It was ironic that longtime activist, political philosopher and communist ideologue Dr Hasan Zafar Arif suggested we meet for this interview at an upscale cafe in Karachi. The heavily-built 70-year-old would look like any typical grandfather if it wasn’t for his Mao cap, which he took off as he took a seat at our table, and opened up about his recent imprisonment, joining the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and what he thinks could be the future of Sindh.
Dr Arif was picked up by Pakistan Rangers Sindh on October 22, 2016, from outside the Karachi Press Club where he was to address the media. The detention of an elderly professor, a University of Reading and Harvard University alumnus, under the Pakistan Protection Ordinance (PPO), probably came as a shock to many.
However, Dr Arif is undeterred.
“Life in prison was no different for me,” a stoic Dr Arif says of his six-month detention in Karachi Central Jail. “My prison cell was just like my own room, where I read, think and sleep.”
“As a philosopher, I converse and reflect. My life didn’t see an iota of change when I was in prison,” he adds.
Earlier that year, Dr Arif had joined the MQM. The Rangers claimed, at the time they arrested him, that the former professor had attended a gathering where MQM founder Altaf Hussain had given an incendiary speech – an allegation Dr Arif denies.
The lifelong socialist and veteran human rights activist says that prison provided him with sufficient material to ponder upon and discuss with fellow inmates. His field of interest has always been theoretical, he says, and he approaches practical politics from a scientific standpoint.
“In prison, I had at my disposal a concentration of political workers, people who have done real political work and have weighed different ideologies in their minds. You don’t have blank slates there.”
“The topics of discussion inside the jail are the same as those outside,” he says. “The concerns that people have on the outside continue through their incarceration as well.”
This was not the first time that Dr Arif was incarcerated. One morning in 1984, when he was an assistant professor in KU’s department of philosophy, Arif received a notification demanding that he abstain from “anti-dictatorship activism”. He did not stop.
Soon after, the Sindh governor of martial law administration issued a notice for Arif’s immediate dismissal and detention. The Marxist activist-scholar languished in jail for two years.
The letter that Arif then wrote to the military governor became a sensation among students and faculty at the university. It was photocopied and distributed in the hundreds.
“You may, of course, come the whole hog after me, but let me also promise you that like Iskander, Ayub and Yahya before you, you cannot be sitting on your piles interminable either,” the assistant professor wrote, undeterred by the consequences.
LEA ‘collusion’ with judiciary and jail
Dr Arif says that LEAs have developed a system in collusion with the judiciary and jail authorities that “makes sure that the arrested person, even if innocent, goes through the punishment that has been decided for them.”
The communist ideologue says he interacted with 700 or so political workers imprisoned in the central jail and learnt about the atrocities committed at the hands of the state machinery.
“LEAs arrest a person, make him disappear and during the 90 days of custody severely torture him,” Dr Arif claims. “The person is then handed over to the police who show that they arrested the individual at some other point in time to suit their narrative, and charge him either under an old unsolved FIR or under [penal code] 23a, or 4/5 (possession of a pistol and a hand grenade), a charge that has come to be jokingly known among inmates as the ‘Karachi package’.”
After this, the person is sent to prison. He adds that in most cases, the accused has to then wait for six months to two years to get bail because the court keeps on postponing the hearing under one pretence or another. “Even if he is eventually acquitted and proven innocent, the person has undergone the punishment that the law enforcers had earmarked for him.”
Dr Arif’s personal experience was no different.
The professor was detained by Rangers personnel purportedly to maintain law and order in Karachi. When the paramilitary force failed to get an extension after two months of his incarceration, he thought he was about to become a free man. However, after passing through the first gate of the jail, and with three gates still to be crossed, Arif was arrested again, this time by the police, who showed in their records that they arrested him from outside the jail, he said. Dr Arif was charged under a pre-existing FIR in which he is not named, and his case was then transferred to an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC), which eventually granted him bail.
“My petition in the Sindh High Court (SHC) against my detention has not been heard to this date,” Dr Arif says. “The Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) looking into my case showed the same indifference - my hearings kept on delaying.”
“The accounts of torture victims and my experience with the workings of the judiciary still weigh heavily on my mind. I must unload it one day.”
Joining the MQM
Dr Arif’s political trajectory has left many bewildered, with questions about his decision to join a mainstream political party.
His joining the MQM came as a surprise to many in Marxist circles. Some saw it as a questionable political act, while others proclaimed it an ‘unforgivable’ offense -- a Marxist joining a party that draws its support from an ethnic group.
Dr Arif retorts that Marxists and communist parties across the world and throughout history have supported the ongoing democratic struggle to pave the way for a revolutionary change. He sees the MQM’s struggle as furthering democratic values.
The professor, who has in the past made significant contributions to progressive writings in Pakistan, argues that as a political worker who is well-versed in philosophy, he uses Marxism as a framework to evaluate his political steps. Every support he extends to the ‘bourgeois’ parties comes only after he has measured the probable consequences, and in each case the litmus test is the role of the party at that juncture in the advancement of the democratic cause.
“The stark truth is that in Pakistan the critical intellectual mass necessary to grasp Marxism and its principles is lacking,” Dr Arif explains, adding that the left movement in Pakistan has failed to produce viable written analysis of Pakistani society, and has remained “bogged down in demagoguery, and secret caucuses”.
While many in civil society refrained from holding a demonstration for Dr Arif’s release, there were some activists who raised their voice. Doing so, however, came at a price. On April 1, 2017, two academics and rights activists were detained by LEAs when they were on their way to Karachi Press Club to hold a press conference demanding Dr Arif’s release.
One of them, Dr Meher Afroze Murad, was later released with warnings to abstain from supporting “anti-state elements”, but Dr Riaz Ahmad, an assistant professor at University of Karachi and a University of Cambridge alumnus, was sent to jail for possessing an illegal firearm – a charge that was hard to believe for those who knew Dr Ahmed personally. Dr Ahmed vehemently denies the charge, and says that he does not regret raising his voice.
“I met Arif in the ‘90s for the first time,” the assistant professor explained over a month after he was released on bail. “His joining the MQM might be unacceptable to many but he has waged a long struggle for the rights of the oppressed.”
“The democratic rights that teachers of Karachi University have today are in part the result of unyielding struggle by Arif and his comrades,” Dr Riaz said, adding that he wanted to hold a presser because Dr Arif has contributed immensely to the democratic movement of KU teachers and students.
“He has been a teacher throughout his life and contributed in various ways to the struggle for democratisation,” he said. “It was painful to see that civil society did not raise their voice for his release.”
A new province
Dr Arif says that the citizens of urban areas of Sindh stand roundly disenfranchised. He sees in the events of the ongoing Karachi operation the makings of a “holocaust” in areas extending from Karachi to Mirpurkhas. “There is a grave responsibility on the shoulders of both the leadership and the establishment to avert this consequence. They should be sitting and talking to each other.”
“As things stand, no matter how much they pressure or implore the state, the people of urban Sindh cannot hope to win for themselves a sense of participation under the prevalent political dispensation enshrined in the 1973 constitution,” Dr Arif says. “Even if every single citizen of the areas under discussion votes for a single party, and it gets elected to the provincial or national assemblies, it can do no more than verbally oppose a resolution, or theatrically tear up copies of some resolution and stage a symbolic walk out from the assembly.”
Dr Arif believes that there is a dire need for a new province in southern Sindh to give the people there a sense of participation in the construction and development of Pakistan. “We are living in denial. On the one hand the state says we are one Muslim nation, on other hand, all resources are distributed to the citizens according to ‘the theory of four nations’.”
The political thinker is of the opinion that the ‘one nation theory’ is paddled for the emotional blackmail of the masses when in reality a theory of four nations – Punjabi, Baloch, Sindhi and Pakhtoon – is operative. “If wealth is distributed on these ethnic or nationalist lines,” Dr Arif asks, “why can’t there be an amendment in it so that Seraiki, Mohajir and other small ethnic groups also get their due share in the division of the administration, jurisdiction and financial resources of the country?”
Before we steer towards the end of our conversation, a middle-aged patron comes up to Dr Arif and asks him if he is the politician working with the ‘MQM London group’. Dr Arif nods. “How have you been? Are you still with the London group?” the man asks. Dr Arif confirms he is still with Altaf. In fact, he is now the coordination committee deputy convener of MQM’s pro-Altaf faction.
The professor whose life has revolved around political ideas believes that if the position of the establishment and the political elite, with their main base in Punjab, remains as hardened as it has over the past two decades, then the situation in Sindh, especially Karachi, will only worsen.
“After every single operation, the party of Karachiites has reemerged even stronger,” Dr Arif says. “This is the fourth operation, but in spite of its ferocity, it has not even ruffled our feathers. All informed opinion on the matter warns us that the support base of MQM is continually increasing.”
“This is the time for truth and reconciliation,” he says.