Hasil Bizenjo: fighter for democracy – Dr Naazir Mahmood

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It was a fairly cold night in January 1988 – even by Moscow standards. The outside temperature was touching minus 20 degrees Celsius. But in a cozy hotel room in central Moscow, Ajmal Khattak and Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo were talking to some Pakistani students who had gathered around them to get the latest updates on Pakistan and its 11-year-old military dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq.

Suddenly, they get a message from their hosts of the Soviet Communist Party. We observe a changing expression on their faces and they share with us the sad news that Bacha Khan is no more. They get up with their towering figures and politely ask us to leave as they have to prepare for their departure to Kabul where Bacha Khan had willed to be buried. That was my last meeting with Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo, the father of Bizen and Hasil. That night Mir Bizenjo had shared with us his concerns that in the aftermath of General Zia’s brutal rule, Pakistan would suffer for many generations to come.

How true he was. An unexplained air crash killed General Zia and some of his top colleagues in 1988. The shadow of that dictatorship ligers on and on, even after three decades of musical chairs among the elected, selected, and some self-appointed leaders both from civilian and military brass. Mir Bizenjo faced defeat in the elections of 1988 and could not survive even for a year after that. Mir Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo died in August 1989 and left the field for his two sons; now Bizen and Hasil were his successors.

In the elections of 1990, Bizen won on two seats of the National Assembly and vacated one for his younger brother Hasil who comfortably won it in a by-election in Khuzdar. Hasil Bizenjo was just 32 in 1990 but had already spent nearly 10 years in active student politics both in Balochistan and Sindh from the platform of the Baloch Student Organization (BSO). In the early 1980s when I was a college student in Karachi and associated with the Democratic Student Federation (DSF), Mir Hasil Baloch, as he preferred to call himself at that time, was a senior student leader at the University of Karachi.

In the 1980s – and after that too – there was a feeling among Baloch students to shun their caste or family name and just call themselves Baloch, to show a common identity. Mir Hasil Baloch played an instrumental role in the formation of an anti-dictatorship alliance of student associations, named the United Student Movement (USM). When all right-wing student associations were basking in the glory of the so-called Islamization of General Zia, they had a free hand to act at will across campuses. The Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) used their ‘Thunder Squad’ to terrorize all left-leaning, liberal and progressive students.

Comrade Nazeer Abbasi had already been tortured to death in jail, and getting involved in politics was like inviting the wrath of the generals. But still, Hasil Bizenjo was just 25 years old in 1983 when he appeared in a military court as a witness to defend progressive leaders who had been charged with sedition while demanding an end to military dictatorship and restoration of democracy. If you demanded democratic and human rights you were liable to be charged with treason even then. General Zia had openly and repeatedly said that he wanted to remove ‘the poison of politics’ from Pakistan.

Ghaus Bakhsh and Hasil Bizenjo were perhaps the only father-son duo to have appeared as witnessed in that famous Jam-Saqi case. Bacha Khan and Wali Khan were also of the same ilk, and repeatedly showed their political mettle. Though Z A Bhutto’s own record was not enviable against the leftist politicians in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto also appeared in that case to defend Jam Saqi and showed where her political preferences lay. She was also in her late 20s at that time and had already suffered long years of detention.

In a recent article, Mazhar Abbas has beautifully narrated the scene of that military court and the exchange between Hasil Bizenjo and the military officers. As chairman of the USM at Karachi University, Hasil had the guts to withstand the grilling; he responded with courage, declaring that the military dictator was a usurper who had used illegal and unconstitutional means to mount a coup. We drew our inspiration from young leaders such as Hasil Bizenjo and Imdad Chandio. Hasil played an active role in national politics in the decades to come and Imdad Chandio became a renowned and respected human rights activist in Sindh.

A ruthless crackdown by the military dictatorship of General Zia and his coteries had resulted in the incarceration of thousands of political workers across the country. The PPP was the prime target but all political parties and student associations which had the courage to challenge and question the disastrous path General Zia was taking came under the hammer. Hasil Bizenjo learned the basics of politics in the 1980s under the tutelage of his father, who was one of the most active and bold advocates of democracy and constitutional supremacy in Pakistan.

Mir Hasil Bizenjo never wavered from the commitments he and his family had to democratic and national rights of all nationalities in Pakistan. Unlike the Jamalis and the Jams, Hasil just like his father, never compromised with anti-democratic forces in Balochistan and in the country. While the Bizenjos were fighting for democracy, facing intimidation and arrests, and suffering in jails, Jam Ghulam Qadir served as chief minister of Balochistan from 1985 to 1988 under General Ziaul Haq. His son Jam Yousuf was chief minister for full five years under General Musharraf from 2002 to 2007.

The same applies to the Jamali cousins (Jan, Taj, and Zafar) who have always been anxious to get to the top positions both in Balochistan and in the country. Contrarily, Bizen, Hasil, and Tahir Bizenjos are an entirely different breed. They could have compromised and always remained in power, but they are not known for selling themselves out. They have stood fast in the struggle for the supremacy of civilian and democratic rule. Hasil Bizenjo represented essentially non-tribal and middle class politics as opposed to the tribal politics of the Jamalis, Jams, and others in Balochistan, and in the rest of the country.

Hasil Bizenjo again won a National Assembly seat in 1997, and after the 1999 coup of General Musharraf continued with his politics for the restoration of democracy. He and Dr Abdul Malik formed the National Party in 2003 and stayed away from the corridors of power, keeping their democratic credentials intact. In 2009, Hasil Bizenjo was for the first time elected to the Senate of Pakistan and played a dynamic role there for nearly 11 years till his death. After the general elections of 2013, the National Party made an alliance with the PML-N to share power.

The deal resulted in Dr Malik becoming the chief minister of Balochistan for the first half of the five-year tenure. Those two and half years from June 2013 to Dec 2015 the National Party and Hasil Bizenjo had to compromise with the powers-that-be in Balochistan; that made Hasil an even more staunch believer in democracy and civilian supremacy. In 2014, the National Party elected Hasil Bizenjo as its president. In 2016, for the first time Hasil accepted a ministerial position in the Ministry of Maritime Affairs. That two-year ministry was the only time that Hasil occupied a federal position.

He always gave credit to the PML-N for upholding the principles of democracy and accommodating other parties, as opposed to the PPP which for mysterious reasons supported Sadiq Sanjrani for the Senate chairmanship. The defeat of Hasil Bizenjo in the election for Senate chairman was as devastating as 1989 was for his father. Both died within a year of losing elections, eventually losing the battle against cancer.

Email: mnazir1964@yahoo.co.uk