Veteran Pakistan Communist speaks to - Jam Saqi

Jam Saqi, is the former general secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan. He has joined The Struggle, the Marxist tendency in Pakistan. In this interview he explains how he became active and finally came to understand the limitations of Stalinism. He invites all genuine revolutionary workers and youth on the South Asian subcontinent to join the International Marxist Tendency and struggle for socialist revolution.

Jam Saqi, is the former general secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan. He is a man with a very profound grasp of the culture and literature of his native land and is himself an accomplished poet in the Sindhi language.

He has joined The Struggle, the Marxist tendency in Pakistan. In this interview he explains how he became active and finally came to understand the limitations of Stalinism. He invites all genuine revolutionary workers and youth on the South Asian subcontinent to join the International Marxist Tendency and struggle for socialist revolution.

Could you tell us something about your early life?
Alan Woods, Lal Khan and Jam Saqi
Alan Woods, Lal Khan and Jam Saqi

I was born on 31st October 1944 in a village called Janjhi in the Chacharo District of Sindh. It is a desert area. As you may know, Sindh is not just a province; it is also a national and cultural entity with its own identity and language and a very ancient past. There are even some people who say that our language is older than Sanskrit. Anyway, I belong to one of the oldest cultures in the subcontinent. But as a Communist, I am first and foremost an internationalist and have always fought against any attempt to divide the working class on national lines.

My father was a primary school teacher. He educated my mother and then she became a teacher as well. We were not materially rich but both my parents were culturally rich. They were both interested in poetry - particularly the poetry of Shah Latif. Many people were literate and poets.

India was still under British rule when I was born (Pakistan did not yet exist). There were struggles at that time including a guerrilla movement. The British Indian army were mainly Moslems. They fought for Britain in both World Wars. The British told them they would be given land after the war. In the end what they were given was partition and Pakistan.

Partition was a catastrophe in which millions of people perished. At the beginning Jinnah said Pakistan would be secular and everyone would be free to practice their own religion. He said this in a speech on August 11, 1947. But this speech was censored. The army intervened to cut out the offending passage and so the newspapers said to not print this speech. Radio Pakistan was gagged. Only Altaf Hussein, an independent editor, refused to abide by the censorship. So from day one, Pakistan was really controlled by the military.

Early Days

How did you get involved in politics?

I was a student in prematric year. In 1961 I gave a speech at a school function. Someone from the Communist Party, a retired teacher who was working as a sales representative of a progressive publishing house called Sindhi Adabi Board noticed me. He stayed for two or three days to teach me about socialism. He said there is no way for the world except socialism. I passed matric and went to college in 1962 and there I commenced my work in the CP.

How many members were there at that time?

We had about 100 members. We were a totally underground movement at that time. The national question was very important in Pakistan as a whole and especially in Sindh. The ruling class and the army were predominantly from the Punjabi nationality. They tried to discriminate against the Sindhi language. For example, there was a condition that students should be proficient in Sindhi, but when the son of an army general failed his Sindhi exam, the government decided to scrap it. We organised a signature campaign demanding that the Sindhi language final examinations should be restored.

This agitation was really a preparation for the events of 1968. We held many demonstrations. In 1968 I was a university student. I invited Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to address a group of us in Hyderabad after he resigned from the Ayub Khan government. He said this would get us into trouble with the government. We told him: that's our problem. Bhutto asked why we had not invited him when he was minister. "Then I could have done something for you." We said: "We would never invite ministers from the Ayub Khan government, but now you're not so we can invite you."

The student movement was very militant as a reaction to the various commissioners who were constantly intervening in the affairs of the universities. Masroor Hasan was one of those who was intervening in the affairs of the university and bullying the Vice Chancellor. We organised a demo from the university to the city opposing state interference in university affairs. Over 1,000 students participated. We were intercepted on the road and savagely beaten and arrested. They arrested 207 students. That was the first time I was arrested. I have been arrested seven times in my life.

Conditions in jail

jam_saqi.jpgWe were taken to a jail. Conditions were not as bad as what we thought they might be. In comparison with my later experiences, it was not too bad. We were in jail for 15 or 20 days, and then released without trial.

The remaining students staged protest demonstrations against our arrests, and the next day some workers and peasants also joined in. All these marches were completely illegal under Section 144 which stated that no more than four people could walk together. They were arrested under that law. But these actions were preparing the ground for 1968.

By now the Ayub Khan dictatorship was in crisis. The people in the North West Frontier, Sindh, and Balochistan were all in a state of ferment. But the most serious problem was the growing split between West Pakistan and East Pakistan (East Bengal, now Bangladesh). The people of East Bengal were actually in a majority-- 56% of the population at that time. But they were oppressed by the Punjabi-dominated army and ruling class.

The Pakistan army threatened that there could be no constitution until the Bengalis of East Bengal renounced their majority. This was basically a blatant attempt to rig the constitution. It led to an explosion of popular anger in East Pakistan, and there was general discontent with the Ayub Khan dictatorship. The government replied with repression in all four provinces.

But this repression solved nothing. People in these provinces were against the government's One Union policy. The national question was exploding everywhere as the masses rose up against the hegemony of the Punjabi generals, landowners and capitalists.

General rebellion

The spark that ignited the powder keg was the murder of a student. Some students returned from Peshawar and the police came to search for them. As a result, one student (Abdul Hameed) was shot dead in Rawalpindi. This sparked off a general rebellion.

There were innumerable demonstrations for land reform and democracy. The universities rebelled against the attempts to abolish autonomy and place them under government control. The mass demonstrations spread like wildfire. People joined in great numbers almost from every village. Millions were involved, from town, city and village.

Previously the police behaved with great arrogance and arbitrariness towards the poor people in the villages. Now all that changed. No police inspector could go anywhere and humiliate the poor villagers with their ragged clothes and no shoes on their feet. They didn't dare insult or humiliate them but were obliged to show respect. These were really massive demonstrations! The workers were active in these demonstrations. They put forward their own class position. Socialism was their slogan.

"He who ploughs the land should reap the land:
Socialism must come, socialism will come!"

Ironically, the dictator Ayub Khan tried to celebrate his 10th anniversary of coming to power. He sent out trains of celebration. But every time the train would stop at a station it was met with mass protests. In the end the train arrived at Burn Bahawalpur station, where they burnt it!

The regime became alarmed. They arrested Bhutto, Ali Khan, and others allegedly for plotting to overthrow the dictatorship. They were also alleged to have communist links. They were held in jail for three months, but released after Ayub Khab was ousted by a coup led by his own Commander-in Chief Yahya Khan. He deposed Ayub Khan when he wanted to restore martial law.

Everything was out of control. During this time, students and peasants occupied the land of military and landlords. The workers struck and set up soviets. Those workers who did not go on strike were held in contempt and ridiculed. Women were sending bangles to the PIA and railway workers asking why they weren't on strike. On February 18 there was a general strike. The country was totally shut down.

I remember I was CP secretary in Sindh, but I had a soft spot for Bhutto as the PPP members were more for socialism, whereas the CP was proposing limiting the movement to the democratic revolution. The movement had gone far beyond that. In fact, it was not Bhutto who gave voice to the people, it was people who gave voice to Bhutto.

Crisis of leadership

Unfortunately, the movement lacked a proper leadership. It subsided when they removed Ayub Khan. This took the steam out of it. Then they started a war with the Indians as a further diversion. The regime tried to use national chauvinism to split the movement.

When Bhutto came to power he soon deviated to the right. He had me arrested and he told the army and state he was "arresting this intelligent boy for your sake". Because I opposed his actions against the Bengali people I was charged with being a traitor. I was sentenced to one year in prison and 15 lashes. All this was under Bhutto. Other leaders of the National Awami Party were arrested. The leaders were banned in all the provinces and many went to jail.

Bhutto pursued a disastrous policy. He sent the army into Balochistan after dismissing the provincial government. Later Bhutto wanted to pull out the army, but Zia al Huq didn't want to. At that point Bhutto should have been bold enough to go to the people and tell them: this bastard will not leave and is oppressing the people. The government agreed there should be no repression, but the army refused to obey. After that, it was clear what was going to happen. Bhutto was arrested and later executed by the army. This proves that there was always the hegemony of the army right back to 1947 - even on the first day of Pakistan, when the army censored Jenna's speech.

When Bhutto was overthrown and martial law was introduced 1977 the Communist Party went underground. The Zia al Huq dictatorship was far more vicious than anything that had gone before. We produced two papers, The Red Flag (in Urdu) and Halchan (the Movement) in Sindhi. We had a circulation of about 7,000. It was a terrible period, when thousands of political workers were arrested and flogged and were accused of spreading hatred towards Pakistan and the army.

I was called before a military commission. There was absolutely no chance of winning. I realized that I would inevitably go to prison, so I decided to turn the trial into a political trial. Among those who spoke on my behalf was Benazir Bhutto. Benazir said I had not violated the Pakistan Constitution. It was being violated by Zia al Huq. Other witnesses included Wali Khan, Benazir and other progressives. I told the trial: "Sindh has existed for over 6000 years, Islam for 1400 years, and Pakistan for only 28. And I've been a worker for time immemorial. Why am I a traitor?" My speeches during the trial were published and got a lot of support from the masses in Pakistan.

The result was a foregone conclusion. Two of my friends were sent to Hyderabad and given 10 years. I received the same sentence. We were tortured of course. The methods used in the interrogation centres included sleep deprivation, where we were kept constantly awake for days on end. We were beaten regularly with a leather thong, usually behind the knees or on the thigh and buttocks. They also used the Chinese water torture. The victim is tied to a chair above which a leather bag full of water is hung. Water drops slowly on your head. It seems such a little thing. But believe me, it causes unimaginable agony. The beatings with leather lashes continued all day, every day.

I was later sent to be tortured in a military camp and in the Lahore Fort, where the interrogations were conducted by the army Field Intelligence Unit. But they were told that physical torture does not have any effect on this man. So they resorted to psychological torture instead. I was eight years in jail and I spent seven years of that in solitary. You can't imagine what that means. Sometimes you would wish the torturers would come and take you away just to see a human face. That was in the Lahore Fort, which is now a tourist attraction.

Despite all this, I did not hate the soldiers, who are the sons of peasants or workers. I used to think of an analogy with bananas: hard on the outside but soft and sweet on the inside. I fraternized with them and developed good relations. This enabled me to communicate with comrades on the outside. They used to say only a billionaire with loads of money or a communist could do that! 15 days after being in contact with the soldiers the commander said ‘get rid of this guy because he is affecting the morale of my men!'

I remember once I was speaking to a soldier and he said: "you talk of socialism, but how will it all end? Is it worth making such sacrifices? I asked him if he had ever heard of Heer, Ranjha and Sohni, Mahiwal (Romeo and Juliet). He said yes. I said, "well here are two people who died for each other because they loved each other. If they could give their life for one person I will give my life for billions, for all men and women. I have learnt socialism not from books, but from life itself."

International campaign

My case gave rise to a big international campaign. The campaign was organized by the labour movement and the Communist Parties. Zia used to go on overseas trips, and wherever he went, the CP used to organize demos and protests. Pressure began to develop and therefore the regime was forced to release me two years early. In 1986, on December 10, I finally walked through the prison gates after 8 years thanks to international pressure.

After my release I went on tours throughout Pakistan. There were massive demonstrations in Lahore, Sindh, with welcome rallies. Unfortunately, I have to say that the Communist Party couldn't organize this. They made some serious sectarian mistakes and were unable to connect with the masses.

As a result of this I became well known in India as well. I went on quite a few international trips: to Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the UK. In Britain the CP put two young comrades in charge of me. They said their leaders were like dry books, "whereas you have life in you". I finally left the CP in 1991 after the collapse of USSR. In truth, it had broken down long before and had ceased to be an adequate vehicle for the socialist revolution.

The final straw for me was the Russian army coup of 1991. The leaders of the PCP had no explanation for these events. One of the leaders of the CP gave his personal view of why there was a split, not that of the party. Then I resigned. A party that is not able even to explain events to the members is not worthy of the name of communist.

With the wisdom of hindsight, what do you think of the role of Stalinism?

Nobody has caused more damage to communism and socialism than Stalinism. Not even the imperialists could have done this. When I went to Russia in 1990, I saw the last days where Lenin was kept during his last illness. The bureaucrats kept him shut off from the Party and the rest of the world. They said that he was too ill, but in their own ranks they said he was becoming a nuisance because he was coming into collision with Stalin and the bureaucracy.

When I read more I realized that Lenin and Trotsky were close and that at the end of his life Lenin tried to push Stalin out of the party. At one point, when Krupskaya protested about Stalin's conduct, he threatened her with the words: "I can always find another Lenin's widow". This was a direct threat to her.

The PCP never succeeded in building a mass base. Partly this was due to an excessive emphasis on underground work. They were buried so deep underground that the workers couldn't see them. I think maybe the only people who knew where they were were the police!

What advice would you give now to the workers and youth of the Subcontinent?

I have been very much impressed by The Struggle. Comrade Lal Khan has started uniting people in great numbers for the cause of socialist revolution. These great numbers could never have been won by the Stalinist CP. The style of Lal Khan impressed me very much. I left the CP in 1991 and some years ago I decided to join the IMT and Lal Khan. This marvellous congress convinces me that I took the correct decision. For the first time in years I feel young and healthy and full of optimism.

The Pakistani CP had very good people in its ranks, but it never really managed to build a mass party. It was more like a closed club. It was not only underground from the government, but also from the people. In contrast, The Struggle has conducted most impressive work among the masses, and has united people in great numbers. I became more impressed. I had decided to join as early as 1992.

My advice to all Communists in Pakistan, in India, in Nepal and Bangladesh, is therefore to unite with us, join The Struggle and the International Marxist Tendency. There is no other way. I am a member of The Struggle and the IMT. I am very happy that at this Congress of The Struggle I have had the opportunity of meeting Comrade Alan Woods about whom I had heard so much.

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