Saturday, July 23, 2016
Business Recorder editorial July 23, 2016
An icon of the Left Mairaj Mohammad Khan, who passed away after a long illness on July 22, was a towering figure in Pakistan’s chequered political history and an icon of the Left. Even a cursory glance at his life and career would bring out the truth of this statement. Pakistan’s early years saw the students and youth as the repository of the idealism that informed the independence movement as well as the aspirations of the people post-independence. In this milieu, it came as no surprise that this section of society was often in the forefront of struggles for the rights of the people. In the 1950s, students led the resistance to Pakistan joining cold war anti-communist military pacts led by the west. Mairaj acquired his early political consciousness in this culture of student resistance. Come Ayub’s military coup of 1958 and Mairaj was already active in student politics in Karachi. This involvement led to the founding of the National Students Federation (NSF), which under the leadership of Mairaj Mohammad Khan emerged as the leading Left student body in the country opposed to the Ayub dictatorship. In 1961, Pakistani students and youth agitated against the CIA-driven murder of Congo’s first prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Mairaj and the NSF were centre-stage in that struggle, which was brutally put down by the Ayub dictatorship. In the first instance of a recurring pattern that defined Mairaj’s political life, he and his NSF associates were arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment. The next significant milestone in Mairaj’s trajectory came with the promulgation of the Universities Ordinance 1963 by the Ayub regime, seeking to extend the tenure of undergraduate degrees to five years from the previous four. This led to a widespread student struggle against the Ordinance, because of which Mairaj and a dozen of his student comrades were expelled from Karachi, the first such internal ‘exile’ in Pakistan’s history. When, however, this expulsion only served to strengthen student resistance to the Ordinance because of Mairaj and his comrades receiving a rapturous heroes’ welcome in the rest of the country, the Ayub dictatorship finally had to retreat and withdraw the Ordinance. This success elevated the NSF to a significant political force. When the split in the international communist movement emerged, it divided the NSF too, with Mairaj heading the pro-China faction. He earned the further ire of the Ayub dictatorship by turning out in support of the opposition’s candidate Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah in the 1964 presidential election and was elected a Basic Democrat under the gerrymandered electoral structure the dictator had erected to ensure his continuing grip on power. Although at loggerheads with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto throughout his association with the Ayub regime, Mairaj drew close to and joined hands with Bhutto to first create the (at that time) the left-of-centre Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) after Bhutto fell out with Ayub in 1965, and then played a leading role in the 1968-69 countrywide agitation against the Ayub regime that finally saw the back of our first military dictator. However, being the man of principle he remained throughout his life, Mairaj opposed Bhutto over the military crackdown in East Pakistan following the 1970 elections, and in 1972, with Bhutto in power, quit a federal ministry, the PPP and the mantle of Bhutto’s political heir-apparent over Bhutto’s violent repression of the working class movement in the industrial heartland of Karachi. Later, in 1973, he opposed the dismissal of the Sardar Attaullah Mengal ministry in Balochistan and the subsequent military operation and crackdown against the Baloch and Pashtuns respectively. This did not deter him, however, from opposing General Zia’s persecution and eventual hanging of Mr Bhutto. In fact he was one of the founders of the 1983 Movement for the Restoration of Democracy against the Zia regime. After these turbulent years that took their toll of his health, not the least because of the repeated incarcerations and tortures inflicted upon him by military dictators and authoritarian civilian rulers, Mairaj’s political fortunes declined along with the virtual collapse of the Left in Pakistan. Although he attempted to keep the flag flying in the shape of a new party he founded called the Qaumi Mahaz-e-Azadi, it never took off in a political climate in which the message of the Left had weakened immeasurably. Casting about for an anchor in the wake of the disintegration of his party, Mairaj briefly flirted with Imran Khan’s PTI, but soon left in disgust over the latter’s predilection for getting close to the military. The Left may currently appear just a footnote of history pending its revival, but the example of a principled, committed, simple life full of sacrifice for his ideals that Mairaj Mohammad Khan leaves behind should serve as an inspiration to today’s students, youth, workers and peasants, as it once did during his lifetime. RIP Comrade Mairaj.