Sunday July 14, 2024

Tales from a labour activist

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
November 12, 2023
This still taken from a video released on November 11, 2023, shows participants during a book launch ceremony of Ramzan Memon ‘Halqa-e-zanjeer main zubaan’. — YouTube/The Black Hole
This still taken from a video released on November 11, 2023, shows participants during a book launch ceremony of Ramzan Memon ‘Halqa-e-zanjeer main zubaan’. — YouTube/The Black Hole

There are plenty of biographies written by civil and military bureaucrats. But they tend to focus on their achievements instead of failures and present a picture in which others are to be blamed for the sorry state Pakistan finds itself in.

Ramzan Memon has been a labour activist for over half a century and has now penned his biography that is an informative and interesting read. ‘Halqa-e-zanjeer main zubaan’ is a collective work of Ramzan and his equally – if not more – hardworking wife Shaheena Ramzan.

Ayub Malik of Badalti Dunya Publications has been publishing books of left-wing activists, leaders, and writers for many years now, and this recent publication is a good addition to the biographies of progressive leaders in the country. The book also includes analyses and reviews by senior progressive activists and leaders such as Hasan Javed, Dr Abdul Malik, Dr Tauseef Ahmed, Kamaal Warsi, and Taaj Marri.

Ramzan spent his childhood in slum areas with intense poverty, but people living there shared their lasting sorrows and fleeting moments of happiness with each other. Back then, ethnic and religious hatred was not as widespread as it is now, and the book highlights the events and ideas that gradually transformed the overall peaceful milieu of Karachi and Sindh. Resentments and riots replaced the culture of debates and discussions and as unregulated urban sprawl consumed communities, heroin and Kalashnikov culture attracted young people who had no education or skills.

Ramzan opened his eyes in Methadar, Karachi in a Sindhi family that had migrated to Karachi from Shikarpur. His teenage years saw him work as a labourer as he had to leave school due to corporal punishments that his teachers routinely meted out to their students. During the dictatorial regime of General Ayub Khan, Ramzan worked as a helper at a painter’s shop.

In his book, he recalls how during the election campaign of 1965, the people of Karachi wholeheartedly supported Fatima Jinnah and the Pakhtun painter at whose shop Ramzan worked offered his services on a no-profit basis to paint banners and posters for the opposition campaign against the military dictator.

Ramzan tried his hand at all sorts of work in the labour market as a helper, dish washer, electrician, painter, and cleaner, and while doing all this he kept his association with his comrades alive. He actively participated in labour association and trade union activities, and for this he gives due credit to Dr Aizaaz Nazeer – a labour leader who played an active role in the trade union movement in Pakistan from the 1950s to the 1990s. It was Dr Nazeer who impressed many like Ramzan to join organized activities for labour rights.

Ramzan’s association with left-wing and progressive activists in the early 1970s taught him the intricacies of injustices in society and how an exploitative system was taking advantage of the naivety that hard-working labourers displayed. There were study circles that regularly briefed trade union activists on current national and international affairs, and booklets and pamphlets highlighted labour issues and tried to galvanise the working class. Ramzan – like many others – had great expectations from the 1970s general elections that were supposed to install the first elected government in Pakistan through universal adult franchise.

In his book, Ramzan describes how these hopes fell flat when the military regime of General Yahya Khan refused to hand over power to the largest political party in Pakistan – the Awami League. As an activist, he recalls how the National Awami Party (NAP) that Abdul Wali Khan was leading, expressed its dissatisfaction and protested against the way the military action was carried out in East Pakistan. Z A Bhutto once again became an accomplice of the military regime and sabotaged all efforts to a smooth transfer of power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who had every right to be the next prime minister.

Ramzan has written in detail about the Pat Feeder Peasant Movement in Balochistan that resulted in his imprisonment for one year at Machh Jail. The Bhutto government kept targeting left-wing leaders in the country, and Ramzan moved from place to place organizing labour activities and holding protests wherever possible. Repeated arrests and imprisonments hardened his resolve to fight even harder for the rights of the working class in Pakistan.

During the early years of the 1970s when the first elected governments in Balochistan and the NWFP (now KP) assumed power under the coalition governments of the JUI and NAP, there was a brief respite for left-wing activists and leaders, especially in Balochistan under the governorship of Mir Ghous Bakhsh Bizenjo.

Ramzan describes how Quetta became a centre of progressive activities, but the respite proved to be short as the ZA Bhutto government initiated its first crackdown on NAP and ultimately dismissed the elected government in Balochistan. The federal government imposed a ban on NAP and suffocated all democratic aspirations of the people of Pakistan. But Gen Zia’s regime proved to be even more ruthless and used religion as a tool to suppress democracy and progressive thought in the country. Once again Ramzan and his comrades underwent arrests and imprisonments, coupled with lashes and torture.

In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, there were thousands of activists, comrades, and pro-democracy intellectuals and teachers who found themselves on the receiving end of the atrocities that Gen Zia’s military regime was committing across the country. Ramzan was an active participant in the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) along with his comrades from other parties such as the National Party that Mir Bizenjo was leading and of course the PPP that was a primary target of Gen Zia’s ire and irritation.

In his book, Ramzan narrates the episode about the arrest of Nazeer Abbasi with his comrades and the torture that killed Abbasi, making him a martyr of democratic struggle in Pakistan against Gen Zia.

The passages about the arrest of Prof Jamal Naqvi, Jam Saqi, Kamal Warsi, Shabbir Shar, Badr Abro, and others are fairly informative and record an untold history that schools in Pakistan never teach. Ramzan spent most of the 1980s in his active political struggle idealizing the socialist revolution and the Soviet Union itself that was a prototype for most left-wing activists and leaders across the world. Finally, Ramzan had an opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union in 1989 when the socialist bloc was unravelling. Ramzan was disappointed but never lost hope in democratic struggle.

The chapter about his stay in the Soviet Union is eye-opening as he makes no attempt to hide the unpleasant discussions he had with his Russian comrades in Moscow. They were open about their failures, and many visitors to Moscow at that time were trying to reformulate their positions.

Ramzan has also written about breakups and fictionalization of Left politics in Pakistan and the role various personalities played in increasing fissures among progressive leaders who ended up leading their factions that could fit in a bus.

This 560-page book is a treasure trove of information and analysis about the past 60 years of left-wing politics in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan and Sindh. His wife Shaheena deserves a due mention as she was the one who not only actively participated in her husband’s activism but also raised their children to become active and responsible citizens.

She fought TB and extreme poverty but never compromised on her principles. She was the one who insisted that they do not become whole-timers (full-time political workers who rely on party funds); instead, she preferred to continue her education and work as a professional to earn her living.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: