Of Faiz and army generals

The Rawalpindi Conspiracy case remains a source of intrigue amongst Faiz’s admirers and critics alike

Of Faiz and army generals

Woh baat saaray fasaanay

                             main jis ka zikr na tha

Woh baat un ko bohot

                            na-gavaar guzri hai

— Faiz Ahmed Faiz


aiz Ahmed Faiz died of complications of heart and lung disease in Lahore’s Mayo Hospital on November 20, 1984. His beloved Soviet Union still ruled over a large part of the world and we were still a few years away from the final triumph of the West over the ‘red menace’. Less than four decades later, despite the ‘end of history’ and the final triumph of liberal democracy that were promised on the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world is a more dangerous place than ever. With the relentless advance of the climate catastrophe and the stubborn refusal of the USA and European governments to meaningfully curb carbon emissions, we are, more than ever, facing the end of our planet and human civilisation.

At home in Pakistan, it is yet another stormy Fall and as we observe the change at the helm of the army high command, it is worth recalling the very first time a Pakistan Army commander planned an overthrow of a civilian government. It was not Gen Ayub Khan who did, in 1958, finally manage a successful military coup and installed himself as the head of government for a decade. This happened much earlier, almost immediately after independence. The coup plan, later called the Rawalpindi Conspiracy case, is important because it turned Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the co-conspirators, then an Urdu poet of some repute in India and Pakistan into an internationally renowned figure and a lifelong campaigner and spokesman on peace and human rights. The case also, in many ways, decisively determined the future political trajectory of Pakistan and brought us to where we are today.

Interestingly, the main accused in the case, Maj Gen Akbar Khan, was a man sympathetic to the leftist cause. He tried to enlist the help of the fledgling Communist Party of Pakistan in the plan which involved a military takeover to steer the new country’s government away from the American/ Western camp and in a more non-aligned direction like India. Presumably, this would have meant closer ties with the Soviet Union and the erstwhile socialist countries of the Soviet bloc. The following is an excerpt from my book, Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the biography in which I devoted two full chapters to the case both because of its importance in Faiz’s life (he wrote some of his best poetry in prison) and because of the continuing political relevance of the issues raised by the case.

“On 9 March, 1951, polling in the election (the first provincial elections on the basis of adult franchise in Pakistani Punjab) was supposed to start early. Faiz got home late on 8 March. Things were hectic at the paper because of the approaching election (he was then Chief Editor of the recently founded Pakistan Times). He went to bed early. Alys, in her book, Over My Shoulder, wrote about what happened next: I woke in the early hours of the morning and saw someone shining a torch on our windows. I realised at once that it was no dream, someone was outside. I slipped out of bed and carefully looked out the window. I saw several uniformed policemen whispering to each other. I came out onto the terrace and glanced down to see several dozen heavily armed policemen surrounding the house. I realised at once that it was a raiding party. I woke Faiz, who was still drowsy. I asked him what was going on, and he said, it’s probably a search party; they keep harassing us journalists and writers, to scare us and keep us quiet. The banging on our front door got louder. Faiz called out from the terrace “Who is it?” Someone said “Faiz sahib, we want to see you”. He went downstairs and opened the door, and two dozen heavily armed policemen barged in and rushed upstairs until our small terrace was crowded with them. “We have our orders; you must come with us.” Soon after the police had left with Faiz, Alys got the news that the Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan had just announced on Radio Pakistan that government agencies had uncovered a conspiracy against the Government of Pakistan in which, along with a handful of army officials, a few civilians were also involved. The purpose of this conspiracy, according to the government, was to sow uncertainty and discord within the armed forces and spread chaos in the country. The list of those arrested for this alleged plot included the chief of army general staff Major General Akbar Khan, Brigadier MA Latif then posted in Quetta, Mrs Akbar Khan and the chief editor of Pakistan Times, Faiz.

Faiz was especially singled out by the conservative and religious press since he had long been a thorn in their side for espousing the causes of workers and women.

Alys was taken aback and immediately realised the seriousness of the situation. Within days, the hysteria had reached a fever pitch, with some people calling for the alleged perpetrators to be hanged forthwith without any trials. Faiz was especially singled out by the conservative and religious press since he had long been a thorn in their side for espousing the causes of workers and women.

It was the beginning of the Cold War, and the battle lines were being drawn. In America itself, a similar process was taking place in the form of the Red Scare led by the rabid Senator Joseph McCarthy, who conducted hearings on the imagined infiltration of the US government and armed forces by communists and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee which blacklisted hundreds of artists on suspicion of being ‘subversives’. In America, this resulted in thousands of innocent people being arrested, fired from their jobs and jailed. Faiz was later to write a moving tribute called Hum jo tareek rahon main maray gaye, referring to the two most famous victims of this campaign, the young couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed on charges of being Soviet spies.

The charge of atheism against the Soviet Union was no doubt deliberately emphasised since it was bound to provoke a reaction in a country like Pakistan founded on the basis of religion.

The scare tactics had their desired effect. Fear stalked the country. Many trade unions voluntarily suspended their activities, and many left-wing organisations disbanded themselves for fear of retribution. For a prolonged period, the authorities were unable to present a legal basis for the arrests until it was finally announced that Faiz, Gen Akbar and their co-conspirators had been arrested under the 1818 Bengal Conspiracy Act. Suspecting, no doubt, that trying to prosecute the arrested under a law that was over a hundred years old would make a laughing stock of the government, the Legislative Assembly hurriedly passed the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Act specifically to try the conspirators.

In later years, Faiz would recall, “And then they made a mountain out of a molehill. One reason was that the government was upset with our Army friends, and secondly, they felt, maybe, that these people are not sufficiently obedient. They wanted to get rid of those people, and this provided them a good opportunity. We got stuck in the middle for nothing.”

It is unlikely though, that the renegade army officers were the real targets of the government. The actual aim was to silence the dissenting voices in the country, starting with the fledgling Communist Party and all its affiliated organisations. For the government, people like Sajjad Zaheer, the secretary general of the Communist Party, and Faiz were far more dangerous opponents: people who spoke up for the rights of workers, peasants and women and were refusing to toe the official line of the government of the new country. Faiz, especially, as editor-in-chief of two major newspapers (the English language daily Pakistan Times and the Urdu daily Imroze), was a dangerous man for the government.

Even though the actual ‘conspiracy’ had never gone beyond some initial planning meetings and the idea had already been discarded by those involved, a government spy in their midst had reported it to the authorities. Faiz and his co-accused ended up serving over four years in prison, much of that time under threat of a possible death sentence. Eventually, on April 12, 1955, the entire case was declared null and void, and all the conspirators, including Faiz, were honourably exonerated and released.

The author is a trustee of the Faiz Foundation Pakistan. Love and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the biography was originally published in 2016 and has been reprinted by Sang-e-Meel Publications Lahore. November 20 was the 38th death anniversary of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Of Faiz and army generals