Comrade Iqbal Bali: A Tribute

by Dr. Faheem Hussain

My dear friend and a great revolutionary, Mohammed Iqbal, affectionately know by all his friends and admirers as Bali, died on 19 June in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, following complications after major heart surgery.

Comrade Iqbal Bali

Comrade Iqbal Bali

How does one talk of this man so full of energy? For me it is impossible to imagine Rawalpindi without him. For the last forty years he was the moving force in all the demonstrations and meetings held in Rawalpindi to promote democracy in Pakistan. In this article I will talk about how I knew him and about some of his political ideas. The activities that I will highlight pertain basically to the period from 1969 to 1989 when I worked closely with him. I left Pakistan in 1989 and withdrew from taking active part in the democratic movement because of personal reasons and because of the collapse of the left and the trade union movement.

Bali’s political activism goes back to the days in the sixties when he was a radar technician in the Pakistan Air Force. He got into a lot of scrapes while in the air force as he stood up to officers who mistreated ordinary airmen and fought for the rights of the latter. Several times he was punished for this.

He moved to Rawalpindi in the late sixties when he was immediately involved in the 1968-69 student movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship. At this time there was a rebirth throughout Pakistan of socialist and Marxist ideas inspired by the great Vietnamese resistance and the student movements in Europe and America against the war and for greater democracy. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was also riding this wave with his slogans of “roti, kapra, aur makan” (food, clothe and shelter). In Rawalpindi too there were many people discussing the concept of reviving a communist movement. Bali was part of a group of young idealistic people wanting to overthrow the oppressive capital social order in Pakistan. There were such groups consisting of intellectuals, students and workers springing up in all the major cities.

He worked with the People’s Labour Front (PLF), newly founded in Rawalpindi by Riffat Hussain Baba (now at PILER in Karachi) and Nazir Masih (Secretary-General of the Municipal Worker’s Union of Rawalpindi). (Sadly Nazir Masih, another great figure in the workers’ movement in Pindi, died many years ago). In its heyday the PLF was the main trade union federation for the major industries of Pindi and Islamabad, including the large Kohinoor Textiles Mills on Peshawar Road. The PLF played a leading role in negotiations for workers rights. There was many a heroic battle that should be recounted by others. During his PLF years Bali ran study circles with workers and wrote pamphlets and helped to distribute them and to paste them on walls around the city. He was always an activist who did not like long theoretical discussions and he wanted to immediately get into action.

On 25 March 1971 General Yahya Khan postponed, under pressure from Bhutto, the Army and sections of the ruling class, the inaugural session of the newly elected Parliament in which Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League had a clear majority. Bali never forgave Bhutto for his role in this clearly undemocratic move by Yahya. The group in Rawalpindi (this included Bali) was one of the few on the left who opposed the subsequent army action after Mujib declared the independence of Bangladesh on 26 March 1971. I remember that he and I were in Commercial Market, Satellite Town, on the evening of that fateful 25th of March when we heard Yahya’s announcement on the radio and we turned to each other and whispered: “This is the end of Pakistan”. The consequences were obvious. Pakistan broke up and Bangladesh was finally liberated in December 1971 but not before the Pakistan Army perpetrated genocide in Bangladesh with probably millions of deaths of innocent Bengalis. Bali opposed the army action and helped to print and distribute leaflets against the military action. He also took part in wall chalking against the army action in Bangladesh. This was dangerous work but he was never afraid of being arrested.

Bali was not only active in pro-democracy and anti-dictatorship movements but he was also a convinced anti-imperialist. He was particularly incensed by the US war on the Vietnamese people and took part in concrete actions against US interests in Pindi in the early 70s. He also took part in an action to protest a particularly savage bombing of a school in Vietnam and later in another action to protest the bombing of Cambodia in the spring of 1970.

When Bhutto became President in December 1971 many on the left were taken in by his rhetoric and had hopes that now Pakistan would be moving towards socialism. Bali however was very clear about this. He did not take the easy route of either joining or supporting the populist movement represented by the Pakistan People’s Party. He saw immediately that Bhutto, although popular, represented the landlord class of Pakistan and could not be relied upon to solve the problems of workers and peasants. He believed that there should be an autonomous workers’ and peasants’ movement and that one should be working towards the setting up a genuine communist party. His seeing through the slogans of Bhutto was a characteristic of Bali. A self educated Marxist he could immediately see through the rhetoric and could get to the core of an issue.

Although Bhutto talked about workers’ rights his government soon ran into conflict with trade unions. He sent in police to break up strikes and to evict workers who had taken over factories when owners tried to do a lockout. In Multan several workers were killed when police fired on them. The conflict with the Bhutto government intensified when Bhutto introduced his labour laws, which were clearly not in the interests of the working class. Trade union leaders were harassed and arrested and this included, Riffat Baba, in 1973. The new labour laws and the crackdown of labour unions by Bhutto and later Zia-ul-Haq lead to the collapse of the workers’ and trade union movement in the middle and late 70s.

Bali was one of the few on the left who supported the Baluchistan insurgency between 1973 and 1977 not only by the usual propaganda efforts but also by concrete material aid, which was not very large and was mostly symbolic to show our comrades in Baluchistan that not all Punjabis supported the army action there. Bali and his comrades were isolated on this issue in the Punjab. Bali was instrumental in finding a safe house for a Baluchi comrade who had to go into hiding in 1973. This was all highly risky work but again Bali did not hold back.

After 1977 when Gen. Zia-ul-Haq took over as dictator, Bali was as usual at the heart of protests and propaganda against the dictatorship during these long dark years which cast their ominous shadow on us even now. He was an enthusiastic participant in the election boycott movement proposed by the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1981. At one point the MRD offered mass arrests in Rawalpindi. This turned out into a farce because of the cowardice of the parties allied in the MRD. The plan was to offer mass arrests voluntarily at a certain point in Raja Bazar at a certain time. At this time the area was full of police as expected. At the appointed time Bali issued forth with a placard raising slogans against dictatorship and for democracy but not a single worker from any party followed him. Of course he was immediately arrested. First he was taken to a local thana and then taken to the infamous dungeons at the Lahore Fort.

This was his longest period in jail. While in the Lahore Fort he was beaten up and tortured with cigarette burns. He was interrogated both by the police and the military intelligence services. But he was courageous under this torture and did not name a single one of his companions. He flaunted the fact that he was a communist and would remain so. They asked him specifically about me. He laughed it off by saying that Dr. Faheem was one of these intellectual leftists who came around to trade unions and took part in demonstrations but did not do much and was not taken seriously by the workers. He also told them that we were family friends, which was true. I think he saved me from being arrested at that time by laughing me off. Actually he was afraid at one point in his stay at Lahore Fort that I had been arrested. While he was in the Fort he heard one evening that they were bringing in three prisoners from Islamabad, all of whom were professors. He inquired whether one of these had a beard and the answer was yes. He thought this is it. Faheem has been arrested. It turned out not to be true. The three brought to the Fort that day were Jamil Omar and two other teachers from Quaid-i-Azam University who were arrested for pasting pro-democracy leaflets on walls in Islamabad. Jamil had a beard at that time. Iqbal told me that although he was sad that these three had been arrested but that he was relieved that I was not one of them.

On his release from jail after many months he continued to be active. Even in his darkest years in the nineties when he was in severe financial difficulties he never lost hope. To overcome financial difficulties he went as far as Baluchistan to earn money doing physical labour. On his return he plunged into his pro-democracy activities again.

Not only was he involved in demonstrating, writing pamphlets but he was also very keen in promoting enlightenment and secular, rational thinking in his neighbourhood. He set up several local educational committees under whose aegis scientific lectures were delivered to local townspeople. He even had the astrophysicist, Prof. Asghar Qadir, give a talk on the origin of the universe, the big bang, black holes and all that. His living room in Angadpura, off Saidpur Road, near the thana was the meeting place for progressives of Pindi and was an obligatory halt for visiting leftists. I remember long evenings discussing revolutionary practice and theory, Punjabi and Sikh history, poetry, world affairs with Bali and his friends. These evenings were spiced by the excellent food served by his wife, Salma, and by liberal drinks of the fermented kind.

On my return to Pakistan in 2005 I found Bali to be as active and enthusiastic in the struggle for democracy as before. He was particularly happy to note that there was a new crop of young people in Islamabad and Rawalpindi who were imbued with Marxist ideas and were beginning to organise workers and peasants for a democratic, anti-capitalist struggle. The 2005 earthquake found him in the forefront of mobilising aid for the affected people. With funds raised in Islamabad and abroad he helped establish a school in the Siran River Valley near Nawazabad, north of Mansehra. I remember climbing up to 3000 metres to survey a badly hit village and later carrying aid up to this village, both of us unaware of having bad hearts at that time! We were both struggling with our breathing and we could have popped off at any time! Anyway we survived. All the time that we were in the mountains he would keep up his democratic and anti-mullah propaganda and try to convince people that the best response to the disaster was not to become dependent on outside help but to rely on self-help. Sometimes his anti-religious jokes were so strong that I was worried that this might incite the local people to whom he was talking.

This brings me to another aspect of Bali’s character. He was above all a committed, life long Marxist. He often said, “I was born a Marxist and will die a Marxist”. But beyond that he was a democrat and a militant atheist. He was always carrying out propaganda against religion and mullahs in whatever company he found himself in. One of his favourite texts was Bhagat Singh’s article “Why I am an atheist”. But there was an interesting contradiction in him and that was that he had a soft spot for Sikhism. According to him, his forebears were Sikhs. He would often quote from the Sikh gurus and would even sometimes give the Sikh greeting “Sat Sri Akal”. In his later years he always wore a Sikh “kara”. Once he explained to me that he did not regard Sikhism as a religion but as something pointing out the “dharma”, one’s righteous duty.

Bali’s revolutionary Marxism was not based on some abstract ideas and was not imported from outside. His views were deeply rooted in the soil where he was born and that is Punjab. His inspiration for revolution in Pakistan was not so much the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban revolutions as the Ghadar Party in India and particularly the Punjab and its revolutionary activities in the early years of the twentieth century. He knew everything about that armed struggle in the Punjab against British imperialism and would talk about that often. More than Lenin, Che, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, his revolutionary hero and example were Bhagat Singh and his comrades. He was also exceptionally well informed about the India’s First War of Independence in 1857. Surprisingly he was also a keen student of Sufi philosophy and history. In this sense he was a real son of the soil, although he had read many of the classic texts of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao. But this does not mean that he was parochial in any sense. He was a keen observer of the revolutionary movements around the world.

Like most of us, at that time in the late 60s and early 70s, inspired by Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, Bali believed in the revolutionary armed struggle and the imminent arrival of the socialist revolution. We were all idealists but we soon realised that the revolution was a long way away. Some lost heart at this point and dropped out of the struggle but Bali never lost hope in the ultimate victory of the workers and peasants. He, however, realised that the short-term goal in Pakistan was the establishment of democracy and the end of military dictatorship. In the last years of his life he came to the belief that armed struggle was not appropriate at the moment in Pakistan and what we needed was a peaceful mass struggle for democracy. In this regard he was impressed and inspired by the recent victories of the democratic movements in Latin America.

Bali was sceptical of NGOs. He never trusted them. He thought that they took away young people from the real democratic struggle and corrupted them by paying them high salaries. He would proudly proclaim that he had never joined an NGO.

The lawyers’ struggle of 2007 for justice and democracy against the Musharraf regime found Bali in the forefront of the demonstrations. He was to be seen every day in front of the Supreme Court carrying banners and raising slogans. He printed and distributed pamphlets and organised the demonstrations. The struggle seemed to have rejuvenated him. In spite of the fact that by this time Bali had discovered that he had serious heart problems he continued to be present at the demonstrations carrying his water bottle and pills. In fact although his heart condition was quite serious he went on a hunger strike in favour of the Chief Justice in March 2008 outside the Judges Colony. When I reproached him for not taking care of his health, his reply was that he was a revolutionary and had to do his duty and that he was already more than 75 years old so it did not matter if he died.

He was particularly happy to see that there were so many new young people involved in these demonstrations. In return young people discovered in him an example of a dedicated revolutionary to follow and he inspired all those who met him. During the lawyers movement he became close to the young members of the Rawalpindi branch of the Communist Mazdoor Kisan Party (CMKP). As far as I know Bali had never joined a party before, but these young dedicated workers of the CMKP finally persuaded him to join the party, which he did in March 2008, at a restaurant in Islamabad where I was also present. This move gave a boost to the CMKP in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. His house became the meeting place for the CMKP. In June 2009 he was elected as the President of the CMKP Rawalpindi District Committee. Because of his militancy, revolutionary enthusiasm and untiring work ethic he was also elected as Chairman of the Awami Jamhoori Ittehad (People’s Democratic United Front) in Islamabad.

During the last year Bali came to the conclusion that Islamic extremism and the Taliban were the greatest danger to Pakistan. He was quite clear about this. He, like many others on the left, supported the recent military action against the Taliban in Swat and Waziristan. However at the same time he continued to be a staunch anti-imperialist and did not waver in his stand that the US and NATO should withdraw from Afghanistan.

Bali continued to be active to the end. We will miss his enthusiasm, his hard work and revolutionary zeal. He will live in our hearts as an example of a true revolutionary.

The author is Professor of Physics in the School of Science and Engineering, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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