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Smokers’ Corner: Lahore, Barcelona


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As a college student and a fancy ‘Marxist revolutionary’, back in the mid-1980s, one of the historical events that interested me the most was the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

When in 1930 a military dictatorship in Spain fell, a coalition of communists, socialists and anarchists (the Republicans) swept the country’s municipal elections, forcing the Spanish monarch to flee the country.

The Republicans took over the reigns of the new Spanish government and state and authored a constitution that was hostile towards the military, monarchy and the Catholic clergy.

The new government nationalised all public services and land, banks and the railways but these radical steps created tensions between the leftists (the Republicans) and the coalition of monarchist, Catholic priests and the landed elite (the Falange).

In July 1936, General Franco, on the behest of the Falange, attempted to launch a military coup against the Republican regime, but failed. The failure however, resulted in an all-out civil war between the Republicans and the military-backed Falange.

The first shots of the bloody war were fired in the Spanish city of Barcelona. Even though after four years, Franco’s forces were finally able to defeat the Republicans, but what happened in Barcelona during this period is most interesting.

As the state and government crumbled during the civil war, Barcelona was almost entirely run by its residents supported by Republican forces.

Everything was nationalised and taken over by the people, including factories, buildings, transport and policing duties.

The event baffled a number of historians because what in theory sounded like an improbable and highly Utopian proposition — i.e. common civilians running a whole city on their own without any state or conventional government in place — actually transpired in Barcelona, and that too for a full four years.

This episode used to fascinate me to no end. However, even more fascinating is a piece of local history that I only recently stumbled upon.

In his 2001 book, The Mirage of Power, former PPP ideologue and founder, Dr. Mubashir Hassan, writes in detail about an event that has been inexplicably ignored and forgotten about by most Pakistanis.

The event is about a Barcelona type situation in the Lahore of 1972.

The PPP had swept the 1970 election in Sindh and Punjab in the former West Pakistan on a radical socialist manifesto.

Though elections were held under a military dictator, the dictatorship was forced to relinquish its power after the Pakistan armed forces were defeated in the 1971 Indo-Pak war, and what was once East Pakistan separated, becoming the independent republic of Bangladesh.

The dictatorship’s fall paved the way for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP to form the country’s first ever democratically elected regime. But almost immediately it began to face daunting economic problems, and hostility from the rightists and even from those forces that had passionately campaigned for the PPP during the 1970 election.

But since in the early days of its inception, the regime was genuinely popular among a large number of people residing in Punjab and Sindh, it found itself being actively supported by the masses in the face of various issues that had cropped up due to Pakistan’s military defeat and the consequential break-up of the country.

For example, when the regime failed to break a crippling police strike in Peshawar (in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), it asked the Army to intervene. But the Army refused and Bhutto’s ministers had to get into lengthy discussions and deliberations with the striking policemen to resolve the issue.

But just as the government was about to achieve a breakthrough in Peshawar, an even more crippling strike by the police broke out in Lahore.

Short on resources, time and men, the Bhutto regime struggled to juggle between handling strikes in Peshawar and Lahore. The military refused to intervene in Lahore, claiming that the city was in shambles after the 1971 war and thus, lacked the influence and resources to pacify the striking policemen.

Unable to get appropriate attention of the government, police officers and their subordinates (including those from traffic police), simply abandoned their posts and stations, and went home.

Bhutto and his governor in the Punjab, Mustafa Khar, panicked. Lahore was lingering without any police protection whatsoever and there was fear that if habitual criminals come loose, anarchy would engulf the city.

The fear was realistic. A major city was without any police presence; a city of a country that had lost its pride due to a humiliating defeat at the hands of a hated enemy and consequentially facing a daunting economic and political crises.

But instead of anarchy and free-for-all bloodletting, something entirely unexpected happened. After finding absolutely no cops directing the traffic and the police stations totally empty, the people of Lahore decided to run the city themselves.

Almost everyone participated — fruit and vegetable vendors to labour, college and university students to white-collar office workers.

College and high school students used abandoned stools and sheds to control traffic. And what’s more, they were all obeyed by the car, taxi, rickshaw and bus drivers.

As the students ran the traffic, the labour and office workers moved in to take over police stations. As some police stations were not abandoned by the striking cops, they were asked to leave. Those who refused to go were thrown out by large crowds.

In some areas these crowds chose common working class men as the station’s new thanedaars (SHO). Masons, carpenters, school teachers, and in one case, an unemployed old man were chosen to run police stations as awami thanedaars (people’s officers).

The old man had initially refused the offer saying that since he couldn’t even recover his lost goat, how could he ever catch any thieves?

But the crowd around him persisted and the man relented when someone from the crowd appeared with three goats and handed them to him.

This continued for almost two days and Lahore newspapers reported that traffic violations and incidents of theft had dropped considerably during these eventful and unprecedented days.

Khar exploited the event brilliantly. After failing to get the cops to end their strike, he held a large rally in Lahore (televised by PTV).

In the rally he warned the policemen that if they did not return to their posts, they would be dismissed and common civilians would be given their posts and perks. The cops returned, almost immediately.

It is interesting to note that this was the same city that would eventually go up in flames due to the 1974 anti-Ahmadi riots, and these days is making a name for itself for generating mobs of hatred who go about killing supposed ‘blasphemers’ and burning down whole residential areas populated by Pakistani Christians.

Author Image

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and He is also the author of two books on the social history of Pakistan, End of the Past and The Pakistan Anti-Hero.

He tweets @NadeemfParacha

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (31) Closed

TKhan Mar 31, 2013 04:35am
So it is implied that Citizens of Karachi should do the same? Then what role MQM should play?
Asad Ali Shah Mar 31, 2013 04:35am
NFP has to put a negative aspect to a wonderful positive story about Lahore. I guess he can't help being negative all the time.
Majeed Mar 31, 2013 05:48am
No, it is implied how an enlightened city like Lahore has become a bastion of mob violence and bigotry ever since 1974.
Ali S Mar 31, 2013 06:31am
'Marxist revolutionary'. Yeah right.
Nasir A. Mar 31, 2013 06:37am
He said fancy Marxist revolutionary and then put it in inwerted commas. He's mocking himself. But, of course, the sarcasm is lost on guys like you.
Nasir A. Mar 31, 2013 06:40am
Amazing tale. I can imagine Lahore being like that. And you are right to allude that it were the 1974 anti-Ahmadi riots that began to change Lahore. Such pity that today this city is nothing like the Lahore before 1974.
Nasir A. Mar 31, 2013 06:54am
By 'negative' you mean factual. Try to learn from the moral of the story here: How politics based on religious hatred can turn a city of big hearted people into a city of killing mobs.
Nauman Mar 31, 2013 09:15am
I wish we could still do this self-help or waqar-e-amal to cities and in running the country in a more resourceful way these days. But we need a super leader first to guide us in the righteous direction. By the way, is Khar the same colourful bloke of "My Feudal Lord" fame?
Exkarachiite Mar 31, 2013 09:34am
I don't think the citizens of the rest of the country are doing anything to take care of thei cities, especially Karachi. Where neither the government nor it's politicians and certainly it's constituents demand a chane and actively drive it. People in Lahore at least have a sense of self that demanded a swift response to rebuilt Joseph colony. The administration reacted because the relationship of the politicans and the people is much stronger. While corruption is everywhere , it is artform in in Sindh and Karachi which mqm and ppp have perfected it. During the next election the outcome will be unfortunately the same. So don't hold your breath Karachi. Meanwhile in Lahore from mediocre Chaudry's, to Khadim Ii alla or even the possibility of the Khan hold better promise than Z or mr. A. So get of your x and do something soon peolpe, or it's Tarachi soon...T for Taliban.
observer Mar 31, 2013 09:48am
Commas are inverted, not inwerted.
AHA Mar 31, 2013 11:00am
Religion destroys. Not even a city as enlightened as Lahore was spared.
Shehzad Shah Mar 31, 2013 11:11am
Nadeem, the Falange in the Spanish Civil War were comprised of the petit-bourgeois, not the landed elite. As always, the landed elite looked down upon them but found them convenient allies. The main fighting on the Fascist side was done by the Spanish military, which was led by Franco. The Spanish generals were more arch-conservatives than true Fascists.
Adil Khan Mar 31, 2013 11:18am
If one looks closely and with a detached view, you'll see most tragedies in Pakstan have happened around or is connected to a certain Z A Bhutto. 1965 War, Agitation against Ayub Khan, 1971 War, Breakup of Pakistan, Second Marshal Law, Ahmedi's Verdict, Zia's promotion over other Senior Generals etc etc The list is almost endless and it has probably decimated Pakstan's future for decades to come. The war in East Pakistan cost around 2 million lives and millions of rapes. His gift to Pakistan of Zia will haunt us for years to come - he chose Zia because he seemed the least threat to him. His legacy thru BB and her cohort Zardari scars us to this day. His selfish decision to rule the Ahmedis as Kafirs started the secterian fires that engulf the country till this day. He made this decision and the banning of alcohol to appease the Mullahs, although he himself was a whisky drinking socialist! In fact almost all his decisions were made to get himself into power and then stay in power, regardless of the cost to the country and it's poor population. Thorough his legacy, the common man still hasn't managed to attain the basics in life, though he promised much with his famous slogans and speeches. Today we rank even below some God forsaken African countries in most leagues of human development. Two weeks ago I visited Pakistan from UK, and the prices of common goods were pretty similar to prices we pay in stores like Asda, Tesco and Lidl in UK. The only difference being that when when one converts the average monthly earning in UK to the average in Pakistan. Official UK annual income = ?26500, divided by 12 months x 150 rupees per ? = 331,250 Rupees. The mind boggles when one compares that figure to what the average monthly wage is in Pakistan. So how is the average family in Pakistan meant to 'Eat, Clothe, and afford a House?' Please advice, I can't comprehend. One day people will truly come to know what the real legacy of ZAB and his Royal Family has been to Pakistan. I wonder if one day his grandson will actually have some poor Pakistanis eating grass, as Bhutto threatened India in the 70's. Who would have thought then.
TKhan Mar 31, 2013 01:15pm
What is there to dislike my comments? independent of one's opinion and impression about MQM; isn't true that for a short period of time when they were given the money and the nod from the Federal Government, they did a tremendous job in improving the infrastructure and somewhat relevant peace among the citizens of Karachi? The same infrastructure is now on its last leg and in shambles. So I say outsourced it to those who can deliver and then monitor them like a hawk!
Asad Mar 31, 2013 01:54pm
The writer managed to put a negative spin to an otherwise positive story. There are lots of "facts" in Pakistan that over shadows the resilience of the people of Pakistan. It would be nice if we all can somehow manage to see the positives of Pakistan and build a generation on top of it. Only highlighting "facts" all the time is hardly going to get us any where, in my humble opinion. After all, we get enough dose of "facts" everyday starting from 8pm talk shows.
Khalid Mar 31, 2013 02:15pm
I remember that Strike, and I still live in Lahore. Lahore was different back then. For Sure.
Muhammad Ahmed Mar 31, 2013 02:35pm
Great moments in history displaying mob unity for common good and sustained governments are completely different realities. Fantastic moments in history can occur by courage of groups of people but mobs in general rarely get organized without proper leadership. In case of Barcelona at the time of Spanish civil War or Lahore in 1970s people got united out of desperation and there were actually leaders coming out of colleges and middle class who had that ability of extra ordinary crisis management. This has actually been witnessed on daily basis during bombings all over Pakistan. People have acted as first responders. Edhi organization has probably carried more people to the hospitals then government paramedics and people have shown remarkable resilience all over Pakistan. I will however, like to clarify that crisis management is not same as sustained government running on taxes and actually answerable to the woes of the public based on systematic checks (judiciary, elections and media and off course military). It almost seems like NFP has changed weed suppliers because when he talks about hope and good coming out of regular Pakistani people it almost is hard to co-relate with his regular "doomed Pakistan" analysis.
Subhani Mar 31, 2013 04:45pm
Actually, religion "itself" doesn't create or destroy - It's mere information! Unfortunately, there are many self-proclaimed religious leaders who have been handed "the light" & who feel a necessity to "lead" others towards what constitutes their idea of enlightenment, however, violent or destructive it might be!
SBB Mar 31, 2013 05:27pm
Amazing story of people taking ownership.. and I wish that we do the same today. Thanks for writing about it.
pathanoo Mar 31, 2013 05:36pm
Thank You, Adil Khan. You are the only commentator in DAWN who has so accurately described the beginning and the cause of Pakistan's destruction. Though Zulfikar Ali Bhutto did not achieve this destruction single-handedly; he was the initiator and a major contributor to it. Bhutto's prophecy has come pretty true - The Pakistanis are eating grass and they have the BOMB. Now they can eat the BOMB with the grass or vice versa.
Masood Hussain Mar 31, 2013 05:39pm
Not only in post 71 period Lahorites have risen to the situation on many occasions but every time let down by the opportunist reactionary forces.If I. recollect history correctly this phenomenon has been repeated time and again every where people have tried to manage such fluid situations.
pathanoo Mar 31, 2013 05:41pm
NFP, You described the seminal difference between Barcelona and Lahore in your last paragraph. Unfortunately, the Muslim Ummah is still beholden to these narrow minded, 7th century Maulanas and Moulvis who are still living in that century and want to drag the Muslims along with them. Religion should enlighten not frighten. Mullahas do the latter, always. That is the problem. What a shame. Pakistan was NOT always like this.
Parvez Mar 31, 2013 06:56pm
I am of the firm belief that if the same exercise that was conducted in Barcelona and Lahore by the public, were conducted to cover Pakistan as a whole, it would be a resounding success.
Sridhar Mar 31, 2013 08:39pm
We need more Adil Khans who can out and expose a a selfish, demagogue of a brat - a category of politicians where ZAB belongs and excels. He exploited the opportunity for self-agrnadisement. A troubled country often looks for messiahs. He stepped in and pretended to be one. His dealings with the dictators, with his Saudi paymasters, and his constitutional amendments, his opportunistic maneuverings through elections, coups and "thousand year war" speeches at UN - all had but one beneficiary i.e. ZAB himself. His emotional outbursts, intemperate speeches made even a teenager like me cringe. It is sad that he had bequeathed his biological and political DNA in such large measure that the country has slim pickings as it heads to the next poll.
Asad Mar 31, 2013 09:11pm
Unfortunately this has been the tragedy of Pakistan from day one.Every rulers first and only goal is self preservation at ANY cost.But they have evolved a bit that now their wealth is abroad and they use Pakistan as their play ground.(Various retd genarals, Sharifs,Zardaris,Bhuttos,or any other ethnic and family name one can think of.
AHA Mar 31, 2013 10:09pm
Islam was the best 'way of life' that a system could provide to humanity in the 7th century. But what we Muslims fail to appreciate is that Islam was supposed to be a source of guidance to provide the best for its followers with changing times. Instead Islam has now become a mere 'tick in the box' set of practices.
AHA Mar 31, 2013 10:22pm
As an aside, it was the Nazis who tipped the balance of power in favor of Franco. But Franco did not side with the Nazis in WW II. He did not even overrun Gibraltar, without which the Allied forces would have lost North Africa, and there would have been no soft underbelly.
Moeen Qadir Khan Apr 01, 2013 01:53am
Dear All is at this point of time any one ready to come forward and choose the right people in forthcoming elections. I fear all sort of old faces are getting ready to make us fool again!!!!!!!
AA Apr 01, 2013 07:27am
Very well said! Bravo
Badami Apr 01, 2013 08:03am
Excellent article.
Anas Tanveer Apr 01, 2013 08:24am
Brother, He is not being negative, just showing us our real faces. So, I do not find it logical breaking the mirror , who is showing us our bruthless and filthy faces. Try some cosmetics for that either. I mean, would you disagree that we are putting Christian's home on fire, where our Prophet PBUH had allowed the Christians at His time to live and preach in Masjid? What has gone wrong now? People at His PBUH time, abbuse Him less than a movie maker now a days? When HE PBUH , himself not going voilent way, then who are we to kill people now? If everyone has to get punished for his/her deeds and sins in this world, then what is the concept of Judgement day?