The beautiful and historic library of The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs was packed to capacity when Ibn Abdur Rehman, better known as I.A. Rehman, spoke on The Politics of Dissent in memory of Fatehyab Ali Khan. The younger members of the audience had to stand throughout the session. I.A. Rehman is the Secretary General of The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and is one of the leading human rights defenders in Pakistan. He is the founding chair of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy and received the Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding in 2004. Fatehyab’s was a most powerful voice of dissent in politics in Pakistan and, therefore, it was appropriate that Rehman Sahib should have spoken on this subject in his memory: see earlier posts here, here and here.
Throughout his life, Fatehyab fought for fundamental freedoms, democratic values, political morality and decency in public life. He was only 25 years old when he led the movement against Ayub Khan in 1961, which spread throughout West Pakistan, while the political parties sat on the fence. He was interned, externed and imprisoned throughout his political career but he never lost his sense of humour. During the agitation against Ziaul Haq’s tyrannical regime, he was one of the nine signatories of the declaration of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD, 1981). During this movement, he sacrificed and suffered, worked tirelessly and also brought the Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party (PMKP), of which he was president, into mainstream politics. He never compromised on his principles and never bartered his political ideology for any material gain. Contrary to the familiar custom in Pakistan, he never switched political parties and remained president of PMKP until his death in 2010.
According to Rehman Sahib:
The politics of dissent began on the very morrow of independence with stirrings in both religious and non-religious camps. The challenge from the religious right has run through all the six decades of independence from success to success for its warriors have followed a policy of nibbling at state power bit by bit. Its 22 points won it the Objectives Resolution; it won a major battle when Islamic provisions were inserted in the 1956 constitution and again when it forced Ayub Khan to restore the words ‘Islamic Republic’ that he had deleted from the constitution-like document prepared and enforced in his personal discretion; it persuaded the PPP founders to string democracy, socialism and religion together in their rosary; it facilitated the government’s acquisition of authority to decide who is a Muslim and who is not and it cheered Ziaul Haq as he created religious courts with powers to usurp the functions of the legislature. The holy warriors’ march has not ended. Now the religious groups claim to have raised a madrassa force that, according to them, could seize the reins of power any time. Still, the politics of the religious parties does not fully qualify for the label of dissent; it is more in the nature of catalytic action in support of the religious strand in the ideal of Pakistan.
He stated that the religious right was successful because:
to a considerable extent, the non-religious centrist parties were reluctant to challenge the state’s drift.
Rehman Sahib traced the narrative of evolving dissent among centrist and leftist parties, leading to the formation of the Pakistan National Party in 1956 and later of the National Awami Party. By 1957, an alternative narrative had emerged due to the ground work done by provincial and regional parties.
The PPP government, which took over what was left of Pakistan in 1971, offered a promise of change for dissidents but its own lack of tolerance for other political parties closed the space for the politics of dissent. Since 1977, this dissent has been confined to agitations for restoration of democracy. The politics of dissent has now been taken up by the small left of centre parties and nationalist parties in Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The politics of dissent, said Rehman Sahib, has not been the exclusive concern of opposition parties. A great part has been played by persons and groups “that have done politics without assuming the title of political parties” such as poets, and four categories of activists – students, lawyers, journalists and women. He mentioned the fire of dissent which was kept burning by poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Gul Khan Naseer, Sheikh Ayaz, Amir Hamza Shinwari, Qalander Mehmand, Habib Jalib, Ahmad Faraz, Fehmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed and others who have sustained “the dignity of dissent and the beleaguered forces of sanity” with their songs of freedom, resistance, justice and hope.
Rehman Sahib described Fatehyab Ali Khan as a “restless activist who succeeded in carving out a role for himself in any situation for challenging the status quo and the conventional wisdom behind it. He was a star in the extraordinarily brilliant galaxy created by the National Students Federation and his stewardships of the Karachi University Students Union is one of the glorious chapters in Pakistan’s history of students movements.”
He brought his zest for change into politics which he preferred to making money as a lawyer and he supported any political cause which sought support. During the Zia period, he was one of the most consistently active leaders of the MRD and he propped up the Pakistan Mazdoor Kissan Party when the Hashtnagar agitation had fizzled out and the party broke into factions:
Fatehyab did not give up. Perhaps he did not know how to do that.
Rehman Sahib spoke about Fatehyab’s “long and distinguished career in the politics of dissent,” saying that “I pay respect to Fatehyab Ali Khan not only because he was the head of the Institute that has hosted this event, and which he saved from being gobbled up by sarkari qabza groups, but because I can present him as a representative” of those“ who stood their ground in the face of tyranny and refused to succumb to blandishments and bribe.”
Finally, what has the politics of dissent achieved in Pakistan, he asked? Most political dissidents have been maligned and punished for their leftist inclinations. Although they never came to power, these dissidents have left their unmistakable mark on the growth of progressive ideas, on people’s linguistic and cultural rights, land reforms and an independent foreign policy. They fought for civil liberties and human freedoms and offered an alternative to the establishment-sponsored mindset.
How different Pakistan’s history might have been, he lamented, if the voices of dissent had been heeded:
But then all those who dismiss ideas of change as heresy close the path to their progress.
The questions Rehman Sahib fielded related mostly to the victimization of leftist parties. On a lighter note, as I looked around the audience, I was delighted to see the Station House Officer of the Artillery Maidan Police Station. He addresses me as maan ji.