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June 15, 2018

Part - I: An enlightened mind


June 15, 2018

Calling a great personality ‘controversial’ is a mundane statement. Such statements have been used to describe almost all great figures. Rasul Bakhsh Palijo was an outstanding person of not only Sindh but of Pakistan. His greatness lay in his personality which was full of contradictions. And with his controversies and contradictions he challenged the dominant classes of this country and fought till his last breath.

Palijo was a committed leftist and Marxist intellectual who left a large repertoire of his writings, most of which have been published by Jami Chandio in the form of high-quality books. In addition to being an intellectual and writer, Palijo was a defender of human rights and the leader of the Awami Tehreek. His political party was launched around half a century ago in 1970 by the name of Sindhi Awami Tehreek with a clear dedication to communism and Marxism.

In the 1960s, leftist movements across the world were divided into pro-Soviet and pro-China groups; Palijo was considered pro-China. His socialism had a nationalistic hue and he always followed the path of progressive and secular politics. Another orbit of Palijo’s political focus was feudalism and large land holdings which he tried to abolish. Perhaps that was the reason he could never join the PPP or PML-N. His commitment to democracy was legendary.

Born in 1930 at Mangar Khan Palijo village in the Thatta district, Palijo received his early education there. For his secondary education he joined the Sindh Madrassatul Islam in Karachi where he also completed his LLB degree. Like all distinguished scholars of social sciences, Palijo had a love for languages and he never resented the use of any language in his presence. In addition to Sindhi, he had at an early age mastered Balochi, English, Punjabi, Saraiki and Urdu. He also had working knowledge of Arabic and Persian. He could not only converse in these languages but was also familiar with their history and literature.

His fondness for poetry enabled him to recite long passages from poems of many poets. For example, he had memorised the writings of almost all big names of Urdu poetry, from Mir and Ghalib, to Josh, Iqbal and Faiz. Those who spent time with him in jails recall that when Palijo was in a good mood he would transform a dreary prison evening into a lively soiree. Though ‘prisoners of conscience’ lived a miserable life in jail, Palijo took full advantage of it by reading, writing and teaching other inmates.

As an advocate, Palijo knew the law well, with all the intricacies of the legalese. He became a Supreme Court lawyer, thanks to his legal finesse. He spent over 11 years of his life in various jails, especially during the 1980s when dictator Gen Ziaul Haq was targeting politicians, particularly those who were leftists. The Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) is a shining chapter in the history of politics in Pakistan. From 1981 to 1988, the MRD was the leading light of resistance against Gen Zia’s dictatorship.

Though the PPP was the largest party in the MRD, leftist activists and leaders such as R B Palijo, Faazil Rahu, Jaam Saqi and Wali Khan played an important role in it. We must remember that the 1980s was the decade of intense oppression and suppression in Pakistan. Gen Zia was bent upon destroying all democratic forces in the country. Before Gen Zia, similar attempts were made by our self-proclaimed field marshal, Gen Ayub Khan. But the limits crossed by the former were unprecedented, and set the tone of repression in Pakistan for many decades to come.

While Gen Zia was introducing the era of dark ages in Pakistan, it was leftist leaders such as Palijo, Rahu and Saqi who, along with the PPP, carried forward the standard of democracy and endured hardships – including extreme mental and physical torture. Sadly, the MRD could not extend itself beyond the sand dunes of Sindh. And what to talk of other provinces, even Mohajirs of Karachi and Hyderabad remained aloof from this movement. That was precisely the time when Gen Zia used divisive tactics in Sindh by promoting a rabble-rouser such as Altaf Hussain, who formed his political party, the Mohajir Qaumi Movement.

This precipitated an ethnic and violent turn in the politics of Sindh. Palijo was cognisant of this treachery and tried his best to warn the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs of the likely consequences of this ethnic politics. But the state institutions at that time were wholeheartedly supporting the MQM. The primary purpose of this assistance was thwarting a united front in which speakers of various languages in Sindh could raise their voice in unison against the dictatorship.

Palijo took a clear and unambiguous stance against Altaf Hussain and his MQM. Some people tried to interpret this as a conspiracy against Mohajirs and the Urdu language. But the fact is that a secular intellectual such as Palijo who had command over many languages could be against an ideology or a political party, but could hardly be against a nation or nationality as a whole. He did, though, have his own definition of nation and nationality and was not willing to recognise Mohajirs as a separate nationality.

Palijo preached harmony and wanted all people living in Sindh to call and consider themselves Sindhis. He wanted all the new and old Sindhis to learn the Sindhi language. Alas, denizens of Karachi such as myself could not become proficient in Sindhi. In addition to the Awami Tehreek and the MRD, Palijo played an active role in the formation of the Awami National Party (ANP), Sindh United Front, Sindh National Alliance, Bazm-e-Sufia-e-Sindh and the Pakistan Oppressed Nations Movement – which had in its fold parties such as the Sindh Progressive Party, Awami Tehreek, Balochistan National Movement (BNM), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP), and Saraiki Movement. In the PONM, Palijo worked with Attaullah Mengal, Mehmood Khan Achakzai, Dr Qadir Magsi, Syed Jalal Mehmood Shah and others.

Palijo also took keen interest in the Sindhi Adabi Sangat, led by Nuruddin Sarki and others; Sangat has played a prominent role in the literary history of Sindh. Palijo was also instrumental in the fight against the One-Unit during the Ayub regime. The One-Unit was formed in 1955 by dissolving all provinces in West Pakistan and forming a single province, with Lahore as the capital. In the history of Pakistan, the One-Unit episode conjures up a lot of unpleasant memories, since it was an attempt to crush the aspirations of smaller nationalities in the country by neglecting local cultures and languages.

During Gen Ayub Khan’s reign, state repression intensified. This resulted in East Pakistan becoming an independent country, Bangladesh. The repression also aggravated the sense of deprivation in other nationalities.

Any discussion about Rasul Bakhsh Palijo cannot be complete without a mention of the Sindhi Hari Committee and Sindhyani Tehreek that was formed in 1980 – 10 years after the formation of the Awami Tehreek. With Sindhyani Tehreek, Palijo encouraged political consciousness in the women of Sindh and taught them how to wage a political struggle.

Gen Zia wanted to prolong his dictatorship under the guise of Islamisation because it helped him formulate anti-women laws which could marginalise his opponents such as Nusrat and Benazir Bhutto. Sadly, again, the Sindhyani Tehreek remained confined to interior Sindh and could not make inroads into big urban areas.

Rasul Bakhsh Palijo was a handsome and smart man who loved beauty. His friends and followers admired his aesthetic sense – and at times resented it. His eye for beauty remained intact till his old age. Rest in peace Palijo Sahab, we will remember your struggle for peoples’ rights and your efforts to make Pakistan a peoples’ democracy.

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

Email: [email protected]

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