Workers Hammer No. 227
Pakistan 1968-69: Hidden history of the workers upsurge
ZA Bhutto: enemy of workers, Bangladesh independence
The following is based on a presentation by Bruce André at a meeting held by the Spartacist League/Britain in London in July 2013.
In late 1968 and early 1969 a great popular uprising shook Pakistan. What began as a student protest against the military dictatorship of General Mohammad Ayub Khan soon spread, as the Bengalis of East Pakistan (today Bangladesh) revolted. The industrial working class demonstrated its power, virtually shutting down the country at the height of the movement in March 1969. Events showed the potential for the proletariat, drawing behind it the peasantry and the oppressed nationalities, to lead a revolutionary assault on the bourgeois order.
The historic opportunity was squandered, the outbreak of anger futilely channelled into support for a wing of the Army high command, led by General Yahya Khan, which promised elections to a constituent assembly and a democratic constitution. Crucial in bringing the uprising to heel was bourgeois politician Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir Bhutto. The scion of one of the most prominent families of landed aristocrats in Sindh province, ZA Bhutto had been one of Ayub Khan’s most trusted lieutenants. He had served loyally for some seven years as the regime arrested Communists en masse, murderously repressed nationalist forces in Balochistan and, in March 1963, gunned down more than 40 people to crush a general strike in Karachi led by textile mill workers.
Pakistan’s 1965 war with India over Kashmir — a reactionary war in which the working class had no side — was a key turning point in Bhutto’s career. The Pakistani military’s poor showing provoked a bitter backlash against the regime among much of the population. Following the signing of a January 1966 armistice agreement in Tashkent, student demonstrations erupted in cities throughout the country. Despite being a principal architect of the war, Bhutto emerged as a national hero, denouncing the Tashkent accords (which he had helped negotiate) and accusing the regime of having given away at the peace table what the generals claimed they had won on the battlefield. In November 1967, Bhutto launched his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) based on a combination of virulent anti-Indian chauvinism, “socialist” demagogy and paeans to Islam.
Much of the generation of leftists and working-class leaders carried to the fore in 1968-69 gave open or backhanded support to Bhutto’s PPP, a thoroughly bourgeois party, as did a number of established trade union leaders. Renouncing the struggle for socialist revolution, they built support for this ultra-patriot, and reinforced the continued class rule of the large landowners and the bourgeoisie. Without a Leninist party to wage an irreconcilable struggle against the national-liberal bourgeoisie, the combative proletariat remained politically subordinate to the capitalist class enemy. The essential lesson to be drawn from that experience is that the working class must have its own political leadership independent of all the agencies and representatives of capitalist rule.
The national oppression of the Bengalis was of vital importance in 1968-69. The most powerful strikes were centred in West Pakistan, where the country’s industry was concentrated. In East Pakistan, separated from the rest of the country by 1000 miles of hostile Indian territory, the peasant revolt was strongest. There the upsurge was largely directed against the national oppression suffered by the Bengalis at the hands of the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state. In order for the working class to lead the peasant masses in an assault on the capitalist order, it was necessary for the proletariat to champion the Bengalis’ right of national self-determination. Bhutto, in contrast, was a staunch supporter of the system by which the ruling class in West Pakistan oppressed and exploited the Bengalis in the East.
In the course of this talk, I will be debunking myths presented in two books that purport to provide a Marxist view of this history. The first book is Pakistan’s Other Story: The Revolution of 1968-69 by Lal Khan, published in 2008. He is the leader of the Struggle group, Pakistani section of the late Ted Grant’s International Marxist Tendency. Grant’s British followers were an organic part of the Labour Party for decades as the Militant tendency. Internationally, these abject reformists have a tradition of liquidation — even into outright capitalist parties. For most of its existence, the Struggle group has been ensconced in the PPP. The many omissions and distortions in Lal Khan’s book serve to gloss over the brutal crimes of Pakistan’s capitalist rulers, especially those committed by ZA Bhutto.
The other book that I will critique is Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power by Tariq Ali, published in London in 1970. Not only is Tariq Ali’s book widely cited by bourgeois academic historians, it has been highly influential in educating Pakistani leftists. It presents a distorted picture, seen through the eyes of a radical of the 1960s generation who touted “red universities” as revolutionary bastions and looked to peasant-based guerrilla warfare as the road to socialism in Third World countries. Nothing in Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power gives a hint that the working class, which played a decisive role in those events, is the force with the social power to overthrow the capitalist order and open the road to socialism. The book’s title points to what Ali saw as the alternative to military rule: a struggle for “people’s power” in which the working class is just another sector of the people.
At the time, Tariq Ali was a leading cadre of the fake-Trotskyist United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec). His book is a classic example of Pabloism, a revisionist tendency that rejects the struggle to forge Trotskyist parties and instead acts as a pressure group on social-democratic, Stalinist and non-proletarian forces. Under the leadership of Michel Pablo, this tendency destroyed the Trotskyist Fourth International in the early 1950s.
In Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power, Tariq Ali argues that: “Although Bhutto deserved support in his courageous stand against the Ayub dictatorship, it was also necessary that his party programme should be subjected to a severe critique by socialists.” Though revolutionary socialists may defend the likes of Bhutto against state repression, we give no political support to capitalist politicians as a matter of principle. But not only does Tariq Ali give no hint of what a “severe critique” of Bhutto’s programme would have looked like, he writes out of the historical record facts that would be key to such a critique. There is no mention of Bhutto’s virulent anti-Indian chauvinism. No mention of his close ties to a section of the officer corps. No mention of his opposition to the Bengali national struggle. And not a word about the call for a constituent assembly, a bourgeois parliament, the device by which Bhutto and the officers around Yahya Khan were able to derail the upsurge. Tariq Ali’s narrative, which ends with Yahya’s coming to power, provides no idea of why Bhutto would rush to embrace the declaration of martial law.
Tariq Ali’s political influence among radicalised youth was apparent during his tour of Pakistan in February-March 1969, at the height of the upsurge, when he addressed massive rallies. The programme that Tariq Ali offered — political prostration before Bhutto — comes through in his articles from the time in Black Dwarf (which he edited) and in Intercontinental Press, published by the USec. Nowhere in those articles is there a serious political criticism of Bhutto. Even as Bhutto was declaring his support for the March 1969 military takeover, Tariq Ali’s journal could conjure up nothing more incisive about the PPP than: “It talks about socialism constantly and to its credit but without knowing what this would entail” (Black Dwarf, 18 April 1969).
British colonialism and the origins of Pakistan
The state of Pakistan is an artificial creation whose boundaries were arbitrarily drawn by the British colonial rulers in the bloody Partition of India. As the Indian masses revolted against colonial oppression with the 1942 Quit India movement, the British overlords stepped up their policy of fomenting communal hatreds. As a result, the oppressed Hindu, Muslim and Sikh masses turned their fury against each other — away from their colonial oppressors, and from the Indian capitalists and landed aristocracy. Partition, which was the culmination of two centuries of divide-and-rule, was carried out under a British Labour government in 1947. It unleashed communal slaughter on an enormous scale and led to one of the largest forced migrations in history. The British rulers withdrew from the subcontinent without the ignominy of defeat at the hands of their colonial slaves — a defeat that would have shaken the rest of the colonial world and Britain itself. They left behind a subcontinent aflame in violence, partitioned into majority-Hindu India and the Muslim confessional state of Pakistan.
The idea that Pakistan represented a form of national self-determination for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent was — and remains today — an utter fraud. Pakistan is a multinational state in which the mainly Punjabi ruling elite, persisting from British rule, brutally lords it over the Baloch people, the Pashtuns and other oppressed nationalities and ethnicities. This “prison house of peoples” is held together largely through stark repression. The army has ruled throughout Pakistan’s history, either directly or behind a thin cover of parliamentary democracy. It is intimately intertwined with the state bureaucracy in an infernal machine that enforces everything reactionary in Pakistani society, from bonded labour and caste oppression to religious fundamentalism and the all-sided oppression of women.
Like the rest of the subcontinent, Pakistan is an extreme example of combined and uneven development. Modern industry and an industrial proletariat have been superimposed on a largely peasant-based society and coexist with frightfully backward social conditions. While the landed aristocracy, textile bosses and upper echelons of the military plunder the country’s wealth, the poverty of the labouring masses can be gauged by the fact that childhood malnutrition is more acute than in much of sub-Saharan Africa.
Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution provides the Marxist programme for carrying out the revolutionary transformation of economically backward countries that came to capitalist development in the epoch of imperialism. Central to this programme is the understanding that in such countries, bourgeois-democratic gains such as national emancipation, land to the tiller, legal equality of women and the separation of religion and the state require the overthrow of the capitalist order through socialist revolution in which the proletariat comes forward as the leader of all the oppressed, above all the peasant masses. This was the programme on which the Bolshevik party, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, carried the Russian Revolution of October 1917 to victory.
Just as the Bolsheviks saw the October Revolution as the opening shot of a broader European-wide revolution, communists in the subcontinent need to view revolutions in their countries in an international framework. The struggles for liberation of all the exploited and oppressed of the Indian subcontinent are closely interlinked, requiring the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisies in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the establishment of a socialist federation of South Asia. Ultimately the capitalist system must be destroyed at its strongest points, the advanced industrial states. The proletarians of the more backward countries must be linked to their class brothers and sisters in the West through an international of Leninist-Trotskyist parties.
At Partition, Pakistan inherited a mere nine per cent of the industrial establishments of the subcontinent, and control of that industry was concentrated in West Pakistan. Before Bangladeshi independence, the Punjabi-dominated regime exploited East Pakistan as an impoverished semi-colony. All major industries in East Pakistan were in the hands of the families which dominated the West — the Adamjee and Dawood families were prominent examples. The wealth generated by the peasantry in East Pakistan was appropriated by the capitalists in West Pakistan through the following scheme: agricultural products produced in East Pakistan, especially jute, accounted for most of the country’s export earnings. A system of tariffs and quotas prevented these earnings being used to purchase goods on the world market. East Pakistan thus became a captive market, forced to purchase high-priced goods from West Pakistan. The result was a massive transfer of East Pakistan’s export earnings to West Pakistan, where they were invested in industry and led to the rapid growth of the bourgeoisie.
The Pakistani ruling class proved unable to erect even a facade of parliamentary rule. Pakistan’s largest oppressed nationality, the Bengalis, accounted for a majority of the country’s population. So, introducing democratic elections risked undermining Punjabi domination. In 1956, the central government finally came up with a constitution which avoided the principle of “one man, one vote”. Firstly, the constitution instituted “parity” between East and West Pakistan: Bengal could not get more than half the seats in the National Assembly. Secondly, the four provinces of what was called the West Wing were consolidated into a single province, West Pakistan. This so-called “one-unit plan” undercut the ability of the Bengalis to form a coalition with other oppressed nationalities in the West. As a sop to the Bengalis, their language was accorded official status along with Urdu.
Bhutto supports anti-Bengali repression
When the Ayub regime was discredited as a result of the ’65 war with India, this put wind in the sails of the Bengali nationalists. In February 1966, Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s petty-bourgeois nationalist Awami League issued a Six-Point Programme. This called for Pakistan to become a federation of the two wings, each with the power to define its own fiscal and monetary policies, sign international commercial treaties and raise its own armed forces. The federal government would be responsible solely for national defence and foreign affairs. This was a plan not for national liberation of East Bengal but for renegotiating the terms of its subordination to the regime. The Six-Point Programme represented the interests of the upper levels of the petty bourgeoisie, whose development into a capitalist class was stymied by West Pakistan’s economic stranglehold. In contrast, we raised the demand for Bengali national self-determination, including the right to unite with the Bengalis in India and to form a separate state.
The Ayub regime reacted to the declaration of the Six Points with characteristic brutality, unleashing a wave of repression against the Awami League leadership. Mujibur Rahman and other League leaders were imprisoned — they would be freed three years later as a result of the mass upsurge. A 7 June 1966 hartal (general strike) called to protest their arrests set off an explosion. Strikers, some armed with shotguns, attacked the police station in Narayanganj as well as government buildings in Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, and trashed the home of the Parliamentary Secretary. At least ten were gunned down by the police. Clashes continued for months; by the end of 1966 hundreds of Bengalis had been killed by security forces.
That murderous crackdown was launched amid a wave of hostility against the Bengali nationalists, which Bhutto helped to whip up in one last service to the Ayub regime before he was forced out of the government. In March 1966, Bhutto helped get the leadership of Ayub’s Convention Muslim League to vote a motion denouncing the Awami League’s “sinister conspiracy” and calling on the government “to take all necessary steps in order to meet the challenge of this treasonable campaign and preserve and protect the ideology of Islam and the integrity of the Muslim homeland” (Pakistan Times, 21 March 1966). What Bhutto meant by “all necessary steps” was perfectly clear in light of the Pakistani rulers’ history of murderous repression against the Bengalis and other oppressed nationalities.
Following Bhutto’s exit from the Ayub government, after he had raised the ire of Washington with anti-American rhetoric, Pakistani Maoists pulled out all the stops to mobilise support for him. The National Student Federation (NSF), in which the Maoists had substantial weight, declared: “Mr Bhutto represents the youth in this country in his vigour, intellect, honesty and devotion.” The key to the Maoists’ unholy alliance with Bhutto was that, as Ayub’s foreign minister after the 1962 border war between India and China, Bhutto had been the public face for a pro-China tilt in Pakistani foreign policy. While the Maoists did the legwork to round up support for him, Bhutto cultivated his ties with the military command. According to Ayub’s former Air Force Commander-in-Chief, Bhutto “maintained good personal relations with important Generals throughout his tenure as a minister in Ayub Khan’s cabinet and had done his utmost to retain these links even after his exit from the government” (Mohammed Asghar Khan, Generals in Politics: Pakistan 1958-1982, 1983).
During speaking tours in the summer of 1967, Bhutto experimented with a leftist image. After supporting the US war in Vietnam as Foreign Minister, Bhutto now began to oppose it. For the first time in his life, he started to slip the word “socialism” into his speeches — while always insisting that it was based on the principles of Islam. He discovered that not only did he not gag when he pronounced the word “socialism” but his audiences loved it. As one of Bhutto’s biographers put it: “His move towards socialism was graded very carefully. Only after he was sure of the public response did his demands gradually become more strident” (Salmaan Taseer, Bhutto: A Political Biography, 1980).
Anti-India diatribes, including the call for a “thousand year” confrontation over Kashmir, were a stock theme in Bhutto’s speeches. Bhutto called for military training on campuses, arguing that “the masses should be prepared for a people’s war” over Kashmir. In this, he echoed a section of the Pakistani military that had latched onto the notion of “people’s war” as a way of compensating for India’s military superiority. Lal Khan’s Struggle group lauds Bhutto’s call for a “people’s army”, implying that he was for a people’s militia as opposed to a standing army. This is simply a gross falsification. As we will see later, when Bhutto came to power and formed a paramilitary goon squad to brutalise worker militants and political opponents, he claimed it was a “people’s army”.
Founding of the Pakistan People’s Party
In November 1967, Bhutto held the founding convention of the PPP. Joining the coterie of landowning aristocrats was a rogues’ gallery of Muslim League has-beens and Maoists, and two maulvis (Muslim priests) as guarantors of the party’s Islamic credentials. (During the convention, both maulvis took the floor to affirm that socialism is compatible with Islam.) Not surprisingly, given Bhutto’s well-known backing of state repression against the Bengali nationalists, East Pakistan was not represented.
After hearing renderings from the Koran, the assembled luminaries turned their attention to the PPP’s Foundation Documents. They denounced the Awami League’s Six-Point Programme as opening the road to independence for East Pakistan and declared flatly: “Pakistan is one nation and not two.” One document pledged to “maintain the policy of confrontation” over Kashmir. And to make sure that there was no mistaking the party’s commitment to Islam, another announced (in capital letters): “WE PROMISE TO CONTINUE THE JEHAD UNTIL GOD’S EARTH IS LIT UP WITH DIVINE LIGHT.”
We characterised the PPP’s programme in those days as “landlord socialism” (Workers Vanguard no 16, February 1973). One of the PPP’s Foundation Documents affirmed that the party was for “the transformation of Pakistan into a socialist society”. Yet the Declaration of Principles did not call for a single hectare of land redistribution. Most of the Declaration was penned by Jalaludin Abdur Rahim. The military regime’s ambassador to France, Rahim threw in his lot with Bhutto as his diplomatic career was coming to a close. JA Rahim was the personification of “landlord socialism”. He led the fight at the founding convention against including any call for land reform in the Declaration of Principles. At the same time, he wrote into that document that the PPP was for “a classless society”. That phrase has been cited ad nauseam by the Struggle group as the basis for their call for the PPP to “return to its original Socialist manifesto”.
The PPP founding manifesto promised extensive nationalisations of banking and industry, which Bhutto’s leftist camp-followers pretended was directed against capitalism. The landowning aristocrats who controlled the PPP saw things differently. The industrial bourgeoisie that had initially developed in Pakistan consisted predominantly of mohajir traders — Urdu-speaking emigres from India. That generated considerable resentment among Pakistan’s rural elites, especially in Sindh where the PPP had its strongest base. They were intent on getting a piece of the action for themselves. When it came to power, the PPP did carry out the promised nationalisations. The primary pathway for wealthy Pakistanis to accumulate capital then became access to the PPP and its allies in the state bureaucracy. The country’s [former] Sindhi president Asif Ali Zardari, one of the richest individuals in Pakistan, can thank Bhutto for initiating the policies that got him where he is.
Tufail Abbas, the main Maoist leader in Karachi, brought his student followers in the NSF leadership, such as Mairaj Mohammad Khan, to the PPP founding convention. Abbas was the head of the Airways Employees Union at Pakistan International Airlines. With influence among students and links in the labour movement, he was instrumental in helping to jump-start the PPP. Bhutto gave Mairaj Mohammad Khan, a member of Abbas’ group, a leadership post in the Karachi PPP, where he served as a lackey to the big Sindhi landlord who ran the party in that city.
The Maoists’ support for Bhutto was based on the Stalinist dogma of two-stage revolution, in which the first stage is supposed to be a “democratic revolution”. This means subordinating the proletariat to a supposedly progressive wing of the bourgeoisie, while postponing the second stage, proletarian revolution, to the indefinite future — that is, never. In the many countries where this has been put into practice, from China in 1925-27 to Iraq in 1958-59 to Indonesia in 1965-66, the result was never bourgeois democracy, much less socialism, but the slaughter of leftists, workers and peasants. As we will see in greater detail later in this talk, the Maoists’ political alliance with Bhutto would have disastrous consequences for the working class. Lal Khan and the Struggle group never fail to criticise the conception of “democratic revolution” that underlay the Maoists’ support to Bhutto. But the lesson they draw has nothing to do with opposing class collaboration. They simply support Bhutto in the name of socialism.
After the founding of the PPP, Bhutto launched a barnstorming campaign of speeches attacking the Ayub regime. He summarised his programme in Political Situation in Pakistan, written in June 1968, which culminates in the call for “a popular government” to carry out “reform of the constitutional structure”. Lal Khan assures us: “At that time in his speeches Bhutto was advocating revolutionary socialism.” A more accurate take appears in Salman Rushdie’s satirical novel Shame, in which the fictional character “Isky” Harappa parodies “Zulfi” Bhutto: “He toured the villages and promised every peasant one acre of land and a new water-well.... He screamed in regional dialects about the rape of the country by fat cats and tilyars [mohajirs], and such was the power of his tongue, or perhaps of the sartorial talents of Monsieur Cardin, that nobody seemed to recall Isky’s own status as a landlord of a distinctly obese chunk of Sind.”
Bhutto sought to pressure a section of the military high command to dump Ayub and sponsor democratic reforms. He declared that a military coup “will solve no problems unless it comes with the purpose of restoring the people’s rights”. As we will see, it would be precisely on that pretext that Bhutto would support General Yahya Khan’s seizure of power in March 1969.
Opening battles of 1968-69
Remarkably, given its importance in Pakistan’s history, there appears to be no comprehensive history — certainly not in English — of the upheaval of 1968-69. Tariq Ali dealt at length with the student movement in Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power, while devoting no more than a dozen lines to the explosion of working-class struggle that shook the country in March 1969. Likewise, Lal Khan’s book devotes no more than a couple of pages to that demonstration of proletarian power, and most of that consists of an extended quote from a work by Bhutto’s one-time finance minister!
The upsurge began with anti-government protests by students in West Pakistan in October 1968, largely led by the NSF. On 7 November, students took to the streets in Rawalpindi, the interim capital of the country and site of the army headquarters. In the protests that followed, police shot and killed three people. The Rawalpindi events triggered student demonstrations in Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Quetta and other cities; the government responded by shutting down the campuses. At the time, Bhutto was trying to beef up his credentials as an opponent of the Ayub regime. A speaking tour happened to bring him to Rawalpindi in the wake of the cop killing, and he joined the funeral procession. Several days later, Bhutto was arrested along with other supporters of the PPP and the National Awami Party (NAP), a left-radical grouping. They would spend the next three months in Ayub’s jails.
The student demonstrations were initially limited to university-related issues, centrally the demand that the government withdraw the University Ordinances which threatened students who engaged in political protests with the confiscation of their degrees. But student agitation took on a more political tone as it merged with the PPP’s campaign against the Ayub regime. By the end of December, student leaders were calling for the resignation of Ayub Khan. They did not say what he should be replaced with. But Bhutto was quite clear: a government that was committed to a directly elected constituent assembly.
Working-class struggle was touched off on 29 November, when a general strike called by student leaders totally shut down Rawalpindi. Students and workers fought police attacks. Throughout the Punjab, demonstrations continued for days as the military watched warily from the barracks. In December, protests spread to East Pakistan, where the Bengali rural masses and the urban proletariat quickly took up demands directed against their national oppression.
The dominant political force in East Pakistan was Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League. Rahman and 34 others had been charged in December 1967-January 1968 in the so-called Agartala Conspiracy case. They had been accused of conspiring with Indian intelligence officials at a meeting in Agartala, India to make East Pakistan an independent state. Rahman’s forthright defence at his trial had made him a hero in East Pakistan. Mass influence was also exercised by peasant leader Maulana Bhashani, who had split from the Awami League over its leadership’s support to the 1956 Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Nasser’s Egypt. Bhashani joined with nationalists from oppressed nationalities in West Pakistan — Pashtun, Sindhi and Baloch — to form the “anti-imperialist” NAP.
Bhashani called a hartal in Dhaka for 7 December 1968, the day Ayub was scheduled to visit the city. Security forces fired on the strikers, killing two. Bhashani responded by calling a province-wide hartal on 19 December, and the Awami League, supported by Bhashani, called another for 14 December. During a province-wide day of mobilisation on 29 December, police gunned down three peasants. The upsurge was spreading to rural East Pakistan where peasants seized and burnt police stations, expelled rent collectors and, in a number of cases, set up their own local administrations.
The eleven-point programme that came to be associated with the protest movement in East Pakistan was adopted in early January 1969 by a coalition of student groups. It called for autonomy for East Pakistan along the lines of the Awami League’s Six-Point Programme and added other demands, such as nationalisation of banking and large industries, reduction of taxes on peasants and higher wages for workers. It also demanded the withdrawal of Pakistan from the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and the Central Treaty Organization — US-led military alliances directed against the Soviet Union. The student programme demanded the dropping of charges against all political prisoners, in particular those charged in the Agartala Conspiracy case.
In their respective books on the 1968-69 upheaval, both Lal Khan and Tariq Ali sidestep the fact that the upsurge in East Pakistan was largely directed against the national oppression of the Bengalis. Lal Khan never even mentions the East Pakistani students’ eleven-point programme. In contrast, Tariq Ali acknowledges that in East Pakistan “the students’ eleven-point programme became the programme of the people”. He lists some of its demands, absurdly claiming that they were “anti-capitalist in content”. But he avoids mentioning that the eleven points included the call for extensive autonomy for East Bengal.
In early January 1969, the traditional opposition parties sought to corral the movement onto a parliamentary track. Their chosen vehicle was the Democratic Action Committee (DAC), a coalition of most of the parties which opposed the Ayub regime, from the Awami League to the far-right fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami. Bhutto’s PPP and Bhashani’s NAP, wary of being discredited by this noxious lash-up, kept their distance. The DAC quickly adopted a programme that included the main demands raised by protesters and strikers — except for those dealing with oppression of the Bengalis. In a risky gambit, the DAC leaders called a nationwide general strike for 17 January that they hoped would blow off steam, while strengthening their hand in negotiations with the regime. This strike temporarily placed these venal politicians at the head of protests throughout the country.
Police and army violence swelled protests following the one-day strike. On the night of 23 January, 25,000 protesters marched through the streets of Dhaka carrying flaming torches and calling for the complete independence of East Bengal. The next day, 5000 protesters stormed the seat of the provincial government. Crowds burned down the offices of two pro-government newspapers. By day’s end, half a dozen protesters in Dhaka and other cities in East Pakistan had been gunned down, including a young schoolboy. Cutting across the anti-Bengali racism fostered by the capitalist ruling class, workers and students in West Pakistan joined their counterparts in the East in defying the Ayub regime’s murderous repression. However, while the working class continued to wage isolated strikes, it had not yet demonstrated its social power. In the absence of a proletarian axis, the mass upsurge largely took the form of rioting and street fighting with the police. At this point the struggle could not bring down the Ayub regime, to say nothing of overthrowing the capitalist order.
Workers take the stage
In West Pakistan, the social explosion was most intense in four cities: Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Gujranwala, an industrial city in northern Punjab. With factory production in Karachi, the country’s industrial centre, down 30 per cent as a result of the upsurge, the regime resorted to a massive show of force. Round-the-clock curfews were imposed and the army took up positions in Dhaka and the cities I just mentioned, threatening to shoot on sight anyone caught defying the curfew. The Pakistan Times (29 January 1969) described Lahore under military occupation:
“The streets were deserted except for officers and men of the Army and the police.... Apart from essential services, life in the city came to a standstill. No shops were opened, no business conducted, no offices operated and no factory emitted smoke.”
Again the Ayub regime tried to bring the upheaval to a close through negotiations with the DAC leaders, and again it was overtaken by the onrush of events. On 14 February, the country was shut down in a hartal called by the DAC leaders, who, as they had the previous month, sought to back up their negotiations with a show of force. As in January, the resulting repression triggered a renewed upsurge. The Pakistan Times decried “the new wave of mob fury that has begun to sweep factories, shops, railway stations...and vital industrial concerns” (16 February 1969).
On 15 February, one of the Bengali soldiers accused in the Agartala Conspiracy case was shot dead in prison. That marked a watershed. The army was called out and police viciously attacked protesters, especially in the industrial areas surrounding Dhaka.
The Students Action Committee called a student strike for 17 February to protest police shootings as the army continued to patrol the streets of Dhaka. An angry crowd set fire to the residence of the judge presiding over the Agartala case. The judge reportedly fled for his life by wrapping his Bengali cook’s lungi (a skirt-like garment) around his waist and passing himself off as a commoner. In Dhaka, a mass procession attacked the houses of a pro-Ayub provincial minister and of the Central Information Minister. The latter had prohibited Pakistan Radio from broadcasting songs by the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Chittagong, East Pakistan’s main port, was paralysed by a lightning strike of more than 2000 dockworkers. When word arrived in Dhaka that a professor at Rajshahi University, in East Pakistan’s northwest region, had been killed by soldiers who bayonet-charged students, workers from the industrial zones joined students and the urban poor in defiance of the curfew. The army went on a killing spree, indiscriminately gunning down protesters. The bourgeois press blacked out news of the Dhaka massacre, reporting just half a dozen deaths. Nuran Nabi, who wrote of his participation in the events as an Awami League student activist, considers that the deaths were in the hundreds (Bullets of ’71: A Freedom Fighter’s Story, 2010).
Meanwhile, Ayub was ceding to the demands of the DAC: he lifted the state of emergency in force since the 1965 war, withdrew the Agartala case and released Mujibur Rahman, Bhutto and a number of other political prisoners. Bhutto and Bhashani did not participate in the “negotiations” ploy. Having kept their distance from the DAC since its formation, they had nothing to gain by embracing it now. Yet Lal Khan, intent on “proving” that the PPP responded to mass pressure, manufactures his own alternative reality: “Clearly, the left wing of the Peoples party had been able to convince their party Chairman that the Movement had gone too far and penetrated too deeply to accept any compromise with the regime.” No compromise? In a month, Bhutto would support martial law!
On 21 February, Ayub announced that he would not stand for re-election as president and evoked the prospect of “direct elections on the basis of adult franchise”. But the time for negotiations had long passed. At a meeting of 100,000 people in Dhaka, student leaders issued an ultimatum to Ayub & Co: resign by 3 March or “face the consequences”. A number of large landowners and local moneylenders had already perished at the hands of peasants and other toilers in rural areas. Ayub’s Basic Democrats — members of local councils who constituted the lowest tier in government — got the message and resigned en masse. The system of local government in East Pakistan began to collapse like a house of cards.
With the peasant uprising spreading in East Pakistan, the working class in both wings of the country launched a strike movement that by late March would virtually shut down the economy. Especially in the East, workers often used — with overwhelming success — the gherao tactic, confining the bosses in their offices until the workers’ demands were met. The vanguard layer of the proletariat was the cotton mill workforce in the industrial areas around Karachi, Lahore and other urban centres. These workers were among the most exploited, working under inhumanly harsh conditions, but at the same time they had the ability to shut down the country’s largest industry.
A feature throughout this period was the formation of “labour fronts”, “action committees” and other organisations to co-ordinate workers’ struggles. Some of these were formed by factory-floor leaders; others resulted from splits within the established trade union leadership. This pointed the way towards broader organisations of the working class, such as workers defence guards and committees to take charge of distribution of food, that would have the potential to become organs of workers rule, as happened in the lead-up to the October 1917 Russian Revolution.
But to put into practice a programme for working-class power would have required sharp political struggle against the “socialists” who were supporting Bhutto’s PPP. Tariq Ali, for example, called for a coalition of all “left” forces around a four-point programme of basic democratic rights, land to the tiller, opposition to US imperialism and abolition of capitalism. Such a coalition could only have helped the PPP demagogues secure support on a platform of empty promises. Incredibly for a self-proclaimed Marxist, Tariq Ali added grist to the mill of Bhutto’s reactionary crusade on the theme that socialism is compatible with Islam. One of his first public acts during his visit to Pakistan was to offer fatiha (a Koranic prayer). Addressing a mass rally in Rawalpindi, Tariq Ali kissed the Koran and denounced the “lackeys of imperialists” who were “trying to create doubts about my faith” (Pakistan Times, 8 March 1969).
March 1969: culmination of the mass upsurge
In March in West Pakistan, government employees struck in defiance of laws making such action punishable by a year in prison. On 3 March, doctors and other medical personnel struck for four days. Postmen struck on 4 March. Ten days later, the Pakistan Times reported, “the postal strike was causing immense loss to the exporters as the parcels were not being conveyed to their destination and no foreign mail was being delivered, resulting in the cancellation of orders”. On 5 March, 10,000 Karachi port workers brought the country’s main port to a standstill for five days. Telecommunications workers started a cascading series of strikes on 11 March. The regime sent army signal operators to man the telephone exchange in Lahore, but the soldiers couldn’t cope with the volume of calls.
On 6 March, workers closed down the factories and textile mills in the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate in Karachi, the country’s largest industrial zone, for four days. The strike grew explosively when a factory guard shot and killed two workers in a procession of several thousand going from plant to plant bringing workers out on strike. The strike spread to Landhi, the other major industrial area of the city. The deepening sense of solidarity across the workers movement was demonstrated when the college teachers union called for a city-wide strike on 8 March and the city was shut down completely. More than a dozen demonstrations by mill workers and other labourers filled the otherwise empty streets.
With the port of Karachi and the city’s main industrial zone still struck, the Ayub regime prepared for a 10 March Round Table Conference with the opposition parties. Ayub ended up accepting the DAC’s two main demands: direct elections on the basis of adult franchise and a parliamentary form of government. But no promise by Ayub was going to bring the revolt to heel. Bhutto continued to remain outside the negotiations, but he weighed in against the Awami League’s demand for Bengal autonomy. Bhutto declared: “The position of the Central Government under the six-point formula will be that of a widow without a pension” (Pakistan Times, 21 March 1969). The “pension” in question was, of course, the fruit of the central government’s oppression of the Bengalis.
Four days after the “accord” between Ayub and the DAC was announced, on 17 March, a massive hartal by two and a half million workers in West Pakistan, called by the major trade union leaders, touched off a new wave of strikes. Docks, railways and public transport were paralysed; all factories and most shops and offices were closed. The Karachi port remained shut for three days, and the striking dockworkers only returned to work after they had won all of their wage demands. For two weeks, strikes continued to sweep the industrial zones around Karachi and other cities. Airline workers, electrical grid workers, hospital staff and nurses, postal workers, government office employees, coal miners, teachers, railway workers and other sectors struck. Workers occupied two large flour mills in Karachi and elected committees to run the plants.
On 20 March, the president of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry called on the government to deploy troops to Karachi’s industrial areas. But the military tops made it clear to Ayub Khan that they would only call out the troops if he abandoned the presidency. Instead of launching the repression that the bosses were demanding, the Ayub regime was reduced to calling on all employers to grant a 20 per cent wage increase! Meanwhile, a joint call by dozens of trade union leaders in Karachi for a stop to gheraos “in the national interest” fell on deaf ears. By 24 March, virtually all the factories of Karachi, comprising some 40 per cent of Pakistan’s industrial capacity, were on strike.
On 25 March, Ayub announced his resignation and handed power to army commander-in-chief, Yahya Khan. Declaring that he would “not tolerate disorder”, Yahya Khan imposed martial law and decreed that military tribunals would impose prison sentences of up to ten years for criticising the martial law regime, up to 14 years for going on strike or fostering “dissatisfaction toward the armed forces”, and the death penalty for damaging public property or giving assistance to “rebels or rioters”. At the same time, the new military strongman promised a “smooth transfer of power to the representatives of the people elected freely and impartially on the basis of adult franchise”, who would then “give the country a workable Constitution”.
The mass movement in both East and West Pakistan came to a sudden halt. There were no protest demonstrations anywhere against the take-over. Students returned to their classes. Most of the mills and factories that had been on strike promptly resumed production. In East Pakistan, government offices reopened. At police stations across the country, people lined up to turn in their firearms. It was reported that in Karachi alone, 16,000 rifles, revolvers and shotguns were surrendered.
Even the bourgeoisie was taken aback that a mass revolt, which had defied repression, should halt so suddenly. The London Sunday Times (30 March 1969) observed: “The revolution seemed to be only hours away.... The mere words ‘martial law’ have magically restored the situation without a shot being fired.” The explanation for the sudden turnaround was not magic but politics. From the beginning, the movement’s principal leaders, especially Bhutto and his leftist supporters, had hammered the point that the main aim was elections to a constituent assembly. Now that a wing of the military high command had pushed aside Ayub and was promising to grant that demand, it was broadly felt that the movement had achieved its purpose. Referring to Yahya’s takeover, Bhutto declared that “on the whole it’s a good thing” because “the prospects for a return to democracy seem good” (Sunday Times, 30 March 1969). In a 26 June speech, he declared: “This Martial Law repeatedly gives assurances for elections.” He further asserted that when the movement against Ayub Khan started, “I had said there must be a new Constituent Assembly, that only a Constituent Assembly could frame a Constitution for Pakistan” (Awakening the People, Volume II, ZA Bhutto, 1969).
Lal Khan and Tariq Ali, having written out of their histories Bhutto’s campaign for a constituent assembly, have no explanation for the sudden halt of the mass movement — nor can they come up with any criticism of Bhutto’s arguments in support of martial law. Lal Khan blames the “left leadership” for the fact that “there was no protest at all, as though the sole objective was to get rid of Ayub Khan!” But he cannot explain why Yahya Khan was seen as an improvement over Ayub. Tariq Ali says the masses “lacked an organization, and this made the army take-over on March 26, 1969, a comparatively easy affair”. Yet when recounting the 18 February massacre of protesters in Dhaka, Tariq Ali insisted: “Once again the workers and the city poor, without any leadership whatsoever, had defied the ruling class and faced the bullets of the bourgeoisie.”
The masses had not lost the extraordinary courage that, even bereft of leadership, they had repeatedly displayed. Rather, the military and the leaders of the opposition parties — especially the PPP, the NAP and their leftist supporters — had succeeded in channelling the mass struggle onto the path of the constituent assembly. As we wrote in Spartacist ([English edition] no 63, Winter 2012-2013), “fighting for a bourgeois-parliamentary ‘democratic government’ is a trap for the proletariat”. The article explains: “Unlike such demands as national self-determination, women’s equality, land to the tiller, universal suffrage or opposition to the monarchy — any or all of which can be crucial in rallying the masses behind the struggles of the proletariat — the constituent assembly is not a democratic demand but a call for a new capitalist government.”
The article also points out: “Given the reactionary character of the bourgeoisie, in the semicolonial world as well as the advanced capitalist states, there can be no revolutionary bourgeois parliament. Thus the call for a constituent assembly runs counter to the perspective of permanent revolution.” As they were being forced out of India by a mass upsurge against colonial rule, the British used the constituent assembly to give “democratic” legitimacy to the bloody partition of the subcontinent, resulting in the first parliaments of independent capitalist India and Pakistan. Likewise, the military regime in Pakistan used the call for a constituent assembly to derail the upsurge of 1968-69.
[To be continued]