Back in 2007, when lawyers in Pakistan were out on the streets, protesting the sacking of the Chief Justice of Pakistan by their military dictatorship, a short and well-produced music video, featuring a poem by the late revolutionary poet Habib Jalib, surfaced on the internet, and then aired on television channels across the country.
The song, 'Masheer' (advisor), an old favorite among progressive circles for its satirical take on dictators, was re-introduced to a newer and younger audience, many of whom, inspired by the music – and its message – turned up at political protest rallies, some of them led by the rock music band Laal.
Laal had been performing their rock version of the song for years at protest rallies and corner meetings of the left-wing Communist Mazdoor Kisan Party (CMKP), led by the band frontman, Taimur Rahman. But it was in the deeply-politicised atmosphere of 2007, that scores of young Pakistanis, who had perhaps never listened to progressive poets like Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, re-discovered the revolutionary poetry of the sixties and seventies.
Two albums later, Laal continues to use web forums and social media to talk about these progressive ideas, and over the years they've released over a dozen tracks, including a few original numbers. For instance, 'Dehshatgardi Murdabad' (down with terrorism), an original composition that features on their second album 'Utho Meri Duniya' – which Rahman is now touring India to promote. The video, which has a distinct eighties pop feel to it, explains, in its narrative, that the roots of religious extremism lie in the history of the Cold War, when the US' Central Intelligence Agency supported the Mujahedeen. Similarly, the video for another Jalib song 'Jhoot Ka Uncha Sar' – which channels in Pakistan refused to air because it criticised the military – uses techniques that are typically seen in street theatre or agitprop.
In an interview with Deepa Kurup, during their recent Indian tour, political activist, musician – yes, in that order, he insists – and a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, Dr. Taimur Rahman, says their music is a “vehicle” to spread the revolutionary message. The music isn't the message, he emphasises, even as he reflects on the need for a stronger Left in Pakistan, a country where he hopes the younger generation – which often turns to the military to provide an alternative to the corrupt parliamentary parties and extremist forces – will seek a progressive alternative. Excerpts
Your songs have a progressive, deeply political message, set to some catchy guitar riffs. Your music appeals to a large number of young urban Pakistanis. But are they really just enjoying the rock melodies, or do they understand and endorse the politics of the song?
I'm asked this quite a lot. During a live performance, of course, people just get the gist of what am talking about. But what we've seen is that once they get that, and like the music, they'll go back and watch the videos, get deeper into the poetry and the message. I'm happy, even if people come to our concerts, and enjoy the music and get the mota-mota gist of what I'm saying; because I know that if I'm able to arouse interest in them, at some point it will make them think.
Also, I sing these songs at protests and at rallies, where people hang on to every word. Look at our fan page, young people are posting links, discussing issues. I'd say we've managed to inspire people to start thinking of progressive politics.
I have also been following this up with an online lecture series, where I talk about Marxism, the ideology, discuss religious extremism and so on.
You've travelled extensively across rural Pakistan as part of your political work with the Communist Mazdoor Kisan Party. Are people there able to connect with these rock tunes, or do you experiment with other kinds of music there ...
A lot of people have this impression that the kind of music I do – I call it revolutionary rock -- appeals only to an urban, upper middle-class audience. It's the exact opposite. For instance, in one particular campaign, where we were mobilising landless tenants to reclaim land rights on military farms, we were able to mobilise 50,000 landless farmers. I took my guitar and a tabla-waala, and we sang 'Utho Mere Duniya Ke Gareebo', and other songs, and the response was phenomenal. Marching from Khanewal to Lahore, I was performing in four villages a day. The connection there was the music. This movement, called the Anjuman-e-Muzhareen Punjab, was successful as the government announced that the land (occupied or leased by the military) will be returned to the farmers. This campaign demonstrated quite clearly that our music, and the message, had broad popular appeal.
In the very politicised environment during the Lawyers' protests, in 2007, your music mobilised many young Pakistanis. What happened after that?
The lawyers' movement was successful, but many of us had goals that went beyond the restoration of the judiciary. Our goal was to bring about meaningful democracy, a secular society, social equality, and of course, socialism itself. So our struggle continued.
At the same time, bombs began to explode across Pakistan – and I believe the mobilisation would have continued in a progressive direction otherwise. Till date, in the religious fundamentalist violence that erupted after the Laal Masjid incident (in 2007), 37,000 lives have been lost, including 30,000 civilians. Obviously, in that kind of a climate, marches or rallies were not possible. There was always threat looming ... political rallies were attacked; Benazir Bhutto [ex-prime minister] herself was killed.
That resulted in a huge setback.
But a substantial section of the youth, your target audience, in Pakistan sees the military as a better alternative to political parties. How do you negotiate that?
They're fed up with the mainstream parties because they've [parties] given up on the prerequisites of the bourgeoisie democracy; they're happy with working within the framework set by the military establishment. But we're saying that's not enough – democracy is not just about elections, it's about a new class structure, a new type of society. Here you have landlords ruling, winning elections ... and people are fed up, and the only alternative they can think of is calling in the military. Frankly, am at a loss when people wish for military dictatorships, again and again.
This also has to do with the propaganda in the mainstream media. They (the media houses, not individual journalists) are soft towards the military, while the media is – rightly so – critical of the political parties.
How strong is the Left voice in Pakistan today?
Until the eighties, the Left was strong and influential in the trade union movement, the student movement and the mainstream press. Zia Ul Haq, during his period, came down heavily on these institutions ... after which they all came to be dominated by right wing forces.
It would be fair to say that for nearly two decades now, we have not been able to break that hold of the right wing from the public opinion making circles. The Left also decided that since we can't break in, let's just ghettoise ourselves and work in our own circles, which was also very detrimental.
So they were preaching to the converted ...
Yes, they were only talking among themselves. And that's exactly what I wanted to break... We wanted to engage with people who hadn't heard about the Left. So we began to hold mushairas among the working class, we went to villages, new mass fronts. I was teaching Marxism in elite universities. In some sense we were reinventing the wheel ... we had to relearn the ropes to publish a magazine, leaflet or a newspaper for the workers; things had become so stagnant that these institutions were just not available, to our generation at least.
This was also good, in a way, as we were not stuck in an old idiom and were able to evolve. Even our music is very different from the way the Left traditionally did music. They got Tina Saini or Nayyara Noor to sing Faiz, and that appealed to one audience. But we decided we're going to do it differently; we experimented with video, satire, humour and dance. Some of it worked, some of it didn't, but then you live and you learn.
You're the general secretary of a communist party, who leads a rock band. Are you ever asked to pick between the two, music and politics.
See, today in Pakistan, there are many poets who believe in the Left ideology. But very few of them will take a stance openly, or be directly associated with a party. This is true for artists, poets, musicians... they prefer to be academics, this “anti-party, party” (laughs) is very responsible for the weakness of the Left. They feel that associating themselves with a political left-wing party will somehow compromise their artistic integrity, or that they will lose popular appeal.
I feel this has been damaging for the Left. At the risk of sounding like an old-school Marxist, I'd say if you have a strong political organisation, then you can have strong trade unions, cultural organisations ... and you can be effective at the policy level. Now, you write your song, write your poem, and it may translate into political awareness, but not into political mobilisation. It just doesn't change anything. While I respect these left-wing intellectuals, what needs to be recognised is that if you don't organise a political platform of the Left in Pakistan, you're not going to win this struggle.
Are you optimistic about the future of the organised Left in Pakistan?
In the long run I feel the future of the left is very optimistic. But for now we need to develop new ways of attracting people and work harder to deepen our theoretical understanding.
Some of your detractors say you’ve gone rogue: too “commercial”, “not a genuine movement anymore”. You were brought here by Hard Rock Cafe, but you also played at universities. Would you comment?
Some people have criticised us for having our album published by a corporation or for performing at venues where working people wouldn't be ready to come. But we feel that the album launch and the tour could not have been successful without a tour in several cities and media coverage. We got an opportunity and we took it. When we came to India, we made friends and comrades who have organised performances on the streets, in schools, and in universities.
What we are doing is quite unprecedented, so there will be questions about our new way of playing and promoting our music. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Those who have attended our concerts in India have been charged by the words of Faiz and Jalib to work for a new society. In the final analysis that is the aspect that people should and will remember.