1968 and Ever Since: An Interview with Tariq Ali (Part 1)


In Part 1 of this two-part interview, Tariq Ali reflects on his memories of the 1968 movement in Pakistan, arguably the only unequivocal success of the wave of protests that shook the world.


Veteran activist and intellectual, Tariq Ali, generously gave his time to Jamhoor for an interview. We discussed the trajectory of the global Left since the heady days of 1968 – the year of street revolts and agitations that reverberated across the world, from the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States, to students’ and workers’ protests in Mexico, France, and all over Europe. Having participated in these agitations across Europe, Ali was also centrally involved in the mass uprising in Pakistan, which brought an end to a decade of military dictatorship under Ayub Khan.

In this two-part conversation, we touch upon a wide range of issues – from Ali’s recollections of the ‘68-69 movements (Part I), to the trajectory of the Left ever since (Part II).

Throughout, Ali maintains a resolutely internationalist outlook, in keeping with the universalist ideals of 1968-69, the revolutionary street fighting years.

Ayyaz Mallick (AM) – This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 protest movements. Your book on these events in Pakistan was also re-published this year – Uprising in Pakistan: How to Bring Down a Dictatorship. You have often said that Pakistan was perhaps the only unequivocal success of the ‘68 movements – the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan was toppled. But many people might not know this. Can you give us a sense of that time “from below” – through your own experience with the movement, the events, the sentiments, the structure of feeling of people on the ground?

Tariq Ali (TA) – Well I was in Britain, having left in 1963, but I'd started getting phone calls, letters, and messages saying it’s better for me to come back! And then before everything blew up, Raja Anwar, a Rawalpindi student leader, sent a telegram saying, “On behalf of the Students Action Committee in Rawalpindi, we invite you to come and give an address”. So I left and by the time I got there, in January 1969, the movement was in full flow.

A student leader from Rawalpindi, Raja Anwar played a key role in the Rawalpindi upsurge taking a political direction in November 1968. He was marginalised from the government-controlled press owing to his known left-wing views. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali,    Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?

A student leader from Rawalpindi, Raja Anwar played a key role in the Rawalpindi upsurge taking a political direction in November 1968. He was marginalised from the government-controlled press owing to his known left-wing views. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?

It started on 7th November 1968 – the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. But no one knew that! You know, when I was a student in Pakistan, I used to travel; under restrictions sometimes, but I did travel. This time, there were no restrictions at all! So, Habib Jalib and I went all over West Pakistan. He would recite poems and I would give a speech in Urdu or Punjabi. And you got a real feeling of how political consciousness changes. I’ve never got that feeling anywhere else, never on that scale. People were incredibly radicalised, and of course they wanted to get rid of the dictatorship of Ayub Khan, but it went beyond that. All their questions came up – why do we live like this? Has God ordained that the poor should always be poor? These questions, you know, from ordinary people.

And then I remember very well, arriving at Rawalpindi airport – I was amazed. There were thousands and thousands of students. We marched in a huge procession of trucks, which they’d hired, to the city…to some big place. It might have been the same place where Liaquat Ali Khan and Benazir Bhutto were killed. Some local progressives came and whispered in my ear that “the Jamaat-e-Islami [JI, the largest Islamist party] is going to present you” – deliberately, as a provocation – “with a little pocket Quran”. And, indeed, a JI man came and made a few sarcastic comments, and said, “Please accept this present”. And I said, “Thank you, I will read it very carefully,” and put it in my pocket. That’s all.

I remember going to Lyallpur [now Faisalabad] and there was a huge crowd of workers. Mega. And, obviously, I spoke about Pakistan, and ending the dictatorship, but I also spoke about workers’ democracy – that what we need in Pakistan is a workers’ and peasants’ government, not these old politicians, landlord-politicians, etc. And they responded with huge cheers, and lots of questions like “How will we get rid of these politicians?” And I said, “You are getting rid of them, parties have been created…. The way is to have candidates against them in the elections and vote them out. Why should they have this power over you?” And they would tell me why they had this power – not the workers so much, but the peasant leaders I spoke to. They said, “Hamari zindagi inn kay haathon mein hai” (our lives are in their hands). Which is true, you know! And, “maar deyn gay humeyn” (they will kill us). I said, “Ab nahin maareyn gay. Ye mauqa hai” (not anymore. This is the opportunity). So I learnt a lot, much more than one learns from books, just by talking to ordinary people, listening, and replying to questions. I never lectured them, apart from at public meetings. It was very formative and educative for me.

Tayyaba Jiwani (TJ) – And how were you and other Left student leaders looking at Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)? After all, it emerged as the political force which gained the most from the movement.

TA You know, my family, immediate family, was always on the Left, and it’s not that I hadn’t met Pakistani trade unionists or peasant leaders before. But they had all been attached to the Left. This time, you were meeting people who were not attached to anyone, and they were speaking openly. And it’s in this period that I realized, in a very vivid way, that unless there were serious land reforms in this country, we were going to be screwed up for some time to come. That this was key to changing the country. Just ending landlordism, not by bullshit reforms (508 acres but you can have 2000 acres if you have an orchard, or 3000 acres if you have a stud farm and all this nonsense). It had to go! So I started saying it in all my speeches, and others did too — students etc.

The grip of the landlord class on Pakistan was there from the very beginning. Pakistan was a landlords’ country: created by landlords for landlords, with the exception of East Pakistan, where most of the big landlords were Hindus. So you had a strange class-religion conflation and oppression, which is why the movement for Pakistan was very popular in East Pakistan, much more than the West. In the West, the Pashtuns voted against it, the Punjab was run by a landlords’ party (the secular Unionist party), the Baloch were forced into it, and the Sindhis were run by landlords. Effectively, the Punjabi and Sindhi landlords were for Pakistan, and they were dominant. It's worth remembering this, because of the stranglehold of landlords in this country!

Someone did a survey in ‘67/68 that all the landlords who were once part of the Unionist Party (which had collaborated with the British), without exception, were later in the Muslim League, the ruling party at the time. This is no big secret. And later, when the PPP came to power, it was amazing to watch right before one’s eye, that these landlords were slipping, gently and slowly, into the PPP. First, they backed Ayub, then the PPP, then they moved to another party. Later, many of them joined Nawaz Sharif. So they’ve had this grip, though it’s been weakened by the rise of a new capitalist class, especially the huge rise of petty bourgeois layers in the towns. The growth of the towns has changed things – the MQM (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) is a classic example of the petty bourgeois layers in Karachi creating their own party, linked to their past as refugees.

I think a big mistake was made by Bhutto, and I had many arguments with him before the PPP was set up. They came to see me – he and J.A. Rahim [Pakistan’s then ambassador to France] – with the party manifesto. I was very young; this was in London in 1966. Bhutto had been sacked by Ayub, and Rahim had just resigned.

Bhutto handed me the party manifesto and said, “Parho” (Read). So I went into the next room to read it, and thought, what am I going to say to these guys, because it's very—I mean it means well, but it's not going to deliver… I was very nervous, especially about the references to Islam and all that. I just felt instinctively, given that the National Awami Party was secular, and there were other smaller parties that had no recourse to religion, that this was a hostage to fortune. So I came back and declined the offer to join as a founding member of the party. I said, “I can't join a party which proclaims that it's a… sort of also a religious party.” And Bhutto says “You’re mad! This is Pakistan, you know, hum Cuba ki nahi baat kar rahe!” (we are not talking about Cuba!)

I said, “Sir, I know the country — not as well as you, but I have some idea, and I think it’s a big political error.”

He said, “How are we going to defeat these bloody Jamaat-e-Islami?”

I said, “Not by this route.”

So he asked, “You won't sign it?”

I said, “I mean, I’m embarrassed because there are many good things in it… but the key for me is land reforms. That would be my main reason for joining, to finish off the landlords as a class.”

Massive workers’ demonstration in Lahore. Banner (centre) reads, ‘End the ban on trade unions’. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali,    Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?

Massive workers’ demonstration in Lahore. Banner (centre) reads, ‘End the ban on trade unions’. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?

TJ – What do you think Bhutto expected from you?

TA – I think at that point he was keen that I be part of the party… he wanted some leftists in it, like Meraj Muhammad Khan in Karachi, who’s an old friend of mine from when I was still in Pakistan.

TJ – But he wanted uncritical membership?

TA – Oh, without any doubt. From the beginning, there was no doubt about that. I mean, had he been a different kind of a person, we might have benefited the whole country. And don't forget that he was brought up by the dictatorship. And under the guy he was scared of the most – the Nawab of Kalabagh, the governor of West Pakistan, who was a brute! And you know he [Bhutto] said all sorts of things, “we need a young vigorous Foreign Minister like you to defend the [party]” all this sort of stuff. I wasn’t taken in by that.

TJ – I’m curious to know what the participation of women was like in the ‘68 movement, at the leadership level and in the rank and file.

TA – Leadership level, very weak; on the rank-and-file level, it was huge. Mostly students… not many professionals, but they were there. In West Pakistan, if you look at the social composition of the demonstrations in Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi, Lyallpur, Hyderabad, Balochistan (which was the least affected by the way), Peshawar, everywhere I did meetings, there were surprisingly large numbers of women. And it depended on which part of the country you were in, but I remember speaking at a meeting in Rawalpindi, and the bulk of the audience was women. Most of them wearing hijab, or even burqa.

TJ – And the questions and demands that were coming from the women, were they on issues of freedom for women or reproductive politics, or just focused on the dictatorship at that point?

TA – No, there were no questions to me about the rights of women or the condition of women – none. Very noticeable because in Europe, this was also a time of the birth of the women's liberation movement. The questions were the questions being asked by every radical – what to do afterwards, the social conditions of the country, education… When discussing education, I always used to stress that when I'm talking about free education for all, I mean our young women as well. From when they become of school age, they have to be educated right up to university level. And the men were slightly nervous, it has to be said, when I said this, but not to the extent that they’d want to oppose me. The women used to look but they never said anything.

Seeing a room packed with women, most of whom (I would say 60%) were wearing hijabs and burqas, I used to remind them that one of the important things in the Freedom Movement [for Pakistan] was Jinnah’s public appeals to Muslim women to come out of their homes, “discard their veils and burkas”, and participate. And they came out in huge numbers. That would have an impact: they’d look at each other, etc. That was the way I did it.

AM – And you were speaking from the platform of the student movement?

TA – Yes, but not just; and the audiences varied. Left parties were often active and, for instance, I can’t remember their name – the Maoists, tiny groups though they were, were the ones most hostile to the movement. But the pro-Moscow communists and other progressives, independent-minded progressives, were all part of the movement by now, and part of the organising committees. So, for instance, at Lyallpur I was invited by people from the National Awami Party (NAP). The size of the workers’ attendance was quite amazing. I would say the majority were workers.

Tariq Ali addressing a workers’ demonstration in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) circa 1969. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali,    Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?

Tariq Ali addressing a workers’ demonstration in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) circa 1969. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?

AM – The ‘68-69 movement in Pakistan was heavily dominated by Left-tendency youth. Why then did a strong independent Left fail to emerge out of that movement, granted later repression by General Zia ul Haq etc. When you look back, do you or others involved feel things could have been done a bit differently?

TA – There was no Left party as such. The communist parties had been banned, were underground, were working within the National Awami Party, were split into pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing groups… which was criminal, when you think of it now. Had there been a single strong party of the Left, I think the PPP would have found it very difficult to get a hearing. But, if you look at the mistake – the pro-Moscow communists were for the uprising, without any doubt, but the Maoists were not, because of reasons I’ve written about many times. They now get embarrassed by this, and try to cover it up, but that’s a fact. They were not for it. So these divisions on the Left, plus the fact that there was no real tradition in West Pakistan of the Left after Partition – the bulk of the Communists, in this part of the country pre-Partition, were Hindus and Sikhs who migrated away. The Muslims were always a minority in the pre-Partition Left, and this included the trade unions, the political parties, and the intelligentsia — which in Lahore was very strong, but the radical wing of that intelligentsia was largely non-Muslim.

And this was common to both parts of Pakistan – East Pakistan, Bangladesh as it is now, had a much stronger tradition of the Left because quite a few Hindus didn't go to India. There was a Bengali consciousness – “Ye tou humara desh hai” (this is our land). And they were quite strong in the movement, the pro-Moscow wing. Most of the top Hindu leftists participated in the movement in East Pakistan. Very few people write about this, because even the Bengalis are a bit embarrassed, but that’s just a fact.

And then, the state – the military and the civilian bureaucracy – never allowed political parties to develop. You know when there was a danger that an anti-imperialist government would be voted in which would break with the US-sponsored pacts [SEATO and CENTO], the military organised a coup – in October 1958, which brought Ayub to power.

AM – And when you went to East Pakistan during the ‘68-69 protests, what was the mood there like?

Revolutionary student leader, Mahbubullah addresses a gathering of workers, students, and peasants estimated over one million strong at the Dhaka racecourse. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali,    Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?

Revolutionary student leader, Mahbubullah addresses a gathering of workers, students, and peasants estimated over one million strong at the Dhaka racecourse. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power?

TA – You know, when I arrived in Dhaka as part of the movement, the reception I got was virtually the same as in the West. And I spoke, I think, in ‘69, to a meeting in Dhaka under the famous Amtala tree on the campus of Dhaka university… and thousands were present! I first asked in Urdu, “Which language should I speak in, Urdu or Punjabi? I don’t know how to speak Bengali.”

“English! English! English! English! English!”, the crowd chanted, which confirmed what I’d been feeling already.

So I then spoke in English, and I said to them, “You seem too complacent. Because I know the Punjabis well, and the military”. I said, “Have no doubt, that rather than concede to your demands, which I agree with – they're very moderate in my opinion – rather than concede to these demands, they will crush you. Physically”.

And I still remember, there was a complete hush. Normally, they’d interrupt my speech with chants. But now, complete silence! Later that day, I went to stay at the house of a National Awami Party (NAP) leader, and someone arrived. The NAP leader said, “Sheikh Mujib [leader of the Awami League and later the Bangladesh liberation movement] wants to see you tonight”.

The Awami League, by the way, became what it did in that period for the very same reasons that the PPP did in West Pakistan: left-wing divisions, most of the Maoist groups backing the dictatorship, a split and divided left. I think I wrote in one of my books about Maulana Bhashani, the peasant leader, telling me Chou-En Lai had actually said to him in Beijing – “The Ayub government is an anti-imperialist government”. And I said, “Maulana, why did you agree to this?” He said: “bhai, woh Cheen kay leader hain, woh tou inquilab laaye hain…” (He’s the leader of China, he has brought a revolution…)

Anyway, I had wanted to see Mujib to interview him for my book. And he was very sweet. After I interviewed him, he said, “I got a report of what you said at Dhaka University this afternoon. Are you a 100% sure, Tariq bhai?” I said, “Sir, of course I’m sure. I mean, you’ve lived in this country, you’ve been charged with conspiracy, and the country – your part of the country – is boiling. The temperature’s much higher than in the West. I haven’t seen political consciousness like this — just bubbling! And, if I know this, you think the rulers of Pakistan aren’t aware of it?… and of course, they’re hysterical. So if you think your demands are going to be met by them, it’s never going to happen. This is a ruling elite which knows its mind and will not tolerate any dissent.”

And he was quite honest, and said “I’m very disappointed to hear that.” Now, he used to be a genuine Pakistan supporter, Mujib… and so was Bhashani. But they were unprepared! Had they been prepared, it's quite possible the massacre could have been avoided.

But what I also noticed, in East Pakistan, was that the women were fantastically active. Most of them wore saris. There's a picture, I think, in one of my books, of the women in Dhaka students marching in white clothes and barefoot on the streets. They were marching in solidarity with students who had been killed all over Pakistan. Just a silent demonstration of women. I mean, as far as the level of consciousness goes – political consciousness – there’s no doubt that the Bengalis were light years ahead. And they had their tradition as well. The Communist Party had been relatively strong, lots of leaders of Hindu origin hadn’t gone to India, had carried on working… so it was a different atmosphere. And the women were very upfront, in private and public, asking questions, putting me on the spot about this and that. I was very impressed by that.

Women students in Dhaka (then East Pakistan) march bare-footed and silent in solidarity with students who have died in the struggle. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins,    1968, Marching in the Streets   .

Women students in Dhaka (then East Pakistan) march bare-footed and silent in solidarity with students who have died in the struggle. Reprinted with permission — Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins, 1968, Marching in the Streets.

TJ – And what were the kind of questions they were asking?

TA – It’s a long time ago, but they were mainly about what was happening in Europe, in the world, in West Pakistan. They asked about women’s organizations. In Dhaka, in East Pakistan in general, women actively participated in the movement and quite a few were on the Students’ Action Committee – not quite a few, I shouldn’t exaggerate, but more than in the other part of the country.

And then I went on a tour of East Pakistan with Bhashani – by that time he’d realised this movement was very important – and we would make speeches. I said the Sino-Soviet split has been a disaster for the Left, completely. It's like religion, with parties mimicking one side or the other, rather than developing an independent understanding. We travelled all over, and sometimes we would walk on foot. And this guy [Bhashani], who was then in his late eighties, exhausted me! You know, walking from one village to the other.

I liked him a lot… and he sort of reveled in the description of “Maulana. But what was quite funny is that he used to pretend in Bengal that he was fluent in Arabic (chuckles). One day – I wasn't there but I was told this – a lot of his followers (peasants, some young intellectuals, etc.) were sitting around him, and the Egyptian ambassador came to call on Bhashani. The ambassador spoke in Arabic, having heard that Bhashani spoke Arabic, but he was a bit puzzled at Bhashani’s replies. Anyway, it was a courtesy call so he left, but on the way back, the ambassador said to the Bengali civil servant accompanying him, “You know, it was wonderful to meet this old peasant leader…What I couldn't understand is, whenever I asked him a question or said anything, he just replied back with quotations from the Quran!” So, there was that side to him too!

This is Part 1 of a two-part interview with veteran activist and intellectual Tariq Ali. In Part 2, Ali closely examines the trajectory of the global Left since the upheavals of '68-69.