Is Pakistan Ready for a Progressive Movement?

We read our neighbor's socio-political climate with help from Lahore’s hip-hop star Hassan Amin and Awais Qarni from left-wing organization The Struggle.
pakistan progressive movement and ali wazir
One of the most interesting outcomes of this election was the emergence of Ali Wazir as the victor in Waziristan on behalf of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. Photo: facebook.com/AliWazirWana

On November 7, 2018, Asia Bibi was released from the New Jail for Women in Multan. After eight years on death row spent in solitary confinement, Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s decision to sentence the Dalit Christian mother, to death on false blasphemy charges. However, even as the government of the day is caving in to religious extremists—agreeing to bar Asia Bibi from leaving the country after her acquittal, and removing Dr Atif Mian from the country’s Economic Advisory Council because of his Ahmadi background— there is another party forming a grassroots progressive movement in the country.


Earlier this year in July, in the latest round of elections held in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, conversation mostly revolved around the rise of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the uncertainty as to the path and policy decisions that the populist—dubbed in some circles as Taliban Khan—would pursue and implement. However, amidst all this noise at the top, one of the most interesting outcomes of this election was the emergence of Ali Wazir as the victor in Waziristan on behalf of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). Wazir’s victory was also surprising given that he is a leader of The Struggle, a Trotskyite, left-wing organisation that was formed by Pakistani exiles in the 1980s. Given the history of Waziristan, and the influence of extremist groups such as the Taliban, the election of a socialist candidate who is a vocal critic of the fundamentalist movement and Pakistan’s powerful security establishment was a significant victory for the progressive movement in the country. Given the sensationalist nature of any information that is broadcast about Pakistan, Wazir’s victory piqued my interest in the spread of left-wing activism and politics in the country, as also the people involved on-ground.

The Struggle was formed in 1980 by left-wing activists Farooq Tariq, Lal Khan, Muhammed Amjad and Ayub Gorya while in exile in the Netherlands, as an organisation to promote progressive political thought in resistance to the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, widely considered to be architect of modern day Pakistani politics, courtesy his attempts at weakening democratic institutions and the adoption of legislation that promoted religious intolerance. Khan and the other activists launched The Struggle to combat these policies. The organisation played a key role in a coordinating the grassroots campaign that contributed to Ali Wazir’s victory, and, under the leadership of Lal Khan, is making slow but steady progress in providing a platform for the citizens of Pakistan to voice and learn about progressive political thought. Over the past decade, the progressive movement has made small inroads into the country’s independent music industry as well.


At the forefront is Hassan Amin, a veteran of Lahore’s grindcore/hardcore punk scenes and now flying the flag high for Pakistani hip-hop with his collective Daranti Group. Considering how influential the punk and hip-hop movements were as a platform for the oppressed to express their political voice, Amin occupies a unique position to offer a critique on how these inherently political genres of music are being interpreted by musicians and fans in the country.

We caught up with Amin and Awais Qarni, a member of The Struggle, to talk about the spread of the progressive movement in Pakistan, the repercussions faced by people on the left, and the role of artists belonging to the country’s socio-political music movements.

VICE: Could you tell me a bit about your early life?
Awais Qarni: I belong to the southern Punjab district of Rajanpur. I completed my early education there from a private school, and went to Islamabad for an Intermediate in Commerce. I have also done my Graduation and M. Phil in Human Resource Management from Islamabad.
Hassan Amin: I’m from Lahore and grew up in a large army family.

How difficult is access to literature that strays from Pakistan’s conventional political thought, especially considering how censorship has crept up in the age of the internet?
Qarni: There is very limited access to the literature for Pakistani youth. In the political horizon, there is no space for the youth. The ban on student unions, which was imposed by the brutal Zia dictatorship in 1984 was continued by the so-called democratic regimes. Before that, there were study circles inside and outside the institutes which were organised by both left-wing and right-wing students organisations. Now, no-one is allowed to get information or even talk about the sacred cows of this country. They once banned YouTube, but later allowed it again. According to recent news, no one can speak against the newly-elected PM, Imran Khan. The progressive voices have been abducted just because of their expression on social media. In most parts of the country, the circulation of the most valued English newspaper DAWN has been banned. But there are also some groups like Revolutionary Students Front, Jammu Kashmir Students Federation, Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign, and others that organise study circles and reading sessions in universities, colleges, factories and locations of the deprived masses.


Hassan, how did you navigate the politics expressed in punk/hardcore/hip-hop music and equate it with what you think is mainstream Pakistani politics?
Amin: It helped me make sense of it all. Pakistani television and newspapers are 90% state propaganda that serves very little in creating any real understanding. You have to understand that this is a very tightly controlled country despite maintaining a very cowboy-like lawlessness here and there. Progressive forces have been constantly stamped out, and finding alternative voices or new ways of seeing the same old shit would not have been possible for me without punk and metal, and to a smaller extent, hip-hop. It’s not the same for most, and people can have some progressive views here while listening to some crappy mainstream pop music (which shows in their belief system every now and then too). I’m glad for my exposure to the rawest and loudest of extreme music because it has fine tuned my views more than any M.I.A song could ever do.

How exposed is Pakistan’s youth to different forms of political theory? I read about Islamic Socialism which was professed by Liaquat Ali Khan—how prevalent was that and is it still relevant?
Amin: Most of the youth is not so aware of the dynamics of these ideologies, and they find themselves swayed to whatever is prevalent in their family or region or college. There are a lot of people though who are dedicated to single ideologies, whether Communist or Islamist, but you have to often view them through a cynical lens, as they usually only know about their own ideology and don’t care to know facts about others. The best way I can describe local ideological politics is kacha pakka (undercooked) and jazbati (sentimental).
Islamic Socialism was probably most propagated by Bhutto and probably still remains an undercurrent in some of those PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) circles. I don’t really care though; you can attach Islamic with anything in Pakistan and expect it to be culturally relevant. Everything from Islamic banking and Islam-tinged ads during Ramazan to kulfis with Baba Bulleh Shah’s name/face on it. Even as a Sunni Muslim, that just doesn’t sit right with me, like they’re exploiting people’s sentiments for a goal that ultimately isn’t actually religious or Islamic.


Qarni: The current politics of Pakistan is not at based on ideology; it is based on personality. For decades, Pakistani politics has revolved around cult personalities. The difference between the left and the right is not visible. There was a time when right-wing ideology had been inducted in educational institutes via Jamiat (the student wing of Jamat-e-Islami). To me, terms like ‘Islamic Socialism’ are ambiguous. Islam and Socialism have nothing in common. Socialism is an economic system that is against the private ownership of resources. These kinds of terms basically try to make consolidation with the clerics, as Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did. Everybody has the right to practice any religion or even be an atheist—that’s a purely personal matter. Socialism is related to the vast working class majority around the globe that contains every religion, caste and language but has a common enemy: the capitalist and profit-seeking system.

Awais, what are the pressures and repercussions of joining a party that doesn’t fall under conventional Pakistani political thought?
Qarni: Although there are huge socio-economic gaps and the potential for a genuine revolutionary party exists, building one is not so easy. The masses want an immediate solution to their problems, and the revolution is never the first option for them. So, to build such a party, a cadre-based active layer of a team is required that is similar to the Revolutionary Organization that Lenin built which is known as Bolshevik Organization, later Party. In the situation of a semi-coup, either judicial or political like the one we are facing today in Pakistan, any kind of political activity and expression, demanding a right or freedom of press or speech, is being brutally crushed by the state. The recent rise of Pashtun Youth from the Wana, Waziristan shook the state from its basis. When that genuine spontaneous movement took a break, the activists were profiled and victimised by the state. The attack on Peshawar University Students and FIR against Gul’lai Ismail depicts this policy. Some have been brutally killed by “unknown” forces in Wana.

Recent elections brought a major success for the left via the election of Ali Wazir. How was this campaign fought?
Qarni: Ali Wazir is my comrade and unlike other political parties, his campaign was run by revolutionaries. His campaign was the only one that has been run not only in his constituency but across the country. His voters voted him on the socialist programme with slogans of peace, bread and employment. He was also succeeded in the previous elections of 2008 and 2013 but for the first time, his victory has been announced, and while the rise of the PTM movement played a great role in the announcement of his results, his family legacy (his father informed the government about the Taliban’s growing presencei in region) against terrorism also played a vital role in his popularity.

Hassan, do you think punk/ hardcore/hip-hop can play an educational role amongst the Pakistani youth, and help them become more politically engaged?
Amin: No, mainstream music like hip-hop is just a tool to make people numb now. I haven’t seen one good thing happen from it for anyone, and I say this as someone involved with that scene, unfortunately. Already, a lot of these Pakistani hip-hop scenesters are the opposite of intelligent. Some of them will say stuff like, “I can’t read so many words” if you post an article, and you’re just like, well, why are you in a genre that’s all about words? Sometimes, they're racist and bigoted, on occasion even saying some really casteist stuff. Some of those who listen to shitty mainstream hip-hop try to be political here and there, but they only take issues which are ‘trendy’, and I often find myself laughing at their analysis. This fact goes for any genre with a mass appeal. At the same time, I believe that hip-hop has a historically important role everywhere and there have been glimpses of brilliance in Pakistan. There has been some amazing political music—Faris Shafi and Jay Alvi (Shafi is infamous for speaking about the State’s support for extremists as well its association for NATO, and Alvi is a part of Amin’s Daranti Group) are two artists that come to mind who’ve done some amazing work that I can relate to. For the genre to play that educational role, people need to be connected with the roots, understand the context in which hip-hop music developed, and pay homage to its unique history.

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