Dancing with fire: On the 1968 revolution in Pakistan led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – by Nadeem F. Paracha



A Tunisian man who put himself on fire has set ablaze the spirit of revolution various Arab countries in Africa and the Middle-East. It is a remarkable turn of events triggered by a disgruntled Tunisian vendor who became an angry human torch after police confiscated his wares and humiliated him.

I have heard a number of young Pakistanis admiring the heroism of this man, and why not! Mohamed Bouazizi’s name will ring across an extraordinary period in history in which the world saw a number of Arab autocratic regimes being toppled one after the other by the once silent urban-middle and lower-middle classes.

However, in their understandable admiration of this man and what his self-immolation has caused, it is somewhat unfortunate to realise that the present generation of young middle-class Pakistanis have very little or no connection with their own history in this respect.

Each time I hear an enthusiastic member of this generation wondering when an Egyptian or Tunisian type revolution will come to Pakistan, I cannot help but remind him/her that Pakistan was actually the first Muslim country (in the post-colonial world) to have a ‘revolution’ like the ones we are celebrating today in various African and Middle-Eastern Muslim countries.

This revolution took place in 1968 and, of course, in those days the Western press hadn’t developed the habit of giving a label to such uprisings. The name game actually began with a series of pro-democracy revolutions in East Europe in 1989-90, in which people of various Eastern European countries toppled Soviet-backed communist dictatorships that led to the eventual break-up of the Soviet Union itself.

If one goes through the history and press clippings of Pakistan’s 1968 uprising against the Ayub Khan dictatorship, one is impressed to note how similar it was to what is happening in certain Arab countries today.

The urban bourgeoisie (both lower and middle) after gaining better access to higher education than before, but not able to benefit from the trickle down effect of a robust economy the way they would have wanted to, found its economic and political progress blocked by an autocratic elite.

Since Islamic resurgence that this class witnessed in its ranks from the late 1970s onwards had not taken place, the young urban middle-classes in Pakistan became radicalised more with various left-wing and secular ideologies.

Economic and political notions propagated by Marxism, Maoism, progressivism and left-liberalism were spontaneously fused by urban middle-class Pakistanis with nationalism and a call for pluralistic democracy.

That is why when the uprisings spilled out from university and college campuses onto the streets, their leading organs were leftist and left-leaning entities like the newly-formed Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and various radical trade, workers and student unions.

Not only was the uprising successful in ousting a dictator, it led to Pakistan’s first ever parliamentary elections (1970) in which progressive forces (in both West Pakistan and former East Pakistan) routed establishmentarian parties as well as the religious groups.

Young urban bourgeoisie had pushed the country out of a dictatorship and towards democracy in which the masses then stepped in with their votes and completed the revolution.

Just what happened to that revolution is a separate story, but the young Arabs can learn much from Pakistan, especially from the mistakes we have made after 1970.

Two books that explain the 1968 uprising in detail are Phillip E. Jone’s excellent “Pakistan Peoples Party: Rise to Power”(Oxford University Press), and Tanvir Ahmed Tahir’s “Political Dynamics of Sindh” (University of Karachi).

You can also read another in-depth account of the uprising (by Lal Khan) here: “Pakistan’s Other Story: The Revolution of 1968-69”.

Going sour

If the uprisings in the Arab world began with the self-immolation of a desperate man, then the revolution in Pakistan ended with a number of young men torching themselves in vain.

This is another startling fact of history most young Pakistanis are not aware of.

When we marvel at the fiery heroism of a man like Mohamed Bouazizi, it reminds one of a group of young Pakistani men who in 1978 set themselves on fire to save the revolution that had ushered in democracy and ‘peoples rule’ in Pakistan.

The1968 revolution that had shepherded progressive democracy, and workers and women’s rights in 1970 began to go sour as early as 1973.

Pakistan’s first ever popularly elected Prime Minister, Z.A. Bhutto (of the PPP), suddenly realised the need to slow down the regime’s ‘socialist’ manoeuvers and subdue the party’s radical wing.

Bhutto purged the PPP’s radical-wing and began to balm its ‘moderate/conservative’ wings. He then went on to appease the Islamic parties who had been accusing his regime of promoting ‘atheistic socialism’ and ruining the economy by sidelining the industrialists.

Though a number of middle-class youth who had taken a leading part in the 1968 uprising began deserting the PPP, the party remained largely popular among the masses.

Bhutto’s populism, now concentrated on the sentiments and aspirations of peasants and workers in rural and semi-rural areas, triggered a reactive ideological shift in the middle and the lower-middle-classes in the cities.

These classes began to move towards the rightist sides of the conventional ideological divide, with many of them now supporting the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) or its student-wing, the IJT.

So as Bhutto dragged the revolution (or at least its promises) from the left towards a democratic centre, the urban classes moved from the left and the centre towards the right.

The reasons for this were not entirely economic because according to economist S. Akbar Zaidi’s book, “Military, Civil Society and Democratization in Pakistan” (Vanguard Books), the economy during the Bhutto regime actually witnessed a growth (despite Bhutto’s nationalisation policies).

But since Pakistan was not a homogenous society, the reasons behind the growing discontent among the urban classes against Bhutto were more ethnic and faith-related.

Bhutto flipped the military-establishment’s (autocratic) idea of ruling the country as a ‘one unit’ by giving cultural autonomy and recognition to the main ethnicities that reside in Pakistan, but at the same time, he went to war against Baloch and Pashtun nationalists.

The Urdu-speaking ‘mohajirs’ in the country’s largest city, Karachi, on the other hand, felt alienated when Bhutto (a Sindhi) began encouraging the Sindhis to join the bureaucracy that (until then) had mostly been populated by the Punjabis and the mohajirs.

The mohajirs (many of whom had played a leading role in the movement against Ayub) accused Bhutto of encouraging Sindhi nationalism when the truth was that Bhutto was actually trying to neutralise and co-opt this nationalism that was being fanned by Sindhi separatists.

Nevertheless, the urban-middle and lower-middle-class’s disillusionment with the democratic revolution saw electorally weak and exclusivist religious parties like JI and populist Barelvi and Deobandi political organs like Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) experiencing unprecedented middle-class support from urban industrialists, traders, shop owners and right-wing students.

These were sections of society whose economic aspirations they felt were being blocked by Bhutto’s populist policies. Frustrated they now wanted an ‘Islami nizaam’ (Nizam-e-Mustafa).

Riots erupted in Karachi and Lahore when the right-wing opposition group the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) accused the regime of rigging the 1977 elections.

The stand-off allowed the military to step in and topple the government, claiming ‘democracy was opposed to Islam.’

When Bhutto was arrested by the military government on a trumped-up charge of murder, the anti-Bhutto movement receded. This also happened because JI, which was the main instrument of the discontented middle-classes in Karachi and Lahore, decided to join the new military-led cabinet.

This saw the making of another movement (this time pro-Bhutto) participated by Bhutto’s main constituencies i.e., the rural peasants and the urban proletariat.

The military dictator, Ziaul Haq, at once announced harsh ‘Islamic punishments’ (including flogging and execution) and let loose the police and the Army against Bhutto supporters.

Thousands were picked up and tortured and the makings of a pro-Bhutto movement were successfully throttled.

A blanket ban on the press, the introduction of harsh laws, public floggings, frequent torture and the letting loose of the Army and the police shocked many Pakistanis into submission. Consequently the PPP decided to raise the fight against the dictatorship on another level.

Putting out fire with gasoline

A young 23-year-old Benazir Bhutto agreed with another young PPP cadre, Raja Anwar, to establish clandestine groups of committed PPP and (its student-wing, PSF) workers who would ‘spontaneously’ appear in congested markets and court arrest.

But as the harassed progressive student groups went into battle with the police and the IJT on university campuses, a number of senior PPP members avoided supporting Benazir and Anwar’s committees. Many of these senior members were eventually dismissed by Benazir from the party in the 1980s.

By 1978 the Zia dictatorship increased its brutal tactics against its opponents, making sure to keep them harassed and in fear. For this he used the Army, the police, brutal punishments and, of course, the name of God.

This was also the year that would (literally) witness the 1968 revolution put itself on fire and die a most tragic death.

Some young PSF members of the PPP committees became desperate to use more drastic measures to challenge the rampaging dictatorship. Between October 1, 1978 and October 7, four young PPP supporters set themselves alight. These young Pakistanis all came from poor working-class families.

Their demands: Restoration of democratic rule and the release of Z.A. Bhutto.

Each called himself ‘Bhutto’s jiyala.’

Bhutto had fashioned himself as an ‘awami leader,’ who wore simple shalwar-kameez (with sleeves rolled up, or unbuttoned) when speaking in front of the masses. His antics and fiery speeches turned him being treated as a modern-day malang (Sufi vagabond) by his supporters. His rallies echoed the catchiest Sufi tunes derived from the drum/dhol-driven dhamal dance that can still be witnessed outside numerous Sufi shrines in Pakistan (and India).

In one such rally, he even told a huge gathering that those accusing him of being a drunk are right. He said: “Yes I drink (alcohol), but like my detractors, I do not drink poor people’s blood!”

On October 1, 1978, two young PPP workers from Lahore travelled to Rawalpindi. Both belonged to poor, working class families. Their names: Rashid Nagi and Waheed Qureshi.

Both appeared in the middle of a populated commercial area of ’Pindi, dosed themselves with petrol and set themselves on fire. According to Raja Anwar’s book, “The Terrorist Prince” (Vanguard Books), both danced like malangs as they burned and people around them started doing the same, filling the air with pro-Bhutto slogans. Qureshi died, and Nagi lost a leg.

Then on October 7, two more PPP workers, again both from desperate working-class backgrounds, readied to set themselves on fire (this time in Lahore).

They were Mehr Rashid Ajaz (from Faisalabad) and Pervez Khokar (a Christian from Gujranwala). They appeared as if in a trance in a populated area of old Lahore, sprinkled themselves with petrol and instantly turned into human flames.

They too, danced like malangs. According to Raja Anwar (who was an eyewitness), Khokar, surrounded by flames rising from his own body, was heard saying Christ’s words, ‘Eli, eli, lama sabachthani’ (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?).

No revolution was triggered by these sacrifices. The dictatorship went into overdrive with its repression and violence. Then in 1979, Bhutto was hanged and democracy and ‘peoples rule’ that began as a dream and a revolution in 1968, died with him.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and Dawn.com.

Source: Dawn


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