Forgotten Struggles: The Erasure Of People's History (And The Present) In Pakistan

Forgotten Struggles: The Erasure Of People's History (And The Present) In Pakistan
Erasing Histories and the Formation of Narratives

When the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan was ousted in the month of April earlier this year, a wave of confusion, frustration and resentment swept across the nation, as angry demonstrators rushed to the streets calling for Khan’s reinstatement as the rightful PM. Whatever one’s opinion might be of Khan as PM and his ouster, the event was capitalised upon by everyone who sought to construct a favourable narrative out of the chaos. The man who most capitalised upon it was Khan himself. A new history of Pakistan was being written, and not for the first time either. What had started as a story of corrupt goons kicking off an honest leader to erase the cases made against their sins, soon spiraled into something much greater. A modern political epic where one hero stood against all the evil forces was now PTI’s new narrative. The fire was made fiercer as Khan “revealed” of his removal being a move by the Americans. An American-backed coup was what it was being called. Many supporters of PTI were comparing the ouster now with the regime changes in Gaddafi’s Libya, Arbenz’s Guatemala, and so on. Of course, it was being fully ignored that all those coups were against socialist forces, or governments trying to nationalise their industry. These coups were against something that was clearly anti-imperialist – none of which could be found in Khan’s story, unless one forces themselves to find it there.

The rubble out of which the narrative of Khan being a hero is formed, is the rubble of Pakistani history itself. A history which is troubled, where large, shallow pits are emptied, where much of history is erased, for the formation of a history that is a plaything for the ruling classes.

Of course, it is not just Khan that is using this narrative, the leaders of the PDM, whether it be the Sharifs, the Bhuttos or Zardari, all have used distorted historical narratives for their gains. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, often mistakenly seen as a “leftist” leader, used the rhetoric of socialism, popular at the time to fulfill his desire for power. Shehbaz Sharif would recite Habib Jalib’s Dastoor when he was ousted, feebly trying to create an image of himself as a man fighting against the injustices of the state. For Khan’s supporters, the ignorance of history helps propel their leader as the “first one to ever do it.” And so he is the first one to be openly anti-establishment, the first one to call out the sham of military intervention in politics, in short the first person to be critical of the state at such a level.

This is no doing of Khan himself, it should be understood. As soon as Pakistan was born, amnesia was induced into its system. The dictator Ayub Khan accused the founder M.A. Jinnah’s sister Fatima Jinnah of being a traitor, even in those first days, history was slowly being erased and rewritten, as the establishment had started sowing the seeds of its narrative as them being the heroes, and everyone else as corrupt traitors. Thus, Khan is only a symptom of a system which has been rotting since its initial days.

And it is the manipulation of history which is at the heart of it all.

But, the history of Pakistan is not just a history of erasures, for there also exists, underneath those erasures, the history that was erased – and it must be uncovered. For those that truly did wish to create a better Pakistan, a more equal Pakistan, perhaps even a truly socialist Pakistan, did indeed exist.

A few events and a couple of such figures shall be recalled here.
The rubble out of which the narrative of Khan being a hero is formed, is the rubble of Pakistani history itself. A history which is troubled, where large, shallow pits are emptied, where much of history is erased, for the formation of a history that is a plaything for the ruling classes

Dhaka and the anti-Ayub Movement

The final two years of the decade of the 1960s were, for Pakistan, some of its most radical years. These were days when the people, frustrated by the government, could bear it no more, and had decided to break their silence. There was tremendous repression from the state, but it failed. Tariq Ali writes of how it was the only time when both wings of Pakistan worked together with such solidarity.

As the anti-Ayub movement was reaching its end, the frightened State, was taking desperate measures to contain a people who refused to be contained. In a poor attempt to do just that, a curfew was imposed on the city of Dhaka in East Pakistan. At first the state assumed its tactics of repression to be successful, as things were relatively calm, for a while silence had engulfed the roaring city. But that was not to be permanent, as around 10 pm, the Dhaka University campus was echoing with anti-army chants, slogans of rebellion were being cast over the city sky by the students.

These slogans soon reached the workers and they replicated the act with a multiplied enthusiasm. And this was further multiplied when the call to protest reached the city poor, and the slum-dwellers, who accepted it and the population of the city became active subjects in the movement. This was the final blow to the government by the people. Two days later Ayub resigned.


The SITE protests

The idea of unions is a controversial one in Pakistan, tainted by the narrative that unions are nothing but mindless mobs filled with anti-State sentiments. Thus unionisation is not as popular in Pakistan, but that was not always the case.

It was the year 1972, and the month of March, the date was the 28th, the region of Sindh with ringing a temperament it had rarely experienced before, when 200,000 workers went on strike. The whole area of Sindh International Trading Estate (SITE) had become still, as if, frozen in time, production was halted everywhere. The empty factories echoed the cries of their owners, who were in despair at the actions of the workers. The demonstration were sparked by the firing of 2,000 mill workers because a textile mill was shut down.

Less than two months later, more protests started because of non-payment of wages by factory owners, this resulted in major chaos and a violent reaction from the state. No major victory was won by the workers. But one can definitely learn that there indeed existed a pulse of leftist politics that was once active in Pakistan. 

Erasures take place in the midst of our daily lives, erasures take place on the media, where popular narratives are formed and sold, where truth is left to die in the cold chambers of ignorance


The events recounted above tell one of a history not much told. At the heart of these events were people, and the leaders that they followed, leaders who weren’t populist shams, but who taught people the lessons of true resistance. 


Maulana Bhashani

Maulana Bhashani was a progressive whose life-long struggle centered on the betterment of the peasants, the workers and the People. Bhashani was very popular among the masses, for his unique approach towards progressive politics. While many communist leaders such as Sajjad Zaheer, the General Secretary the then newly established Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), took a radical approach in regards to keeping religion away from class politics, Maulana Bhashani, on the other hand reconciled the friction that existed between religion and Marxism. This was of immense importance for the proper propagation of Marxist politics, for if any progressive movement was to gain momentum within Pakistan, it could never do so while militantly opposing religion, religion had to be given its place within the politics too. The difference between the opportunistic use of religion in politics and Bhashani’s integration of the spiritual into the political discourse, was that Bhashani’s teachings built class consciousness and political awareness.

It was November of 1968, the whole Pakistan was engulfed in a fire of inflation, worsening living conditions and a mass uprising that was slowly gaining momentum. The streets echoed of anti-Ayub chants in the months that followed, the air was colored with hues anger and frustration directed at the government. In December a large number of peasants, workers and students were mobilized, as a reaction to the declining living conditions. They were observing a Peasants’ Demands Day. The person standing at the helm of the movement, giving the call for observing the day, was Maulana Bhashani. Not a city of East Pakistan could escape the fire that raged in the hearts of the masses when the Maulana gave the call. People were demonstrating angry protests everywhere. Students, workers, peasants, pick-pockets, slum-dwellers, beggars, the city poor, all section of the oppressed were active subjects of the movement. This was one of the most powerful scenes from the anti-Ayub movement.


Hassan Nasir

Hassan Nasir was a Communist leader of tremendous popularity, after he had arrived to Pakistan in the summer of 1948. By the time he was 20, Nasir was already an active member of the inner circle of the CPP, and the task of overlooking the distribution of the Party’s publication Naya Zamana was also given to him, as recalled by Kamran Asdar Ali in his book Surkh Salam: Communist Politics and Class Activism in Pakistan (1947-1972).

Thus, Nasir was well-trusted and well-liked. His posters would be found in the city. He was in the spotlight of the State. In 1960 he was arrested and placed in the infamous Lahore Fort, where he was tortured to death, he resisted all the violence inflicted upon him, for his cause and his comrades.

His dead body was so badly mutilated, and was already decomposing by the time his mother arrived in Lahore for the exhumation. Later, she said that she did not think it even was her son’s body. Thus, Nasir was tortured to death, for his resistance against an oppressive State. But, he was to always be remembered by his comrades, as a friend and an inspiration; a true martyr.

The state-led repression upon Nasir, which ultimately resulted in his death, certainly does induce the politics of fear, something of which numerous thinkers like Ammar Ali Jan and Aasim Sajjad Akhtar have talked. But it is also evident from the annual tributes given by progressives all over Pakistan to Nasir that his struggle might have induced fear, but it also became a symbol of undying hope for all those struggling to see a better Pakistan. This dialectic of fear and hope, symbolized by Nasir and numerous other comrades, can help us navigate through moments of turmoil.

It is said that a ghazal that Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote, was for Hassan Nasir. Faiz writes that “There’s no passion now on fealty’s fair face/What use this rope, this gallows pole?/Those who once delighted in their crime of love/Those delinquents too are long gone” (translation by Mustansir Dahlvi).


What is to be done?

History is always a force of narrative formation, and thus it is always the ruling elite that disseminate those historical narratives which are distorted, where the names of men and women who displayed true resistance are erased. Thus, history must be reconstructed, by rediscovering the fragments lost to manipulation and putting them in place, for history can serve as a catalyst for social movements to gain momentum, for it is the existence of a real past which provides us with material to analyze the present.

Only such an analysis, which is based in a historical context is true to the spirit of Marxism.

But it should be remembered that history is not only the long lost past, but the present too. Erasures take place in the midst of our daily lives, erasures take place on the media, where popular narratives are formed and sold, where truth is left to die in the cold chambers of ignorance. Today, the Left is slowly gaining momentum in Pakistan, recently students have started demonstrating for their rights. As PIMS Nursing School students in the city of Islamabad demonstrated for their right to access services of shelter. And the students of SZABUL University displayed student solidarity and resistance against the illegal fee hikes. Such abrupt flashes of resistance represent something of profound importance, they may not be spectacles of grandeur like the rallies led by PTI, but they carry in their bosom something much greater, something much needed; the hope of a better Pakistan. These moments are often lost in the ocean of information bombarded by narratives hand-picked by popular discourse producing institutions, but they nonetheless exist, and we must acknowledge their existence, for the lost history is not only the distant past, but the very present, slipping out of our hands, if we fail to recognize it.

Thus, what is to be done is to recognise the voices of the marginalised, of the oppressed, of the wretched of the earth, whether those voices are of helplessness or rebellion. For, our politics must be a politics of the people, not the politics of the top 1%, our performance must be set in the theaters of the downtrodden, not in the halls of the kings and queens, or prime ministers and presidents. We must amplify the voices of the voiceless.