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The Strength of the Streets meets the Strength of the State: The 1972 Labour Struggle in Karachi


Int. J. Middle East Stud. 37 (2005), 83–107. Printed in the United States of America DOI: 10.1017.S0020743805050063


Kamran Asdar Ali


Why did they kill us? We wanted our rights—bonus, wages, health benefits, why did they kill us? To be honest we all cried, I cried too.

—Textile worker remembering June 1972

On 10 February 1972, the newly installed president and civilian martial-law administrator of Pakistan, Zulfikir Ali Bhutto, addressed the nation to present the salient features of his government’s new labor policy.1 As Bhutto laid out the details of workers’ benefits, he also warned them of dire consequences if they did not refrain from participating in “lawless behavior.” He asked the working class to desist from its “gherao” and “jelao” (lit., encirclement and burning) politics; “otherwise,” he raged, “the strength of the street will be met by the strength of the state.”2

A few months later, Bhutto’s government fulfilled his threat. On 7 June 1972, the Karachi police killed several workers when they opened fire on demonstrating laborers in the major industrial area of the city. The next day, the police fired again, this time on the funeral procession of one of the deceased workers. Press reports indicate that at least ten people were killed on that day, including a woman and child. These killings marked what many consider the beginning of the end of one of the most protracted labor struggles in Pakistan’s history. Starting in the late 1960s, this movement was pivotal in shaping the transition from military rule to democratic forms of governance. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had itself come to power through the overwhelming support of the working class, students, and radical left groups, the key participants in this movement.3 It is indeed ironic and also revealing of Bhutto’s politics that the PPP was instrumental in suppressing the workers’ struggle.

Ask most Pakistanis about the significance of the years 1971–72 and, if they do recall, they will say that it was the year Pakistan lost its eastern wing. The meta- narrative of the creation of Bangladesh subsumes histories of all other events and struggles of that crucial era in Pakistan’s national history. Although not a part of the formal educational curriculum, the 1971 war with India is constantly retold in the

Kamran Asdar Ali is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Texas, Austin, Tex. 78712, USA; e-mail: asdar@mail.utexas.edu.

© 2005 Cambridge University Press 0020-7438/05 $12.00

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press and other publications primarily by former high-ranking army officers who seek to absolve themselves of responsibility for the events that led to the breakup of the country.4 Such histories, however, are never apologies for the atrocities that the Pakistani military committed against its Bengali citizens. If the past can be reconfigured only in its relationship to the present, these writings provide a space for the various actors in the tragedy to rehabilitate themselves in front of a Pakistani public that still considers the military responsible for the 1971 crisis.

In his examination of another South Asian event of the early 20th century, Shahid Amin reminds us how nationalist master narratives can induce selective national amnesia in relation to events that fit awkwardly into neatly woven patterns.5 Similarly, events such as the labor movement during the late 1960s in Pakistani society have remained a part of individual memories. Collectively, however, few in Pakistan even remember the series of events that shaped those years. The unwritten history of such struggles is connected to their unremembered status in the national psyche. As participants in these events grow old and pass away, they take with them crucial pieces of this past.6 This past, like that of many other collective struggles of the Pakistani people,7 remains buried in the hearts and minds of the actors themselves: it is seldom shared or celebrated by the nation as a whole. For example, it is almost forgotten how the long military rule in the 1950s and 1960s, with deep links to industrial and feudal interests, led to a popular mobilization that demanded democratic reform, economic redistribution, social justice, and rights for ethnic minorities. Indeed, the results of the 1970 elections—with nationalist parties winning in Baluchistan, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and East Bengal—is interpreted by some as an important juncture in Pakistan’s history in which there was a popular consensus to resolve the nationalities question.8 In the same vein, although it is rarely remembered or discussed in the national media, Bhutto’s violent reaction can be considered a watershed event in the history of the nation’s working-class movement. To rethink this particular moment in Pakistan’s history, a major theme of this paper is to capture the events that convey Bhutto’s response to popular opposition early in his rule. I also pursue the related question of how the trade-union leadership itself perceived the labor movement of the time.

In an article on the relationship between the Indian national movement and the Indian masses, Ranajit Guha borrows the Gramscian concept of hegemony to show the processes through which consensus was built by the nationalist elite leadership.9 He argues that these leaders needed to harness the intuition and enthusiasm of the people so that order could evolve out of chaos. The subalterns’ popular initiatives and autonomy of function, as well as the immediacy of their politics and spontaneity of their actions, needed to be disciplined by the bourgeois national elite for it to control and hegemonize the national movement. It is within such a framework that I will discuss some of the responses of the trade-union leadership to the events of June 1972. Hence, in presenting the argument I will analyze the relationship among the workers, the trade-union leadership, and the Pakistani state.

In discussing the 1972 labor struggle, I focus on Karachi, the industrial and commercial hub of the country and Pakistan’s most ethnically diverse city, with a long history of labor politics. Being the major beneficiary of the Pakistani state’s industrialization program, Karachi was one of the world’s fastest-growing cities between 1947 and 1972, with its population increasing 217 percent during this period.10 More than half of Karachi’s

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growth since the early 1950s is attributed to migration from India and from rural and other urban areas of the country. This population increase linked to ethnic and social heterogeneity changed the social and political cohesion of Karachi as a functioning city. Academic studies, when available, concentrate on Karachi’s ethnic politics and violence, on housing, and on resource distribution.11 Missing in these analyses is a discussion on the confluence of ethnicity and its relationship to labor and working-class struggles that have shaped the political and social growth of the city in the past fifty years. Thus, in addition to detailing the labor strife in the early 1970s in Karachi, this paper also contributes to the understanding of the social and historical processes that have led to the substantive decline of labor- and class-based politics and the concurrent emergence of a politics increasingly shaped by issues of ethnic, religious, and sectarian differences in contemporary Pakistan.

I base this paper on research in public and private archives and interviews with key participants in the labor movement, ordinary workers, and civil and political admin- istrators. In this work I have relied on how the actors themselves recall the events of more than thirty years ago. I heard many versions of the events and multiple analyses of what happened and why. Memories, of course, reflected the interest of the teller, yet they were highly consistent with how the events were reported in the national media.12 People differed more in their analysis of the larger political momentum of the time. To present a comprehensive understanding of the situation, I will continually add my own reading of the processes under discussion.


Pakistan, at its independence in 1947, inherited only 9 percent of the total industrial establishment of British India. The lack of industrial capital was mirrored by the weak- ness of organized industrial labor and the peasantry.13 The nascent Pakistani government followed an import-substitution model to industrialize the economy rapidly. The state also relied heavily on agricultural exports—specifically, East Pakistani jute—to subsi- dize industrial development in West Pakistan.14

The state promoted industrialization by providing soft loans and tax holidays and by setting up the Pakistan Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation in the late 1940s with assistance from the World Bank and foreign capital. Because of lack of response from local merchant capital, the state also formed the Pakistan Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), through which it initiated industrial projects that were then trans- ferred to the private sector at bargain prices.15 The first phase of private industrialization occurred after the Korean war, when the profits gained by Pakistani traders were chan- neled into industrial investment. Special areas were developed in Karachi—the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate (SITE), and the Landhi–Korangi industrial areas—and land was sold to construct factories at extremely generous rates. Between 1947 and 1955, 774 new industrial units were established in Karachi, representing almost 50 percent of all industrialization in Pakistan.16 As the state took a role in setting up industrial units, the bureaucracy became intrinsically involved in the control of this expansion. State agencies directly financed the industrial concerns or participated in legislating laws to favor this growth. The collusion of the bureaucracy and the industrialists was manifested in facilitating the finances for expansion of industrial houses. At the same time, this

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alliance kept wages down and insured industrial peace through brutal suppression of the working class.

Despite state-sponsored repressive measures, worker unrest increased. The declining social and economic conditions of the working class and the disparity in income levels that were becoming shamelessly evident in the Pakistan of the 1950s gave rise to several labor strikes. According to estimates, between 1954 and 1957 there were more than 250 strikes in which more than 200,000 workers were involved.17 An example of workers’ living conditions in the early 1950s is evident in a report filed by an International Labour Organisation (ILO) representative in 1953.18 According to the report, Karachi was still a city where a large section of the population, being refugees from India, did not have adequate housing. People were living on sidewalks, and workers’ living conditions were extremely precarious. Trade-union representatives occasionally raised issues of housing and welfare with the factory owners. These requests were periodically turned down on the basis that such investments would lower the margin of profit.

Earlier in 1951, the government had ratified the ILO convention on freedom of association and the right to organize. Irrespective of the lofty ideals of higher wages and workers’ participation that were guaranteed in these conventions, workers’ living condi- tion did not improve in practice. Moreover, labor was periodically warned by government functionariestonothampertheindustrializationprocesswithstrikesandupheaval.19 The emerging state subordinated labor organizations by sponsoring anti-communist trade unions,20 banning leftist and popular trade unions, and passing draconian labor laws that effectively prevented collective bargaining and the right to strike. Trade-union workers with whom I spoke remembered how radical workers and those who desired to form unions were harassed, beaten by local goons hired by the industrialists, or fired from their jobs on one pretext or another. With rampant unemployment and a surplus of labor, many workers desisted from joining unions out of fear of such reprisals.

The military take-over of the Pakistani state in 1958 intensified this repression. The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, under which most labor laws had been functioning, was repealed and re-enacted under the rubric of the Industrial Dispute Ordinance. The ordinance brought more industries under the banner of essential services, prohibiting the formation of unions there. Strikes were made illegal, and the registration of unions was made difficult. To safeguard against contravening ILO conventions, a system of concil- iation and mediation was devised. Conciliation officers were government functionaries who referred unsettled disputes to industrial courts for mediation, where the process could take months to settle. The idea was to move labor grievances from the streets to the courts and boardrooms under the watchful eye of state functionaries. The already beleaguered common worker was further entangled in the alien language of rules and regulations to fight for his rights.

During General Ayub Khan’s rule (1958–69), bureaucrats and former army officers began to run major industrial units directly. This was an era of unprecedented growth in the wealth and holdings of Pakistan’s major industrial houses. They moved into banking and insurance, which further supplied funds for expansion. Pakistan’s growth was heralded by U.S. economists as a model for the rest of the Third World and as a premier example of “free enterprise.” Gustav Papanek, head of the Harvard Advisory Group to Pakistan, affectionately called Pakistan’s state-sponsored bourgeoisie “robber barons” and argued that the rising social and economic inequality contributed to the

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economy’s growth and would eventually lead to improvement in the living conditions of the lower-income groups.21

Irrespective of Papanek’s “rosy” predictions, through the 1960s retrenchment and dismissals were common tools for disciplining workers. An outburst of workers’ ac- cumulated frustration was evident in the March 1963 demonstration in the SITE area under the Mazdoor Rabita Committee (Workers’ Coordinating Committee). The strikes led to firing on demonstrating laborers by police, and several people were killed. This in turn led to an increased radicalization among the workers that was crushed by mass arrests of the mill-level leadership. Industrialists, taking note of the state’s response, continued with their policy of dismissals and retrenchment. Usman Baluch, a trade- union leader who lived through this and later labor struggles, represented the situation by stating that “the bureaucracy through the labor courts, the industrialists through their jobbers, masters and paid strongmen, and the police through violent suppression of demonstrations worked in unison to suppress the labor movement.”22

Between 1947 and 1958, the economy had been sluggish in its growth (3.2% growth in the gross national product [GNP]); the largest employment was in the agricultural sector, which contributed about 50 percent of the output. However, manufacturing in this period had a growth rate of 9.6 percent. In contrast, during the entire Ayub era, the GNP rates hovered around the 6 percent mark, and manufacturing maintained a high 9.1 percent growth rate. Even the agricultural sector grew at a rate of 4.1 percent as huge subsidies were given to large landowners for mechanization, with additional public investments in irrigation and drainage works.23 By the mid-1960s, the industrial sector accounted for almost 20 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), and about 18 percent of the working population was involved in industrial labor. Pakistan was still primarily an agricultural economy, with 40 percent of the GDP and 61 percent of the labor force tied to the agricultural sector. Yet the change was phenomenal compared with Pakistan of the 1950s.

The heavy reliance on foreign capital for industrialization faced a major setback when, after the 1965 war with India, World Bank funds were cut off and then resumed at much lower levels. As the entire structure was built on large inflow of foreign capital, the growth began to sputter. Bad harvests in 1965 and 1966, along with the demand of the eastern Pakistani middle classes for a more equitable share of the spoils of development, createdmajorpoliticalturmoilinthecountry.24 AyubKhan’smuchheralded“decadeof development” came to an abrupt end when, in 1968–69, students, intellectuals, the urban poor, and the working classes participated in a massive civil-disobedience movement. Spearheaded by the PPP in the west and the Awami League in the eastern wing, this movement protested not only the political bankruptcy of the Ayub regime but also the deteriorating economic conditions and increasing inequality in the distribution of wealth.25

As a result of these disturbances, a new military regime came to power with the promise of social and political reform. One of the first tasks of this junta was to call a tripartite labor conference and work on a fresh labor ordinance. Due to the extreme pressure from the working class, the new government in 1969 introduced an Industrial Relations Ordinance. The ordinance was liberal-democratic in orientation and favored a trade-union policy that relied on negotiation instead of confrontation as the main mode of communication between the laborers and the industrialists. Registration of unions was

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made easier, and where there was more than one union in an industrial unit, a system of election to choose collective-bargaining agents (CBAs) was devised. Rhetorically, the ordinance’s language was critical of previous labor laws and those industrialists who used extra-legal means to curtail trade unionism’s growth in the country.26

However, the regime remained committed to the prevention of strikes and lockouts that were undermining production goals in most industrial units. Within this context, legal proceedings in military courts and arrests of labor leaders, workers, and other pro-democracy activists persisted unabated. Irrespective of the ordinance, the military regime gave industrialists virtual freedom in hiring and firing decisions. It is estimated that in Karachi alone, almost 45,000 workers were retrenched between 1969–71.27

Yet the ordinance, after decades of state repression, did bring new energy into the labor movement. Taking advantage of the clauses for registration and constituting CBAs, moribund and underground unions started to come to life. New alliances were made as communist groups and student activists assisted the working-class leadership in reorganizing the trade unions. Before long, in response to the sustained repression of its leaders, an alternate leadership started to take hold in many trade unions. Following the lead of the Bengali working-class and peasant leader Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashani, the labor groups, now under a more radicalized leadership, took to encirclements of industries (gherao).28 Using these new tactics, the workers started to demand bonuses, better working conditions, and back pay. In some cases, they also protested the dismissal of their comrades.


The oldest unions in Karachi were for dock and port workers, which were dominated by the Makrani/Baluch workers of old Karachi.29 In immediate post-independence Pakistan (1947), the Mohajirs (migrants from India, mainly Urdu-speaking), being more educated and having had previous experience of industrial labor and urban life, soon became the majority of the rank-and-file industrial workers. They started to occupy the leadership positions within the already volatile and diversified labor population.30 Subsequently, the Mohajir-dominated trade-union leadership played an important role in advocacy and struggles for labor rights in Karachi. The leadership may have also managed to contain, much to its advantage, the cultural and linguistic tensions between the more highly skilled local workers (Mohajir) and the less skilled up-country migrants (Pashtun/ Southern Punjabis) through a rhetoric of class solidarity and proletarian politics. By the late 1960s, however, the ethnic makeup of Karachi’s labor population had changed considerably. Skilled Mohajir workers mostly populated the heavy industrial complexes and multinational firms, where working conditions were better. The textile mills, where working conditions were far worse, had up-country migrant laborers or Bengali workers.

In the 1960s, jobbers, who as agents of factory owners recruited men from spe- cific districts in the NWFP and Southern Punjab through economic and social coer- cion, guaranteed a docile and disciplined workforce to specific factory management. The workers themselves resided in areas populated mostly by people from their own regions and linguistic groups. The radicalized left-wing movement in 1968–69 sought to organize these workers, who until then had mostly known management-controlled unions (popularly called pocket unions), into supporting more independent trade unions.

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The movement in this process also challenged the complex set of ethnic differences and hierarchies in the workplace and in workers’ colonies.

For example, the textile mills were mostly populated by Pashtun workers or workers from Swat and Hazara, also in the NWFP. These workers had come to Karachi in the early 1960s and settled on vacant land at the edge of the industrial area. Workers’ neighborhoods with names such as Frontier Colony (NWFP is popularly called “Fron- tier”) and Pathan Colony were created overnight—names that reflected the population shifts in the local ethnicity of the labor population. Mohajir workers also lived in these areas, but by the late 1960s many had a more established presence in Old Golimar (Bismillah hotel), Bara Board, and Nazimabad, all of which were middle- to lower- middle-class neighborhoods. The new immigrant colonies were largely unplanned and on non-regularized government land and, until the early 1970s, did not have direct water or electricity connections. In the streets one could regularly hear Pashto, Hindko (from Hazara), and Swati being spoken, making these areas somewhat distinct from the Urdu- dominated culture of the larger city. To cater to the growing number of immigrants, a range of popular restaurants, workers’ hostels, and bathhouses started to crowd the main thoroughfares of these areas. Gradually, the laborers settled down and in some cases got married in the city or brought their families from their villages and small towns to Karachi. These areas also had civic organizations that catered to specific ethnicities, sometimes to people from a particular district in the NWFP or Southern Punjab. These organizations were led by relatively influential men who at times were linked to factory managements or political parties and had the social and political power to mediate local disputes and conflicts.

Keeping this in perspective, a major problem that the leftist groups faced was that, although the laborers were from different parts of the country and steeped in various traditions of constructing social relations, the Karachi-based leftist cadre was mostly urban, middle class, and Urdu-speaking. Hence, those left-wing activists who belonged to the working class, were ethnically similar, and had cultural affinity with different regional languages and cultures were the most successful in organizing these workers politically.


The industrial workers’ hopes were raised as Bhutto assumed control of the country after the creation of Bangladesh and the surrender of the Pakistani Army in East Pakistan.31 In their interviews with me, workers and labor leaders from that era attested to the sense of elation among the workers as they were encouraged by the initial anti-industrialist rhetoric of the PPP. Many had worked with the party and had suffered jail sentences to end martial law and to bring about democratic rule in the country. During the election campaign, Bhutto had also promised to get workers reinstated who had been dismissed by mill owners in the previous several years. He had publicly warned the industrialists to bring back money that they had deposited in foreign banks and had threatened that their passports would be withdrawn, making it difficult for them to travel. Such statements, coupled with the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the government-controlled media during the initial period of Bhutto’s rule, raised hopes among the workers that Bhutto was on their side and would finally force the industrialists to accede to labor’s demands.32

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Laborers and working-class leaders intensified their struggle, and during the first six months of 1972 periodic lockouts and encirclements of industrial units continued in the two major industrial areas of Karachi.33 The workers insisted on the reinstatement of those retrenched during the marital-law years, opening of those industries that manage- ment had closed without notice or compensation, distribution of bonuses, and payment into workers’ participatory funds. They also demanded back pay that they were due in some cases. My informants told me that laborers belonging to different factories, and sometimes rival unions, would walk to other factories where there was a dispute to demonstrate in favor of the workers there. A vivid example of this solidarity was the spontaneous strike of 28 March 1972, when 200,000 workers stopped working, bringing the entire SITE area to a standstill, in response to a continuing lockout by the owners of the Zebtun Textile Mill. The mill owners had closed the factory and laid off 2,000 workers for almost two months. An agreement had been reached with the management by the workers’ union that production would start on 24 March, but the mill remained closed even on the morning of 28 March. The Zebtun workers went around to different mills, and work was stopped everywhere in solidarity.34

With the rising militancy, the provincial and central government responded by gradu- ally taking a firmer stand on the labor issue. The government-controlled press published reports that the industrialists were fomenting the labor unrest as a sign of their dis- pleasure with the state’s recent nationalization policy.35 Bhutto and his ministers also raised the specter of a “foreign hand” that was supposedly behind these occurrences and wanted to destabilize the popular government.36 Threats such as the one voiced by Bhutto while announcing his labor policy were periodically made by his ministers and by his cousin, Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, the governor and, later, chief minister of Sind Province.37 Interestingly, in some cases industrialists were even asked by Bhutto’s min- isters to provide a list of “undesirable” workers who could then be dealt with by the state authorities.38

There were, however, other voices within the government that reflected the PPP’s varied power base. The labor-friendly, left-leaning PPP cadres, some of whom now held government ministries and offices,39 would periodically make pro-labor pronouncements and seek to work out compromises between the state and the striking labor unions. For example, the senior adviser to the governor of Sind, who later became governor, Mir Rasool Baksh Talpur; Mairaj Mohammad Khan, the president’s adviser on public affairs; and Abdul Sattar Gabol, the provincial labor minister for Sind regularly met with labor leaders and workers. In their meetings they condemned police excesses against the workers and promised the release of any industrial laborers who were arrested during the continuing disturbances. However, they also requested that, instead of striking and demonstrating, the workers co-operate with the PPP government, consider it their true representative, and, in this spirit, help it solve the people’s problems.40

Simultaneously, others in the government and a section of the media continuously called for industrial peace on the basis that the country was going through difficult times: one-half of the country had been lost, and the economy was in shambles. By continuing their agitation, the laborers, newspaper editorials argued, were halting needed production to stabilize inflation and export manufactured goods, both of which were necessary to solve the country’s financial problems.41 Going by these and other statements, it was clear to many in the labor movement that the government, irrespective of its pro-labor

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rhetoric, was seeking to reassert itself and would ultimately crack down on labor on the premise of maintaining law and order.42

A response to the government’s hardening position was the formation of the Sind Workers’ Convention in the SITE area, which brought together major labor federations in the province to lead the labor movement in this moment of crisis. This unity was partially forced onto some of the labor federations, as they were becoming isolated by the rising tide of labor militancy, and their own rank and file was deserting them to form alliances with other groups. Hence, the federations, whose primary task in the 1960s was to negotiate with the factory management and involve itself in legal procedures to procure labor rights, were forced to make changes through pressure from below. The most powerful trade-union federation in the SITE area was the Mutahida Mazdoor Federation (MMF; lit., United Workers’ Federation).43 Since the late 1960s, the MMF had maintained an independent policy toward most political parties, although its members had past and present links with many leftist formations in Karachi. It had in the process become a space where a range of disaffected cadres from bickering commu- nist groups, radical students, mobilized workers, and liberal civil libertarians had come together. Because of its radicalized stance on labor issues, the MMF had within a couple of years become immensely popular among the rank and file within the SITE area.

The confrontation finally came on 7 June 1972.44 It was payday at the Feroz Sultan textile mill in the SITE area. The mill’s management refused to pay the laborers back pay that was a month overdue and their portion of the workers’ participation fund, citing the unavailability of funds.45 Instead, the mill owners declared the mill closed—a lockout. This mill’s management, like that of several others, had a particularly confrontational relationship with its increasingly militant trade union. The workers, angry over the lack of payment, encircled the mill, confined the executives to their offices inside, and started putting pressure on them to come to terms. The management called the police, who used tear gas to disperse the workers. The police then locked the gates, confining a large number of workers inside the factory; they also arrested fourteen persons for illegally confining the management staff. The workers regrouped and other laborers joined them from nearby factories and workers’ residential colonies. By late afternoon, about 5,000 people had encircled the factory, demanding the release of their comrades and asking that the factory doors be opened so the workers could come out. Some workers also started throwing stones at the police contingent at the factory gates. The police then opened fire, claiming that they had been fired on. Official reports accounted for three dead and scores injured, including three policemen.46 Two bodies were retrieved by the police, and the third was taken away by the retreating workers.47

The very next day, the funeral procession for the third worker was taken from the labor colonies near the Benaras chowk (roundabout or circle), a thoroughfare in the western part of the city near the workers’ colonies. A police contingent waiting at the roundabout stopped the procession from proceeding. In retaliation, the workers raised slogans. The police then fired tear-gas shells to disperse the crowd. The crowd reacted by pelting the police with stones. The police force retreated, regrouped, and then opened fire as the marchers walked onto the main road, killing ten people and injuring dozens.48 Eyewitnesses told me that the scene was total mayhem, with people running everywhere to avoid the barrage of bullets. According to estimates, the shooting went on for about a half-hour.49 Two people I spoke to recalled seeing several bodies with their heads blown

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away, showing that the police were not merely dispersing the crowd but were taking aim at people to kill. Another informant remembered counting seven dead bodies. This filled him with extreme rage, and he wanted to keep walking with the funeral even though he could have been injured or even killed.50 In an editorial, the English-language daily Dawn condemned the incident by reporting that the shooting was not only prolonged but also indiscriminate, as some people were killed and injured at great distance from wheretheclashwiththelaborershadhappened.51 AjournalisticaccountfromtheUrdu press describes the immediate aftermath of the incident in the following terms:

As the firing ended some of us reached Frontier colony where most of the deceased and injured lived. People were extremely angry. …[A] middle-aged man, Saifur Rahman who also owns a hotel in Frontier Colony pleadingly asked us, “Was Pakistan created for this reason, so that the police could play with the lives of the poor?” The children and relatives of the dead were uncontrolled in their grief, and one only heard wailing and crying all over the colony.52

These two incidents on two consecutive days created a wild-fire strike in all the labor areas of the city, and industrial production in the SITE area and Landhi-Korangi area came to a halt for twelve days. More than 900 units were closed while workers wore black badges and red and black flags flew from nearly all factories in Karachi. The impact was felt all over the county; workers went on strike in many industrial units in Hyderabad, Sind, and other parts of the province. In Punjab, trade-union leaders organized protest marches, and their offices flew black flags to show their solidarity with their comrades in Karachi.53


Eight labor-federation leaders, along with eight workers’ representatives, organized a Joint Action Committee to respond to the series of events that had occurred.54 The action committee held the police officers and the district commissioner responsible for thekillingsanddemandedtheirimmediatesuspension.55 Initsnegotiationwiththeaction committee, the state was unwilling to discuss the issue of suspending the officials. Some leaders complained about the state representatives’ dragging their feet: they would meet the provincial labor minister, Abdus Sattar Gabol, on one day; the governor of Sindh, Mir Rasool Baksh Talpur, on the second; and the chief minister, Mumtaz Bhutto, on the third. In turn, all three government officials relayed their discussions to President Bhutto, who was on a foreign trip. In the meantime, the workers’ demands had increased to include the release of all workers arrested after the killings and the withdrawal of cases against them. The state partly agreed to these demands and to provide civic amenities in labor colonies, but it would not agree on the issue of suspending the responsible officials. After not meeting with the labor leadership for two days, the provincial labor minister unilaterally announced on 15 June that an agreement had been reached. The government had decided to set up a one-member inquiry board headed by a high-court judge and decided that some officials would be transferred. There were other vague promises about the release of arrested workers from custody and civic benefits for the striking workers. The government’s offer was contrary to the agreements that the labor leaders had earlier negotiated with the provincial government.56

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The Joint Action Committee was caught by surprise. The government’s strategy was clearly to undermine their status and to portray them as incompetent in front of the workers. Some among the leadership, however, argued that sustaining the movement any longer would create economic hardships for the workers and that a more volatile situation could ensue. They suspected that the state, by dragging out the negotiations, wanted the workers’ unity to unravel, as some workers would return to work in desperation to feed their families. Fearing that prolonging the movement might aid the government’s plan to manipulate the situation to its own advantage, the action committee decided to accept the state’s demands. The leaders had met in a marathon session to weigh the pros and cons of the government’s offer and to assess their own strength. Some SITE leaders were in favor of prolonging the strike for a few more days to put more pressure on the government to accede to their demands. Others in the coalition did not feel confident that they could control the situation further and thought that the Landhi area might not be able to sustain the strike—hence the workers’ unity would be undermined. But before giving its reply to the government, it sought to put the issue in front of a people’s court (􏰀avami 􏰀adalat).57

On 16 June, laborers and their leaders met at an open rally near Benaras chowk, the site of the earlier police shooting. The leadership of different federations within the action committee had decided by consensus to persuade the workers to bring the strike to an end. However, when the leaders spoke, there was total confusion of line and action. Some encouraged the emotional and angry crowd to accept the demands while others continued to shout for blood and created such fervor among the workers that the gathering was dispersed with a decision to continue the strike. A group of workers also raised slogans such as “Khun becha pani liya” (Exchanged water for our blood) against the negotiating team and accused it of betraying the workers because it had accepted the government’s false promises of civic benefits (for example, piped water connections) and because it had not demanded justice for the deaths of their fellow workers. Although by raising slogans the workers were clearly showing their extreme disappointment and rage at not receiving a just solution to their demands, some of the slogans and disruption at this event can be attributed to the rivalry among different left-wing political groups vying for the workers’ support.

The MMF, as mentioned earlier, was the most organized and prominent group in the SITE area, and its leadership (in particular, Usman Baluch) had emerged as the leaders of the movement. But other labor organizations were also jockeying for this position. For example, the Labour Organizing Committee, which had larger numerical strength in the Landhi–Korangi area, was affiliated with a pro–China communist group.58 This group was critical of the MMF for not providing a more revolutionary direction to the strike and challenged the other labor-federation leaders regarding their credentials to negotiate on behalf of the workers.59

The following day, after a long procession, workers assembled at a city park.60 The leaders tried again to convince them to resume their duties. The workers remained vociferous in their opposition to the idea of ending the strike and asked the leaders not to compromise with the government. They kept raising slogans such as “Khun ka badla khun” (Blood for blood) and persisted with their defiant posture until a shop-floor leader, Bawar Khan, took the microphone and finally succeeded in persuading them to end the strike.61

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As much as the strike showed labor solidarity among various groups, it is also an interesting example that highlights the differences and competing politics among the movement’s leaders and their allied left-wing political groups. The strike leaders, along with the striking workers, had participated in the pro-democracy movement of the late 1960s alongside some of the leftist elements in the PPP. They had struggled together against the bureaucracy and the army. As the Pakistan Times reported on 13 June, the most outspoken of the PPP leftist leaders, Mairaj Mohammad Khan, stated that if the deputy commissioner could not see the coffin of the workers when the shooting started, he would soon see the coffins of major industrialists.62 While speaking to me, Khan reiterated that the police shooting was purposefully encouraged by the bureaucracy and the industrialists to undermine the pro-worker government and isolate the more radical cadres of the party.63 Leaders such as Khan and others on the PPP’s left, however, also feared that by prolonging the strike, long-term political benefits could be lost as the party could take on a rigid position and become dominated by its more retrogressive forces.

Other left-leaning groups, such as the pro–China Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP), made statements about how Pashtuns (instead of the working poor) were being killed in Karachi.64 The pro–China National Awami Party (NAP), true to its Maoist line, also criticized the movement. In a statement, the party praised and honored the sacrifices of the workers but called it directionless movement that could not succeed in bringing about meaningful change unless the peasants were included in the struggle with a comprehensive program for revolutionary transformation.65

As the strike progressed, a section of the middle-class Mohajir population in Karachi was gearing up for another fight. The creation of Bangladesh and the dissolution of the One Unit system had opened up the long-dormant language and ethnicity question in Pakistani politics.66 Within this context, as the labor struggle was continuing in Karachi, the Sind government made a corresponding move as a response to sustained demands by the Sindhi people to restore the original status of Sindhi as a compulsory second language in schools. The bill also favored, without prejudice to the national language (Urdu), the gradual learning of Sindhi by all provincial government officials. This bill created a violent reaction by a large section of Karachi’s Mohajir population that was closely aligned with the Urdu language and its constructed linkage with Muslim nationalism.67

As a result of the language conflict in Karachi, as some non-Mohajir trade-union leaders with whom I spoke remembered, the Mohajir workers of larger industrial units did not participate as much in the 1972 movement as the Pashtun and up-country workers who dominated in the textile mills. This is quite probable, as working conditions in the non-textile heavy-industry sector, where Mohajirs were in the majority as workers, were far better than the conditions prevalent in the textile mills. The situation reflected a hierarchy of labor positions, where those who were better off did not identify culturally or politically with the larger struggle. However, the comments by my informants may also represent a contemporary emphasis on identity politics in Pakistan and signify Karachi’s recent history of ethnic violence, which at times has polarized the city.68 In contrast to these leaders, rank-and-file workers remembered the period as one in which ethnic difference did not play any role, and Mohajirs, Pashtuns, and Punjabis—that is, workers of all ethnicities—participated equally in the strike. This may be so, yet such

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formulations may yet represent a yearning for simpler times by these workers, who have recently suffered economically—and, in some cases, physically through loss of lives—because of the increase in ethnic conflict and violence in Karachi.

As a response to civic unrest in the city, the government portrayed the situation as being manipulated by anti-state elements that were simultaneously creating the language disturbances and the labor problems.69 “Anti-state” in this context basically meant to be working for India or the Soviet Union. The PPP government also invoked anti- communist rhetoric to attack the NAP, especially its pro–Soviet wing, along with other groups that remained a political threat from the left for the PPP.70 This inference was laced into the ethnic and political culture of Pakistan. The pro–Soviet NAP had its power base in the NWFP and in Baluchistan (both provinces having large Pashtun populations), where it had won provincial elections and formed the state government. (In the NWFP, it was a coalition partner with the Jamiat Ulema i-Islam [JUI].) By calling the predominantly Pashtun striking workers “anti-state,” the PPP leadership was seeking to discredit the NAP (pro–Soviet) by linking it to Pashtun nationalism and portraying it as a Soviet stooge within Pakistani politics. The NAP (pro–Soviet) was indeed nationalist in orientation and had a broad progressive agenda, but it had very little influence on the actual workers in Karachi during the strike, which to a large extent was led by the more locally based MMF and its allied leadership. In a briefing to the press, however, Bhutto himself sought to link the MMF with the NAP (pro–Soviet).71 Further, the chief minister of Sind, Mumtaz Ali Bhutto, who was the administrative head of the province, seldom met the labor leaders during the negotiations. He delegated this work to the governor, who was a representative of the federal government. Yet Mumtaz Bhutto did meet some Pashtun civic leaders and asked for their help in restoring civic peace within the city. This gesture was clearly made to inculcate an idea that the labor strike was not a class issue or one of law and order but specifically a Pashtun problem.72

With such a move against the NAP, and by playing the ethnic card, the PPP was also echoing a more deeply seated political rhetoric in Pakistan’s political history. Khan Abdul Wali Khan, president of the pro–Soviet NAP, was the son of the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Pashtun nationalist leader.73 This family had historically been portrayed as anti–Pakistan by Pakistan’s political establishment because of Ghaffar Khan’s close association with the Indian National Congress in the years preceding the independence of Pakistan. Moreover, the pro–Soviet NAP was one of the few political parties in Pakistan that had not only condemned army action in East Pakistan (while the PPP left had supported it), but had also considered the Indian Army’s involvement in the former eastern wing as support for the liberation struggle of the Bengali people. The party had also called for Bangladesh’s recognition after its creation.74 It is hence conceivable that Bhutto wanted to paint the NAP (pro–Soviet) as anti–Pakistan early in his tenure. This argument holds if we analyze the accusations against the NAP as a preliminary move to create a political space for the future dismissal of the NAP-led governments in Baluchistan and the NWFP, which Bhutto carried out in 1973.

In addition to the ethnic card, the PPP government continuously tried to challenge the trade unions’ claims of representing the workers by evoking its own history of introducing labor-friendly laws and representing the true aspirations of the working masses. The state periodically argued that a disciplined workforce was important for production and if the workers behaved, then the state would deliver on its promise of protecting their just

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rights.75 This paternalistic attitude toward the workers was surprisingly close to that of the trade-union leadership.

At the level of the trade-union leadership, there was genuine fear of the chaotic and anarchic potential of the workers themselves. In interviews, the trade-union leaders continually stressed that the movement was like an exploding volcano.76 They argued that workers were finally taking out their frustration after years of oppression by the previous regimes. In saying this, they emphasized the untrained nature of the labor force. They highlighted the lack of discipline that comes from not being part of organized trade unions that give workers a sense of working within the decisions made by the leadership and hence inculcates within them an understanding of when to go forward and when to stop. The mob-like character of the labor movement needed to be checked, as it could set dangerous precedents for prolonged anarchic violence.77

The workers who had lived through the strikes, however, painted a different picture of workers’ discipline and life during the struggle when they spoke to me. Many with whom I spoke remembered the strike in June 1972 as a pivotal moment in their lives. In comparison with the uncertainties that they faced in their contemporary life, with little job security, contract labor, and other social and economic difficulties, they recalled their participation in the strikes for better pay and living conditions as an empowering phase in their lives. One said: “if such a movement begins today, we shall be delivered benefits at home.” Clearly, they were proud of the fact that they controlled the SITE area and the government was forced to recognize their strength. They also explained that, despite provocations in the form of police harassment and periodic arrests of labor activists, not a single untoward or violent act could be attributed to the labor movement, an example of the workers’ unprecedented discipline and solidarity. They spelled out in great detail how, within the colonies, people survived through mutual help and through the generosity of local shopkeepers who extended credit for food and other essentials to the families of the striking workers. They offered these stories as examples of how the workers’ just cause was appreciated and reciprocated in the community at large. Indeed, this may be a romantic picture of the past and needs to be understood with reference to the precarious conditions of the workers’ present-day life.


An understanding of Pakistani trade-union leadership comes from a recent review of a book on the subcontinent’s trade-union politics. In the review, the late sociologist Hamza Alavi argues that Pakistani trade-union leaders historically were primarily middlemen (labor lawyers) between the working masses and Pakistan’s government-sponsored, highly bureaucratized system of labor arbitration.78 The government created institutions such as labor courts and tribunals, gave authority to officials in labor departments to mediate labor disputes, and created a maze of laws and procedures that made it virtu- ally impossible for local factory-based leadership to negotiate with the state. Profes- sional trade-union leadership consisting of labor lawyers, Alavi stresses, represented the laborers in government-designated forums and had very little incentive to change this system of redress, as it only strengthened their own position in relation to the rank and file.

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My interviews with workers and left-wing student leaders who were active in 1972 confirm the gap that Alavi depicts. This form of leadership was not much different from the one discussed by Dipesh Chakrabarty in his text on jute workers in colonial Bengal. Chakrabarty shows how the relationship between the leadership and the workers can be read within the idiom of babu–coolie, where the babus (trade-union leaders) held office outside the factory, occasionally writing petitions or holding meetings at different venues.79 He continues to argue that the Bengali leftist leaders remained entrenched in a paradox in which they sought to radicalize the workers yet themselves were situated in a hierarchical relationship with the laboring poor.80

Similarly, in the 1972 movement the trade unionists spoke of representing and lead- ing the workers. Not unlike the state, the predominantly urban leadership sought to contain, the chaotic potential that it saw in the workers. The majority of the non–Urdu- speaking workers were considered bodies that needed to be tamed and organized. They were seen as newly urban people who had yet to shed their tribal culture, which was steeped in hierarchical social relations. For that matter, the workers may have been conceived as peasants who could not represent themselves but needed to be educated into the trade-union culture of discipline and constraint, which would give them distance from their non-egalitarian past and move them toward an egalitarian membership in a democratic process.81 These arguments echo teleological assumptions in various rendi- tions of labor history that begin with the expectation that the capitalist factory, in its ideal construction, acts as a powerful agent of social change that transforms older, particular- istic identities of peasants/tribals into new, universalistic, ties of class solidarity.82

In this process, the trade-union leaders always retained the onus of educating and guiding. In the 1972 movement, this distance is evident in the example of the the shop- floor leader Bawar Khan, who asked the workers to agree to terms for ending the strike for the second day in a row. Even though multiple trade-union leaders had implored the workers to end the strike, the laborers remained unconvinced and kept raising slogans. Bawar Khan then took the mike and made a very passionate speech for almost three- quarters of an hour. Bawar was extremely popular among the workers and was famous for his integrity and honesty. He made appeals against disunity and warned the laborers that this was what the government was looking for. He asked the workers to use their brains instead of their emotions; in this, he was echoing the words of Nabi Ahmed, the veteran trade unionist who had unsuccessfully sought to convince the workers on both days. He also swore on his children that he would never betray the laborers and would always work for their benefit. Finally, he compared the leadership to generals, who, unlike the generals of the Pakistani Army, would not let the jawans (foot soldiers) down.83 By swearing on his children, Bawar Khan invoked an important cultural symbol: he asked the laborers to trust the leaders’ decision to stop the strikes, stressing that if there were to be an underhand deal with the government on this issue, then blight and ill health might come to his own children. To invoke the supernatural and God’s wrath on his own kin was an idiom that was familiar to the majority of the participants—and a somewhat unmodern belief within a gathering of the “vanguard proletariat.”84

The use of the language of generals and foot soldiers, which finally convinced the workers to stop the strike, may have had multiple meanings for the workers, as well. As mentioned, a majority of the workers were ethnically Pashtun. There is a tradition among the Pathans of avenging their dead and of safeguarding their honor (Pakhtunwali). Such

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histories were tempered by the participation of Pashtuns in India’s freedom struggle under the guidance of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the “Frontier Gandhi.” As Mukulika Banerjee describes, in the 1930s and ’40s, Ghaffar Khan persuaded Pashtun tribes to end their internal feuding and to self-discipline themselves into non-violent nationalist political actors, the Khudai Khitmatgars.85 This transformation, as Guha also suggests, was brought about by taming the more autonomous local sentiments into those of a controlled national movement that responded to its leaders.86 The Khudai Khitmatgars had training camps and a hierarchy of officials with titles of captain, major, and general.87

Some older workers may have participated in the nationalist movement themselves; others may have had fathers, uncles, and elder brothers who were Khudai Khitmatgars. Among the workers, there may have been a memory steeped in the construction of an officer corps that was far more egalitarian—where a person of low social position or status could attain a high rank—than the regular Pakistani army, in which lineage, social status, and wealth created a vast gulf between the commissioned officers and the rest of the men. Hence, Bawar Khan’s use of the military metaphor, even though it was steeped in a language of hierarchy, may have resonated within the framework of a historical experience of the radicalized Pashtun workers. Yet the appeal to the workers in a language of army generals and soldiers does not conform (Khudai Khitmatgars or otherwise) to the ideal of a voluntary contractual relationship that is commonly linked with bourgeois and modern notions of a democratic trade-union movement. Rather, it falls back on the imagery of the unquestioned trust and loyalty of a more hierarchical order.

I argue that the trade-union movement’s leadership at this juncture, regardless of its rhetoric of radical change, did not want to go beyond pushing for liberal democratic rights of association, speech, and statal welfare. They understood that the workers had not become disciplined and trained enough (they were still emotional, not using their brains) for the final transcendence beyond a capitalist bourgeois order. The halting of the strike therefore needs to be understood within such analytical parameters.


While the crisis in the SITE area came to a somewhat unsure end, labor strife intensified in the Landhi–Korangi area. This was the newer of the two industrial areas, and the labor federations were not as entrenched among the unions there. This area had almost 300 in- dustrial units, employing 80,000 workers. After the 1969 Industrial Relations Ordinance, when CBAs were allowed to operate openly, young radicals who had come up from the shop floor and had connections with underground communist groups started forming unions that in many industrial units defeated the older federations and management- supported unions.

During the ongoing struggle in the early 1970s, the workers had formed the Landhi– Korangi Labour Organizing Committee (LOC) to press for the demands that were similar to the ones in the SITE area. However, the radicalized nature of the workers in some mills led to the takeover of the mills rather than their mere encirclement, which was the favored form of action in SITE. The workers occasionally took managers hostage to press for their demands. To protest the dismissal and arrest of union leaders in a government-owned factory in September 1972, for example, the LOC demanded their release and ordered

Strength of the Street Meets That of the State 99

a two-hour strike every day until the demands were met.88 Sirens were heard from one factory to another, and workers brought production to a stop. To intensify their struggle, the workers organized a sixty-hour strike in sympathy with the arrested workers. The workers raised their demands further and asked to be paid for the strike period along with the release of their fellow workers.89 This situation prevailed until early October, when a faction of the workers decided to occupy two mills, Gul Ahmed Textiles and Dawood Cotton. As a response, large contingents of the provincial police and paramilitary forces were deployed by the state. The workers threatened to blow up the boiler of one of the mills if the police dared to enter the premises. The police then cut off the mills’ power and gas supply. An attack on the workers inside was imminent. The occupying labor leaders spurned mediation by left-leaning PPP leaders and other trade-union leaders.90 They claimed that the SITE leadership had failed to pursue the workers’ cause and had surrendered their momentum, gaining nothing in return from the state.

It was the Muslim month of Ramadan and dawn on 18 October 1972. As the workers were preparing their breakfasts, the police used bulldozers to break down the factory walls and entered the occupied mills. Official reports give an account of four dead and more than fifty injured, and eyewitnesses claim that mortality rates were far higher. The leadership within the mills managed to flee and regrouped the next day on the hills adjacent to the industrial area. A few days later, another shooting incident occurred in these hills in which three more people were killed. The army, for the first time since its 1971 defeat, was called in to control the situation, and the workers were forced back to work under their supervision. This ended the confrontation of 1972.

The extreme action by the state corresponded to the extreme position taken by the workers. Unlike those in the SITE area, the Landhi–Korangi trade unions were politically closer to the LOC, whose leadership, as mentioned earlier, was influenced by a pro–China communist group. The group itself had internal factions, and Mairaj Mohammad Khan, the minister in the PPP government, was a member of this group. While Khan sought to mediate between the government and the striking workers, other members of the pro–China group, such as Zainuddin Khan Lodhi and Rashid Hasan Khan, a charismatic student leader, were militant in their approach to the strike.91 These leaders, along with radical elements in other communist groups, such as the MKP, guided the workers. They believed that the state had become weak due to its defeat in eastern Pakistan/Bangladesh and the workers had finally arisen from their slumber. This, according to them, was an insurrectionary moment much like that of 1917 in Russia. They argued that once state violence against the working classes would be exposed, the nation and all the progressive forces would rise in their support and sweep the state away. People I spoke to also attested to the fact that the LOC members had felt sidelined during the SITE upheaval earlier in the summer and had not agreed with the way the strike had ended. The Landhi strike was their response to the Bhutto government for its atrocities.92 It should be noted that, although in the SITE area there was much worker anger against the industrialists, the strike itself was spontaneous and was a reaction to the killings on 7 and 8 June. In Landhi, the events that led to the confrontation were partly created by the workers and their leaders. How idealistic their non-compromising position was continues to be debated among left-wing cadres to this day. Some argue against the workers’ position as left-wing extremism, and others say that the undisciplined workers did not know when to stop. What remains unanalyzed or represented in these debates

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are the points of view of the workers themselves. Why many participated, under what conditions, and for what kinds of imaginary future people were willing to risk their lives is still an open question. Much research needs to be done on this very crucial aspect of the 1972 struggle. Yet the left’s debates echo the intellectual hierarchy and physical distance between those on the receiving end of state violence and those who made theoretical plans for this tragedy. By continuously reframing the events in terms of whether it was the correct moment to confront the state, such arguments reinsert and reduce the multiplicity and plurality of the struggle, merely subordinating these issues to a predetermined point of view of whether it was a progressive or a retrogressive move.93


In its effort to re-establish state authority after the debacle in Bangladesh, the Bhutto government not only crushed the radicalized movement but sought to reconfigure the working class according to its own vision of clientilist politics. There was also severe repression, in the shape of arrests and dismissals, of any dissenting voice from within the working class. Bawar Khan, the working-class leader who through his oratory convinced the workers to stop the strike, was arrested soon after the strike ended and tortured for several days. Economic and social pressure to feed his family forced him to take a job as a shiphand. He left the country for some years and never entered active labor politics again. Such examples made others uneasy about entering the arena of confrontational politics. Even PPP members and ministers such as Mairaj Mohammad Khan were not spared. Khan resigned as minister of state in protest against the October action in the Landhi area. In November 1973, he resigned from basic membership in the party in opposition to the increasing undemocratic character of the Bhutto regime.94 He was also later arrested and tortured in prison on charges of aiding the popular insurrection in Baluchistan.

There is no doubt that Bhutto’s labor laws gave workers unheard-of benefits in Pakistan’s labor history: allowances for inflation, social-security benefits, old-age pen- sions, increased participation in management, and increases in the participatory fund and gratuity funds are some of their salient features. However, the trade-union movement also suffered immensely in this period. Labor laws were periodically announced with- out taking into account labor’s view. Strikes were broken up using administrative and coercive means. There was a continuation of centralized and bureaucratized handling of industrial disputes as the state’s labor department and the newly formed industrial- relations commission became prominent in coercing or corrupting the labor leadership.

In nationalized industries, people were given employment far and beyond the max- imum required, thus diluting the influence of the existing unions and helping in the formation of a union supportive of the PPP. Some prominent labor leaders were given material incentives to support the state machinery, and a general corruption of values seeped into the movement. Through the introduction of quota system, workers in most state industries were hired according to regional and ethnically fixed quotas. This move did provide jobs to those who had been excluded on the basis of their ethnicity, but it also divided the working class according to ethnic criteria, where vertical linkages became more important than horizontal solidarity.

Strength of the Street Meets That of the State 101

The collapse of the textile industry in the mid-1970s led to a large-scale dislocation of textile workers. The immigration of Pakistani labor to the oil-rich Arab Gulf states also brought a qualitative change in the labor movement. Bhutto’s government, inclusive of its populist rhetoric and genuine attempts to institute reform in Pakistan’s cultural and political life, continued to harass and persecute any and all political opponents within and outside the party, from the left and the right of the political spectrum. One of the most egregious acts was the dismissal of Baluchistan’s NAP government in 1973 on the pretext that it was receiving arms shipments from Iraq and was involved in a conspiracy with the Soviet Union and Iraq to break up Pakistan and Iran. This dismissal led to the protest resignation of the NAP–JUI coalition government in the NWFP. On a more serious note, it led to a popular armed insurgency in Baluchistan that was brutally crushed by the PPP government. Bhutto gave the Pakistan military free rein in that province, enabling the military to return to public life after its defeat in East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. Through a coup in 1977, this invigorated military forced Bhutto out of power. In an ongoing saga of deprivation, Bhutto’s overthrow by another military regime intensified brutality against labor organizations during General Zia- ul-Haq’s tenure (1977–88). That untold history needs a detailed discussion in another text—or several other texts. Today, the low level of unionization, contract labor, flexible manufacturing regimes, and dominance of informal-sector work create new challenges for those involved in organizing workers.


The timing of the labor movement coincided with one of the most vulnerable periods in Pakistan’s history. The division of the country and the overthrow of a dictatorial regime opened a political space for radical change that was unprecedented in the nation’s life. Some argued that during this movement, the working class shed its narrow economistic demands for the first time and confronted the state for broader political gains.95 This celebration of emancipation is prefigured in a move toward becoming a class unto itself and may reflect an analytical trope in historical writings on the working class. In rethinking this argument in this paper, I suggest that the cleavages within the working class itself were just beneath the surface. Difference based on political affiliation, region, language, and ethnicity were dividing Pakistan’s working class in this period, even as some trade union leaders and radical political activists made simultaneous efforts to consolidate a united front of working-class rights. Following Chakrabarty’s work on Bengali working-class politics in early 20th century,96 I submit that class-based solidarities and alliances are created in specific moments of the struggle for certain immediate goals and may coexist with other solidarities that encompass differences in language, region, and ethnicity. To question the dichotomy between the positivity of class alliances and the negativity of “earlier” forms of identity formation is to rethink the teleology in which labor history may find itself and to rethink how, in different geogra- phies, a history of emancipation and struggle may take varied forms.97 Further, I maintain a distance from those historical representations of struggle that tend to exclude force, uncertainty, domination, disdain, and confusion by normalizing the struggle, making it part of a narrative of ensured advance toward a specified outcome.98

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Rather than show a united labor movement, I have tried to show the different ways in which the left itself was divided and the distance between the leadership and the workers. In light of Guha’s work, I also show how the trade-union leaders sought to discipline an undisciplined and autonomous subaltern collectivity so that it would respond to the desires of the leadership.99

Yet the final word belongs to the workers themselves. In interviews, some rank-and- file workers from the SITE area lamented how they had wanted only those who had ordered the shooting dismissed from their jobs. One said, “But the leaders told us to take two steps backward, as Mao [sic] had proclaimed. We took two steps back, and look at us now. We just have contractual jobs, if that, no unions, and we are definitely worse off.”100 This criticism of their leaders, however, was less severe than other comments offered by some workers against the PPP. The PPP government’s performance was always couched in terms of betrayal. For example, as one worker put it:

We were in the Peoples Party; we went to jail for the PPP. All of us had a lot of expectations from them. We wanted change, and our work should be worth something. But [Bhutto] was feudal. He was not sincere toward the workers, and he crushed them.101

A similar sentiment is echoed in the interpretation of the PPP’s famous slogan “Mang raha hai har insan, roti, kapra aur makan” (Every human is asking for food, clothes, and shelter) that several workers offered to me. The workers, even after more than thirty years, interpreted the slogan this way: “Bhutto kept his promise . . . . Roti ki jagah goli mili, kapre ki jagah kafn aur makan ki jagah qabr. We received bullets in place of food, burial shrouds in place of clothing, and graves were given to us as our shelter.”


Author’s note: Funding for this research was provided by a Mellon Faculty Grant from the Population Research Center, University of Texas, Austin; a Summer Faculty Grant University of Texas, Austin; and a fellowship at the International Institute of Asian Studies, Leiden. I thank the staff and archivist at the International Institute of Social History (IISH), Amsterdam; the National Archives, Washington, D.C.; Pakistan Institute of Labor, Education and Research, Karachi; and the Dawn library, Karachi. Earlier version of the paper were presented at the IISH Labor and History Conference, Karachi, December 1999, and at the offices of the journal Irteqa (Karachi). I thank the organizers of and participants in those events for their encouragement and comments. I sincerely thank Karamat Ali, Nawab Ali Zahid Hussein, Ahmed Kamran, Gail Minault, Ratna Saptari, Hameeda Sikander, Denise Spelberg, Razi ul Hasan, and Marcel van der Linden for their support and critical input in the writing of this text. I also thank Juan Cole and Alissa Surges, along with the four anonymous IJMES reviewers, for their close reading and critical input. Finally, I am indebted to the various informants who willingly shared their life histories with me. The responsibility for the final shape of the paper rests with me.

1The salient feature of the policy included participation of labor representatives in management; more democratic grievance procedures; access to labor courts by either party; increases in profitsharing; non- payment of medical dues by workers with increased employers’ contribution; and workmen compensation in case of death or injury.

2Zulfikir Ali Bhutto, “Address to the Nation,” 10 February 1972. See Dawn (English daily), 11 February 1972.

3During the late 1960s, students and workers led movements in many parts of the world: the anti-war movement in the United States; student protests in France; Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia; and the Naxalite movement in India, to name a few. All had particular histories and need to be understood within their own context.

Strength of the Street Meets That of the State 103

4 For example, see, among others, A. A. K. Niazi, The Betrayal of East Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998).

5Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922–1992 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 3.

6The Chauri Chaura incident took place in February 1922. The major incident was the burning of a police station by a politicized and angry mob.

7For example, major activist–leaders of the trade-union movement and members of various communist groups, such as Nayab Naqvi, Nazish and Zaki Hasan, among scores of others, have passed away in the past four years.

8This argument was constantly repeated to me by left-wing intellectuals I interviewed.

9Ranajit Guha, “Discipline and Mobilize,” in Subaltern Studies VII, ed. Partha Chaterjee and Gyanendra Pandey (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993).

10See Arif Hasan, Understanding Karachi (Karachi: City Press, 1999).

11See idem, “The Growth of a Metropolis,” in Karachi: A Megacity of Our Times, ed. Hamida Khuro and Anwer Mooraj (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1997), 171–96. Akmal Hussein, “The Karachi Riots of 1986: Crisis of State and Civil Society in Pakistan,” in Mirrors of Violence., ed. Veena Das (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 185–93. Fareeda Shaheed, “The Pathan–Mohajir Conflicts, 1985–86: A National Perspective,” in Das, Mirrors of Violence, 194–214. Oskar Verkaaik, A People of Migrants, Ethnicity, State and Religion in Karachi, Comparative Asian Studies 15 (Amsterdam: Free University Press, 1994).

12See Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 2.

13See Z. A. Shaheed, “Role of the Government in the Development of the Labour Movement,” in Pakistan: The Roots of Dictatorship, ed. H. Gardezi and J. Rashid (London: Zed Press, 1983), 270–90.

14See Gustav F. Papaneck, Pakistan’s Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).

15See Hamza Alavi, “Class and State,” in Gardezi and Rashid, Pakistan, 291–310. Rashid Amjad, “Industrial Concentration and Economic Power,” in ibid., 228–69.

16See Fasihuddin Salar, “The Working Class Movement in Pakistan,” unpublished ms (Karachi: Piler Library, 1986).

17 Ibid.

18“ILO Report on the Pakistan Survey, 1953,” unpublished ms., International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) Archives, box 3696.

19See Shaheed, “Role of the Government,” 273.

20One of the major accomplishments of the Pakistani state was to encourage the formation of the All Pakistan Confederation of Labour (APCOL) in the early 1950s as a counterweight to the communist-supported labor federations, especially the Pakistan Trade Union Federation. APCOL was affiliated with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, the major anti-communist international confederation of labor, which had headquarters in Belgium. See Anthony Carew, “Conflict Within the ICFTU: Anti-Communism and Anti- Colonialism in the 1950s,” International Review of Social History 41 (1996): 147–81; Idem, “The American Labor Movement in Fizzland: The Free Trade Union Committee and the CIA,” Labor History 39, 1 (1998): 25–42.

21See Tariq Ali, Can Pakistan Survive? (London: Penguin Books, 1983), 69.

22Usman Baluch, president of the MMF in 1972 and one of the major leaders of the labor movement, interview with the author, Karachi, summer 1998.

23See Ishrat Husain, Pakistan: The Economy of an Elitist State (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1999). 24See Alavi, “Class and State.”
25 By the end of the 1960s, experts argued, the wealth in Pakistan was concentrated with twenty-two families

who controlled 87 percent of the banking and insurance firms and 66 percent of the industrial wealth of the country: see Amjad, “Industrial Concentration”; and Shahid Javed Burki, Pakistan under Bhutto (London: Macmillan, 1988). An interesting analysis of this period is also given in Tariq Ali, Pakistan Military Rule or People’s Power (New York: William Morrow, 1970).

26Mohammed Ahmed, “The New Labour Policy,” Dawn (Karachi, English-language daily), 13 December, 1970.

27Dawn, 16 January 1972; Shaheed, “Role of the Government,” 280

28Maulana Bhashani was a leader of one section of the National Awami Party that was pro-China in orientation.

104 Kamran Asdar Ali

29Makranis (lit., belonging to the Makran coast of Baluchistan) are ethnically Baluch yet are descendants of the Indian Ocean slave trade from Africa. They, along with other Baluch workers, have been a part of Karachi’s fishing and seafaring industry since the 19th century. The Karachi Baluch were somewhat politically distinct from the nationalist Baluch of the Kalat state and other districts of Baluchistan proper.

30This domination was also evident within the Communist Party of Pakistan. Since the party’s inception during the Calcutta congress of the Communist Party of India in 1948, its leadership positions—in the early years, at least—were primarily held by Mohajirs.

31After the surrender of the Pakistani army to the Indian forces in the eastern sector (Bangladesh) on 16 December 1971, cease-fire negotiations intensified, and the military regime was eventually removed through an internal coup. Bhutto was named president in late December 1971.

32See Dawn for the month of January 1972; see esp. the news item on the interview given by Mairaj Mohammad Khan, president’s adviser for public affairs in Karachi (1 January 1972). Also, this analysis is based on my interviews with Usman Baluch (Karachi, summer 1998) and Nabi Ahmed (Karachi, summer 1998), who was the general-secretary of the Pakistan Workers’ Federation in 1972. Both were prominent leaders in the labor movement.

33At times, this led to the forcible confining of factory managers to their offices until they agreed to the union’s demands: see news report in Business Recorder (Karachi, English-language, daily), 7 April 1972.

34See Dawn, 29 March 1972.

35One of the first actions by the Bhutto government was the nationalization of thirty-two industries and forty insurance companies and banks: see Shahid Javed Burki, Pakistan under Bhutto (London: Macmillan, 1988).

36The “foreign hand” in most cases referred to groups that were ostensibly working for either India’s or the Soviet Union’s interests. My intention here is not to prove or disprove whether such assertions had any merit. Rather, I seek to present the rhetoric used by Bhutto’s government.

37Dawn, 7 January 1972, 19 May 1972.

38 The minister of labor in the Punjab government, Mian Afzal Wattoo, while addressing the Lahore Chamber of Commerce, asked the business leaders and industrialists to prepare lists of undesirable elements in their respective concerns and deliver the lists to him: see Business Recorder, 17 May 1972.

39One of the most prominent among them was Mairaj Mohammad Khan, a Karachi-based leftist student leader and a member of one of the pro-China communist groups. Since the late 1960s, this group had agreed to work with the PPP and had allowed some of its most prominent young members, such as Mairaj Mohammad Khan, to join it. In the initial phase of the Bhutto regime, Khan became minister of state for public affairs. Khan had not participated in the elections, as the Communist Party (pro-China) had decided not to let its members participate in the general elections of December 1970.

40See new items in Dawn, 4 April 1972, 31 May 1972.

41See editorials in Leader (Karachi, English-language evening daily), 7 January 1972; Morning News (Karachi, English-language daily), 2 February 1972; and Business Recorder, 25 February 1972.

42Baluch interview.

43 The Pakistani labor movement consisted (and still consists) of various labor federations that are a collection of unions from different factories and work sites. Different federations have historically retained influence in particular sectors of the economy—for example, among workers in the petroleum industry, or port workers, or the textile industry. But this pattern was not generalized. See Rifaat Hussein, Pakistan Trade Union Tehreek ka Ijmali Jaiza (in Urdu) (Karachi: Pakistan Institute of Labour, Education and Research, 1995). The federations that formed the Sind Workers’ Convention were the Sind Federation of Trade Unions, Pakistan Workers’ Federation, Muttahida Mazdoor Federation, Pakistan Trade Union Federation, Mazdoor Rabita Council, and Pakistan Textile Labour Unions Federation.

44The following analysis of the police shootings of 7 and 8 June 1972 are based on interviews with workers and trade-union leaders who participated in the events. It also draws on the press reports in Karachi newspapers during this period.

45The workers’ participation fund was the workers’ share in profit in a given industry. It was raised from 2.5 percent to 4 percent in the new labor laws announced by Bhutto in February 1972.

46Some workers with whom I spoke remembered two people dying from bullet wounds outside and two inside the mill compound. One worker attested that, when the laborers returned to work after the two weeks of strike, there was still dried blood in the factory area, and the workers created a makeshift grave for their comrades at this site.

Strength of the Street Meets That of the State 105

47One of the laborers whose body was in police custody was named Raza Khan; Mohammad Shoaib’s body was taken away by the workers: see Dawn, 8 June 1972.

48Some of the dead were Mohammad Nazeer, Rahimzada, Mian Usman Shah, Rahsid and Khasta Rehman. All were workers in various textile mills in the SITE area. Stray bullets (Dawn, 9 June 1972) also killed an infant, Amirzada, and his mother. It is interesting to note that the only woman who was killed in this shooting is nameless in the multiple newspaper reports that I have read and the interviews that I conducted. She is referred to only as the mother of an infant child. How women get erased from histories of struggle and from national histories and how their representation is relegated to the domestic domain, is an important feature of my ongoing research and future work: see Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), for a critical review of the issue.

49Huriyyet (Urdu daily), 10 June 1972.
50These eyewitness accounts are based on interviews conducted in summer 2003.
51Editorial, Dawn, 10 June 1972.
52News report, Huriyyet, 10 June 1972; my translation.
53New report, Sun (Karachi, English-language daily), 12 June 1972.
54A West Pakistan Joint Labour Council had already been working at the national level since 1969. Its

representatives were the West Pakistan Federation of Trade Unions, West Pakistan Federation of Labour, Pakistan National Federation of Trade Unions, Pakistan Mazdoor Federation, and West Pakistan Workers Federation (press release, West Pakistan Joint Labor Council, ISSH, ICFTU files on Pakistan). The action committee comprised some of the same actors but also included some new, more radicalized groups, such as the MMF.

Again, there was intense demand from the workers who insisted that shop-floor laborers be included in the action committee. This was a clear sign of mistrust of their own leadership in this process.

55Kanwar Idrees, then the deputy commissioner of Karachi (the most important civil administrative officer in the district) went on to have a very productive career in Pakistan’s elite civil service.

56Dawn, 16 June 1972.
57This summary is based on interviews with Usman Baluch and Nabi Ahmed, Karachi, summer 1998. 58The Communist Party of Pakistan was officially banned after 1954. It suffered its first setback in 1952

when it was accused of supporting a coup attempt being organized by some in the military: Hasan Zaheer, The Times and Trial of The Rawalpindi Conspiracy 1951 (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998). The underground party survived as functioning body until the early 1960s, when it split due to ideological reasons into pro–Moscow and pro–China factions. By the late 1960s, these formations—especially the pro-China groups—had further divided into smaller groups.

59 These processes remain an immensely complicated topic in the history of the Pakistani left. It should also be mentioned that, in some circles, the Karachi labor struggle was being conceived as a competition between two PPP ministers: Mairaj Mohammad Khan and Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, the PPP federal minister who had won his parliamentary seat from Karachi, for the control of labor. Mairaj supposedly favored Usman Baluch, the MMF leader, and Pirzada favored Tufail Abbas, general-secretary of the pro–China communist group and a veteran trade-union leader in the airline industry. See American Embassy in Islamabad, “Pakistan Internal Political Situation,” confidential airgram, 13 October 1972, National Archives Pol-13 Pak, box 2525. If this is accurate, then it would interestingly show the cleavage within the pro–China communist group, as Khan would not be supporting the general-secretary of his own underground communist group. Speaking to me in summer 2003, Khan vehemently denied this analysis and formulation.

60Nishtar Park in Central Karachi. It is historically famous for political rallies.
61Dawn, 18 June 1972.
62Mairaj Mohammad Khan, interview with the author, in Karachi, summer 2003. In the interview, Khan

did not dispute the thrust of the statement, but he argued that it had been misreported.
63Ibid. See also Khan’s statement in Dawn, 8 June 1972.
64Disaffected members of the National Awami Party formed the Mazdoor Kisaan Party in 1968. It was the

first socialist/communist party in Pakistan that took the issue of working among the peasantry seriously and was successful in launching a peasant movement in NWFP in 1970. See also Dawn, 10 June 1972.

65The National Awami Party had two factions: one was pro–Soviet Union, and one was pro–China. These connections were made on the basis of the links these parties had with the banned underground communist parties that themselves were identified as either in the Soviet camp or with the Maoists. See also news report, Dawn, 10 June 1972.

106 Kamran Asdar Ali

66In 1955, the Pakistani state was organized into two provinces—West Pakistan and East Pakistan (One Unit)—with total disregard for the various ethnic, cultural, and linguistic histories and experiences of its people. The military government of General Yahya Khan (1968–71) finally dissolved the One Unit in 1970, creating the five provinces of Sind, Baluchistan, Punjab, NWFP, and Bengal, before the general elections in December.

67Urdu’s state-sponsored domination of high literary forms and the media has come at the expense of systematically excluding other Pakistani languages and their cultural production from national life. For an analysis of this period, see Feroz Ahmed, Ethnicity and Politics in Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 115.

68It is also important to state that, in newspaper interviews given in 1972, these very same leaders stress class solidarity and how for the first time the workers had organized on the basis of their class affiliation without recourse to any other category of recognition: see Sun (Karachi, daily), 2 September 1972.

69Dawn, 10 June 1972. Numerous other news reports in the English and Urdu press during the period of the strike attest to this position.

70I base the following paragraphs on NAP–PPP relations on interviews with political activists and on the work of Iqbal Leghari. See Iqbal Leghari, “The Socialist Movement in Pakistan: An Historical Survey, 1940–1974” (Ph.D. diss., Laval University, Montreal, Canada, 1979).

71This was denied by Usman Baluch, the president of the MMF, who said in a statement that the NAP accused the MMF of siding with the PPP while the PPP linked the MMF to NAP. He stressed that the MMF was not connected to any political party: see Dawn, 12 June 1972.

72Editorial, Huriyyet, 17 June 1972.
73 Also known as Badshah Khan or Bacha Khan (in Pushto).
74In this context, it is important to note that the NAP (pro–Soviet) under Wali Khan’s leadership was itself

going through an internal debate on the vital issue of provincial autonomy. Some within the party advocated a more forceful confrontation with the Bhutto government on the national question and a push for the liberation of the NWFP (Sarhad) and Baluchistan following the recent example of Bangladesh. Others, such as the Baluch leader and governor of Baluchistan, Ghaus Bux Bizenjo, were more cautious and argued that the constitutional accord accepted by all political parties in early 1972 had settled the provincial-autonomy issue, and hence the party should oppose or support Bhutto on the merit of the issue: see American Embassy in Islamabad, “Baluchistan Governor Comments on Recent Political Development,” confidential airgram, 29 September 1972, National Archives Pol 13-Pak, box 2525. See also Leghari, “Socialist Movement.”

75This argument is best represented in an op-ed piece by Mohammad Hanif, the federal minister for labor: See Morning News, 1 May 1972.

76Baluch interview.

77This theme was echoed in most newspaper editorials and in interviews with various trade-union leaders who were active at the time.

78Hamza Alavi, “Review of Labour Legislation and Trade Unions in India and Pakistan by Ali Amjad,” unpublished ms. (personal e-mail communication to author, 2002).

79Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working Class History: Bengal, 1890–1940 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 154.

80 Ibid.

81I base this analysis on several interviews with the trade-union leaders who were active in 1972 and with some underground communist activists of the time. I agreed not use their names for sensitive political reasons.

82See Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working Class History, 21.

83This paragraph is based on interviews with workers, trade-union leaders, and reporting in Dawn, 18 June 1972, and Huriyyet, 19 June 1972.

84This is not uncommon in South Asian politics: see Guha, “Discipline,” on how Hindu caste notions of purity were used as a form of social coercion during the Swadeshi movement in the early 20th century.

85See Mukulika Banerjee, The Pathan, Unarmed (London: Oxford University Press, 2000). 86See Guha, “Discipline.”
87See Banerjee, Pathan, chap. 3.
88Pakistan Machine Tool Factory.

89Aziz-ul-Hasan, union representative and activist during the Landhi struggle, and Zahid Hussein (journalist), student and left-wing activist during the 1972 movement, interviews with the author, Karachi,

Strength of the Street Meets That of the State 107

summer 1998. The narrative in this section is based on a reconstruction of events from these interviews and newspaper reports.

90Khan (interview) told me that he had met with the workers within the occupied mills and informed them that, although the industrialists were agreeable to a compromise, the provincial government—especially the chief minister—was interested in teaching the workers a lesson. Aziz-ul-Hasan, one of the leaders of the occupation, had already mentioned this to me in an earlier interview (summer 1998).

91In interviews, some cadres who were politically active in 1972 told me that leaders of the underground communist group were fascinated with the ultra-left Naxalite movement in India.

92Interview with workers active during 1972 within the LOC (summer 2003). I agreed not to use their names for sensitive political reasons.

93See Jacques Ranciere, “The Myth of the Artisan: Critical Reflections on a Category of Social History,” International Labor and Working Class History 24 (1983): 1–16.

94See Daily News (English-language), 14 November 1973, for the full text of the resignation letter.

95See Shaheed, “Role of the Government”; and idem, “The Organization and Leadership of Industrial Labour in Karachi (Pakistan)” (Ph.D. diss., Department of Politics, University of Leeds, 1977): Ali, Can Pakistan Survive?

96Chakrabarty, Rethinking Working Class History.
97 Ibid.
98Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 4–5. 99Guha, “Discipline.”

100The tract “One Step Forward; Two Steps Backward” is by Lenin. Mohammad Khan, textile worker in 1972, interview with the author, Karachi (summer 2003).

101 Ibid.




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