At about 3:00 in the morning, on the day I left for Faisalabad, where I was to investigate a strike of two hundred fifty thousand workers demanding a 17 percent wage increase, I picked up a poetry book by the side table in my bedroom and soon landed on a poem by the progressive writer Ali Sardar J’afri called the “Robe of Sparks”:
Who is that
standing in a robe of Sparks?
body broken, blood spilling
from his brains.
Farhad and Qais passed away
some times ago; who then is he
whom people stone to death?
There is no beautiful Shireen here,
no Laila of spring seasons.
In whose name, then, is this scarlet bed
of wounds flavouring?
It is some madman
stubbornly upholding Truth,
unbending to the winds of lies and cunning.
It is clear, his punishment must be
Death by stoning!
(Note: Qais/Majnoon and Laila, Farhad/Kohkun and Shireen are personae in Urdu poetry who were martyred on the path of love.)
J’afri was born in 1912 in Uttar Pradesh and helped to found the Progressive Writers Movement (PWM) in the 1930s. The goals of PWM were clear, even dogmatic. The writers fought against British imperialism in India and argued against all imperialisms globally: J’afri himself faced jail for writing antiwar poetry during the Second World War. When the Progressives investigated British India and later postcolonial India and Pakistan, they found that the core problem lay in the power—and abuse of power—by the local bourgeois elite, who were supported by the international bourgeoisie.
Development and modernity, they argued would not be possible unless the workers stood up and fought a class war—in today’s liberal-speak, we can politely term this a “fight for rights.” The role they assigned themselves as writers and poets was to champion the cause of the workers and create beauty in society, not just in escapist literature. Toward this end, J’afri joined the Communist Party of India and edited its literary magazines Naya Abad (New Literature) and Indian Literature. He went around the country supporting workers in their struggles and saw firsthand the brutality that bosses meted out to workers seeking sustenance.
Born of these experiences, his poetry abounds with celebratory references to the martyrs of working-class struggle. For J’afri, it is they who are the modern-day lovers; they are the modern-day Majnoons and Lailas, Farhads and Shireens. Their struggle isn’t for an embrace of the beloved or the intoxication of individual pleasures. It is the struggle of a group that is disenfranchised; nay, severely exploited, a struggle of lovers for the right to live, for a chance to see their children eat healthy and full meals, to pack them off to school in the hope that these young ones may not be held to the sweating iron of machines as their parents have been. It is the struggle to humanize themselves and escape from the clutches of a system to which we are all too indifferent—and all too compromised.
Mian Qayyum, Bawa Lalif Ansari, and Muhammad Rana are three such lovers.
The Majnoon of Spring Seasons
It was early 2002, in the industrial city of Faisalabad, province of Punjab, Qayyum, when Mian Qayyum, after taking his lunch break at the tea shop of his friend Malik Nazir, was walking back to his power loom station. Suddenly, he heard noises from the neighboring factory and hurried over. There, three policemen were beating up a middle-aged worker. The worker, already fallen to the ground, was taking fists and kicks from the three police officers. Enraged, Mian ran over, threw the police off the worker, and started fighting one of the policemen. Seeing this, other workers joined in. The police officers, outnumbered, ran off. Mian then returned to work.
Mian was then twenty-eight and had fathered four children. He recalled, “I was worried and sweating, thinking what is going to happen now? I was worried for my family. Will I have a job? Are they going to arrest me? My clothes were covered in sweat, and that night at home I did not sleep. I was worried; each knock or noise alarmed me. What will happen now?”
The next day came and brought nothing but the drudgery of a usual day. Soon, word got around that another Majnoon had awakened with the hunger for Laila’s love. Workers began to seek out Mian Qayyum at his lunch break at the tea shop for help. He helped. Offering advice to some, negotiating with bosses for others, collecting donations for some, and settling disputes of yet others. His boss, frightened by Mian’s growing reputation, laid him off, politely. “Take your salary but don’t come to work,” he told him.
Mian refused the money and embraced dignified unemployment. With more time, he had ever more demands on his hands from the factory workers of Faisalabad. He kept helping as best he could. Workers began to sit around the tea stall and analyze their situation. Why were they so poor, despite working in the heat for twelve hours a day? Why were the political parties not doing anything for them? And the religious parties—what use would it be if they followed them with their message of division and hatred—Sunni against Shi’a? Would this solve their basic problems of hunger, unemployment, bad working conditions, and low wages?
Mian, unable to find work at other power loom factories, began to sell biscuits, bread, and sweets house-to-house, riding a bicycle borrowed from Malik Nazir. He made about 400 rupees per day, and this kept his house going. But the tea stall meetings continued and the questions kept developing: What was the law there for? Why didn’t they get their legal wages? Why would the bosses refuse to register them with the legal authorities so that they could get a pension? Why is it that the police always attack them and harm them on the behest of the owners? Weren’t the police meant to protect them too? How could they change things? And what must have been their original sin, that they suffered so much misery, while a few zamindars [rich landowners] enjoyed the fruits of this bountiful land? What could they do to see the workers get legal rights and protection? How could they support each other?
While these questions rang in the ears of sixty or so workers who now gathered around the tea stall, Mian continued to ride his bicycle to make a living, support his family, and lobby for his fellow workers—until the answers started to arrive: We will fight as a collective for workers rights; we will unionize where we can; we will work with all those who want to help better the condition of the workers; we will support each other and stay away from religious parties that divide us on a superficial basis—worker against worker—or political parties that talk of the worker but wallow in riches looted from their sweat, from everybody’s sweat; we will serve each other and unite; we will come together on the basis of what unites us, “that we are workers.” Mian returned to the tea stall to find that he had been chosen to be the first full-time worker of the newly formed, Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM). Sixty workers pooled together contributions to employ Mian, and the teashop became their headquarters.
That was 2003. Today I arrive in Faisalabad on assignment, and I see that the teashop has given way to numerous rented offices ranging from one-room shops to headquarters in a two-story building with about five rooms, a kitchen, and a toilet. The workers have established themselves in several areas in and around Faisalabad and have elected district leaders for each area. The main office stands next to Jattan Wala Chouck, Ghulam Mohammed Abad, Faisalabad. There is a small banner of the LQM on top of the entrance, and in the reception area—a ten-by-ten-foot room with a small television, a table, and a desk with newspapers lying around—I am introduced to Bawa Latif Ansari.
Farhad of Jhang
Bawa Lalif Ansari is famous among workers for his oratory and in particular for leading an energizing tarana [a call and response between leader and crowd. See below for an example]. He is an entertainer and pedagogue, who hosts most of the workers’ rallies for LQM. Bawa is of short and slim stature, with long black hair carefully combed backwards and a small and trim jet-black beard—a look that made more sense to me as our conversation developed.
“I used to be part of Lashkar-e-Taiba. I joined them when I was young.” LeT is a militant Islamist organization, suspected of involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It is banned in Pakistan but continues to operate openly in many areas. Sipah-e-Sahaba, another extremist organization, he tells me, was founded in the Jhang area, which neighbors Faisalabad, and is where he has been working with the LQM. He explains,
They have a strong grip on the people and tell the poor to direct their frustration against the Shi’as. The local feudals and zamindars, who are extremely rich, are generally Shi’a, while the common bounded laborer is Sunni. The hate manifested over years of exploitation can easily be directed by these originations against all Shi’as. But many Shi’a are also laborers and workers, as are Christians. I came across Mian Qayyum and the LQM and their analysis made more sense. The religious parties wanted me to merely seethe with rage but didn’t tell me how my material situation was going to change. What good does it do me to hate someone for being a Shi’a or a Sunni or a Christian? They too are poor people trying to work and feed their children. What good does it do a worker to fight a worker. I didn’t agree with this.
Bawa believes in Islam, but for him, it is a radical philosophy of liberation. A few hours later, at a workers’ gathering he said, “God is sovereign and god asks us to fight for justice. The bosses are nothing; we will not bow to them, these pharaohs. What we work we should be paid fairly for.” Lashkar’s loss has been the Labour Quami Movement’s gain.
This July, Bawa was instrumental in organizing the workers in Jhang around two demands. First, that all workers are issued social security cards and second, that they are given a raise of 17 percent, as recommended by the Minimum Wage Board, a government committee looking at labor issues. The social security cards give a legal status to workers and allow them to get a government pension and access to government-run hospitals and medicines, among other benefits. Farooq Tariq, spokesperson of the Labour Party of Pakistan, explained the background of workers’ status in relation to social security cards:
Only 2.1 million workers out of 45 million Pakistanis in the labor force have secured social security cards. That is less than four percent of the total workforce. By law, every worker must be issued a social security card, however many bosses never register their workforce with the Social Security Department. Most factory owners pay for a few workers while the rest remain at their mercy. Why is this so? The answer is that bosses are required to pay at least seven percent of each worker’s total wages into the social security system.
Paying 7 percent of each worker’s total wages would, of course, mean less profit for the bosses. That is, less money for those shopping trips abroad, less money to sustain those vulgar grand palaces in Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad, and the hordes of servants swimming around them (out of necessity, not desire), less money for the Rolex watch and the Chanel glasses—to be upgraded on a yearly basis. What of the government and this Social Security Department, why doesn’t it register workers? Farooq answered, “The Labour Department, responsible for implementing the law, enjoys cordial relationship with the bosses. In fact, since 2003, the government in Punjab has banned factory inspections by the Labor Department, thus giving the owners a free hand.”
That is, the government and the bosses go hand-in-hand; more often than not, the bosses are the government. Ayesha Siddiqua, among others, has explained that today’s Pakistani elite are incestuously interconnected via family relations and marriages with a large patronage network of squabbling, but self-serving, interest groups. Their rationale is to keep the country and its resources for themselves: they negotiate among themselves and take the spoils from any sales to the international elite. In turn, if the international elite get a good deal, they turn a blind eye to anything and everything, as they did during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and as they have in this “War on Terror.” Against these latter-day pharaohs stand the conscious and spirited workers.
Led by Bawa and the LQM, they organized twenty thousand workers on strike around these demands for social security cards and a raise. For seventeen days, workers struck, moving out from strike camps near main roads. Women, children, and male workers stayed together in the camps. Entertained by dhol [a large drum], poetry, and the skills of Bawa Latif, they spent the nights and days hungry but determined. On the sixteenth day of the strike, they moved the camps around the office of the District Commissioning Officer (DCO). The DCO is a bureaucrat charged with local administration, and is often the judge, jury, and executioner rolled into one. The strategy paid off, and after failed attempts by the police to raze the camps and pressure the leadership, the DCO gave in and informed the bosses that the workers had to be registered with the Social Security board and issued cards. Bawa smiled as he told me of this victory, “We had finally had our day.”
Blood on the Path of Love
I—Whom People Stone to Death
Back at the LQM headquarters, Bawa points to a photo taped to the wall. Three middle-aged men, all wearing white shawaral karmeez are shown, waist upwards, smiling at the camera. Bawa points to the person to the far right in the photo. This, he says, is Mustansar Randhawa, “our fallen hero.”
Mustansar was a rising star of the LQM and had set up an office in a district of Faisalabad that had traditionally been the preserve of gangsters in the pay of local factory bosses. These gangsters ensured that the workers accepted low wages and their nonregistered labor status. Mustansar came from a neighboring village and set to work addressing the needs of local workers. He set up a small office on Sargodha Road, the main thoroughfare, printed five thousand posters and thousands of leaflets urging workers to contact LQM and the National Trade Union Federation (of which he was the Faisalabad president), should they have any labor-related problems. Workers began to arrive in droves.
Maybe this was the reason for his death—or should I say, assassination. In daylight at 1:00 in the afternoon, ten people burst into Mustansar’s small office, where he was with his brother, listening to a worker who wanted help. One of the ten had a Kalashnikov rifle and started to fire. Naseer, Mustansar’s younger brother, was shot dead. Mustansar managed to run into the second room and locked the door. It didn’t help. The murderers broke in and shot him dead, too. His blood-soaked body sparked days of protests in the city. It also hastened a two hundred fifty thousand-strong workers’ strike. But no arrests.
I had heard of the murder of Mustansar before I had set off to visit Faisalabad, but now, on hearing Bawa’s narration, I understand something of Pakistan that we ought not to forget: the violence of the Taliban is nothing compared to the systemic violence that the state and the elite have meted out in village after village, in police station after police station—for the poor, innocent, or guilty, they are torture stations—in city after city, and factory after factory. This daily attack on ordinary Pakistani over sixty years; nay, centuries, does not grab headlines in the West or locally, but it is the original violence and root violence—a state violence that is overlooked, if not legitimated and supported, by the international bourgeoisie, often today represented by the U.S. government.
II—Rana’s Robe of Sparks
Leaving the reception area, I ask to be shown around the rest of the building, and Bawa leads me upstairs. At the top, I am invited into a rectangular room, about forty by twenty feet, with rectangular desks linked together and running through the middle of the room. Here, on the tables surrounded by standing and seated workers, lies straightened and in visible discomfort, Rana Muhammad Tahir.
Rana raises himself to greet me. I sit down on a chair at his side and am asked if I would like a drink. Someone is promptly and quietly set out to procure tea. Workers arrive in twos and threes every few minutes, and upon entering, greet Rana with respect and reverence. He tries to greet them, but it is clear he cannot move without incurring a great deal of pain. To break the atmosphere of quiet that a stranger’s presence brings, I ask a direct and naïve question, “So what happened to you?”
Rana smiles and answers,
It happened on the 20th of July. It was the eighth day of our strike. I was leading a procession of workers in my district, and the bosses had warned us not to lead the workers on this procession and that they would make an example of us. They organized thugs and amassed lathis [wooden sticks used in South Asia as batons] and guns the night before—we didn’t know this then. They also put stones on the roofs of the factories and houses on our path. Twenty thousand workers were in our peaceful procession. We were headed along fine, and then suddenly stones started to fall from above. Some people started running away and I turned to them to encourage them forward. It was then that thugs with lathis charged us from three directions—they sprang up from nowhere. They caught me and started hitting me. I was surrounded. The other workers had fallen back. I stood strong and continued to ask my fellows to move forward. Then they started firing guns from the roofs. More workers ran for cover. The thugs told me to run or they would kill me, some had pistols in hand. I told them that I had not come to run away—I was going nowhere. It was then that they lashed onto me with all their might. I don’t remember much. I had blood pouring from my head, my clothes were drenched in blood and they just kept hitting me. I backed on to a wall and stood there taking the hits until I lost consciousness.
This continued for nearly ten minutes until Rana’s fellows managed to avoid the bullets and beat away the thugs.
Rana showed me his bruised and blood-clotted head wounds, worn as a crown on the order of love, and then he moved up his shalwar to show me the bruises on his legs. Swollen and blue, purple and black—all over his body.
What of the police? Where were they? “They were there!” Rana grins. He continues, “And they started shelling us with tear gas from the other side [opposite the hired thugs]. Rather than protecting us, they too started attacking the workers, so we were caught with the police on one side and the thugs on the other, with stones falling from above and the bullets flying around.” One can guess on whose orders the police acted.
Rana was put on a motorcycle, held up by a worker, and led away from the shelling, the lathis, and the stones. His spilled blood sparked the streets of Faisalabad.
For twelve hours the workers, embittered and fuming, fought the police shelling. Five workers were later arrested—no thugs or bosses. Rana explained the reason for the bosses’ severity:
They want to make us feel isolated and fatalistic, they want us to feel helpless, they want to scare us in to believing they control our destiny and the world, so they shoot us when we demand justice, they beat us and plan elaborately so that we don’t made demands. It’s not going to work anymore. We stand together now, the workers know what their interest is, and together we are quite a force. We will change things. We will create better conditions for workers…for everyone.
My interview with Rana is interrupted every few minutes as workers, always in twos or threes, enter the room. They greet everyone, but in particular, they are interested in the health of Rana, and he greets all of them warmly. One worker bids farewell and, in leaving, slides a hundred-rupee note into Rana’s hand. After the worker leaves, Rana shows it to me and says, “It’s the eighth day of our strike. He doesn’t have much in his own house, but he is concerned and is aiding me with this—this is the workers’ spirit today.”
The money is to help Rana pay medical bills. The spirit is that of solidarity, a solidarity that pharaohs cannot break. Three days after the attack on Rana, seven thousand or so workers gathered outside his house. Workers showered his house with flowers, fruits, and other gifts. There was so much that Rana had to redistribute his bounty among his neighbors and family and the needy. “There was just so much of it. My house was full. I could have opened a fruit shop.”
Rana is a loom worker. In his thirty-two years, he has found work, married, had two daughters and two sons. He started out in a soap factory where his aging father had worked all his life as a menial laborer. Rana’s talent landed him a clerical position, but his politics got him fired. Alarmed by his questioning and will, the bosses ganged together and refused to employ him in a clerical position—these jobs, as we know, are best saved for the yes-persons. So, Rana joined his father in menial labor, not at a soap factory but at a loom factory.
I ask him about the workers’ pay and conditions and the reason for their strike. Suddenly, all the workers become alert and keen to answer, and Rana directs me to Nazir Ahmad, an elderly man who has been sitting quietly on a chair in front of me. He answers, “We get around 50-250 rupees per day. It depends on your position and work or if you are working night shifts or day shifts—night work pays more. We work twelve hours or thirteen hours and sometimes if, say, someone misses a shift, then even thirty-six hours.” I ask him to explain, and he elaborates, “Well, you see, let’s say I do my twelve hours, then the person who is to relieve me does not turn up for whatever reason, then I have to do his shift too and then it will be the turn of my shift again so I end up doing three shifts, which is thirty-six hours, all without rest.” How do you manage that? “With lots of tea but not much food. If you eat too much, then you cannot work, you feel bloated.” What about holiday pay? “Nothing,” he replies. If you are injured at work? “Then it’s the will of the boss what you get—normally a few thousand, and that depends on whether you get a good boss or not.”
I have done plenty of surveys of workers to understand the logic: from the 50-250 rupees per day, you have to subtract the money workers need for food (packed lunch, in most cases), tea (10 rupees per cup; four cups would be necessary most days), and cigarettes. Then you have to subtract what they would spend on clothes they wear to work, and the energy they need to regenerate themselves for this work when away from work (let’s not forget that after twelve hours a worker is back at his machine for twelve hours, and after another twelve hours rest, he is back at his machine for twelve hours). Women often come as unwaged free labor with the male wage, as the task of regeneration is left to the wives, mothers, and others (generally women) around the house, who put effort into getting the male worker in condition to work the next day. The wage of the laborer then disappears as quickly as the Land Cruiser of the bosses on an empty Lahore road. It just passes by, like an illusion.
So that when the mother is ill and needs medicine—it isn’t there. When the worker’s hands get caught in the machine and the injury requires rest—this must be passed by. When, deep in pregnancy, a wife needs a Caesarean operation and the doctor demands fees—the money is already gone. When children need food—it’s gone, and don’t even bother thinking about school for the kids. This system is not exploitative, it’s murderous—a grinding, gruesome, cruel, sadistic, killer.
The conversation turns to suicide, as someone mentions the father who killed himself and his children in Lahore a few weeks before. He couldn’t feed them and couldn’t stand it anymore. Rana becomes irritated and raises himself: “We are not like those. We will not commit suicide. We will fight. We will suffer hunger but we will fight. Together, we will change things.” All agree. This, then, is the choice the worker is left with: commit suicide or fight for justice and possibly face murder, beatings, and hunger. Some will choose suicide and the Lashkars, who make things more glamorous. Others will choose political struggle and its sacrifices.
More workers come in and greet everyone. One of them has a wad of cash in his hand and goes round the room, asking for contributions. I ask what the money is for, and they tell me it’s for a truck they are hiring to go to a protest they have organized to support the five workers who were arrested a few days back.
I leave with Rana in a car—he won’t be able to stand in the truck.
Madmen Stubbornly Upholding Truth
Workers have come to this demonstration mainly on foot and on bikes, with a few on motorbikes, hired trucks, and one car. The rally is taking place in a school field. Police surround the perimeters. The stage is a few school tables pushed together and covered with carpet. On the mike, Bawa is already busy. He announces Rana’s arrival, and the five thousand or so who are already here stand up to clap and cheer him into the ground. They shout, “Mazdoor Ihtijaj Zindabad!” (“Long live the workers’ movement”), and they applaud frantically. Bawa moves on to this tarana:
Bawa: Atta mehnga (wheat is expensive)
Crowd: hay hay (a verbal way of sighing)
Bawa: Bijli mehngi (electricity is expensive)
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Roti mehngi (roti is expensive)
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Chini mehngi (sugar is expensive)
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Zara zor se bolo (say it louder)
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Siasatdan saray chor (all politicians are corrupt)
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Naqli degria’n (with fake degrees)
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Zara zor se bolo (say it louder)
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Atta mehnga
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Bijli Mehngi
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Roti Mehngi
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Zara ahista bolo (say it softly)
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Atta mehnga
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Bijli Mehngi
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa: Roti mehngi
Crowd: hay hay
Bawa and Rana are the main speakers. Bawa narrates the struggle of Jhang and encourages the workers to hold firm. This is the eighth day of their strike, and he tells them that victory is in sight—struggle, he says, will prevail. Rana is led up to the mike by two aides and supported throughout his short speech. The crowd tells him not to speak, as he is clearly in pain, but he carries on.
We will not commit suicide as they did in Lahore, we will struggle. We are not made of that stuff. We know the workers’ condition. We know the hardships we suffer. We know what it is like to go home and find empty boxes where there should be atta and sugar and rice. We know the look of our children as we put them to bed still bleeding with hunger. It’s our situation, but we will not commit suicide. We will fight.
The crowd, roused to tears and anger, launches into slogans and more clapping: “Mazdoor ehtijaj zindabad!” Rana continues, “We will fight, let them break our legs, let them rain stones on our hearts, let them shoot us, we will fight. We will fight as one, worker and worker. Mazdoor ehtijaj zindabad.” His last words ring all around as he leaves the stage. Frail, beaten up, stoned, but fighting.
Two days after my trip, and on the tenth day of the Faisalabad workers’ strike, I walked to Mall Road and the Canal from my house in Lahore and, in the bitter heat of the afternoon, got in a rickshaw to the Punjab Assembly. There, in front of the Assembly but outside its perimeters, I was to join workers and activists at a camp that had been set up to bring the Faisalabad strike to the attention of the political lords in Lahore.
I saw workers rejoicing as I approached. The bosses had given in, had to give in. The government had judged in the workers’ favor and told the bosses to grant all two hundred fifty thousand workers a 17 percent raise. They had released the five arrested workers. I did the math: two hundred fifty thousand people each had a raise of 17 percent. If we assume they are each now getting at least the minimum wage of 7,000 rupees, then it would mean 1,190 rupees per worker (per family) more per month. The average family in Pakistan is estimated to consist of around 7.5 persons. Given this, the workers’ victory would positively affect nearly 1,875,000 people.
The statistics do not tell us of the spirit of that moment. That too is important. As I jumped into a rickshaw—enlivened by the victory in Faisalabad—and headed to Anarkali, I began to think of J’afri and his lifelong struggle in politics and his poetry.
I began reading J’afri in the monsoon of 2007 while lingering in Karachi, ill in bed. I had found his collected works at a local shop in Clifton, and over the next three days, read this 300-page book front to back and back to front, and then once more front to back and back to front. Hard up for reading matter, I didn’t really think much of his poems. One or two struck a chord, but compared to Faiz I thought him terse and dogmatic and, at the same time, overly dense with references and symbols. Since his rhymes were also lost in translation—Urdu to English—I thought maybe the translations let him down.
Now, a few years on, I understand him better. J’afri wrote for those struggling to create a more just society. Those who challenged the cruel status quo and who took pains to remove the granite block tossed on the neck of most Pakistanis by ruling elites and to carve into it some shape of justice. J’afri is better read with workers in the factories, among the struggles of working families in the fields, and above all with those lovers like Muhammad Rana, Mian Qayyum, Bawa Latif, and the workers of Faisalabad, whose blood is on the path of love.