Akbar Barakzai, a veteran leftist now in his eighties, remembers the golden days of the 1950s and 60s when he was a founding member of the Leningrad Circle in the Lyari neighborhood of the city.
The Bolshevik revolution started in Saint Petersburg, which was renamed Leningrad five days after the death of Lenin in 1924. The revolution ideologically inspired the entire world, especially the left.
“Of course, how leftists and Baloch nationalist activists of Lyari could have isolated themselves from the global Socialist movement at that time,” said Akbar Barakzai, talking to The News at his residence in Gul Muhammad Lane in Lyari earlier this week.
In the late 1950s, prominent nationalist and leftwing activists, including Lala Lal Bukhsh Rind, Barakzai, Mohammad Baig and Yosuf Naskandi, founded Leningrad Circle in front of Rind’s residence at Asht (Aath) Chowk in Lyari.
“Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution, we formed the group to politicise the youth and initiate campaigns against social and political injustices with the downtrodden people, especially the Baloch,” Barakzai maintained.
In later years, a large number of Lyari’s activists became part of the circle. It included prominent personalities, such as Jumma Khan Baloch, Rahim Baksh Azad, Ramzan Baloch, Usman Brohi, Ghulam Muhammad Noor Din, Ishaq, Yar Muhammad Yar (columnist), Muhammad Baig, Lala Gul Muhammad Hoth, Lala Faqeer Muhammad, Qadir Bakhsh Mutahir, Sidique Baloch (journalist), Abdul Qyum Barakzai and Latif Baloch (journalist). “The circle’s members played a vital role in Lyari’s politics and worked on the people by arranging gatherings and study circles on various political issues,” he said.
Yousaf Masti Khan, a leader of the Awami Workers Party, also recalled his memories of those days. “During the 1960s, I was young when I joined the Leningrad Circle. “Our seniors taught us new ideas, history, philosophy and politics,” he told The News.
Khan said Lyari played a key role in progressive politics even before the partition. “Before the partition, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, Maulana Muhammad Ali Johar, Maulana Shaukat Ali Johar and others prominent leaders visited Lyari. Even 1960s, Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo and Baqi Baloch initiated their political careers from Lyari and they contested elections too,” he said.
Ramzan Baloch, a researcher in his recently authored ‘Lyari ki Adhori Kahani’, wrote that for the first time, we studied books on politics, philosophy and history, only because of the Leningrad Circle. “The Leningrad Circle has affected the Baloch region’s politics to a great extent,” he said.
Interviews with activists associated with the circle and researchers suggest that the Leningrad Circle was the first group that started agitation against then dictator General Ayub Khan’s regime and One Unit. In 1962, they organised an immense public gathering in the Kakri Ground, in which Baloch leaders of the National Awami Party (NAP) also participated.
Countering the influence of the Leningrad Circle and NAP, Ayub Khan sent Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who served as federal minister in Ayub Khan’s cabinet, to organise a public gathering in Gabol Park in Lyari, three months after the Leningrad Circle’s rally.
During Bhutto’s gathering, Rind and Akbar Barakzai, along with Leningrad Circle’s other activists, stood and asked Bhutto to first solve the civic issues of Lyari and then do politics in the area.
“After expressive comments by circle’s leaders, the gathering turned into a protest against Ayub Khan and Bhutto and did not allow Bhutto to speak,” said Ramzan Baloch. However, after the formation of the PPP, Bhutto succeeded in becoming a popular leader in Lyari.
It was the Leningrad Circle whose leaders decided to form a political group for Baloch students and they, in the beginning, founded Lyari Students Federation and then, in 1967, founded the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) -- a student group that has been playing a key role in Baloch politics.
During the last years of Ayub Khan’s regime, a massive crackdown started against the Leningrad Circle and arrested its key leaders. Some of its leaders were forced to leave the country.
Prominent historian Rahim Bakhsh Azad said that after Bhutto came into power, he, along with other left leaders, such as Mairaj Muhamamd Khan and Ayesha Soomro, joined the PPP.
However, after Bhutto’s act of banning NAP, dismissing their Balochistan government, arresting their leaders and starting a military operation in the province, an anti-Bhutto agitation started. “Bhutto used force to crush the campaign against its government brutally and arrested a number of the circle’s leaders, who were supporting NAP’s anti-Bhutto movement,” said Usman Baloch, a Lyari’s veteran political activist.