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Nigel Harris

Pakistan: Feb. 14

(April 1969)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.36, April/May 1969, pp.5-6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For the first time in its history, the regime of Ayub Khan looks very close to collapse. The continuous opposition within the country throughout Ayub’s rule has at long last achieved a wider movement. In the past, the opposition has been fragmentary, isolated and often regionalised. In particular, this opposition has been generated in East Pakistan, separated by a thousand miles of Indian territory from the capital in the West. Through its jute industry, the East contributes the largest share of national export earnings while receiving a smaller chunk of domestic investment. The area is very poor, densely populated, ravaged along the coast by typhoon and flood, and of a different culture and language to the West – Bengali. There was also opposition – and demands for greater autonomy – from the Baluchis and Pathans in the West, and sporadic opposition among the dominant Punjabis of the West. But the consistent opposition remained heavily dependent on the grievances of the urban middle classes. Its high point was the candidature of Miss Jinnah for President in 1964.

The last four months have seen the politicians’ opposition overtaken by the revolt of the students, much more radical hostility from religious and professional groups in West Pakistan’s cities (particularly journalists and doctors), and by a clear split in the ruling class. The results are dramatic. Ayub’s governing party, the Muslim League, has all but deserted him, dissociating itself from his rule and grunting restrained approval towards the students. 33 members of the League, led by an ex-Minister of Commerce and supported tacitly by the present Minister of Communications, have openly condemned the East Pakistan provincial administration.

Outside the League, other prominent ex-supporters of Ayub have come out in public opposition to him. Z.A.Bhutto, a rich Sindhi aristocrat and up to August, 1966, Ayub’s Foreign Minister, has been the main focus of student opposition. It was Bhutto’s tour of West Pakistan and his imprisonment which precipitated the first wave of student protest. Bhutto is for disentangling Pakistan more clearly from the West and for a closer alliance with China against India. But, apart from the chauvinistic rhetoric, he has little programme for radical social change. He is for the restoration of universal suffrage, of civil rights (ending the Emergency, declared in 1965 during the clash with India), against corruption and ‘inefficiency’ – as are all virtuous men – but the economic status quo is basically good for him. Bhutto needs just enough hostility towards Ayub to scramble into power. Others with like ambitions have watched Bhutto’s advance on power with apprehension. Perhaps it was fear that Bhutto would not be able to control the forces he unleashed, would turn out to be a Kerensky, that prompted other Establishment figures to throw their hats in the ring. Air Marshall Asghar Khan; S.M. Murshed, ex-Chief Justice of East Pakistan’s High Court; General Azam Khan, ex-Governor of East Pakistan: there are an increasing number trying to position themselves to catch the crown when it falls. Meanwhile, the opposition politicians have also been manoeuvring to be there when the spoils are divided. The eight party Democratic Action Committee, yoking Left and Right together, has drawn up a programme with something for everyone who counts in Pakistan today.

Ayub’s response has been to use all due force on the ground police, troops, teargas (the death toil over the weekend, 24-27th January, was 24, with 1,000 arrested) – but offer concessions to the politicians. He has agreed to end the Emergency legislation, to reform the University statutes; he has transferred Bhutto from goal to house arrest; and has asked to meet all the opposition leaders to discuss constitutional reform. This ‘moderate’ guise could well split the opposition in the crunch. But it might also reflect that Ayub is no longer sure that the army will defend him if there is a sustained rising. If this is the case, it is fortunate. In the past, only one real issue has held Pakistan together – hatred of India (just as hatred of Pakistan has been used to hold the loyalty of north India’s urban middle classes to Delhi). If the army’s loyalty to Ayub were unquestioning, the President would be able to initiate some border incident on Kashmir and flood the opposition with chauvinistic rhetoric. In India, ailing Congress might also find that nationalist militancy against Pakistan would be a useful way of swamping its domestic opposition.

On the other hand, the longer the crisis continues, the greater the danger of national disintegration. On the February 9th 100,000 demonstration in Dacca (East Pakistan), there were cries for a Free Bengal – that is, the unification of East Pakistan’s Muslim Bengalis and India’s West Bengal Hindus against both Delhi and Islamabad. West Bengal’s recent elections have just brought to power the opposition coalition (in which the Left Communists are the biggest element) in a landslide victory against Congress. Neither Delhi nor Islamabad could tolerate a straight link across the border, so that both have a powerful vested interest in growling at each other to mutual advantage.

Meanwhile, each day the battle continues in Pakistan, the danger grows that this struggle within Pakistan’s ruling class, precipitated by the hostility of the urban middle class, will spill over into a real revolutionary movement among workers and peasants. On February 13th, in preparation for the general strike on the 14th, it was 25,000 railway workers and 7,000 factory hands who suddenly appeared to give the battle a quite different complexion. Hitherto, the workers have been a passive element in the crisis, but this could be the beginning of a movement with far wider implications than those of a ‘civil rights’ campaign. The result must be to close the ranks of the ruling class, and for the army to step in to preserve the status quo. The army might then invite into power Bhutto and the others in order to buy off the support of the middle class and the students. Undoubtedly, the new regime would be more liberal than the old, at least until it was firmly in the saddle. But the lot of the ordinary peasant and urban worker would scarcely be affected at all. The 6 per cent growth rate over the past ten years (nearer 9 per cent recently) has benefited the West most; and within the West, the Punjabis; and within the Punjabis, the richest capitalists. The smaller regional groups, as well as the mass of poor Punjabis, will still face the same battle for survival on the land or an urban work day of fourteen hours, six to seven days per week. It will only be otherwise if a real revolutionary movement follows from the demonstration of the 13th, pushing the movement for civil rights into a movement for popular power; a workers’ and peasants’ revolution.

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