Mairaj Mohammad Khan (Part 4) – Bhutto and the NSF

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TFT Issue: 27 Jan 2017

The late Mairaj Muhammad Khan recalls Bhutto’s emergence as a populist ‘saviour’: in his own words, interviewed, translated and researched by Faisal Sayani

Fatima versus Ayub

In Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracies elections, almost all of our candidates won, badly beating not only Ayub’s candidates but also Ms. Fatima Jinnah’ candidates. That was NSF’s experiment [National Students’ Federation] of contesting some constituencies in order to expose the ‘Basic Democracies’ scam. That was followed by the presidential election of 1965 which was contested between Fatima Jinnah and Ayub Khan.

Obviously, we sided with Ms. Jinnah. NSF boys roamed around with lanterns (Ms Jinnah’s election symbol) in the city [Karachi] and campaigned for her more than the opposition political parties that supported her. To begin with, Ayub’s self-serving 1962 constitution was under fire. Secondly, we were strictly against his Sharif Commission (National Education Commission).

Ms. Jinnah invited me over while my arrest warrant was in effect. I’d go there in disguise using a cap, etc. And, the intelligence people, being intelligence people, never suspected [a thing]. She cried, “Bacha log (boys)¸ what are you up to? Do you want another martial law to be imposed here?”  I replied, “No, no, we have resisted martial law all our lives. Even today, we are standing there in your support and chanting slogans against Ayub Khan. Who says we are trying to bring about martial law?” She said, “Okay, but don’t cause too much of a commotion!”

There might be some differences amongst the leaders [of opposition political parties] but students unanimously supported Ms. Jinnah. We told them (the party leaders) that the public were generally against Ayub. I’d give speeches against the regime in different areas and places like Laloo Khet and an imambargah. And when the police arrived I’d escape from the alternate routes, sometimes entering and exiting a series of houses in areas like Martin Quarters (Karachi). People helped and supported us.

Seen here with Pakistan's first military strongman Ayub Khan, Ms. Fatima Jinnah ran a courageous - if eventually unsuccessful - campaign against him

Seen here with Pakistan’s first military strongman Ayub Khan, Ms. Fatima Jinnah ran a courageous – if eventually unsuccessful – campaign against him

“Bhutto agreed with me on a lot of issues – land reforms, foreign policy, military agreements and a movement to put the bureaucracy right” (Mairaj Muhammad Khan)

Ayub khan created the Electoral College which consisted of 80,000 Basic Democrats through the Basic Democracies election for his presidential election in 1965. During the election campaign, Muhammad Shoaib, then finance minister, was being sent to us in order to quieten down the students’ movement. A temporary moratorium was established that I would not be arrested for the next 12 hours. My arrest warrants were out and they had been looking for me everywhere and houses were being raided. After consulting my fellow NSF activists, I agreed to meet him. He asked if I had the list of our demands with me. I gave him the pamphlet. He assured me that the government will accept almost all of our demands: “We will make the announcement on radio. You can hear it yourself.” I was pleasantly surprised. I said, “I am glad that you are taking an interest in resolving students’ issues. Please go ahead.” That’s when he revealed his real motive: “But you’ll have to do us a little favour too. Just declare that you will stay neutral in the upcoming presidential election (1965).” I turned the offer down: “We will not abandon Fatima Jinnah. And staying neutral is out of question whether you do or do not accept our demands.” That proved to be a deal-breaker.

The movement began. And so did the clashes. People were persecuted and jailed. The good thing that came out of it was that the whole student community stood up against the hooligans hired by the Muslim League. Ms. Jinnah secured more votes than Ayub in Karachi.

Ayub Khan put me in jail for 9 months. I was still in jail during 1965 war when the superintendent of the jail told me that the government wanted me to address the youth through the radio, asking them to unite against India’s aggression. I knew how to give speeches. Not only did I do so, I also organised a procession against India’s invasion, which consisted of no less than 100,000 people.

Fatima Jinnah won the support of all stripes of pro-democracy opinion in Pakistan, including progressives and leftists such as the National Students' Federation (NSF)

Fatima Jinnah won the support of all stripes of pro-democracy opinion in Pakistan, including progressives and leftists such as the National Students’ Federation (NSF)


Bhutto rises

When Ayub Khan defeated Fatima Jinnah through bogus votes and his electoral college, people turned against him in West Pakistan. People of East Pakistan hated him anyway. Consequently, when in 1966 after the Tashkent declaration (Jan 05, 1966) Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto parted ways with Ayub (some people say Ayub chucked him out but Bhutto insisted that he refused to compromise on his principles and he quit) people looked up to him. He emerged as a popular leader after his speech at the Security Council (September 22, 1965) as foreign minister during the war. It felt as if a young man from the Third World stood up for his country’s freedom. His heated words: “We will wage a war for a thousand years, a war of self-defense… irrespective of our size, of our resources, we will fight till the end” appealed to the youth and he became a hero of sorts.

After quitting the government in June 1966, Bhutto boarded a train in Rawalpindi that headed to Lahore. Many MNAs and MPAs, including Ghulam Mustafa Khar, saw him off at the station. He was given a warm welcome by the swarms of youngsters that included NSF boys at every station that the train stopped at. Anti-Ayub slogans were being chanted. More than 50,000 people gave him a hero’s welcome at the railway station in Lahore. People would throw flower petals at him. One would kiss his hands, another would run around carrying the handkerchief with which he wiped his tears. Emotions ran high and you could feel the love for Bhutto in the air.

When we (NSF) found out about Bhutto’s arrival in Karachi, we organised a huge procession at Cantonment Railway Station to welcome him. I remember Mumtaz Mehkri barging into Bhutto’s compartment and asking him over and over: “Say something against imperialism. Say something against the Army, or Ayub Khan”. And he’d say, “Yes, yes, I will!”

That orthopedic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Ali Shah who lives in Nazimabad, Karachi, tried creating confusion by claiming in his book and in a television interview that he arranged that welcome gathering at the station – which is an absolute lie. He was not even present there.

Thousands of NSF boys, after receiving Bhutto at the station followed him to his home. In the evening that day Bhutto invited us over and we presented him a document containing suggestions on foreign policy which he seemed to like. Besides myself, Rasheed Hassan Khan, Jauhar Hussain and many others whose names I can’t recall were also present.

Mairaj Muhammad Khan (1938-2016) - lifelong opponent of authoritarian and military regimes in Pakistan

Mairaj Muhammad Khan (1938-2016) – lifelong opponent of authoritarian and military regimes in Pakistan


Bhutto and the NSF – a love story?

A week or so later while I was busy in my routine chores, I heard some noise coming from outside the house that I used to stay in. Boys in the neighborhood were screaming “Jeay Bhutto!” When I peeked through a jafri (lattice) I saw Z.A. Bhutto standing there in the street. After greeting him I said, “You should have sent for me. Why did you bother?” He went, “I came here because you guys told me that you were against Ayub Khan, but it seems you have compromised with him”. I asked, “Who says so?” “You would have been out there in the field had you been willing to fight the regime!” he challenged. I said, “We are fighting it, not because of you. We’ve been fighting since you were Ayub’s minister. We fought against his martial law and brought it to an end. We were jailed, tortured and ‘externed’. Who told you that we have compromised with him? We are against him because he turned my country into the seat of international conspiracies. He sold our freedom to America. You may want to drive bargains with him but I will never do that.” He said, “No, I am willing to fight him. Come over, let’s talk.”

Thanks to the NSF, I was constantly obsessed with politics and would yearn for doing something for society. Our meetings began. I told Bhutto that there’d be no compromise with the imperialists. All such agreements will be terminated at once. Secondly, feudalism needs to be eliminated. Western parliamentary democracy cannot go hand in hand with feudalism. Such so-called democracy will be useless for us. “Give us your word that you will change this outdated system, be it through reforms, if not a revolution.” He agreed with me on a lot of issues, like land reforms, foreign policy, military agreements and initiating a movement to put the bureaucracy right. That is why we stood with him. He was a very intelligent man. He could tell what went on in a person’s mind. Also, he was very brave and energetic. For such a person in Persian they say: “Aatish Zer-e-Pa” – If there’s fire under a person’s feet, he won’t stay still. He’d just go romping around. There was hardly a place in (West) Pakistan where he hadn’t paid a visit. Be it a small village or a city or a district, he went everywhere. It didn’t matter to him if it was a crowd of 5 or 50 or 5,000 people that he was speaking to. He’d set off a dialogue of sorts with people in his speeches:

“Will you fight Ayub Khan?”

They’d respond, “Yes, we will!”

“Will you struggle with me?”

“Yes, we will!”

“Will you come out on streets with me?”

“Yes, we will come out!”

“Will you die with me?”

“Yes, we will die with you!”

This is how he connected with common people. He’d motivate them, evoke enthusiasm in them. He’d shake hands with them, mingle with them, he would call people over to his house. He’d talk to them for hours. These qualities would inspire a common man.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, flanked by Hafeez Pirzada and Mairaj Muhammad Khan

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, flanked by Hafeez Pirzada and Mairaj Muhammad Khan

“Senior members of the leftist organisations told us to join his party and take control of him. I told them we cannot have any power over Bhutto”

Bhutto had a fascinating personality. Later, I myself went through a lot of struggle to get out of his charisma. It was very difficult to say goodbye to him.

I used to raise this question at NSF forums: what do we do after years of student activism? Become a journalist? Find a job? Or run a trade union? We must do something beyond that. We should take active part in politics to fix things in this country. I’d suggest that we form a political party. I made a lot of noise among my fellow activists.

The senior members of the leftist organisations saw in Bhutto an opportunity to release some pressure from themselves and they told us to join his party and take control of him. I told them we cannot have any power over Bhutto. He was a popular leader. Though he agreed with most of the matters we advised him on, he also differed with us on some issues and would conveniently dodge us. And he’d turn hostile towards us someday. Still, if we manage to get him to agree with us on some affairs, I’d consider that a victory.

Faisal Sayani is a freelance journalist, teacher and filmmaker with experience in current affairs television production. All translation, research and fact-checking for this article is the work of the author. He may be reached via email at

Published in The Friday Times on January 27, 2017

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