Uncovering People’s Movements in Pakistan

Aslam Khwaja's People’s Movements in Pakistan covers instances that rarely find mention in news in India, leading us to see common threads between resistance movements on both sides of the divide.

In 1936, challenging colonial rule, Allama Iqbal wrote a masnavi, Pas che bayed kard ai aqwam e Sharq’ (What shall we do now, O people of the East?). This is the question we South Asians need to ask today given the rapidly declining relations especially between India and Pakistan. The answer to Iqbal’s question lies in a deeper understanding among both peoples. There lies the import of Aslam Khwaja’s book People’s Movements in Pakistan. It uncovers Pakistan’s peoples’ movements which very rarely find mention in the news in India despite the fact that there arre common threads between resistance movements on both sides of the divide.

Aslam Khwaja People’s Movements in Pakistan The Marginalised Publication, 2017

Speaking at the launch of the book, Siddharth Varadarajan, a founding editor of The Wire, said the book is not a linear narrative, but a layered and even tough read.

In fact, that’s precisely where the merit of Khwaja’s book lies. With separate chapters on the struggles of civil society for democracy against the military, workers and trades unions, peasants, Pakistan’s ethnic groups like the Baloch, student movements and of course, the women’s movement, he opens up a part of Pakistan that is mostly non-existent for Indians. There is also an excellent chapter on art, culture and literature as a site of resistance.

The book’s origin lies in an invitation the Delhi-based writer and activist Noor Zaheer extended Khwaja, ‘a Left political activist from Sind’, to attend a conference in Amritsar where he spoke about the way democratic forces were struggling for survival in Pakistan and how causes were being upheld and kept alive against the onslaught of insecure and power hungry regimes.  ‘Learn to differentiate between the people and the state,’ Noor recalled her father, Sajjad Zaheer – or ‘Banney bhai’ as he was lovingly called by all his friends and admirers – telling her when she was a young girl of 12. For her, those words became the raison d’être of the book.

Meticulous work with newspaper archives and historical records went into the book, which was published in Pakistan to much acclaim. It is now available in India thanks to the Wardha-based publishers, The Marginalised.

For 70 years, with a few exceptions, both the Pakistani and Indian states have stoked hatred for each other through unrelenting propaganda. Regimes on either side have relied on the bogey of an overarching enemy to garner votes, or simply whenever the going got tough on the domestic front. In this respect, both countries are mirror images. The poet Fehmida Reyaz, who lived in India for seven years of self imposed exile during the military rule of General Zia, immortalised this mirror imaging in these lines:

Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
Ab tak kahan chhupey tthey Bhai
Woh moorakhta woh ghamarpan
Jis mein hum ne sadi ganwayee
Aakhir pohnchi dwar tumhare
Arrey badhai bahut badhai.

(You turned out just like us/Where were you hiding all these years?/The same foolishness, the same thick-headedness/With which we wasted an era/Finally has reached your doors too/Congratulations, my brother, congratulations)

Between India and Pakistan, the book avers, there is similarity of cultures as well as of struggles. The book’s cover photograph is of a young girl, Zhila Shah, facing police atrocities at a women’s rally in Lahore in 1983. When Indian news reports atrocities, for example against minority women in Pakistan, there is rarely a line about the ‘Zhila Shahs’ who come out in hordes protesting against such hate crimes. The book records the gunning down of Punjab governor Salman Taseer for his crime of visiting a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was thrown in jail under the notorious blasphemy laws. Further, it dwells on the subsequent glorification of his assailant Mumtaz Qadri with showers of rose petals by a group of lawyers.

A parallel narrative from this side is the glorification of Shambhulal Regar of Rajsamand in Rajasthan who hacked to death Afrazul, a Bengali labourer from Malda for his crime of being a Muslim. For every atrocity committed by state or non state actors, people spill out on to the streets there, as they do here. The difference is that their regime has been repressive for most of the 70 years since the creation of Pakistan whereas, ours had longish periods of respite.

The book is a record of many memorable moments in the movement; the great revolutionary poet Habib Jalib is described sitting with a group of men and women on Mall road, Lahore protesting against Zia’s repression, reciting his lines:

Sarsar ko saba
Bandey ko khuda
Kya likhna

Why write of
Poisoned air as morning breeze
Or of
Lowly creatures as God!

The poet Ahmed Faraz being pulped for these lines addressed to the military rulers at a street protest:

Pesha wur qatilon tum sipahi nahin
Professional killers, you are not soldiers.

Aslam Khwaja. Credit: Twitter

Women as heroic defenders of human rights runs as a strong thread throughout the chapters. Imposition of Urdu on Bangla speakers right after the creation of Pakistan sees the women of East Pakistan fighting the good fight. Anwara Begum, associate of an Hussain Shaheed Suharwardy, Maulana Bhashani and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman leads from the front. Schoolgirls defy section 144 and assemble under a ‘mango tree’ in Dacca University to demand just status for the Bengali language. The protest of Hamida Ghanghro and her sister Khurshid against the Pakistan People’s Party government, which led to a baton charge, was immortalised by the words of Naseem Wali Khan Khan: that the foundations of Pakistan were so weak that two schoolgirls could shake it.

The chapter sweeps across women’s struggles; from the formation of the All Pakistan Women’s Association in 1949 to resistance by women in 21st century Pakistan. The reader views a gallery of heroines – Lal Bibi, Mukhtaran Mai, Samia Sarwar, Malala Yusfzai – their stories are well known. Even the sober quiet worker Parveen Rahman, director of Orangi Pilot Project, was gunned because of her perseverance to uncover the fast disappearing rural land courtesy land grab of mafia of Karachi.

Translating the volume in Hindi, as smaller thematic pieces, may carry the real face of Pakistan – especially to people of the Hindi heartland, who have no alternative narrative which enables them to open their minds to the reality next door.

Syeda Hameed is Writer Founder Chair Muslim Women’s Forum.