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March 10, 2018

Why Jam Saqi matters


March 10, 2018

Being a college student in the early 1980s was an enlightening and memorable experience, and Jam Saqi was a hero to many who were involved in progressive student politics during the dark years of General Zia’s dictatorship. But his politics had started much earlier, in the 1960s, when the father of dictatorships in Pakistan and the self-appointed field marshal and president, General Ayub Khan, was using the entire state machinery to not only defeat Fatima Jinnah but also crush the democratic aspirations of the people of Pakistan. The late 1960s movement against the One Unit policy was an earlier manifestation of the struggle for democracy that turned full circle in the 1980s.

Jam Saqi was in his 20s when he had already offered sacrifices and endured hardships and sufferings most politicians cannot even think of 50 or 60 years into their political careers. And this is why Jam Saqi matters. He occupies a distinguished place in the history of people’s struggle. Not many can claim to have struggled against the forces of tyranny like he did, be they naked dictatorships of Generals Ayub and Zia, or, in the guise of democracy, the brutal rule of Z A Bhutto. Bhutto’s five-year term is remembered as one of the worst periods for the leftist and progressive political activists and leaders.

Even very senior comrades such as Dr Aizaz Nazeer, Prof Jamal Naqvi, Sobho Giyanchandani, and many others, respected Jam for his sheer commitment to the people’s cause and for his courage to carry on with political work under the most daunting circumstances. ‘Surkh Parcham’ (Red Flag) was the title of an underground publication of the banned Communist Party of Pakistan, and anyone found carrying or distributing the cyclostyled publication risked being imprisoned for a long time and tortured, even during Z A Bhutto’s regime. During Gen Zia’s rule, things worsened as Nazeer Abbasi, one of Jam Saqi’s friends, was arrested, tortured and killed by Zia’s goons.

But all this never deterred Jam Saqi from his resolve to uphold the banner of justice for the common people and downtrodden. He matters because his imprisonments were not on charges of corruption or for gaining political advantage; his travails were purely about his relentless fight against those who deprived the smaller provinces of their rights, and usurped what was the people’s right. Even after prolonged confinements and torture, he never claimed a special status in the political hall of fame – which had become more of a hall of shame. His respect came from the hearts of those who knew him and understood his goal.

Jam Saqi’s steadfast defence in the military court of Gen Zia is an example of his intelligence and valour. It was intelligent because he called some big names of Pakistan’s politics to the military court’s proceedings as witnesses. Even Benazir Bhutto’s appearance and support for Jam in that notorious case was a marvellous feat in itself. Though Benazir Bhutto was herself a victim of Gen Zia, it is a pity that even she didn’t do much for Gen Zia’s other political victims. Thousands of conscientious political workers were imprisoned during Zia’s despotic rule, but there was only one Jam.

He was a unique champion in the struggle against tyranny in the sense that he never tried to take any advantage of his sacrifices. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the near extinction of the socialist ideology from world politics, many erstwhile communists lamented and even repented that their entire life had been a waste. But no, nobody can say that Jam’s life had been a failure. Yes, he may not have achieved his ideals, but he taught thousands of young aspiring leftists the value of political struggle – the struggle without which Pakistan would not even have the little political consciousness it has today.

Jam matters because those who tortured him and his friends may have moved up in their ranks, they couldn’t – and will never – command the respect of the people. The perpetrators of vengeance against Jam Saqi may have amassed wealth and may have acquired hundreds of acres of land, but they will never occupy an inch of the heart of a layman. While Jam Saqi’s values were furthered by people like Asma Jahangir, Sabeen Mahmud, Perween Rahman, Khurram Zaki, Rashid Rahman, Salmaan Taseer, and many others, the values of his oppressors are destined for an ignominious end.

During the last 25 years of his life, his mental and physical health gradually declined. His intellectual capacity had been severely harmed by the torture he braved in prison, especially by the intravenous injections that he had been given. That physical and psychological torture took a heavy toll on him. He became disoriented, was unable to concentrate for long and lost interest in many things that used to occupy him earlier. He faced difficulty in keeping pace with the political developments which turned out to be not what he had struggled for. This new politics of greed and sectarianism had no place in his heart and mind.

But still he matters because thanks to him we, the students of the 1980s, learned the importance of politics. We learnt from him that politics is about how our society is being managed, and when we take interest in politics we begin questioning the way society is being run. Contrary to what most parents tell their children – about how bad politics is – activists and intellectuals like Jam Saqi taught us that politics is every individual’s right, including students. What today’s parents fail to understand – and transfer this lack of understanding to their children – is that politics and violence are two different things.

The people who belong to Jam’s tribe were never violent, their opponents were. Those who initiated the use of force on campuses were not liberal, progressive, or secular; they were bigots, prejudiced and sectarian, and they poisoned politics with their violence and intolerance. Jam matters, thanks to his confidence to stand up in adversity and his firm belief that the country and its land belong to its people and only they should have the right to make decisions, and that any force that deprives people of their right to make decisions needs to be confronted.

What Jam Saqi, his friends and like-minded intellectuals and politicians were saying and fighting for in the 1980s, is evident now. Had our decision-makers and policy wonks understood what Jam Saqi and others were saying, perhaps Pakistan would have been a much better place in the 21st century. Had that misadventure in Afghanistan not been launched, we would have saved ourselves from the countless operations that we ended up launching.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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