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Smokers’ Corner: Lahore, Barcelona

March 31, 2013

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.