The importance of being Lal

The ‘chairman’ lost one of his most trusted comrades on February 21 but not the hope for a socialist Pakistan

Yasrab Tanvir Gondal, popularly known as Lal Khan, was laid to rest on February 22 at his native village Bhaun, in Chakwal district. Like his eventful life, his funeral too became something of a revolutionary event. Had he to witnessed the ceremony around the burial he would have been amused.

It was marked by a fusion of religious, cultural and revolutionary traditions, and surprised many Bhaun residents. Hundreds of Marxist activists from around the country had managed to reach Bhaun where Khan had penned most of his books and articles.

Bhaun is an old village where some remnants of British Raj can still be spotted, notably an abandoned railway station. Lal Khan’s ancestoral haveli, almost 150 years old, remains in good condition since his sister Batool divides her time between here and Stockholm.

From Kalar Kehar, a road snakes its way to Bhaun through hilly patches. Indeed scenic. One can imagine why would Khan escaped to his village to write his books. However, on February 22, Bhaun was shrouded in grief.

When borne by his comrades, the bier started moving to the janazgah (funeral place), it soon turned into a revolutionary march with many a red flag. Most of the mourners were chanting slogans. “Forward to Socialist Revolution” was the most popular slogan.

Funeral prayers led by the local imam were attended by over a thousand people. After the prayers, red flags were unfurled yet again. Many were chanting: “Lal Khan! We will complete your mission of a Socialist Pakistan’ and “Asia is red”. As he was laid to rest, Awais Qarni, Lal Khan’s most favoured youth activist, read out a revolutionary message, in a breach with tradition at the graveyard.

Next, Jawad Ahmad, Khan’s close ally and friend, was joined by hundreds in singing International.

The anthem of the First and the Second Marxist International, the song was written by a transport worker after the Paris Commune was crushed by the French government in 1871. Later it also became the anthem of the Soviet Union and the Third International (until it was dissolved in 1944).

I had not slept the night before as I was driving to Bhaun to attend the funeral of a comrade I had known since 1980. We had first met in Amsterdam as exiles and immediately become friends and comrades. Along a handful of comrades, we had decided to set new revolutionary traditions and set up a political party.

“The struggle” was our semi-open group during the black days of the Zia dictatorship. Our first major project was the publication of The Struggle, a bilingual journal in Urdu and English. It was one of the most successful publications in exile.

Together, we jointly organised demonstrations rallies, meetings and study circles during these years to organise the Pakistan diaspora across Europe. Lal Khan was way more disciplined than myself, and completed his medical studies at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam where we both had enrolled. I opted to leave my doctoral studies in mass communication unfinished in order to work full time for The Struggle group.

Our protest demonstration against the Zia dictatorship during Champions Trophy Hockey tournament at Amstelveen, Netherlands, in 1982 where Pakistan were playing the finals, was broadcast live on PTV for a few minutes. This annoyed the dictatorship and a plan was hatched to bring us back to Pakistan.

During the last four years in particular, I and Lal Khan had grown closer. Our discussions led to the formation of Lahore Left Front and holding of the memorable Mochi Gate public meeting where most of the PTM leaders spoke.

The plot was to implicate members of The Struggle in a false hijacking case. Eighteen of us including Lal Khan, were arrested from various towns across the Netherlands in August 1982. It was a sensational case for a while in the Dutch media. We were accused of plotting to hijack a PIA jet at Schiphol airport.

Dutch police had been fooled by false information provided by an agent of the Pakistani dictator. Eventually we were acquitted and released. The Dutch government formally apologised to our group after we took it to the court.

The eight years as exiles were full of action. Our aim was to lay down the basis of a new political current. Our ideological guide was Leon Trotsky. We keenly read Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and translated some of their works.

We established a lively political office of The Struggle, right next to Amsterdam’s famous Dam Square. The years were full of optimism. We returned to Pakistan when martial law was lifted on January 1, 1986. Our main tactic to build The Struggle group in Pakistan was “enterism”. We joined Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), in order to recruit militants for a new current.

The tactic seemed to have worked for a while but not for long. Lal Khan won an absolute majority at the National Committee of The Struggle during 1991 when some of us raised the demand to quit the PPP and build an open party of the working class. This led to a parting of ways for several years.

Along with like-minded comrades, I became a part of the faction that launched the Labour Party Pakistan while Khan opted to work within the PPP and the labour movement. Khan was a brilliant speaker and nobody could match his knowledge of Marxist history. He was a living political dictionary of Bolshevism, particularly Leon Trotsky. His charisma lay in his ability to motivate the youth.

He could speak the hours, without a need for notes, and was spell binding. One of the main features of building his organization, The Struggle was holding a successful yearly congress at Aiwan-i-Iqbal, Lahore, where hundreds of delegates would gather for two days to discuss perspectives on Pakistan.

Lal Khan was a very generous person and would not hesitate to spend out of his inherited wealth on his political activities. He was also adept at raising funds from his wealthy friends.

The only son of a senior army officer and brother to three loving sisters, Khan was a unique character in Pakistan’s political history. He introduced new strategies and tactics in building a semi-open Marxist group.

Through his enterist tactics, one of his lieutenants, Choudhry Manzoor Ahmad was elected an MNA in 2002 from the PPP platform. Manzoor lost the general elections in 2008 and also the trust of Khan. This led to a parting of ways. However, Manzoor was one of the mourners at Lal Khan’s funeral.

Another close ally of Lal Khan’s is MNA Ali Wazeer, proud to be known as a Marxist MP in a parliament dominated by the elite. He too was at the funeral.

During the last four years in particular, I and Lal Khan had grown closer. Our discussions led to the formation of Lahore Left Front and holding of the memorable Mochi Gate public meeting where most of the PTM leaders spoke. He was a regular speaker at Faiz Amn Mela. His last public appearance was at the historic Students Solidarity March held on November 29, 2019. He had not been well but at my insistence, had agreed to speak to thousands of students.

During the last Struggle congress at Aiwan-i- Iqbal in 2019, he had fainted. A lung cancer was diagnosed at INMOL hospital Lahore. I was regularly by his side during the painful chemotherapy sessions.

‘I will fight till the end’, he would say during our long discussions on future strategies during his year-long fight against cancer.

He would always address me as ‘my chairman’. The ‘chairman’ has lost one of his most trusted comrades, but not the hope for a socialist Pakistan.

The writer is convenor of Lahore Left Front and general secretary of Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee

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