendo for a befitting climax.

The excitement fizzled out quickly and if there has been greater emotion on display at League rallies in recent times, at least in those days the mundane quite often took over from Maulvi Halchal.

Maulvi Halchal’s passing also provides an occasion to recall others assigned duties similar to his. The Pakistan Peoples Party had Muazzam Ali Muazzam to keep the jiyalas enthralled as they waited for the main speakers to show up. He would hold his ‘Bhutto day naray wajjan gay…’ (Bhutto’s chants will be heard) for the last, which was a good buildup before he handed over the crowd, ripe and ready to be plucked, to the speakers.

Muazzam Ali Muazzam was considered to be a more gifted versifier and he invariably had a longer if a personally less agitated stay on stage than Maulvi Halchal. Also the references to sacrifices by the PPP leaders did seem to have quite a profound effect on the crowd, making the poet provocateur’s task that much easier.

They say things have changed since then and now it is not as easy to tell the level of deprivation among the workers and to identify their party by simply looking at how they approached the meal tables at the end of a meeting.

With a constant supply of their favourite footage, television channels appear to insist that they all behave the same these days — there is another version which says the TV crews are too caught up having their fill to be bothered about the nuanced differences between the food habits of various political activists.

In any case, back then, workers belonging to a particular party were known for having a collective disposition. The PPP’s was a more expressive gathering. The League may have been considered to be less exciting a gathering but Maulvi Halchal had his use in keeping the crowd’s morale high.

Given his particular role it was easy to link the disturbing news one heard about him almost a decade ago with the disappointment that committed political workers here can quite often experience.

“Life is wonderful, beautiful, and a blessing, which can only be enjoyed with a positive approach, healthy lifestyle and by extending a helping hand to the needy…” is how a search on the internet has Maulvi Halchal telling The Business Recorder at a reception in the year 2004.

The news report doesn’t identify the reasons for his illness, but it says Maulvi Halchal had recovered from a severe bout of depression. His guests at the reception were members of a psychiatry department of a medical college. The report also reveals his real name: Malik Riaz Ahmed.

Since the incident belongs to the Musharraf era, can it be assumed it was outside intervention which had caused Maulvi Halchal the mental stress? It could well have been a factor; it has been a factor causing a lot of pain to political activists who have suffered long and hard in the wake of such occurrences.

But it is impossible to say for sure because the case went largely unreported and in the one mention Maulvi Halchal managed to get in the papers he didn’t speak of politics at all. Just like that it is unclear whether he had been in any way hurt by his own party’s failings. Parties can hurt just like people from outside, and perhaps more frequently and more tellingly.

The present constitutes particularly vulnerable times for old political workers that party leaderships flaunt as their non-transferable assets. In this pre-poll phase, constituency politics is dictating crossovers from one party to another. Each time someone changes loyalties, a few hearts are broken and a few old party faithful betrayed and depressed.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.