Remembering Lal Khan

Interview with Farooq Tariq

By Dr. Qaisar Abbas

It was the tumultuous year of 1977 when a young medical student challenged the worst kind of military dictatorship in Pakistan. Later he was expelled from his college to protest the execution of prime minister Z. A. Bhutto by General Ziaul Haq.

He was seriously wounded later when some men brutally attacked him, and he had to leave the country to save his life. Popularly known as Lal Khan, he became the known Marxist leader, pollical activist, and an ardent idealogue of Pakistan.

This progressive stalwart, who left his career as a physician to work for democracy and achieving the dream of an egalitarian society, left this world on February 21, last year, in Lahore.

Imtiaz Alam, one of his friends and journalist, narrates what he saw at his funeral in these words:

“We saw hundreds of people crying when we arrived at his funeral in his ancestral village of Bhoun in Chakwal. Villagers were surprised to see hundreds of people with red flags chanting revolutionary songs”.   

As we are celebrating his life and legacy, one of his close friends Farooq Tariq, remembers Lal Khan’s life-long struggle for the rights of farmers, workers, and the disadvantaged in Pakistan in the following interview:

You have been a long-time friend of Lal Khan and stood by him through thick and thin. Please discuss his life and how did he involve in progressive politics?

I met Yasrab Tanvir Gondal, popularly known as Lal Khan, in 1980 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. He was introduced to me by late Asif Mahmood, who was a cousin of Tanvir Gondal. Tanvir had just arrived in Amsterdam through Bangkok after his life was in danger in Pakistan. It was June 1980, and I was also in exile in the Netherlands as head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Netherlands chapter.

Lal Khan was introduced to thebLeft politics while he was a student leader at the Nishtar Medical College (NMC) after General Zia Ul Haque took over in July 1977. He was rusticated from NMC and sent to the Rawalpindi Medical College. Some armed men attacked and wounded him and his friends, including Dr. Khalid Javed Jan, father of Dr. Ammar Ali Jan.

He narrowly survived the attack and had to leave the country to take political asylum in  Belgium. Both of us started Marxist study circles for Pakistani immigrants based in Amsterdam and launched our paper “The Struggle” in November 1980. For the rest of the 40 years, we were close friends and comrades.

Lal Khan was a die-hard supporter of labor unions and farmers and fought selflessly for their rights. Please elaborate on how both of you struggled for workers in Pakistan. 

While coming back from exile in 1986, our group called The Struggle started building trade unions in different public and private sectors. One of our main contributions to the Pakistani labor movement is to start the campaign against privatization back in 1989. I wrote the first article against privatization in Jeddojehad entitled “Benazir Bhutto on the path of Margret Thatcher”. We also established the first alliance of trade unions against privatization called “Anti Denationalisation Action Committee (ADNAC). We were successfully able to stop Benazir Bhutto from privatizing Muslim Commercial Bank. We organized workers’ rallies at Kala Shah Kako and Neela Gunbad of Lahore, attracting thousands of workers. However, after Nawaz Sharif came into power, ADNAC was abandoned by some trade union leaders and went to opt for the Golden Hand Shake despite our opposition.

In later years, Lal Khan’s main contribution was to organize Pakistan Trade Unions Defense Campaign (PTUDC), which became an influential political and trade union platform. It still plays a vital role in defending the trade unions.

As you know, he suffered for his bold resistance to dictatorships in Pakistan. Could you discuss his opposition to the draconian rule of General Ziaul Haq?

After hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in April 1979, Lal Khan, a student at the Nishtar Medical College, organized his Ghaibana Namaz-e-Jinaza despite all the threats from the military dictatorship. Lal Khan won the election of the student union and became its general secretary.

He was rusticated and sent to Rawalpindi. Son of a military colonel, he was initially tolerated and was only rusticated. Later, when he confronted General Zia Ul Haque’s daughter, who was also a student at the same college, he was attacked physically by military men at the college premises. However, he was able to save his life while some other students were seriously injured. He had to leave the country just after that incident.

He also wrote regularly on progressive issues, Marxism, and socio-economic equality. What were his ideological tenets on creating a just and equal society in Pakistan?

While we were in exile, we were introduced to Committee for Workers International (CWI) by Karamat Ali, who was on a visit to Amsterdam. CWI was a powerful Marxist group mainly in the UK. CWI has a small Dutch Marxist group, and we both, along with others, became its members. This group subscribed to the ideological philosophy of Leon Trotsky.

In Amsterdam, we studied works of Marx, Angles, Lenin, and Leon Trotsky, including ‘Socialism Made Easy” by James Connelly, “Communist Manifesto”, “State and Revolution”, “History of Russian Revolution,” and many more.

We were fascinated by Leon Trotsky’s writings, who wrote extensively against Stalinist ideas as he believed in a genuine, democratic-socialist revolution, but we were never orthodox Marxists. We were able to make sense of Marxist ideology linking it to everyday realities.

Lal Khan is also known as a political activist and idealogue internationally. Would you like to discuss his global activities and association with international organizations?

Lal Khan always believed that “Marxism is internationalism or nothing”.  Along with me, he was a member of the International Committee of Workers, whose headquarter was in London.

We both also became the foremost leaders of CWI despite in exile. When there was a grouping in CWI on building the party, Lal Khan sided with Ted Grant, a giant figure in Marxist circles internationally after WWII, while I was with Peter Taafe, editor of the Weekly Militant. We both parted our ways during 1992-2006 but reconciled our differences and remained comrades like we were in exile.

Lal Khan was the founder of International Marxist Tendency (IMT) after departure from CWI. He developed differences with IMT in 2016/17 and left it. He was also a member of the International Committee of Fourth International when he passed away. He was elected to this body in a Fourth International Congress held in Belgium in 2017.

He was also a close associate of Workers International Network (WIN), headed by Roger Silverman, our common teacher during the exile period.

His group The Struggle has a Permanent Observer status at the Forth International.

Lal Khan was editor of Asian Marxist Review at the time of his death. He wrote extensively for several International Marxist journals. He was the author of dozens of books and wrote regular columns for several Urdu dailies. One of his last initiatives was to launch Daily Jeddojehad online in April 2019 as our joint initiative. 

In your opinion, how can we continue his legacy and work?

Lal Khan was the lifeline for Pakistan’s Marxist circle. He was able to build the largest organization, The Struggle, on a Marxist ideology. He was a motivator, educationist, a great orator, a keen reader, a team builder, and he helped build thousands of Marxist cadres in Pakistan.

One of his last political initiatives was to form the Lahore Left Front. This group helped organize the historic Mochi Gate public meeting where Manzoor Pashteen, Ali Wazeer, Muhsin Dawar, Hina Jilani, Salima Hashmi, myself, and many more spoke to thousands.

We have to continue his Marxist legacy and continue supporting his group and his initiatives like Daily Jeddojehad.  His work on strengthening trade unions, youth organizations, and other groups should ultimately establish Pakistan’s mass workers party.

The main aim is a Socialist Revolution in Pakistan and internationally. That is only possible with the working class’s conscious participation, the only class that can overthrow capitalism and feudalism.

Dr. Qaisar Abbas is a freelance journalist and academic scholar based in the United States. He has recently coedited “From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media State, and Scociety in Pakistan” (Routledge, 2020).

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