Though Abid Hassan Minto, an icon of the Left movement in Pakistan, looked frail and old, he became spirited as he talked about the struggle the Left is engaged with. While he is happy to list the intellectual and ideological achievements of the Left, he appears anxious about the current state of affairs.
“What is happening?” he asked me, leaning back in his chair in his office at Mozang Road, Lahore. I was taken off guard. “Are you talking about politics or the ongoing militancy and talks with Taliban?” Confused, I offered a counter question. “Everything in this country is going the wrong way, be it politics, governance, extremism or economy,” clarifies Minto, as we settle down for a two-hour long thought-provoking question answer session about virtually everything under the sun.
Abid Hassan Minto, the president of the Awami Workers Party, formed in November 2012 after a merger of three left-wing parties in Pakistan, speaks mostly in chaste Punjabi, switching occasionally to Urdu and English.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
The News on Sunday: It seems the Left has been a marginal actor on Pakistan’s political scene. Even at its peak during the 1970s, it could not muster even a fraction of the street power of the Islamic or mainstream parties. What is the Left’s standing in the power politics of today?
Abid Hassan Minto: In 2012, the merger of three Left parties (Labour, Awami and Workers’ parties) in the Awami Workers’ Party has given new impetus to the struggle we have undertaken for the welfare of poor farmers, labourers and the working classes. This merger is meant to have a strong political entity with a combined platform for all liberal and secular forces to effectively raise a voice for the deprived masses of this country.
Though the 2013 election delivered a clear mandate for socially-conservative and economically-neo-liberal political parties, the Left is very much in the political arena to challenge the feudal mindset and give people the power to think, realise and challenge the prevalent exploitative system. Theoretically and ideologically, the party has been quite successful in empowering the working classes by educating them about their rights and the exploitation they are subjected to by the ruling elite.
Though the Left had been quite effective in keeping the glorious tradition of democratic struggle in the 1980s alive, it was affected by organised state pressure and internal conflicts that resulted in polarisation of progressive political forces. However, the new party will keep the struggle going to emancipate the exploited working class of the country.
TNS: There appears to be a disconnect between the Left and the masses. In the general election, the Awami Workers Party did field some 14 candidates, but lost to right wing parties. Why?
AHM: Yes, this is true because religious parties have huge platforms like pulpits, mosques and madaris to draw their strength from. These religious leaders exploit the Muslim majority by playing with their religious sentiments just to gain political strength and power. They have power of innocent and rudderless masses, but we have power of thought and ideology. They may be structurally organised with an exploitative agenda, but the Left is more organised in thought and clarity of objectives.
TNS: Are politicians and successive governments responsible for increasing intolerance and religious extremism in our society? What is the solution?
AHM: Of course, the present chaos in the society is due to vague and conformist policies of mainstream political parties. Relations with the US and dealings with the Pakistan army need clarity and proper regulation. Undue compromises with Western powers abroad and conformist approach with army at home need to be realigned for better governance and service delivery.
Our foreign and internal policies are largely dictated by the army that undermines the fundamentals of true democracy. The army should be cut to size and placed under civilian command and people’s representatives be allowed to formulate policies that best suit the people.
Mosques and madaris should also be regulated strictly by the state so that exploitation and manipulation by religious elements can be stemmed. Political exigencies and compromises with religious parties are having a negative impact on our broad mental attitude which is responsible for increasing extremism in the society. The army and the Americans also cynically manipulated religious fanaticism to create the Taliban when it suited them. Poor policies entail deadly results.
TNS: What has your party achieved on the much-touted land reforms. With 70 per cent of our parliamentarians having links with the landed aristocracy, is it possible that reforms can be legislated and executed?
AHM: The landed aristocracy is foiling every government attempt to streamline and reform the agricultural sector. Successive governments have failed to tax the rich and mighty landlords who are opposing redistribution of lands among the poor farmers.
Our party has moved the Supreme Court to implement land reforms introduced by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto through Martial Law Regulation 115 of 1972 and the Land Reforms Act, 1977. We have urged the court to nullify the 1990 judgement of the appellate bench of the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) declaring land reforms un-Islamic. In Qazalbash Waqf case judgement, the FSC had declared that no one can be deprived of lawfully acquired property.
Land reforms means re-distribution of land among small land owners by taking land from large land owners to break large holdings so as to prevent concentration of land in a select few hands.
Land reforms were first introduced in the then East Pakistan in 1950, then by Ayub Khan in 1959 in the West Pakistan and later in the modern day Pakistan by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
TNS: Has the politics of the centre and the right absorbed shades of the leftist thought? Left is not visible in the public space. Why?
AHM: Yes, these parties might have hijacked the ideology of the Left, but they have failed to realise the goals that we have set for a progressive society. The Pakistan People’s Party banked on populist politics to perpetuate its rule. In the process, the PPP destroyed viable and potential public sector entities like Steels Mills, Pakistan International Airlines and Pakistan Railways by employing thousands of its workers without any need and merit. Likewise, the PML-N government is playing to the gallery of industrialist and traders at the cost of working and poor classes.
These populist parties try to placate every segment of society without realising the damage these short-term policies can cause. The formula of populist politics is changed from time to time to suit and serve the interests of ruling elite. These exploitative politicians cash in on popular slogans like “death to America, down with India, implementation of Sharia and ending corruption, etcetera”. These populist politicians do not want fundamental changes in the system for the betterment of society; rather they just want to perpetuate their rule through these popular issues.
TNS: What is happening in Balochistan? What is your party’s take on the issue?
AHM: To better understand the Balochistan problem, one needs to understand the power dynamics there and differentiate between different stakeholders fighting for their control. Taliban militants and Baloch separatists are two different realities fighting for their own interests and within their own ambit. The disgruntled Baloch have taken up arms because they were thrown out of politics and were deliberately neglected by the Centre. The strategy to restore peace in Balochistan should be two-pronged — one for containing religious militancy and the other for dealing with the separatists.
Instead of chasing them in the mountains, the government should devise a strategy to talk to the separatists and bring them into the mainstream politics to end their grievances. This reconciliatory process should be coupled with massive development work in Balochistan to mitigate their sense of deprivation. The security forces should be reined in and the case of missing persons should be resolved immediately. It is now a judicial statement that armed forces are responsible for these missing persons that is one of the major causes of resentment there.
TNS: Do you agree with the ongoing operation in Karachi. Will it end lawlessness in our financial hub?
AHM: You cannot achieve peace in Karachi unless you go after the causative factors instead of just fighting the symptoms; very little will be achieved by killing a few thugs there. All the mafias operating in Karachi have links with political parities. They work on quid pro quo basis for their political, financial and territorial gains. All the political parties involved there need to sit down and acknowledge the reality and then find a solution. They will have to distance themselves from the elements which foment violence in the city for power and money. They will have to rethink their policies and strategies for enduring peace in Karchi.
TNS: What are the major impediments in normalising relations with India?
AHM: Friendly relations with India are absolutely necessary. The Left has always advocated for talks with India to resolve all the thorny issues that are keeping the peoples of both countries from the potential of socio-economic prosperity in the region. We were called Indo-Soviet lobby by obscurantists when we called for and worked for normal and friendly relations with India. We do not want war with our neighours. We need to resolve all the issues on the negotiating table.
The PML-N government draws its strength from strong industrial and business community of the country. Nawaz Sharif will have to normalise relations with India to tap the potential of trade and commerce. He will have to protect the commercial interests of his power-base, and for that he needs to have an understanding with the Indian government that could keep trade and commercial activities between the two countries going without falling prey to security adventurism and non-state actors.
Foreign investment and industrial growth will remain a dream unless we put our house in order and have peace with our neighbours.
TNS: Where do you see the Pakistani society after 20 years if the status quo continues?
AHM: Twenty years are too long a period; we cannot afford that kind of time to undo the mess. We can’t afford the luxury of wait and see. The government will have to act fast to turn the situation around. Extremism and violence pose a potential threat to the state which needs to be tackled at the earliest; better through talks with Taliban and worse through use of power to establish the writ of the state. Anarchy and chaos will be the fate of this country if the status quo stays.