Fighter

The following is an ode in prose in memory of one of the major influences on my life. What he faced, what he faced down, were far far greater challenges than I am ever likely to face. The writer is my beloved uncle[1][2] who passed away the same year in the autumn of 2009.

Iqbal Bali
A tribute

My dear friend and a great revolutionary, Mohammed Iqbal, affectionately
known by all his friends and admirers as Bali, died on 19 June in
Rawalpindi following complications after major heart surgery.
How does one talk of this man so full of energy? For me it is impossible
to imagine Pindi without him. For the last forty years he was the moving
force in all the demonstrations and meetings held in Pindi to promote
democracy in Pakistan. In this article I will talk about how I knew him
and about some of his political ideas. The activities that I will
highlight pertain basically to the period from 1969 to 1989 when I
worked closely with him. I left Pakistan in 1989 and withdrew from
taking active part in the democratic movement because of personal
reasons and because of the collapse of the left and the trade union
movement.

Bali’’s political activism goes back to the days in the sixties when he
was a radar technician in the Pakistan Air Force. He got into a lot of
scrapes while in the air force as he stood up to officers who mistreated
ordinary airmen and fought for the rights of the latter. Several times
he was punished for this.

He moved to Pindi in the late sixties when he was immediately involved
in the 1968-69 student movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship. At
this time there was a rebirth throughout Pakistan of socialist and
Marxist ideas inspired by the great Vietnamese resistance and the
student movements in Europe and America against the war and for greater
democracy. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was also riding this wave with his
slogans of “roti, kapra, makan”. In Pindi too there were many people
discussing the concept of reviving a communist movement. Bali was part
of a group of young idealistic people wanting to overthrow the
oppressive capitalist social order in Pakistan. There were such groups
consisting of intellectuals, students and workers springing up in all
the major cities.

He worked with the People’s Labour Front (PLF), newly founded in Pindi
by Riffat Hussain Baba (now at PILER in Karachi) and Nazir Masih
(Secretary-General of the Municipal Worker’s Union of Rawalpindi).
(Sadly Nazir Masih, another great figure in the workers’ movement in
Pindi, died many years ago). In its heyday the PLF was the main trade
union federation for the major industries of Pindi and Islamabad,
including the large Kohinoor Textiles Mills on Peshawar Road. The PLF
played a leading role in negotiations for workers rights. There was many
a heroic battle that should be recounted by others. During his PLF years
Bali ran study circles with workers and wrote pamphlets and helped to
distribute them and to paste them on walls around the city. He was
always an activist who did not like long theoretical discussions and he
wanted to immediately get into action.

On 25 March 1971 Yahya Khan postponed, under pressure from Bhutto, the
Army and sections of the ruling class, the inaugural session of the
newly elected Parliament in which Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League had a
clear majority. Bali never forgave Bhutto for his role in this clearly
undemocratic move by Yahya. The group in Pindi (this included Bali) was
one of the few on the left who opposed the subsequent army action after
Mujib declared the independence of Bangladesh on 26 March 1971. I
remember that he and I were in Commercial Market, Satellite Town, on the
evening of that fateful 25th of March when we heard Yahya’s announcement
on the radio and we turned to each other and whispered: “This is the end
of Pakistan”. The consequences were obvious. Pakistan broke up and
Bangladesh was finally liberated in December 1971 but not before the
Pakistan Army perpetrated genocide in Bangladesh with probably millions
of deaths of innocent Bengalis. Bali opposed the army action and helped
to print and distribute leaflets against the military action. He also
took part in wall chalking against the army action in Bangladesh. This
was dangerous work but he was never afraid of being arrested.

Bali was not only active in pro-democracy and anti-dictatorship
movements but he was also a convinced anti-imperialist. He was
particularly incensed by the US war on the Vietnamese people and took
part in concrete actions against US interests in Pindi in the early 70s.
He also took part in an action to protest a particularly savage bombing
of a school in Vietnam and later in another action to protest the
bombing of Cambodia in the spring of 1970.

When Bhutto became President in December 1971 many on the left were
taken in by his rhetoric and had hopes that now Pakistan would be moving
towards socialism. Bali however was very clear about this. He did not
take the easy route of either joining or supporting the populist
movement represented by the People’s Party. He saw immediately that
Bhutto, although popular, represented the landlord class of Pakistan and
could not be relied upon to solve the problems of workers and peasants.
He believed that there should be an autonomous workers’ and peasants’
movement and that one should be working towards setting up a genuine
communist party. His seeing through the slogans of Bhutto was a
characteristic of Bali. A self-educated Marxist he could immediately see
through the rhetoric and could get to the core of an issue.

Although Bhutto talked about workers’ rights his government soon ran
into conflict with trade unions. He sent in police to break up strikes
and to evict workers who had taken over factories when owners tried to
do a lockout. In Multan several workers were killed when police fired on
them. The conflict with the Bhutto government intensified when Bhutto
introduced his labour laws, which were clearly not in the interests of
the working class. Trade union leaders were harassed and arrested and
this included, Riffat Baba, in 1973. The new labour laws and the
crackdown of labour unions by Bhutto and later Zia-ul-Haq led to the
collapse of the workers’ and trade union movement in the middle and late
70s.

Bali was one of the few on the left who supported the Baluchistan
insurgency between 1973 and 1977 not only by the usual propaganda
efforts but also by concrete material aid, which was not very large and
was mostly symbolic to show our comrades in Baluchistan that not all
Punjabis supported the army action there. Bali and his comrades were
isolated on this issue in the Punjab. Bali was instrumental in finding a
safe house for a Baluch comrade who had to go into hiding in 1973. This
was all highly risky work but again Bali did not hold back.

After 1977 when Gen. Zia-ul-Haq took over as dictator, Bali was as usual
at the heart of protests and propaganda against the dictatorship during
these long dark years which cast their ominous shadow on us even now. He
was an enthusiastic participant in the election boycott movement
proposed by the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1981.
At one point the MRD offered mass arrests in Rawalpindi. This turned out
into a farce because of the cowardice of the parties allied in the MRD.
The plan was to offer mass arrests voluntarily at a certain point in
Raja Bazar at a certain time. At this time the area was full of police
as expected. At the appointed time Bali issued forth with a placard
raising slogans against dictatorship and for democracy but not a single
worker from any party followed him. Of course he was immediately
arrested. First he was taken to a local thana and then taken to the
infamous dungeons at the Lahore Fort.

This was his longest period in jail. While in the Lahore Fort he was
beaten up and tortured with cigarette burns. He was interrogated both by
the police and the military intelligence services. But he was courageous
under this torture and did not name a single one of his companions. He
flaunted the fact that he was a communist and would remain so. They
asked him specifically about me. He laughed it off by saying that Dr.
Faheem was one of these intellectual leftists who came around to trade
unions and took part in demonstrations but did not do much and was not
taken seriously by the workers. He also told them that we were family
friends, which was true. I think he saved me from being arrested at that
time by laughing me off. Actually he was afraid at one point in his stay
at Lahore Fort that I had been arrested. While he was in the Fort he
heard one evening that they were bringing in three prisoners from
Islamabad, all of whom were professors. He inquired whether one of these
had a beard and the answer was yes. He thought this is it. Faheem has
been arrested. It turned out not to be true. The three brought to the
Fort that day were Jamil Omar and two other teachers from Quaid-i-Azam
University who were arrested for pasting pro-democracy leaflets on walls
in Islamabad. Jamil had a beard at that time. Iqbal told me that
although he was sad that these three had been arrested but that he was
relieved that I was not one of them.

On his release from jail after many months he continued to be active.
Even in his darkest years in the nineties when he was in severe
financial difficulties he never lost hope. To overcome financial
difficulties he went as far as Baluchistan to earn money doing physical
labour. On his return he plunged into his pro-democracy activities again.

Not only was he involved in demonstrating, writing pamphlets but he was
also very keen in promoting enlightenment and secular, rational thinking
in his neighbourhood. He set up several local educational committees
under whose aegis scientific lectures were delivered to local
townspeople. He even had the astrophysicist, Prof. Asghar Qadir, give a
talk on the origin of the universe, the big bang, black holes and all
that. His living room in Angadpura, off Saidpur Road, near the thana was
the meeting place for progressives of Pindi and was an obligatory halt
for visiting leftists. I remember long evenings discussing revolutionary
practice and theory, Punjabi and Sikh history, poetry, world affairs
with Bali and his friends. These evenings were spiced by the excellent
food served by his wife, Salma, and by liberal drinks of the fermented
kind.

On my return to Pakistan in 2005 I found Bali to be as active and
enthusiastic in the struggle for democracy as before. He was
particularly happy to note that there was a new crop of young people in
Islamabad and Rawalpindi who were imbued with Marxist ideas and were
beginning to organise workers and peasants for a democratic,
anti-capitalist struggle. The 2005 earthquake found him in the forefront
of mobilising aid for the affected people. With funds raised in
Islamabad and abroad he helped establish a school in the Siran River
Valley near Nawazabad, north of Mansehra. I remember climbing up to 3000
metres to survey a badly hit village and later carrying aid up to this
village, both of us unaware of having bad hearts at that time! We were
both struggling with our breathing and we could have popped off at any
time! Anyway we survived. All the time that we were in the mountains he
would keep up his democratic and anti-mullah propaganda and try to
convince people that the best response to the disaster was not to become
dependent on outside help but to rely on self-help. Sometimes his
anti-religious jokes were so strong that I was worried that this might
incite the local people to whom he was talking.

This brings me to another aspect of Bali’’s character. He was above all a
committed, life-long Marxist. He often said, “I was born a Marxist and
will die a Marxist”. But beyond that he was a democrat and a militant
atheist. He was always carrying out propaganda against religion and
mullahs in whatever company he found himself in. One of his favourite
texts was Bhagat Singh’’s article “Why I am an atheist”. But there was an
interesting contradiction in him and that was that he had a soft spot
for Sikhism. According to him, his forebears were Sikhs. He would often
quote from the Sikh gurus and would even sometimes give the Sikh
greeting “Sat Sri Akal”. In his later years he always wore a Sikh
“kara”. Once he explained to me that he did not regard Sikhism as a
religion but as something pointing out the “dharma”, one’’s righteous duty.

Bali’’s revolutionary Marxism was not based on some abstract ideas and
was not imported from outside. His views were deeply rooted in the soil
where he was born and that is Punjab. His inspiration for revolution in
Pakistan was not so much the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban
revolutions as the Ghadar Party in India and particularly the Punjab and
its revolutionary activities in the early years of the twentieth
century. He knew everything about that armed struggle in the Punjab
against British imperialism and would talk about that often. More than
Lenin, Che, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, his revolutionary hero and example were
Bhagat Singh and his comrades. He was also exceptionally well informed
about India’’s First War of Independence in 1857. Surprisingly he was
also a keen student of Sufi philosophy and history. In this sense he was
a real son of the soil, although he had read many of the classic texts
of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao. But this does not mean that he was
parochial in any sense. He was a keen observer of the revolutionary
movements around the world.

Like most of us, at that time in the late 60s and early 70s, inspired by
Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, Bali believed in the revolutionary
armed struggle and the imminent arrival of the socialist revolution. We
were all idealists but we soon realised that the revolution was a long
way away. Some lost heart at this point and dropped out of the struggle
but Bali never lost hope in the ultimate victory of the workers and
peasants. He, however, realised that the short-term goal in Pakistan was
the establishment of democracy and the end of military dictatorship. In
the last years of his life he came to the belief that armed struggle was
not appropriate at the moment in Pakistan and what we needed was a
peaceful mass struggle for democracy. In this regard he was impressed
and inspired by the recent victories of the democratic movements in
Latin America.

Bali was sceptical of NGOs. He never trusted them. He thought that they
took away young people from the real democratic struggle and corrupted
them by paying them high salaries. He would proudly proclaim that he had
never joined an NGO.

The lawyers’’ struggle of 2007 for justice and democracy against the
Musharraf regime found Bali in the forefront of the demonstrations. He
was to be seen every day in front of the Supreme Court carrying banners
and raising slogans. He printed and distributed pamphlets and organised
the demonstrations. The struggle seemed to have rejuvenated him. In
spite of the fact that by this time Bali had discovered that he had
serious heart problems he continued to be present at the demonstrations
carrying his water bottle and pills. In fact although his heart
condition was quite serious he went on a hunger strike in favour of the
Chief Justice in March 2008 outside the Judges Colony. When I reproached
him for not taking care of his health, his reply was that he was a
revolutionary and had to do his duty and that he was already more than
75 years old so it did not matter if he died.

He was particularly happy to see that there were so many new young
people involved in these demonstrations. In return young people
discovered in him an example of a dedicated revolutionary to follow and
he inspired all those who met him. During the lawyers movement he became
close to the young members of the Rawalpindi branch of the Communist
Mazdoor Kisan Party, CMKP. As far as I know, Bali had never joined a
party before, but these young dedicated workers of the CMKP finally
persuaded him to join the party, which he did in March 2008, at a
restaurant in Islamabad where I was also present. This move gave a boost
to the CMKP in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. His house became the meeting
place for the CMKP. In June 2009 he was elected as the Chairman of the
CMKP Pindi District Committee. Because of his militancy, revolutionary
enthusiasm and untiring work ethic he was also elected as Chairman of
the Awami Jamhoori Ittehad in Islamabad.

During the last year Bali came to the conclusion that Islamic extremism
and the Taliban were the greatest danger to Pakistan. He was quite clear
about this. He, like many others on the left, supported the recent
military action against the Taliban in Swat and Waziristan. However at
the same time he continued to be a staunch anti-imperialist and did not
waver in his stand that the US and NATO should withdraw from Afghanistan.

Bali continued to be active to the end. We will miss his enthusiasm, his
hard work and revolutionary zeal. He will live in our hearts as an
example of a true revolutionary.

Faheem Hussain
The author is Professor of Physics in the School of Science and
Engineering, Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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