A quintessential rebel

LEFTISTS are an extinct species in Pakistan’s politics today. The word socialism is completely missing from the existing political lexicon. This is a complete reversal of the ideologically polarised politics of the 1960s and ’70s. That was an era of revolutionary idealism sweeping the world, and it also influenced Pakistan’s younger generation hugely.

Those days of street agitation and popular mass movements produced many firebrand young leftist leaders, amongst the most prominent of them being Mairaj Mohammad Khan. The death of the quintessential rebel on July 22 brought to a close a beautiful chapter of relentless struggle for a socialist ideal. A fighter all his life, he never gave up hope.

I last saw him just few weeks ago in Karachi at a memorial service for another comrade, Dr Rasheed Hasan Khan, who also passed away recently. Rasheed belonged to the same generation of socialist revolutionaries and succeeded Mairaj as the president of the National Students Federation (NSF). Both were leaders of the 1968 mass movement that brought down Gen Ayub Khan’s military rule.

Few in Pakistani politics could match Mairaj Mohammad Khan in public speaking when he was in his prime.

Ignoring the strict advice of his doctor, Mairaj came to the meeting to pay homage to his old comrade-in-arms even though the two had parted ways long ago because of ideological differences that caused huge damage to the leftist movement in Pakistan. While Rasheed was a hardliner and a doctrinal socialist, Mairaj was more pragmatic. Both had suffered prison and hardship but neither ever compromised.

Veteran politician Mairaj Mohammad Khan in conversation with Murtaza Bhutto.— White Star Archives
Veteran politician Mairaj Mohammad Khan in conversation with Murtaza Bhutto.— White Star Archives

Mairaj looked frail and could barely walk without support yet he spoke for more than 30 minutes with the same eloquence and zeal that used to once electrify the masses. His belief remained unflinching despite the long illness that restricted his political activities. Mairaj was not an ideologue or a thinker but a powerful orator and an agitator. Few in Pakistani politics could match him in public speaking when he was in his prime.

I met Mairaj when I was a student at the University of Karachi and an active member of the NSF. By then, he had left student politics and joined Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had just resigned from the Ayub Khan government. The section of the left to which we all belonged was attracted to Bhutto’s slogan of socialism. Mairaj was one of the founder members of the PPP. Though not fully trusting of Bhutto, the left thought that they would be able to keep the party on the socialist track.

There was, however, no clear thinking behind the decision to support the PPP. There was complete confusion over whether to take part in the elections or not. Bhutto offered Mairaj and several other leftist members party tickets to contest the 1970 elections, and Mairaj argued in favour of participating in the elections. Bhutto even nominated Mairaj his successor. Yet this isolationism and confusion cost the left dearly.

Mairaj was among few in the PPP who opposed the military operation in the then East Pakistan that ultimately led to the break-up of the country. When Bhutto took over power in a truncated country, Mairaj was appointed minister of state. But he was not to stay in the Cabinet for long. The ruthless suppression of a strike by factory workers in Karachi in 1972 left Mairaj with no choice but to resign. The quintessential rebel was back on the streets protesting against his own party’s government. Inevitably, the confrontation landed him in jail.

Ironically, the left that had played a significant role in Bhutto’s rise to power became the main target of state oppression during the PPP regime. Mairaj was released along with other political prisoners after the military takeover. Those years in prison took a huge toll on Mairaj’s health.

Coming out from prison he formed the Quami Mahaz-e-Azadi party but it failed to have any significant impact. Fragmented and demoralised, the left had lost a lot of ground by then. Student and labour organisations had disintegrated or lost its power because of factionalism and the lack of any ideological guidance. This situation was not confined to Pakistan; the decline of the left was an across-the-world phenomenon.

Gen Ziaul Haq’s long, retrogressive military rule and state patronage of militant Islam further shrank the space for leftist and progressive politics. Universities and other educational institutions were purged of progressive elements. Student and labour unions were clamped down upon and freedom of expression was curtailed in the name of so-called ‘national interest’. The enforcement of so-called Islamic laws reinforced obscurantism in society, discouraging any enlightened discourse. The Afghan resistance war against Soviet occupation gave rise to a new ‘jihadi’ culture that threatened to tear apart the nation’s social fabric. Escalation in sectarian and religion-based violence made it much more difficult for the left to mobilise mass support.

The return of the civilian democratic process following the death of Gen Zia did not change the situation much. There was hardly any organised force on the left that could regain some political space. In too short a time, the democratic process was once again derailed by yet another military takeover, one that met with hardly any resistance.

Frustrated by this situation, some remnant of the left took refuge in other political parties. Mairaj merged his party with the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf led by Imran Khan. That was perhaps his biggest political blunder, one that he always regretted. After being forced to leave the PTI, Mairaj was never able to revive his own Quami Mahaz-e-Azadi party. His deteriorating health too would not allow him to give full time to politics. What was missing, however, was a clear ideological basis necessary to mobilise public support.

Although he had been seriously ill for more than 10 years, Mairaj’s contact with the people never ceased. His last speech at Karachi’s PMA House in May epitomised the courage of his conviction. Mairaj is no longer with us, but his memory lives on.

The writer is an author and journalist.



Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2016