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May 10, 2021

The life of Saif Khalid

There are some outstanding personalities who selflessly contribute to our cerebral enrichment by producing works of substance, and also remain unassuming all their lives.

One such gem of a researcher and writer is Ahmed Salim. He has written hundreds of articles, books, and essays in English and Urdu, many of which have been published by Jang publishers. Ahmed Salim has done extensive research to compile biographies, pen commentaries on literary works, and write many good books on the history of Pakistan. He is an expert on left-wing politics in the Subcontinent, especially in Punjab. Here we discuss his latest book on Saif Khalid – one of the pioneers of progressive activism in the country. The book is the result of Salim’s painstaking research on the life and times of Saif Khalid.

‘Jab Aankh Hee Se Na Tapka’ is a book that everyone interested in history and politics of Pakistan must read. Hoori Noorani of ‘Maktaba-e-Danyal’ Karachi published it in 2020 and it has instantly become a must-read for all progressively inclined people in the country. Before going into the details of the book itself, I must congratulate Nadeem Khalid for writing an excellent foreword in which he fondly reminisces about his father. He recalls that one of his earliest memories is about the 1965 elections in which General Ayub Khan was trying to win by using his entire state machinery.

Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah was contesting in those presidential elections against the self-appointed president General Ayub Khan who had usurped power in 1958 and had been ruling as a military dictator for over seven years. Nadeem Khalid writes that most of the rich families supported Ayub Khan whose election symbol was a red rose. Whereas most of the poor and lowest-income people adorned a not so pleasant-looking lantern, which the election commission had given to Fatima Jinnah as her electoral symbol.

Saif Khalid was actively opposing Ayub Khan and while doing so he had to suffer imprisonment too. Nadeem Khalid informs us about the pride he felt when as a child he saw his father’s picture in newspapers as one of those who had been arrested. Saif Khalid was involved with the National Awami Party and when it split into pro-China and pro-Soviet factions, which Maulana Bhashani and Wali Khan were leading respectively, Saif Khalid remained associated with NAP-Wali.

Nadeem Khalid reminds us how even in the 1960s if you disagreed with and opposed the dominant narrative you were likely to get a moniker of a traitor. Saif Khalid was the general secretary of NAP-Wali in Punjab during the general elections of 1970, whereas Mian Mahmud Ali Kasuri was the Punjab president. As NAP-Wali was more popular in the smaller provinces such as Balochistan, and NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) it became a symbol of resistance by the oppressed nationalities in these areas.

Punjab did have some active NAP leaders and Saif Khalid was one of them, but overall Punjab did not have a soft corner for oppressed nationalities in other provinces. Even leaders such as Saif Khalid who talked about other ethnic and linguistic groups were frowned upon in Punjab.

Soon enough, Kasuri himself ditched NAP and joined the PPP which also offered an MNA ticket to Saif Khalid but received a curt response from him. Saif Khalid had remained associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) even after it was banned in 1954; then its members joined other mainstream left-wing political parties but did retain their loyalties to the CPP which was working clandestinely underground. So whatever Saif Khalid did was in consonance with the policy that the CPP adopted at any particular juncture of Pakistan’s political history. The CPP had allowed Saif Khalid to join and work for NAP but did not look at the PPP favourably.

Ahmed Salim informs us that Saif Khalid was always fighting against injustices in society. He abhorred exploitation of the working classes and sided with forces which waged a struggle against all types of discrimination. Often, Saif Khalid stood alone but never wavered in his commitments. During the military action in East Pakistan in 1971, Saif Khalid spoke for the victims of that action. The walls of his home in Lyallpur had graffiti declaring him a traitor and an Indian agent, but Saif stood his ground.

Saif Khalid was one of those who had the foresight to see the negative results of the policies that General Yahya was taking in East Pakistan. For a majority of left-wing activists and leaders, it was the elected party’s right to form a government and assume power in the country. Z A Bhutto, Yahya Khan, Maulana Maudodi, and Qayyum Khan thought differently. They pushed East Pakistan to separation. But Saif Khalid and his comrades were for the supremacy of the ballot, even at that time when the slogan of ‘vote ko izzat do’ (respect the vote) was not in currency.

Ahmed Salim narrates how in the 1960s the Pak-Soviet Friendship Society came into being. The sociecty regularly organized Lenin Day and viewers had a chance to watch commercial and documentary films from the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries in the Arts Council. Saif Khalid played an active role in that society and also facilitated many students from Lyallpur to get admissions into universities in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries. Like most of the progressive activists of his time, Saif Khalid was also fond of reading and had hundreds of books in his personal collection.

His interest in history, culture, literature, and political science was exemplary. His friends and younger comrades such as Ahmed Salim took inspiration from him and got involved in reading books of all sorts from history and literature of so many countries around the world. Be it English or French literature or Russian history and German ideology, Saif Khalid was into it. Of course, Marxism was his first love which he held dear to his heart and mind. His personal collection of books became a target of intelligence agencies multiple times and he lost so many good books that he had collected over the years.

By profession he was a lawyer but due to his political activities he remained under financial constraints for a greater part of his life which spanned just 60 years before he departed in 1988.

Said Khalid’s wife and his friends encouraged and helped him all along. His wife tried her hand at doing some small businesses with varying degree of success, but overall the family remained under duress. During the last years of his life, he had limited control of his limbs due to paralysis. He also lost his wife to cancer in 1981 when she was just 47.

Ahmed Salim takes us through the journey of Saif Khalid’s life while paying due attention to the minute details of left-wing politics from the 1950s to the late 1980s. This meticulous work is a helpful guide to know more not only about Saif Khalid who remained secular throughout his life, but also about the vicissitudes of Pakistani politics within the framework of the democratic struggle in the country.

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

Email: [email protected]