Voice of Dissent

Mairaj Muhammad Khan and a lifelong struggle for democracy

by Kamal Siddiqi & Azhar Jamil


Some of Mairaj Muhammad Khan’s politics is so old world that it has a touch of romanticism. There are military courts, protests and disobedience; challenges to martial law and refusal to become party to military rule. There are also lashes, torture, betrayal and lengthy prison terms. He is a leader who spent 13 years or more in the jails of various successive military governments, including his own PPP government, received severe head injuries and lost one eye in the process – in another country he would have the status of a Mandela or a national hero.


Police confronted Mairaj Muhammad Khan while he was on his way to Sherbaz Khan Mazari’s house for a meeting of the MRD in 1983. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

Mairaj Muhammad Khan has been an active participant in many of the important events that shaped our country in its formative years. He was a key player in the movement that led to the formation of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), the movement against General Ayub Khan in 1968, which was sparked off by NSF-led students, as well as the movement for the restoration of democracy (MRD) against General Ziaul Haq from its formation in 1981 until it culminated in 1988.


He has been through it all; Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, the dismemberment of Pakistan, the Bhutto years, General Zia and his dictatorship and the return to democracy in 2008. He was even associated with Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf for five years (1997 Dec to 2003 April) and left when his patience was completely exhausted. More than a politician, he now enjoys the position of an elder statesman.

Much of his wisdom comes from his experiences initially as a student leader and then as a mainstream politician. It also comes from his grassroots work amongst the labour classes of Pakistan as well as his socialist ideology.

This was a different Pakistan, then. Of East and West. And of student politics, where demonstrations on the streets of Karachi, then the capital city, could bring down the government.

There are lessons to be learnt, and incidents that have not been forgotten. Long gone have been the days when he left his house in PECHS, once the most happening locality for the middle and upper middle classes of Karachi. He now lives a sedate life in a comparatively dull and boring Defence Housing Authority with his son, who, ironically is a banker. This may not go down well with a socialist - “Not at all,” he replies “everyone to his own.”

Mairaj Mohd Khan receives Habib Jalib Amn Award at Karachi Arts Council . PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

Not ‘just’ a student movement

Those were innocent times, or so it seems. Of all the humiliating incidents he had to suffer, Mairaj Muhammad Khan remembers only a few. While he is happy to forgive and forget many of his captors and those who tortured him, an incident he recalls that shook him was when he and his fellow student prisoners were made to walk from the district jail Rahim Yar Khan to the railway station for transfer to Bahawalpur central jail.

As they made their way in their leg irons and shackles, they were overtaken by schoolchildren going back home. Some of the children shouted “chor chor” (thief, thief) as they saw these men being led away in chains by the police. “That shook me,” says Mairaj, “having someone suspect me of something other than what I was not…least of all, a thief.”

Student leaders Mairaj Muhammad Khan and Fateyab Ali Khan shown handcuffed in 1961 or 1962. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

In the eyes of successive authoritarian governments, Mairaj Muhammad Khan was a troublemaker and an agitator. He first surfaced as part of the student movement of the 60’s. But Mairaj M Khan is quick to correct us. It wasn’t “just” a student movement. It was a movement for democracy. From this movement emerged many, who later became leaders or sacrificed their lives for the cause of democracy in Pakistan. Many of them have now been forgotten.

Tracing the seeds of dissent

Possibly, Mairaj’s rebellious nature came from his ancestors. A Qaimganj Pathan, Mairaj Muhammad Khan’s forefathers came from the sparse Pakhtun areas of the Northwest to settle in the more fertile plains of North India. Even today in parts of UP, there are the lost tribes of Kukikhels, Zakakhels and Yousafzais, who trace their roots back to the frontier, presently Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. It was their sense of honour that made them, but at the time of partition, it also broke them.

In the case of Mairaj Muhammad Khan’s family, his father Hakim Taj Muhammad Khan was in the habit of perennially travelling and settling in different parts of undivided India for almost 10 years at a time or more. Hakim Taj lived in places such as Delhi, (where he got his degree from Hakim Ajmal Khan’s Tibbiya College), Karachi (where his three elder children were born between 1910 to 1920), Kathiawar (where his next son Minhaj Muhammad Khan was born), then 10 or more years in Secunderabad Hyderabad Deccan, then Nagpur (where Qudsia Khanum and Mairaj Muhammad Khan were born) and finally Quetta, where he lived for many years before partition, and which also became his last abode.

Mairaj lived with his mother and siblings till 1949 in Qaimganj, District Farrukhabad UP, when their house was confiscated and declared an evacuee property. Mairaj Muhammad Khan remembers how his mother would not agree to the suggestion by the sympathetic local magistrate to say that the house belonged to her. He was ready to help the family retain the house if only she would say that the house belonged to her and not to her husband who had gone to Pakistan. “But she was a straightforward woman and could not say something that was not true.”

And so in 1949, the family of Hakim Taj Muhammad Khan started their journey to Pakistan. It was a wonderful but worrisome journey to far off Quetta. It meant going by train to Lahore and then onward through desert and mountains to this remote part of Pakistan.

By that time, Mairaj Muhammad Khan had seen quite a bit of the world. He had been educated at the Jamia Millia as against going to the more exclusive Aligarh College. The seeds of dissent were sown. Mairaj Muhammad Khan remembers the teachings of Zakir Hussain, principal of the Jamia Millia (later president of India) - lessons that taught him not only about the value of education but also humility and courage.

His elder brother, Minhaj Barna, also went to Jamia Millia and then went on to become one of Pakistan’s most courageous and respected journalists and trade unionist.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan’s elder brother Minhaj Barna, one of Pakistan’s most courageous and respected journalists and trade unionist. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

It was courage that Mairaj Muhammad Khan needed some years later when he ran away from home in Quetta. His father was arranging his marriage to a daughter of his friend. But Mairaj Muhammad Khan had other ideas. He wanted to see the world and there was so much to study and explore. So on a cold winter day, he boarded the Bolan Mail to Karachi, and since then, never looked back. He was very fond of playing football and dreamt of going to Brazil by ship (pani key jahaz mai, as he recalls) to devote his time to football. But that was not to be. Life had other things in store for him.

Pakistan’s ‘turning’ point

Soon after he joined college, he became an active participant in student politics with the left-leaning National Students Federation (NSF). But the first chance at agitation came when on a visit to Karachi in 1956 he attended a mass rally where NSF activists participated. (NSF had replaced the Democratic Students Federation that had been banned along with the Communist Party in 1954, just prior to Pakistan joining the US-led Baghdad Pact the same year).

This rally was in support of President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and his resolute defiance of the subsequent Anglo-French-Israeli attack on Egypt and against the government of Pakistan led by prime minister Hussain Shaheed Suhrawardy. Pakistan had sided with the West and the prime minister tried to ridicule the Arabs by his derogatory remark “…zero plus zero plus zero equals zero” that eventually cost him his government.

In 1953, the tussle between an elected PM Khwaja Nazimuddin and a despotic Governor General, Ghulam Muhammad, had started, resulting in Nazimuddin’s ouster and his replacement by another Bengali politician, Muhammad Ali Bogra. Bogra, then Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US not only connived with the governor general and the then ruling clique in taking Pakistan into the Baghdad pact, but also dismissed the constituent assembly and helped establish one unit in west Pakistan (and dissolution of its four provinces) as well as the system of electoral parity between West and East Pakistan. The latter’s outright majority was stolen under the principle of this so-called parity, which was incorporated in the 1956 constitution. This later caused unrest in the smaller provinces, especially in Balochistan, where the senior tribal chief of Jhalawan, Sardar Nauroz Khan, rebelled (against the incorporation of the West wing into one unit known as West Pakistan) saying that the Baloch had accepted Pakistan as a federal state but had never accepted Punjab domination.

By 1954, the rise in influence of the US in Pakistan started to become apparent. Ostensibly, fearing a communist Pakistan, the US made inroads and under its infamous PL-480 programme was willing to dump its surplus wheat into the country. It in fact, began to dictate and monitor the economic and industrial policy of Pakistan through the Harvard team of advisors placed in key ministries.

For Mairaj Muhammad Khan, 1954 was the turning point for Pakistan. The people he holds responsible for the gradual slide to dictatorship and the end of any semblance of independent foreign policy, were Ghulam Muhammad, Iskander Mirza, Muhammad Ali Bogra, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali and General Ayub Khan. To put it simply, the civil and military bureaucracy. Since then, the US continues to interfere in our affairs and dictate to us, he insists.

With the entry of the US in Pakistan’s internal politics, the country’s elected leadership was gradually pushed out and a new breed of leaders came into power. Fearing defeat of his supporters in the coming 1959 general elections, Iskander Mirza, with the connivance of General Ayub is said to have deputed Amjad Ali (who was a minister) to visit the US and inform its government that there was the real possibility of the elections resulting in the victory of those parties (such as NAP) which were against the US-led military pacts (Cento, Seato) and the only way to prevent this was to impose martial law for which they were given the green signal by the US. This resulted in the 1958 coup initially led by Iskander Mirza (who abrogated the constitution). However, Mirza was dismissed within a month himself by General Ayub Khan, the chief martial law administrator, who took over as president.

Crackdown on the left

In 1959, even though all political parties and student organisations had been banned by military authorities, Mairaj Muhammad Khan was arrested along with other NSF activists, trade unionists, intellectuals, left-wing political workers and journalists in a clamp down on the left on the eve of US president Eisenhower’s visit to Pakistan. However, one of the first high-profile casualties of the Ayub crackdown was socialist leader Hasan Nasir, who was arrested and taken to the infamous Lahore Fort where he is said to have died under torture on November 13, 1959. This created great resentment amongst the students and left-wing intellectuals and activists.

A photograph of Hassan Nasir of the National Awami Party, who died after being brutally tortured in Lahore, in 1960. With his death, “a leading light was eliminated” and students vowed to take revenge for his death. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

In the early 60’s, the leftist student politics also underwent a division with one group professing to be pro-Moscow and another to be pro-Beijing. Mairaj Muhammad Khan was elected as president of the pro-Beijing faction.

In the meantime, an education commission called the Sharif Education Commission was appointed to make recommendations on educational reforms and this commission proposed a three-year degree programme for BA and LLB degrees in place of the existing two-year system. Along with the new university ordinance, which gave arbitrary powers to the Vice Chancellor, the students felt that the purpose of the exercise was to restrict education to an elite class and to victimize progressive students and deny them admission.

As such by 1961, NSF students openly opposed the commission’s recommendations and with other allied groups under the banner of the Inter-Collegiate Body (ICB), led by its chairman Fatehyab Ali Khan and vice chairman Mairaj Muhammad Khan, swept the elections in over 80% of the colleges in Karachi.

Public political demonstrations began when NSF protested against the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, independent Congo’s (Zaire) first prime minister as a result of an “imperialist conspiracy”. Only a small number of people turned up and it was brutally put down.

Afro-Asian journalist association. Minhaj Barna can be seen second from left. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

First slogans against Ayub’s martial law

By now, Mairaj Muhammad Khan had understood the psyche of the people, and NSF decided to protest against the massacre of Muslims in Jabalpur, India (This was prompted by an editorial in Daily Dawn, which sarcastically commented that the students were more concerned about what happened in Africa as to what happens to the Muslims in Jabalpur). Thousands of people, including shopkeepers (who had earlier boycotted the pro-Lumumba demonstration) participated in the city centre from MA Jinnah road to Elphinstone (Now Zaibunnisa) Street. Here, slogans were raised against martial law and Ayub Khan for the first time in Karachi.

Fatehyab Ali Khan, Mairaj Muhammad Khan, Anwar Ahsan Siddiqui, Agha Jaffer, Johar Hussain, Iqbal Ahmed Memon, Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, Ameer Haider Kazmi, Sher Afzal Mulk, Mehboob Ali Mehboob. They were sentenced to prison for a year to six months by a military court on March 30, 1961, for taking out a rally against General Ayub Khan. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

“It was an adventure,” recalls Mairaj Muhammad Khan with a grin. And it gave him a taste of popular politics. The government reacted by arresting a large number of students, eight of whom were given sentences by a Summary Military Court ranging from six months to one year. These students, Fatehyab Ali Khan, Mairaj Muhammad Khan, Jauhar Hussain, Dr Sher Afzal Malik, Ali Mukhtar Rizvi, Iqbal Memon, Ameer Haider Kazmi and Anwar Ahsan Siddiqui were sent to Multan and Bahawalpur central jails. Ironically, the superintendent of the jail was colonel (retired) Fakhruddin Mir, who was a good man and would allow his prisoners some relief and helped them ahead of their interrogations. It showed to Mairaj Muhammad Khan that there were people in uniform who also did not agree with the system and were quite sympathetic to the students.

Within a few months, however, the students were released and were given a rousing welcome when they came back to Karachi. Shortly after, the government became wary of their activities and externed some of the key NSF activists, including Fatheyab Ali Khan, Mairaj Muhammad Khan, Jauhar Hussain, Iqbal Memon and others to Quetta.

Ban on student politics ends

By 1962, General Ayub Khan had withdrawn martial law and promulgated a constitution to give his rule a veneer of “basic democracy.” The ban on political parties and student organisations was lifted. Ayub clubbed his supporters (mainly from the feudal class and big businessmen) to form the Convention Muslim League, of which he became the president.

A memorable incident took place in 1963 when NSF students entered into a convention league meeting at the Polo Ground in Karachi. It was attended by league leaders from East and West Pakistan, where they took over the stage and read their demands against the three-year degree and law courses, and for the removal of the University Ordinance of 1961. The ordinance gave arbitrary powers to the government and Vice Chancellor and was meant to restrict education and make it elitist.

Within a few minutes, elder politician Chaudhry Khaliquz Zaman, who was presiding over the meeting, was gently lifted along with his chair from the stage and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was conducting the meeting fought back but was beaten up, as other leaders fled from the scene. Later on when Mairaj Muhammad Khan and Bhutto joined hands, Bhutto would make fun of the incident.

As a result of this incident, 12 student leaders (Fatehyab Ali Khan, Mairaj Muhammad Khan, Dr Sher Afzal Malik, Jauhar Hussain, Ameer Haider Kazmi, Iqbal Memon, Anwar Ahsan Siddiqi, Agha Jaffer, Hussain Naqi, Syed Saeed Hasan, Nawaz Butt and Ali Mukhtar Rizvi) were arrested and externed as well as banned from going to Quetta, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar. But in this externment, wherever these students went, be it Hyderabad, Sukkur, Bahawalpur, Multan or Sargodha, they were given a warm welcome by the students (contacts with whom had been established during the previous year’s externment from Karachi) as well as all those sections of society who were opposed to the Ayub regime.

Ahmed Faraz, Mairaj Muhammad Khan, Fateyab Ali Khan, Azhar Jamil and Shaukar Siddiqu, among others in 1952. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

In Karachi, students, especially women activists, he says, demanded the students’ release and when they protested they were charged upon by mounted police which created a furore in the city. People from all walks of life, including businessmen, shopkeepers, educationists, trade unionists and respected personalities like Syed Muhammad Taqi and Raja Sahab Mehmoodabad appealed that the student leaders be allowed to return to Karachi. Such was the pressure countrywide that the powerful governor of West Pakistan, Malik Ameer Muhammad Khan, got student representatives to fly to Lahore in a chartered PIA flight (arranged by Air Commodore Nur Khan, then MD PIA) and conceded to their demands and withdrew the three year degree and law courses. They also gave permission for the students to return to Karachi, where they were given another mass welcome, which would have been the envy of any popular political party.

The NSF-led student community emerged as a major political force, particularly in Karachi, and played a vanguard role in the campaign of Miss Fatima Jinnah, who was the joint candidate of the Combined Opposition Parties (COP) in the presidential election against General Ayub Khan. Even though she lost due to rigging and manipulation, she won in Karachi largely due to the effective street campaign of the NSF, which had made rigging very difficult.

1965 war and the birth of the PPP

Mairaj Muhammad Khan was jailed once again during the campaign and released in September 1965 when the Indo-Pak war broke out. The government that jailed him now requested Mairaj to address the people through Radio Pakistan as a show of national unity and to raise the country’s morale, which of course, he did. A few days later, when the students were speaking out against a ceasefire, Air Marshal Nur Khan (then commander-in-chief of the Air Force) met an NSF delegation led by Mairaj Muhammad Khan and said that though he highly valued the courageous spirit of the students, he requested them not to agitate against or oppose a possible ceasefire, as the country did not have the spares and necessary materials to continue the war much longer.

By 1966, there had been a falling out between Ayub and Bhutto, who was eased out of the cabinet but was given a tumultuous welcome by the NSF when his train arrived at the Karachi Cantonment station. Later in 1967, the NSF held a reception for Bhutto, who had earned much fame by his emotional and nationalistic speech at the UN during the 1965 war in which he said “…..we shall fight for a thousand years” (this had appealed to a large section of the country, especially the youth) and by subsequently distancing himself from the unpopular Tashkent Declaration with India in January 1966. At the reception, Bhutto spoke about socialism as the need of the hour, which was well received by the NSF students who were basically progressive, secular and anti-imperialist.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto pictured as the chief guest at a reception of the NSF, held in 1966 -early 1967. Then NSF president Mairaj Muhammad Khan is also pictured addressing the event, during which he handed over the federation’s presidency to Rasheed Hassan (pictured sitting next to Bhutto).PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

For Bhutto, the NSF became his initial group of supporters. This turn of events brought Mairaj Muhammad Khan close to him and it was then that the formation of the Pakistan Peoples Party came into being. The PPP, says Mairaj Muhammad Khan, owes its creation to the NSF.

It was at Mairaj’s one-bedroom PECHS house and 70 Clifton Karachi that dialogue started with Bhutto. This led to the inclusion of J.A. Rahim and talk of slogans and a party manifesto. The party’s founder members as announced by Bhutto at a public meeting in Lyari included J.A. Rahim, Mairaj Muhammad Khan, Rasool Bux Talpur, Dr Mubashir Hasan, Hayat Muhammad Khan Sherpao and Haq Nawaz Gandapur, although there were a host of other stalwarts as well who joined soon after.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan with PPP leaders in the late 60s, early 70s: Kamal Asfar, Ali Talpur, Ahmed Rafiq, Ahmed Shafiq and Rasool Bux Talpur. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

Mairaj Muhammad Khan with PPP leaders Gen Akbar and Rasool Bux Talpur, among others. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

The PPP was formed on November 30, 1967 and its founding convention was held at the Lahore residence of Dr Mubashir Hasan. By 1968, the students belonging to NSF and Baloch Students Organization, (BSO) who were allies, were agitating for their demands in Karachi, Hyderabad and Quetta. There was also unrest in NWFP, (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) where a student had fired upon and tried to shoot Ayub Khan unsuccessfully in Peshawar. Labour organisations were also on strike at some places in Karachi and in Punjab. This was not a coordinated effort, but the scenario at the time.

Newly formed PPP in the 1960s. Pictured above: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, General Akbar Khan, Mairaj Muhammad Khan and Sardar Inayatullah Khan Gandapur. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

Street agitation against Ayub

Bhutto told Mairaj Muhammad Khan that nothing would shake the Ayub regime unless the Punjab students joined the agitation and that he must do something to activate the NSF Punjab. Although NSF students at some colleges, including Gordon College Rawalpindi, were also protesting for their demands and against Ayub Khan, they did not seem to be making much impact.

However, the situation flared up when NSF students of the Polytechnic College Rawalpindi went on strike in October/November 1968. They pelted stones and blocked the strategic Peshawar road, which was also the main conduit between Peshawar and Rawalpindi. When the movement of army vehicles was affected, authorities pressured the civil administration (as later revealed by the deputy commissioner of that time) to restore traffic on Peshawar road and sort out the agitating students. The police, which was already using batons and teargas against the students, resorted to firing, killing one student Abdul Hameed in Saddar, Rawalpindi.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan lead the NSF to receive Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at Karachi Cantt Station in July 1966. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

Bhutto, who had been called by Mairaj Muhammad Khan to Rawalpindi, and was staying at the Inter-Continental Hotel, jumped into the fray as required, fraternized with the students and bared his chest and stated “don’t fire on my children, shoot me if you must.” These words of defiance spread like fire and slogans of “Jiye Bhutto” and “Ayub Khan Murdabad” spread across the province and critical mass was developed when Abdul Hameed’s body was taken to his village for burial. After that, students and the public came to the streets in all large and small towns of Punjab and joined the agitation. The spark created by the NSF led students resulted in the great democratic movement in which all political parties and anti-Ayub forces, including the Democratic Action Committee comprising of rightist parties led by Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, also participated.

The people of East Pakistan, who had been fuming since the Agartala conspiracy case instituted against Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman, joined the fray and despite all police teargas and baton charges, paralysed the Eastern province. All democratic elements – right, left and nationalist of NWFP, Sindh and Balochistan – joined the movement, resulting in Ayub’s decision not to contest the presidential elections later that year. This was firstly because of the failure of the round table conference called by him (boycotted by Bhutto and Maulana Bhashani) to reach an agreement, even though Ayub had agreed to adult franchise and one-man-one-vote which would restore the Bengali electoral majority that had been usurped by the 1956 constitution as well as his own constitution of 1962. Secondly, it was the payya-jam strike of the workers in West Pakistan and thirdly, the general strike in East Pakistan that finally resulted in the resignation of Ayub Khan and takeover by the martial law government of General Yahya Khan on March 25, 1969.

Bhutto comes to power

Soon after the 1970 elections, in which PPP won 82 out of 132 seats in West Pakistan and the Awami League won 161 out of 163 national assembly seats in East Pakistan, Bhutto visited Dhaka and engaged with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the popular choice of East Pakistan. By nature, Bhutto would always like to argue and negotiate. He argued “why not four points or four and a half points… instead of six,” during a party given by Sheikh Mujib ur Rehman on a steamer on the Buri Ganga in honour of the PPP delegation.

Mujib was irritated and lest his own MNAs react to what Bhutto said, took him and Mairaj Muhammad Khan aside and said that the time to make concessions would be during the National Assembly session which was to be called shortly and any decision to abandon the six points at this time would create turmoil in the country. Unfortunately, this was never allowed to happen.

A Pakistan Peoples Party delegation visits East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, following the 1970 election. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

On his home ground, so confident was Mujib of his support that he invited Bhutto to attend a jalsa in his own constituency. “Even in the Jalsa, when Bhutto asked the people “do you want two Pakistans of feudal and capitalist exploiters or do you want one Pakistan of the workers, peasants and the poor people?” the crowd replied loud and clear “Aik To Pakistan” (One Pakistan) , which showed how far Mujib and the people of East Pakistan were willing to reach a negotiated settlement in parliament and keep the country united.

But the breakup was inevitable when on February 27, Bhutto told his supporters at a mammoth rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore that he would not sit in the assembly that was due to meet on March 3, 1971. The statement eventually led to the postponement of the national assembly session by General Yahya Khan. This resulted in political turmoil which culminated in military action and the breakup of the country, although as late as March 7, 1971, at a rally at the Paltan Maidan held in protest against the postponement of the national assembly meeting, Mujib ended his speech with the slogans “Joi Bangla, Joi Pakistan.”

But the stigma of the role played by Bhutto in 1971 will always remain. When military action was unleashed by Yahya Khan on March 25, 1971 Bhutto returned from Dhaka the next day and said at Karachi Airport, “Thank God, Pakistan has been saved.” Mairaj Muhammad Khan, who had gone to receive him, disagreed, as was reported in some sections of the press.

In one memorable meeting with General Yahya Khan, in which Bhutto was accompanied by Mairaj Muhammad Khan in August or September 1971, Yahya threatened Bhutto that he could “fix up” the Peoples Party in no time. Mairaj Muhammad Khan countered that even if he arrested Bhutto, he could not subdue the party as it represented the overwhelming sentiment of the people and he only had to try. Yahya was so taken aback by this and for lack of a better response, angrily stuck out his tongue at Mairaj.

After this meeting, at a press conference in Rawalpindi the same day, Bhutto declared “I am an Asian revolutionary and an Anglo-Saxon parliamentarian… and if I am eliminated or arrested, Mairaj Muhammad Khan will be my revolutionary successor…” and after a moment’s pause said “I will be represented in parliament by Ghulam Mustafa Khar,” as Mairaj Muhammad Khan had not contested the elections and had chosen to look after party affairs instead.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, flanked by Mairaj Muhammad Khan, holds a press conference in Rawalpindi in 1971. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

And yet, there was much for Bhutto to do in the now truncated Pakistan. He gave the country a constitution with a strong socialist element to it. There were provisions for compensation of labourers, clauses against exploitation, recognition of labour rights, labour unions, tribunals and protection of workers. All this was done at the behest of the initial members of the party including Mairaj Muhammad Khan. But Bhutto also inserted some religious clauses as well, much against Mairaj Muhammad Khan’s advice, which were subsequently used not only by General Ziaul Haq but also by the right-wing religious parties and has over the decades brought us to our sorry state of affairs today.

Then President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto received by Mairaj Muhammad Khan, Hafeez Pirzada and Mehmood Shah. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

Fissures in the PPP and parting of ways

In the new party, within a year there was a tussle already under way. On one side was Mairaj Muhammad Khan and others who were left-of-center and who had fought tooth and nail for greater land reforms and democratization with their ideological opponents to bring the PPP to where it stood then, and on the other were detractors like Maulana Kausar Niazi, who was the religious affairs minister in Bhutto’s government.

In one instance, on Kausar Niazi’s instigation, Mairaj Muhammad Khan was asked to explain a speech he had made to workers. “It was a major ideological fight,” recalled Mairaj Muhammad Khan, which was recorded through an exchange of correspondence between him and Bhutto. Bhutto saw himself as in between the left and the right, which clearly was a mistake “because he was never a rightist even though he unnecessarily catered to them.”

1972 saw Mairaj Muhammad Khan becoming an advisor to the government with the status of a minister. His portfolio was public affairs. Differences on a host of issues led him to resign from the cabinet within a year, by early October 1972. “A lot of unknown people who had no link with the party had been accommodated and these people were landlords and from feudal backgrounds. They resented my pro-labour and pro-hari speeches and work,” he says.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan accompanied Bhutto to Russia in early 1972. Here, he is seen meeting then Russian premier Alexei Kosygin, along with Rafi Raza and Mian Arif Iftikhar. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

The resignation happened on the eve of the government’s crackdown on industrial workers, who were demonstrating on the call of the Labour Organising Committee at Dawood Cotton Mills in Landhi, Karachi.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan says that by that time it was clear that many of the feudals from the convention league of Ayub Khan had now joined the PPP and were taking over. The central executive committee, which initially comprised the party’s founder members, changed its composition. “There was now a mix of socialists, feudals, rightists and sycophants.”

On November 13, 1973 (“I clearly remember the date as it was the death anniversary of Hasan Nasir,” he says), Mairaj Muhammad Khan resigned from the central executive committee of the party.

Then on May 1, 1974 (Labour Day) there was a baton charge on teachers protesting for better working conditions. A member of the dreaded Federal Security Force (Bhutto’s secret police) attacked a female teacher. Mairaj Muhammad Khan came to the rescue and was injured as he tried to save the teacher and was hit in the head. With blood oozing out, he headed to the Sindh assembly to record his protest.

Mairaj Muhamamd Khan interfered in a protest by female teachers outside Quaid’s mazaar in May 74, during which he was ijured. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

But instead of seeing this as a genuine call to address the problems of the teachers, Bhutto was told that Mairaj Muhammad Khan had abused him, which was not true, but was sufficient provocation for Bhutto to authorise his arrest.

He was tried by a Special Tribunal first in Karachi and then in Hyderabad, but at both places his supporters would turn up in hundreds to cheer him and raise slogans against the government. The government then had him tried in Karachi Jail, where he was sentenced to four years.

Because of his injury, off and on there would be bleeding from his head, and after 15 months in jail he was transferred to the Spencer Eye Hospital on the recommendation of the Medical Board of senior doctors who feared that he had already lost one eye and might lose the other as well.

Even during incarceration whether in jail or in hospital, Bhutto kept sending Saeed Ahmad Khan, one of his security assistants, to tell Mairaj Muhammad Khan that he (Bhutto) would like to visit him and then order his release. Mairaj Muhammad Khan replied that there was no need for this because after serving his sentence, he himself would visit Bhutto and explain how the establishment and others succeeded in creating a rift not only between the two of them but also with other important leaders like J.A. Rahim, Mehmood Ali Kasuri, Mukhtar Rana, Abdul Khaliq Khan, Rasool Bux Talpur and Khurshid Hasan Mir, who were the founders of the party.

These stalwarts had in due course not only been replaced by feudals and opportunists, but Bhutto surrounded himself with infamous police officers such as Mian Anwar Ali (supposed to be responsible for the torture and death of socialist leader Hasan Nasir at the Lahore Fort in 1960), Mian Bashir Ahmad (who as DIG Karachi in the sixties had enjoyed torturing students in a failed attempt to crush the NSF movement) and the notorious Masood Mehmood, who became head of the FSF and whose later testimony helped General Zia in getting Bhutto convicted.

After this, Mairaj Muhammad Khan was also made an accused in the famous Hyderabad Tribunal, in the case of the State Vs Abdul Wali Khan and others, which also included Sardar Ataullah Khan Mengal (former CM Balochistan), Ghaus Bux Bizenjo (former Governor Balochistan) Sardar Khair Bux Marri (president NAP Balochistan) Sher Muhammad Marri (who led the Baloch armed resistance during Ayub’s era in the 60’s) Gul Khan Naseer (renowned Baloch poet and politician), Habib Jalib (the great Awami poet who shook the Ayub regime by his public rendering of his celebrated verses, “aise dastoor ko, subhe-be-noor ko , main nahin maanta, main nahin jaanta” in the presidential campaign of Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah against General Ayub) and a host of nationalist and leftist political workers.

That fateful July of 1977

The case was heard in Hyderabad where he and his fellow political prisoners were brought and placed in a cage-like enclosure during the proceedings. But soon enough, events overtook the situation and Bhutto was deposed by the military in July 1977. The case was withdrawn by General Ziaul Haq within six months of his takeover because he wanted to diffuse the conflict with Balochistan and the NAP, as Bhutto and PPP were now his main adversaries.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan recalls an interesting incident in Hyderabad when General Ziaul Haq came to see the nationalist Baloch and Pashtun politicians. Zia asked whether Mengal would like to take revenge for the murder of his son, Asadullah. Ataullah Mengal rebuffed him. “What about the others?” he said. “All Baloch are my children.” Looking back, Mairaj Muhammad Khan says that the actual champions of democracy in Pakistan were the Baloch, who did not cooperate with Ziaul Haq.

Recalling the honourable role played by the Baloch leaders, Mairaj Muhammad Khan was saddened by how someone like Nawab Akbar Bugti had been treated and killed, even though he had always stood on the side of Pakistan. Mairaj had spoken on telephone with the late Nawab a couple of days before his forced departure from Dera Bugti with some bodyguards. He said he rang up Nawab Bugti and told him that he feared for his (Nawab Bugti’s) life and that he should come and stay with him at his house in Karachi. Mairaj felt it would be impossible for the authorities to kill in a city residence. But Bugti replied that he knew what the authorities’ plan was and he would not let a Baloch kill him, as that is what those in power were planning. My death will clearly expose them, Bugti told Mairaj Muhammad Khan. The late Nawab said he had stood with Pakistan all his life and had been criticised by his friends in the Baloch leadership, who felt that he had betrayed the Baloch cause. Bugti now felt that they had been right and wanted to ensure that he came out clearly on the side of the Baloch people.

It was ironic that those founder members who had helped launch the PPP and could have played a role in saving democracy, (preventing martial law and dealing/negotiating with the PNA movement) had been sent to prison by Bhutto himself and witnessed his downfall from behind bars or as mere spectators.

Despite their differences, Mairaj Muhammad Khan gives credit to Bhutto for various winnings. “Bhutto was no ordinary man. For the first time a leader had mobilised the ordinary people of the country, the downtrodden, the workers and peasants, students and the middle class and defeated all the pro-establishment feudal forces in the 1970 elections…H e had introduced major reforms although at that time I felt they were not far reaching enough, but were more than what anyone else had done…he pioneered Pakistan’s nuclear programme and was threatened by Kissinger that they “would make a horrible example of him” if he tried to do so and that is just what happened. He was not just Pakistan’s leader but had become the spokesperson of the Muslim countries whose conference he chaired in 1974 in Lahore, much to the annoyance of the US and the Shah of Iran.”

“But why was it that such few people protested when Bhutto was hanged? Pakistan was quiet that day because all the original, sincere and committed leaders had been removed from the party. The ordinary PPP workers were leaderless as Benazir and Begum Bhutto were in confinement. It was quite tragic.”

Looking back, Mairaj Muhammad Khan regrets the split between him and Bhutto that was engineered by the rightists in the party, such as Kausar Niazi and others and the establishment. “How I wish I was in a position to save him,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders.

Decade of dictatorship

Under General Ziaul Haq’s regime, Mairaj Muhammad Khan found himself in jail repeatedly. He recalls that in 1978 the daily Musawaat (the organ of the PPP) had been banned and on the request of its staff and journalists, Mairaj Muhammad Khan addressed a press conference in Rawalpindi to condemn the act and demand the newspaper’s restoration. He later paid the price by six months imprisonment in Attock jail awarded by a summary military court. After a couple of months, he was told that he was being shifted to another jail (but the jail authorities did not disclose where he was being taken) and to his surprise the police mobile on reaching Rawalpindi drove him into the Army House, residence of president/CMLA General Ziaul Haq, who received him very warmly.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan protested to General Zia that he had been brought here against his will as a prisoner and that he had even refused to meet Bhutto while under imprisonment. Zia smilingly replied that he was no longer a prisoner but a free man and that he (Zia) merely wanted the pleasure of meeting someone whom he had heard so much about. “Hum bhi aap se mil ne ka sharf hasil karna chahte thay,” Zia said. The meeting was also attended by national security advisor Lt General Ghulam Hasan and among many other things, Zia said that he (Mairaj Muhammad Khan) should join his government as this was the time to settle scores with Bhutto considering how he (Mairaj) had been treated by the PPP founder. Mairaj Muhammad Khan, in response, said he could not join a military government and that if he had to do anything politically, he would decide for himself.

“Zia asked why do you say Bhutto should not be hanged. I said as politicians we can oppose, contest against and defeat each other, but we do not seek each other’s elimination and Bhutto’s hanging would do grievous harm to the country.” Zia then said he would only do what the Supreme Court judges decide. To this, Mairaj Muhammad Khan said, “One knows what they will decide under a martial law government.”

Among other things, Zia asked Mairaj Muhammad Khan to develop a Mohajir constituency and look after their interests. Mairaj responded that Mohajirs were still better off than the Sindhis and other communities, and any attempt to introduce ethnic politics in Karachi may temporarily be in his (Zia’s) interest, but would not be in the interest of the country or Karachi itself, whose people, belonging to all ethnic communities, had always been united as the bastion of democratic movements. Zia asked him to think about his offer and that he would be willing to help in any way required.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan says that Zia was very clever for his own sinister purposes and said: “Do you remember what you said when you came out of jail?” Mairaj Muhammad Khan asked what he was referring to. General Zia said he had read in the press that he (Mairaj) had said to his followers to “oppose martial law, expose the PPP and unite with the people.” Mairaj recalls that Zia said jovially, “I accept your terms, for I know you will oppose martial law…go ahead I cannot stop you…but how about the second part of exposing the PPP which you had stated….let us shake hands on that.”

Mairaj Muhammad Khan was taken aback by Zia’s skillfulness and for lack of a more nuanced response said “Main kiraye par kaam nahi karta.” In response, Zia said “of course you don’t…I know that…you misunderstand me….” The meeting ended and later Mairaj Muhammad Khan addressed a press conference in Saddar, Rawalpindi and revealed all that had transpired in his meeting with General Zia.

Movement for the restoration of democracy

In 1981, Mairaj Muhammad Khan helped form the MRD (Movement for the restoration of Democracy), an alliance initially of eight parties led by Begum Nusrat Bhutto against the martial law regime of General Ziaul Haq. The alliance was meant to restore the constitution of 1973, and to protect the rights of the federating units. Mairaj went to prison the same night in early 1981 from Kasuri House and was kept in Lahore and Faisalabad jails for 14 months.

A meeting of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the late 80s. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

In 1983, he was brutally hit on the head by the police on his way to an MRD meeting at Sardar Sher Baz Mazari’s house (to recover from the injury, he had to go to London for medical treatment in 1985 as his condition deteriorated). The MRD was formally launched on August 14, 1983 and Mairaj Muhammad Khan was arrested along with Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, Khwaja Khairuddin and thousands of workers who courted arrest or were picked up by the police. Zia died in a plane crash in August 1988, which paved the way for elections and the coming to power of Benazir Bhutto. The rest, as they say, is history.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan clashed with the police on his way to Sherbaz Khan Mazari’s house for a meeting of the MRD in 1983. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

Mairaj Muhammad Khan was released from custody in mid-1985 to go to England for medical treatment. He is pictured above with MRD members in London. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

Mairaj Muhammad Khan may not have achieved his political goals but his consistent struggle and sacrifices against dictatorship and authoritarianism for over 40 years and his identification with the downtrodden and poor, workers, peasants and middle classes, as well as the oppressed nationalities be they Sindhis, Pashtun and Baloch, has made him a revered leader, an iconic example or role model for what a leader fighting for the common people should be. A type of leader this country sorely needs.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan giving an address. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION

He may be largely forgotten today given the current opportunism in politics, but he must be remembered. Mairaj Muhammad Khan is unwell but whenever his condition allows, he is still enthusiastic about all that happened and especially concerned about what the future should be. He supports the war on terror as vital to our existence but feels it should become a countrywide movement of students, political workers, parties, social activists, women and labour organizations – a movement of all concerned citizens who desire peace and reform for a progressive Pakistan.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan addresses a rally in Karachi’s Nishtar Park in 1970. All political activity was banned till January 1. Bhutto launched his campaign on January 2, 1970. PHOTO: MM KHAN COLLECTION