Friday June 21, 2024

The courageous crusaders who refused to bow down

By Zia Ur Rehman
June 08, 2017

Remembering martyrs of the historic June 1972 labour movement

Inscribed with the words ‘Mazdoor Shaheed’, a monument in remembrance of what is termed the country’s largest labour rights movement can clearly be seen in SITE area’s Frontier Colony cemetery today.

The monument was built by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research and Shaheed Mazdoor Yadgari Committee five years ago, to honour the memory of workers who laid down their lives in the fight to win their due rights. The movement that completed its 45 years on Wednesday had brought the city’s entire industrial sector to a standstill.

After the dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had taken hold of the country’s reins as president and civilian martial-law administrator.

Only a few months had passed since the installation of his government that protests erupted in the SITE area on June 7. By the second day of the protests, nine workers had lost their lives.

It started off with workers of the Feroz Textile Mills protesting outside the mill over non-payment of a month’s salary and other funds.

Kamran Asdar Ali, an academic at the University of Texas, Austin, wrote in one of his articles that the labourers organised the protest owing to the mill owners’ confrontational relations with the factory’s trade union. Angry workers encircled the mill to pressurise the management to negotiate with them.

“The mill management called the police who used tear gas to disperse the workers. The police then locked the gates, confining a large number of workers inside the factory; they also arrested 14 people for illegally confining the mill’s management staff.

The workers later regrouped and other labourers from nearby factories and workers’ residential colonies joined them. By late afternoon, about 5,000 people had encircled the factory to demand the release of their comrades, calling for the factory’s doors to be opened. Some workers started throwing stones at the police contingent present at the factory’s gates,” wrote Ali.

However, the police opened fire on the protestors that resulted in the deaths of two workers, one of whom was a trade union leader Shoaib Khan, and injuring several others.

Khan, who originally hailed from Swat and resided in the Frontier Colony in Karachi, was spearheading the trade union movement under the banner of the Muttahida Mazdoor Federation – led by Usman Baloch - in the SITE area.

The very next day the workers and residents of the area took out Khan’s funeral procession from Frontier Colony to Banaras Chowk, from where they were to march towards the Governor House to demand registration of a case against the killers of the workers.

Piler’s executive director, Karamat Ali, also a part of the procession, narrated that a police contingent on failing to stop the procession with tear-gas shelling, opened fire on the marchers for the second time. Seven more workers were killed while dozens of others were injured that day.  All the workers killed were ethnic Pashtuns and belonged to Swat and Mardan districts.

The trigger point

Karamat Ali said that 10 years of Ayub and Yahya Khan’s dictatorships had worsened economic conditions of factory workers but the fall of Dhaka worsened the situation even further.

“When the PPP came into power, the working class had huge expectations from it because of its pro-workers slogans. But unfortunately, Bhutto was not in a mood to see militant trade unions,” Ali told The News.  

He said that factory owners stopped paying salaries to workers which compelled the workforce active in trade unions to gather outside the mills daily at 3pm at the end of their shifts to protest for salaries. The two firing incidents gave impetus to the movement that resulted in all industrial zones of the city coming to a halt for 12 days.

Pacifying the agitation

Fearing that a prolonged strike could affect the party’s popularity badly, Bhutto invited its Pashtun leader Hayat Muhammad Sherpao, serving as a federal minister in Bhutto’s cabinet, from Peshawar to visit the area and normalise the situation.

Manan Baacha, a political analyst living in Frontier Colony, said that during the negotiation with workers’ representatives, Sherpao agreed to provide water, electricity and announced regularisation of the colony.

“At that time, city administration was compelled to immediately draft a ‘map’ compulsory for regularisation and lease of the neighbourhood. The area was then divided in two neighbourhoods – Frontier Colony and Pathan Colony,” Baacha stated.

Bastion of trade unionism

Political analysts and activists believe that the June, 1972 movement influenced the area’s politics and pushed the neighbourhood’s Pashtun residents to join mainstream progressive parties and trade union movement.

With their involvement came immense support for left-leaning groups, such as the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP).

Nabi Ahmed, Kaneez Fatima, Usman Baloch and Shafiq Qureshi were prominent trade union leaders of the time; they used to engage and educate workers politically in study circles.

Baacha said that CPP leaders, Dr Taj Muhammad Shaheed and Arif Sarhadi, were politically active under the Mazdoor Welfare Jirga – it continues to exist in the area.

Sufi Jan, another leader of the left from Swat, played a key role in strengthening leftist politics in the area. Later, Afzal Bangash, another known leader of the Mazdoor Kissan Party visited the area following the incidents and condemned the attack.