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A giant has gone to rejoin his kind

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Ziyad Faisal in this article pays a rich tribute to one of the stalwarts of Pakistan’s 20th century Left movement, Comrade Manzoor ul-Hussain.

We have lost a truly great man.

It is very difficult to say ‘Goodbye’ to our beloved Comrade Manzoor ul-Hussain. In fact, I cannot say it. And I shall not say it. We must meet again and continue all our discussions. We must get back to his stories of times and struggles gone by.

Manzoor Sahib was a proper stalwart of the 20th-century communist movement. He was from amongst those people that I have always honoured and looked up to as our political elders.

From Ayub’s military regime all the way to Naya Pakistan, through our rulers’ so-called ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan and the imposition of the Taliban on his native Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa: he struggled against the rotten old order in so many of its hideous faces. What immense strength it takes to keep faith in humanity’s destiny through right-wing military dictatorships, repression, splits within the socialist movement, betrayals, terrorist violence, disappointments, setbacks – all with a smile and some heartwarming humour! I confess that I have never been sure as to whether I have that in me. And it is precisely that concern which always made me feel ever closer to the old cadre of the 20th century – people such as Manzoor Sahib.

Comrade Manzoor sahib was from the Professors Group and also was an editor for several left newspapers and magazines. He never profited from the Left, never was opportunistic, and always had this glaring optimism that if we organized and worked hard we could make an impact. (Sher Ali Khan)

Com. Manzoor’s work as a political activist of the socialist left goes back to the 1960s. The progressive activist, journalist and academic Sher Ali Khan describes Manzoor Sahib as an “organic intellectual” (used in the sense that Antonio Gramsci meant). In fact, Sher Ali goes on to summarize Com. Manzoor’s political life as follows:

He was a student activist who chose to become a labor leader and led the strikes in Dawood Factory in Karachi in the 1970s. He was also a senior activist in the MRD movement against Zia, later was elected as a senior office-bearer in ANP in the post-left formations of the 90s but left the party due to its alliance with Muslim League. Comrade Manzoor sahib was from the Professors Group and also was an editor for several left newspapers and magazines. He never profited from the Left, never was opportunistic, and always had this glaring optimism that if we organized and worked hard we could make an impact.

When some of my friends opted to temporarily put on hold their efforts within the leftist micro-party framework, leave aside the toxic infighting and walk out into the political wilderness to try and build something new, Com. Manzoor immediately and instinctively knew what he had to do. He chose to accompany these young people out into the cold. Perhaps it is easier to do such things in your 20s. But at his age, after all that he had been through, it suggested a glorious vitality and evergreen commitment to the path of struggle – within the Left just as much as with the other side.

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Today, what exists in the form of young people mobilizing for the Left in Lahore has a lot to do with that decision on the part of young activists. The Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement and a number of progressive students could always count on the support and blessings of Com. Manzoor.

Present at that event was Muslim Khan, one of the leaders of the Taliban in Swat. Both he and Com. Manzoor had been comrades back in the day, in the left-wing student movement! But while Muslim Khan had eventually ended up siding with religious-fundamentalist savages, Com. Manzoor had remained true to the difficult path of socialism, secularism and human freedom.

Among all the fascinating stories that Com. Manzoor used to tell, my favourite was about the time when he was at a jirga-type event to negotiate with the Taliban who had cut a bloody path across the Swat region. The people subjected to the TTP’s brutal rule had to meet the armed group, so as to be allowed to continue living, or do business or development work, etc. Present at that event was Muslim Khan, one of the leaders of the Taliban in Swat. Both he and Com. Manzoor had been comrades back in the day, in the left-wing student movement! But while Muslim Khan had eventually ended up siding with religious-fundamentalist savages, Com. Manzoor had remained true to the difficult path of socialism, secularism and human freedom.

Now, Comrade Manzoor couldn’t resist asking Muslim Khan as to what had happened to him. How had he ended up so far from where he began politically? The Taliban leader, on seeing someone from his leftist past, was horrified at the possibility that others around them might find out! He glanced around in horror and whispered that Manzoor Sahib must never bring that up! One imagines that in that moment, “fond memories” from the 1950s or ‘60s would have proved highly inconvenient for the TTP leader – to say the very least.

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How I would go into fits of laughter as Com. Manzoor copied the facial expressions, words and gestures of the alarmed TTP leader at that moment!

At this time, we are remembering towering figures like Asma Jahangir, who struggled for the downtrodden masses in Pakistan. These people defended the values of emancipation and human dignity against the darkness of our past and present. It would be most appropriate to think of Com. Manzoor in the same context – as someone drawn from finest traditions of the 20th century. These are people of an earlier era when people were trained in a genuinely political ethos and believed that the liberation of humanity was worth risking everything for.

Academic and progressive activist Dr. Ammar Ali Jan sums it up best, when he writes:

We are fast losing the giants of an entire generation. Other than Asma and Manzoor Sb, we have also lost Fanoos Gujjar, Fehmida Riaz and Nigar Ahmad (among others) this past year. These people embodied the idealism of a bygone-era, when the possibility of a different world was still on the horizon. They lived their lives as champions, indifferent to the suffocating logic of the world, and always ready to transform the anxiety of uncertainty into hope for a better tomorrow. These are the real heroes of our land and we will be a much more optimistic society if the younger generation chooses to connect with the glorious legacy left behind by these exemplary individuals.

Farewell comrade Manzoor. I hope you are in a better place where you can finally get a chance to relax. Every time I am able to stay true to the principles that you taught us, I will feel that you are looking down at me with your characteristic smile of approval, and encouraging me with your soothing words “Shabash, comrade”

Every time I face despair – when it seems that progressive values and popular-democratic struggles are going nowhere – a number of faces will always flash by my mind’s eye. Comrade Manzoor with his indomitable, warm smile will be top of that list of faces.

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