The 1968-9 Pakistan Revolution: a students’ and workers’ popular uprising

by Jessica Bell • Published 12 July 2016

For a period of almost five months, from early November 1968 to the end of March 1969, there was a radical uprising all over Pakistan. It involved some 10 to 15 million people across both East and West Pakistan.[2] “[N]ot a day passed…without some kind of civil disturbance, riot, strike, bloodshed, or demonstration.”[3]

During the previous ten years, the country had been ruled by “an undisguised dictatorship of the bureaucratic military elite”[4] headed by Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan. Ayub had taken power through a coup in October 1958; it was a pre-emptive strike against parliamentary democracy to ensure that political power remained in the hands of the civilian and military bureaucracies.

Due to the Ayub regime’s economic policies, Pakistan became a country of extremes in wealth and poverty. The capitalist class experienced a time “during which properties were developed, fortunes amassed and the Ayub family emerged as one of the twenty richest families in the country”. But in contrast, “[f]or the people of Pakistan [the Ayub era was] ten years of darkness, oppression and increasing material poverty – and of intellectual poverty, the result of the rigorous political and cultural censorship”.[5]

The history of anti-Ayub resistance goes back well before the last months of 1968. Three years earlier, as Pakistan was decisively defeated in its war with India and forced to sign the humiliating Tashkent peace agreement, discontent and disobedience became commonplace. By November 1968 this long-standing opposition, disrespect and hostility to Ayub’s military autocracy had reached boiling point and transformed itself into a menacing and terrifying maelstrom.

This movement was launched and primarily led by militant university students, who took the initiative of organising demonstrations, agitating among the public and fighting the police on the streets. They were followed and supported by their sympathetic allies from the urban working class, small shopkeepers, lumpenproletariat, and disenfranchised intelligentsia. But once the radicalised climate had been created and Ayub was on the back foot, the organised labour movement joined the struggle:

As with so much else, labour unrest was not the product of the last phase, but it fiercely erupted because the opportunity was provided. Indeed, so greatly did this opportunity inspire the move to action that the stage was very soon reached at which labour was totally out of hand. By means of the gherao and other violence, it demanded and secured promises of increased wages and other amenities… The time came when scarcely a factory, commercial establishment or workshop was not aflame with meetings, demands, agitation, and threats of violence and strikes. It is not an exaggeration to say that there was a point at which it seemed possible that economic breakdown might become complete.[6]

The force, size and raw energy of the rebellion put the authorities on the defensive, reducing them effectively to the role of spectators. Out of desperation, so as to protect the rest of their system from a comprehensive social insurrection, the now discredited dictator was offered up as the sacrificial lamb: “a disillusioned and humiliated” Ayub was forced to resign,[7] thereby preserving the rest of the Pakistani state. In the months immediately following, “[t]he mood was joyous. The country had never been so full of hope before or since. In those few months, the Pakistani people spoke freely. All that they had kept repressed since 1947 poured out.”[8]

Ayub Khan and the military coup

Muhammad Ayub Khan was the epitome of the simple-minded and stubborn post-colonial bureaucrat. His political ideas were typical of military autocrat types: a classical conservative, dominated by an instinctive distrust of change and those who would advocate it; adoring the smooth fluency of a well-oiled, well-ordered administrative machine. His personal character was that of a philistine and semiliterate, which somewhat explains his lifelong hatred of the intelligentsia (particularly university students and journalists); his method of thinking about the world was built around the most simplistic (bordering on crude) ideas and concepts, making him the perfect managerial organiser but an appalling policymaker. The more complicated or nuanced ways of studying and understanding were beyond his cognitive conception, to be ignored out of either ignorance or jealousy.

Following the retirement of British General Sir Douglas Gracey, Ayub became Pakistan’s first indigenous Commander-in-Chief, a position he maintained until the October 1958 coup. In 1954 he also became Defence Minister, but he didn’t enjoy the experience of political office and relinquished the job after only a year. That time was long enough for him to gain a profound impression of the government’s methods of operation. Put simply, Ayub could see that the Pakistani political system was a repulsive mess, nothing but a vortex of intrigue and gossip, chaotic parliamentary machinations, immense corruption and nepotism, and authoritarian constitutional interference by the executive branch. Over the next few years, this mismanagement allowed the entire nation to decay through entropy, rotting from the inside out. All this was leading directly to a wholesale breakdown of civil society: “[Pakistan was] culturally and economically disparate; poverty and illiteracy were widespread… Instead of laboring to correct these national problems the politicians exploited them for their private gain. This was Ayub’s personal reading.”[9]

We need to add to this picture a third factor at play (after economic and political): substantial labour unrest all across the country. The working class was ascending to new heights of industrial militancy; it was a radicalisation that threatened to break the whole social order wide open. Nearing the end of 1958, the rate of strikes and workers’ protests began to rapidly increase, so much so that a real possibility emerged of a generalised uprising. “[I]t was all too obvious that the political process had broken down and that the prevailing disaffection and alienation threatened the survival of the Pakistan nation. Threats of rebellion and acts of civil disobedience had become commonplace, and the central government had lost all popular respect.”[10]

The country’s first ever general election was scheduled to be held in March 1959. The bureaucracy was extremely worried, and with good reason. There was every likelihood that the left would make gains on a provincial and national level. There was also a real possibility that the mere holding of a general election could trigger off a mass upsurge which might overflow electoral channels.[11]

Ayub Khan decided that the moment had come to take action. True to his conservative and bureaucratically inclined way of thinking, he saw ruthless autocracy as the only means to resolve the situation.

[T]he army, under General Mohammad Ayub Khan’s command, seized control of the radio and telegraph stations in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, and Dhaka. Troops invaded and occupied the major railway and air terminals. The ports of Karachi and Chittagong were locked in a steel vice of flashing bayonets. The National Assembly and provincial legislatures were surrounded and sealed… The magnitude of the military intervention pointed to a carefully planned country-wide operation that was months in preparation.[12]

Now, as self-designated president, Ayub declared:

The previous systems had gone wrong because of the division of power between the President and the Prime Minister. It is much better having one man. It would be a tighter system than the American. I say, after you have elected a man it is better to let him have a run and not keep pulling at his leg. You have got to make your President really powerful.[13]

If nothing else, Ayub was true to his word: he sought to transform the Pakistani polity, creating a new authoritarianism centred on his unlimited, unquestioned presidential powers. In order to restore stability and punish radical troublemakers, a broad campaign of state terror was launched, primarily against the labour movement, which involved the creation of a new workplace culture of compliance and submission.

In the urban areas, all trade-union activity was kept firmly under control. There were a number of reasons for the slow growth in trade-unionism. Acceptance by many workers who had only recently entered the factories of a tenant-landlord model on the shop-floor was one factor. Also significant were official cooptation and repression. The creation of company unions was encouraged by the state, while local bureaucrats aided factory-owners in victimizing those who tried to organize representative unions. During the Ayub years, all strikes were outlawed and many union leaders were put on the regime’s payroll. But there is also an important objective reason for the weakness of trade-unionism in Pakistan. The existence of a very large pool of unemployed labour does not facilitate strong unions.[14]

The one social layer which possessed substantial political power, and which the Ayub regime was never able to fully harass, persecute and neutralise like all the others, was the university student movement, to which we now turn.

A short history of the student movement, c1960-63

Student activism during the 1960s – because of its outlandish militancy in both activities and rhetoric – was able to become “a significant aspect of national life,”[15] a bright star against the dark of night. This movement was so successful because the students – unlike the opposition political parties, unlike the independent leftist media, and unlike the labour movement – were both willing and able to dig in, hold on and play for the long innings, staving off the general trend of national events and preserving alive (if but small) a milieu of anti-Ayub oppositional culture. Implementing this strategy paid dividends in the end: over the course of the Ayub era, students were able to create a vibrant tradition and culture surrounding their organisations, protests (both on campus and the city streets) and unique brand of radical (and naïve) idealism.

Imtiaz Alam, who had studied at Punjab University, reminisced years later:

It was a marvellous period. Every student was reading Marx, Lenin, Mao, Tolstoy or other progressive literature as well as literary classics. Everywhere there were debates between students. Every other day there were demonstrations against Ayub Khan and on various student demands. Frequent agitations became the norm. Those days were full of energy and romance. Everybody had a romance with revolution.[16]

During the first year or so following the coup – with martial law still in effect, every other section of the country experiencing the rough end of state repression, and a generalised sense of fear and apathy permeating – the student movement was successfully kept quiet. The National Students Federation (NSF) was banned and activism was absent from the campuses. But this had changed by mid-1960, when students in Lahore “staged a walkout from the examination hall, complaining that the Constitutional law paper was too difficult and too long”.[17]

The movement earned itself a major victory when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a high-ranking cabinet minister, came to Punjab University in Lahore to give a presentation on the Kashmir question. The talk – scheduled as an easy public relations opportunity – turned into an embarrassing fiasco when protesting students made their way into the hall and drowned out Bhutto with anti-Ayub chanting. The demonstrators demanded that the subject of the presentation be changed from Kashmir to the problems in Pakistan itself.[18]

This was only the beginning. Later that year, following the Ayub regime’s announcement that it had drafted a new constitution, leading government ministers made trips across the country to promote the changes. This gave the student movement many more opportunities to protest. To name but one major example, Manzur Qadir, another high-ranking cabinet member, was forced to flee from a mob of angry Dacca University students who sought to lynch him.[19]

At this point we need to shift focus away from the masses to a politician who would come to play a very significant role in future events.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (the same man who spoke at that chaotic Kashmir presentation) was perhaps the quintessential example of Pakistan’s milieu of young and upwardly mobile professionals; he shared their lifestyle, politics, general mindset and social behaviour norms. They came to admire him so affectionately because they aspired to emulate him. It was only natural, then, that as Bhutto rose up the political ladder and gained a prominent national standing, he would eventually come to assume moral and political leadership over this social class.

A lawyer by training, Bhutto had a flamboyant and theatrical edge to his public presentations, always able to give a speech in the most dramatic style. He had crafted for himself incredible speech-making skills, including being instinctively able to read an audience’s mood and come up with exactly what to say and how to say it in order to get them on his side. When it came to encountering new, complex and unorthodox ideas about how the world worked, he was more than willing to carefully take those ideas into consideration, which helped broaden his critical knowledge. Bhutto became “the outstanding political figure of his generation. No Pakistani leader since Jinnah had possessed his vision and authority.”[20]

But the image of Bhutto as a sophisticated, charming and cosmopolitan savant was a mask. Barely underneath the surface, there existed a profound, throbbing lust for power. “[L]ying behind his imagined affinity with Napoleon”, Bhutto exhibited many “megalomaniac tendencies.” It has been suggested that this behaviour comes from his family background: he was a patrician born into the feudal landed aristocracy in Sind province. Spending his childhood years intimately inside the damned abyss of patriarchal barbarism certainly had its impact on young Zulfikar – “he never outgrew the arbitrariness and cruelty of his feudal background”.[21]

Following the 1958 Ayub coup Bhutto became a member of cabinet, quickly rising to the illustrious foreign ministry. From when he joined the regime until September 1965, Bhutto and Ayub Khan were on very close terms. Even though they had different class backgrounds, very different ideological outlooks on life, and their personalities were polar opposites, there was a great amount of mutual affection. “[T]he President treated him like a family member. And Bhutto returned this affection, practically worshipping Ayub.”[22] It was taken for granted that this was a master-apprentice relationship at work – Ayub was grooming Bhutto for the presidency.

Bhutto began to gain a public following on his own account. He was becoming greatly respected and revered by Pakistan’s young and disenfranchised intellectuals, particularly university students but also other aspiring professional factions like lawyers, journalists and teachers. He had quickly become the “true representative of the educated and determined younger generation. He was one of them, spoke their language, knew their thoughts, and shared their aspirations.”[23]

The Tashkent Declaration and Bhutto’s break with Ayub

It is difficult to overstate just how much damage was done to Pakistan, both materially and ideologically, following its unsuccessful war with India in September 1965. By the time of the ceasefire declaration, the military’s equipment and weaponry had been more or less entirely destroyed or exhausted: “Although both sides paid a heavy cost in lives, the Pakistanis were more seriously affected. Pakistan’s heavy military hardware and weapons systems, with the exception of its aging aircraft, were largely consumed in the war.”[24]

In early December, Ayub and the Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri met at a conference in Tashkent to negotiate a peace settlement. As foreign minister, Bhutto came along as one of Ayub’s advisers. It was during these negotiations that the relationship between Ayub Khan and Bhutto broke down. Ayub, being a conservative and realistic bureaucrat, wanted to avoid instability at all costs. The most rational option available was to begrudgingly sign the humiliating Tashkent Declaration and offer substantial concessions to India in exchange for peace. But Bhutto was a hawk to Ayub’s dove: he still thought that the war was winnable; he wanted Pakistan to resume the fighting and to turn the tables on India.

During the conference proceedings, Bhutto kept brashly insisting that Kashmir be placed on the agenda. (After all, the official reason Pakistan launched the war was to liberate Kashmir from Indian occupation.[25]) Ayub, to prevent an Indian walkout, unilaterally made sure that Kashmir wasn’t further mentioned; he also took the drastic but prudent measure of barring Bhutto from further participation. Bhutto was infuriated and called the Tashkent Declaration “an outright sell-out of Pakistan’s sovereignty.”[26]

After coming back home, the broken relationship between the two men didn’t improve. By the middle of 1966 the cabinet was becoming unworkable. Someone had to leave, and it wasn’t going to be the president. Whether he jumped or was pushed, Bhutto resigned from the government. But rather than this ending his political career, Bhutto stayed in the public eye. His actions over the previous twelve months – including his opposition to the Tashkent Declaration, his impassioned defence of Pakistan at the UN, and his seemingly principled resignation from the cabinet – had transformed his support base from respectful admiration to devotional adoration. “His popularity increased, particularly among the students and the younger generation, and he was regarded as Pakistan’s real champion against Indian aggression.”[27]

The anti-Tashkent protests

In September 1965, during the days of full-scale warfare against India, the pro-Ayub media went to extraordinary lengths to build up a passionate groundswell of nationalist pride. Their reporting was a rogue’s gallery of zealotry and hyperbole; an endless conveyor-belt of misleading or completely fraudulent journalism, depicting Pakistani soldiers as noble Islamic warriors fighting for justice and freedom and Indians as demonic, sinful, irrational beasts. But Pakistan had gone so badly in the war, and the possibility of a military victory had so completely evaporated, that Ayub was forced to agree to a ceasefire and peace negotiations.

What happened next was a case of chickens coming home to roost. The enthusiasm and excitement of a pious and loyal Pakistani public had been growing with every media report about the military’s progress and successes. This was building up towards a tremendous climax of patriotic victoriousness, which was to come with an Indian surrender. But then the media’s narrative completely changed, reporting the ceasefire and the end of fighting. This threw the public off balance; they were left first in a state of freefall shock and confusion, then of anger at having been so disrespectfully deceived. Once they got their bearings, these patriots violently turned on the government: anti-ceasefire demonstrations took place in the final days of the war, particularly in Karachi and Lahore.

When Ayub returned home from signing the Tashkent Declaration, the national mood was still very volatile and unpredictable. As the full details of the agreement became public, a more purified form of impassioned frustration and rage arose, creating a renewed sense of fanaticism. A fresh round of protests arose, led by angry university students who defied public orders against demonstrations, decrying the national betrayal.

[A] band of students, dressed in black and bearing banners calling upon the government to reconsider the position taken at Tashkent, camped outside the main gate leading to the Governor’s residence…

Rioting began some time after noon. The police ordered a halt to the marchers converging on the city, many of whom were joined by veiled women who carried children said to be the dependents of men killed in the war. Shouts of “Give us back our husbands, fathers, and brothers” pierced the air and the crowds became more difficult to manage…

All attempts to stop the students were answered with increased resistance and rowdiness. Soon the brick-throwing began and the police were ordered to counterattack by using their tear gas canisters. The battle raged for several hours.[28]

These days and weeks immediately post-Tashkent were more challenging and dangerous for the Ayub regime than at any previous time in its tenure; the president had never been more isolated, vulnerable and desperate. But nonetheless – despite all the student protests and broad public disapproval – when the smoke finally cleared, the regime was still in power.

The Pakistani People’s Party

By early 1967 Bhutto had successfully held onto his broad base of sympathisers and admirers. Further, he had cohered a close network of a couple of dozen collaborators: people who were fully devoted to him and who could be called upon to serve his needs and wishes. So Bhutto created a brand new anti-Ayub political party from scratch – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). He himself would lead it both as its head organiser and public face; his close collaborator network would form the party’s inner circle of leading operators, managers and spokespersons.

The party’s published materials during 1967 and ’68 were rhetorically very radical, longing for economic and social justice for all. Every effort was made to characterise the PPP as the embodiment of all anti-Ayub sentiments, channelling the discontent being felt by the subaltern masses, and pulling them all smoothly and directly into a political movement that would eventually become the vehicle for Bhutto’s crusade for state power. The most important document the party published was a small pamphlet written by Bhutto himself entitled Political Situation in Pakistan, in which the case for socialism was fervently argued: “Only socialism, which creates equal opportunities for all, protects from exploitation, removes the barriers of class distinction, is capable of establishing economic and social justice. Socialism is the highest expression of democracy and its logical fulfilment.”[29]

But it should always be kept in mind that the PPP was founded for the explicit intention of advancing Bhutto’s political career. It wasn’t designed to be an activist party with a mass membership, cadre and healthy internal democracy. The party’s power and policy structures were top-down, with all major authority residing in the hands of Bhutto and his tight cohort of associates. Party events all revolved around celebrating Bhutto’s personality cult.

On the whole, Bhutto’s personality worked well for him. His incisive brilliance and worldly wisdom were impressive to intellectuals, the educated classes and to foreign diplomats, journalists and research scholars. With the common people and the party faithful, his dynamism, passion and humour aroused a strong response. He had an excellent memory for names, faces and children and many party workers recounted…warm encounters they had had with their Chairman. Yet, Bhutto was a difficult, even dangerous, man to cross. He demanded unquestioning obedience from his social equals and subservience from below. When angered he could act in a highly arbitrary and often arrogant manner…

It is not surprising that Bhutto used highly personal forms of leadership in the party, which operated through an informal hierarchy of access to the Chairman. The inner circle which had formed around Bhutto even before the founding of the party, and which came to be known among the party faithful as the “central cell”, was made up of a few who had direct personal access to Bhutto.[30]

In early 1968 Bhutto travelled across the country, giving rabble-rousing talks that contained much of this new radical, socialistic rhetoric advocating economic and social justice. His popularity among the working class and poor progressively grew over the next few months.

The “Decade of Development” campaign

The year 1968, because it marked the tenth anniversary of Ayub coming to power, was officially declared a time of celebration. The accomplishments of Ayub and his government were to be massively publicised through a heavily funded propaganda campaign, rhapsodically depicting the president as a great reformer who had brought prosperity, security and enlightenment to this hitherto undeveloped, chaotic and ignorant country. But the “Decade of Development” campaign (as it became known), far from sending Ayub’s popularity into astronomical heights and making his continuing position as president uninfringeable, became a new source of bitterness among the now politically awakened masses: “The seeming interminable repetition of slogans and grandiloquent speeches were more than the dissident urban population, particularly the students, could tolerate.”[31]

The underlying cause for this burgeoning sense of resentment was the vast gulf separating the personality-cult mythology and the unsavoury realities as lived experience for ordinary Pakistanis. The key topic of contention was the country’s economic system: the official narrative was that Ayub Khan’s reforms and development programs had allowed for comprehensive industrialisation, modernisation and growth, making the people far wealthier and more comfortable than they had been at any time prior to 1958. But to Ayub’s detriment, this account of things wasn’t being obediently accepted. Instead of converting them into pro-Ayub loyal partisans, “[t]his propaganda had the unexpected effect of increasing the political consciousness of the masses, who could not help but notice the enormous and widening gap between the propaganda of the Ayub government and the harsh reality of their every-day existence”.[32]

In Karachi, Lahore, and Rawalpindi one could observe all the symbols of new wealth – new cars, luxury hotels, and ostentatious housing for the privileged few. But for the impoverished multitudes and the unrewarded lower middle class there was only envy and bitterness. Although industrial production had risen by approximately 160 percent in eight years, the laboring class had yet to realize any significant advantage.[33]

To be clear, the contention that Pakistan had economically grown on a substantial scale during the Ayub era wasn’t a fabrication. All of the economic data indicated that the country was, indeed, transforming into a more modernised, more profitable and wealthier society. The locus of factual misconceptions and ideological prejudices was in the social character of that growth: which groups and classes were benefiting from this economic boom and which were not. When we focus in on this question, the essence of the Ayub regime – its interests, agenda and social base – can be transparently revealed. This “Decade of Development” had been a golden age for industrial capitalists, civil bureaucrats and landlords, who all became exceedingly wealthy. Conversely, the classes whose living circumstances only grew slightly, stagnated or declined were the working class, lower middle classes, peasantry and poor.

It was the masses themselves who experienced on a day-to-day basis the hunger and coldness and squalor and hopelessness of their lives, to be contrasted with the tremendous amounts of wealth being created year after year. “The upper classes led an existence which bore no relationship to that of the rest of society. While workers on strike were being shot dead on the orders of bureaucrats and capitalists, the latter’s wives were attending expensive fashion parades at luxurious international hotels.”[34] Both the government publications, which proclaimed this to be a tremendous era of prosperity, and the elites’ immodest behaviour, bragging about their affluence and showing off their riches, were bound to rub a great many the wrong way.

There were long nurtured discontents springing from genuine public grievances born of the conduct of a bureaucracy intoxicated with the exercise of more power than it had ever known; from the increasingly oppressive burden of the rising cost of living; from the growing sense, especially among the educated classes, of political exclusion; and from the brazen parade of relations and favourites who made money and flouted the law. None of these could be dispelled by the sorcery of an advertising campaign which had rather unimaginatively declaimed the virtues and achievements of President Ayub Khan.[35]

Pakistan had become a tinderbox, highly unstable, filled with many volatile chemicals, and ready to ignite and explode upon ignition.

Students’ and workers’ revolution: the beginning

It took one particularly dramatic example of state repression to trigger the popular uprising which would eventually bring down Ayub Khan. This incident gave off the spark which set the entire country ablaze, in what was to be a long and passionate furore. Long story short, this was to be Pakistan’s “Bloody Sunday”.

One of the variables that helped cause this incident was the presence of Bhutto, who was in Rawalpindi on a speaking tour. Students from Gordon College and Polytechnic College were very keen to hear him speak, but the police were doing everything they could to prevent this happening. The students had requested Bhutto to stop at the Polytechnic Institute and address them. On that day, there were two separate groups of demonstrating students: one at the Polytechnic itself and the other at the Hotel Intercontinental where Bhutto was staying. When he arrived at the Polytechnic, police refused to let Bhutto get out of his car. The students witnessing this strongarm behaviour shouted vicious insults at the police. A few minutes later, with Bhutto having driven off and now safely out of sight, the police launched a tremendous counteroffensive upon the demonstrators:

Without any physical provocation the police, who were fully armed with rifles, batons and tear-gas bombs, opened fire. One bullet hit Abdul Hamid, a first-year student aged seventeen, who died on the spot. Enraged, the students fought back with bricks and paving stones, and there were casualties on both sides.[36]

At the Hotel Intercontinental the students waited patiently for their chance to see Bhutto. But then, as if it were an echo coming from the Polytechnic, they too were attacked:

The police ordered them to disperse. They refused, and tear-gas bombs were thrown at them and the police made a vicious baton-charge, injuring a number of students. Some students burst into the lobby of the hotel, by now full of tear-gas; others stoned the hotel from the front, while a small commando group led an attack from the back and stoned some American diplomats who were sunbathing near the swimming pool.[37]

News of what had happened quickly spread from one end of Rawalpindi to the other. Soon masses of ordinary people came pouring into the streets for an evening of mourning. “Throughout the evening, large numbers of people collected in the streets, and an ominous hush stilled the usually noisy city. Steel-helmeted and armed police were stationed on all the main roads, and army unity guarded the President’s house.”[38]

The student leaders decided that they would hold a funeral procession for Abdul Hamid the next day; they were fully conscious that this would mean breaking the law prohibiting demonstrations. The government tried to pre-empt it by immediately shutting down all tertiary schools and colleges. That morning, about ten thousand students assembled at Government College. Through a sneaky manoeuvre, they successfully evaded the police and made their way into the middle of Rawalpindi.

When the students marched through the shopping areas…they shouted slogans demanding that the prices of sugar and flour be brought down… The students were joined by members of the general public and many unemployed workers, and they clashed with the police at regular intervals – but this time they fought only where the balance of forces was favourable. In their hatred for private property they attacked banks and, in some cases, the most ostentatious of the private houses. As the day went on, growing numbers of workers and petit-bourgeoisie joined them… The city was completely out of control.[39]

Solidarity demonstrations took place in Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Hyderabad, Peshawar and many other cities and towns. Whenever the students went onto the streets to protest they would be joined and supported by intellectuals, professionals, workers, unemployed and some of the urban poor. The students were clearly the vanguard of these anti-Ayub protests, because they were the ones initiating actions, most aggressively making arguments for greater militancy, and most willing to defend themselves on the streets against police repression.

In Lahore rioting began on 8 November and continued on 9 November especially in the railway station area, where crowds gathered to meet Mr. Bhutto on his arrival from Rawalpindi. Educational institutions in Lahore are also closed. Similar disturbances took place on either [or] both days in Peshawar, Nowshera, Mardan, Charsadda, Abbottabad, Dera Ismail Khan, Lyallpur, Sialkot, Kohat, Sukkur, Sargodha, Gujranwala, Bahawalpur and other place in West Pakistan.[40]

It was only just a couple of days old, but already the uprising was a terror to be feared and awed by: it was growing off its own momentum, spreading into every corner of the country and driving history forward at a tremendous velocity. “No sooner had the public discovered that it could raise its voice, that police and army could be defied, that the utterance of opinion had in some strange way become unfettered, then every grievance, every criticism and every purpose found its spokesman.”[41]

Bhutto is arrested

The Ayub regime could see that the situation was quickly evolving into something far more dangerous than anything it had previously faced. All the old, reliable mechanisms for keeping the rabble in line – shutting down facilities, police control of the streets, media propaganda, intimidation and terror – were not working anymore, thanks to that newfound confidence and willingness to resist the government’s will which was spreading and generalising. Something needed to be done to smother the fire before it spread too far. The most obvious tactical measure for the regime was to grab hold of the spigot and cut off the uprising’s energy supply, i.e. oppositionist agitation. Once those seditious ideas were no longer available in the public sphere, the anti-Ayub movement would quickly lose its momentum and the country would promptly return to a state of normality. To this end, Ayub authorised the immediate arrest of Bhutto.

Commentators from both the local (loyalist) and international media agreed that with the uprising’s number one spokesman out of the picture, stability was guaranteed to return to Pakistan. Neville Maxwell, for the London Times, wrote, “With political disaffection shallow, urban and leaderless in West Pakistan the Government should not find it difficult to put down the present agitations, even if they spring up again on account of Mr Bhutto’s arrest.”[42] But rather than the situation improving, things got progressively worse; both in the concrete terms of protest numbers on the streets and the broader, vaguer, subtler “mood” of the country.

[T]he detention of the leaders did more to accelerate the movement than slow it down. Rebellious youth was in no need of leadership, for its objective was the destruction of the old system… With the national figures removed from the scene the crowds became more, not less, truculent…

Throughout Pakistan property lay in ruins… The rampaging throngs were unrelenting… No one led the urban crowds and certainly no one controlled them. Hence no one could really speak for them either. The explosive fury of the people had reached a point of spontaneous destruction.[43]

The old culture of submissiveness and fear – established over ten years of careful government management – had melted away in a matter of weeks. Ayub Khan’s project of establishing a national polity of cold-blooded, remorseless autocracy was collapsing before his eyes. Radical demonstrations were now established as the norm for mass political activity; it had fast become the new common sense for people who were unhappy with their lives to get out onto the streets and demand comprehensive, systemic change.

Despite his imprisonment Bhutto hadn’t been silenced and isolated, but counter-intuitively was being thrust right into the national foreground. As a prominent victim of state repression, he was transformed into the prime embodiment of all anti-Ayub sentiment; “[he] posed as the champion of the deprived millions, as a crusader against corruption, as the spokesman of democratic reform, and as a saviour of the Islamic heritage.”[44] This meant that Bhutto’s own personal political adventure to replace the president was becoming interlinked with the grand awakening of all the oppressed and suffering peoples in the country. Thus, the Pakistani People’s Party was changing from a tiny group of a few dozen members from the professional middle class to having a conversation with millions of Pakistanis about what was wrong with present-day society and what changes ought to be brought about.

Student demonstrations continue; the labour movement awakens

Back in Rawalpindi, a de facto deal had been brokered between the student movement and the regime. Using much tact and sneakiness, the students had formally framed their demands in narrow, reformist and education-related terms, which gave the impression that they simply wanted better facilities and syllabi. So the government authorised the re-opening of all educational institutions, expecting the students to be so grateful that they’d stop campaigning and return to their studies. But on 26 November, with schools open again, “[t]he student leaders immediately summoned general assemblies, discussed the situation and marched out into the streets.”[45]

The student leaders were conscious of the fact that their activities alone would not be enough to get rid of Ayub. They needed allies from among the other oppressed and exploited classes, not merely acts of sympathy but partnership and cooperation. So at that 26 November rally, an appeal was sent out to the people of Rawalpindi to fully join the movement. The students called for a general strike on 29 November; not only workers, but also the poor, unemployed, professionals and shopkeepers were encouraged to stop work and rally against the dictatorship.

The workers responded to the student call and there was a complete and general strike in Rawalpindi, probably for the first time in the city’s history. The entire population, it seemed, had come out on to the streets to link arms with the students…

Clashes continued for over six hours, and joint student-worker platoons attacked several police stations and set at least two of them on fire.[46]

A general strike paralysed Pindi in late November, followed by one that did the same to Dacca on 7 December. On 10 December, there was a journalists’ strike across the entire country. Ayub Khan was in Dacca on 8 December and was greeted by a large student protest; in the ensuing clash with police, two demonstrators were shot. Five days later, all of East Pakistan was on general strike.[47]

By now, the overriding message of the uprising – that the last ten years hadn’t been prosperous for the masses, but in fact had involved toil and misery and unfulfilled dreams – was beginning to work its way into the ears of the Ayub inner circle. The president was finally listening to the protesters who were proverbially standing at the palace gates, and he responded to them, but not in a positive way. During a radio broadcast on 1 December, he flipped the situation around to accuse the people of wilful ignorance; he condescendingly scoffed: “If in the face of evidence anyone shuts his eyes and says that he sees no progress at all; that no development has taken place; that, in fact, conditions are worsening, then there is no cure for the malady.”[48] On 30 December, while addressing a meeting of Muslim League officials, Ayub boldly declared that “demonstrations would never succeed in toppling his government and warned the Opposition that a collapse of the political system established by him would lead to civil war.”[49]

In mid-January, the flames of revolt were still burning as hot and brightly as they had been for the past two months. Militant, violent and determined demonstrations of many thousands were still happening in every major urban centre, with no hint of momentum declining or enthusiasm being lost.[50]

Student demonstrations resulted in numerous deaths in Dacca and a general strike paralysed the city. Angry young people dominated the streets; their battle cry demanded Ayub’s resignation. In the tumult newspaper offices belonging to the government’s National Press Trust were burned, government installations were attacked, and the National Assembly (which was in session at the time) was surrounded. In Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Chittagong, and elsewhere the story was the same. Crowds were running excitedly through the streets, taunting, burning, and looting… The fires that blazed in the battered cities and towns were often fed by gleeful students who took special delight in destroying the President’s newly published autobiography, Friends Not Masters.[51]

In Karachi and Lahore, January was a month of large student rallies, labour strikes, rioting and general urban disorder:

On January 25th there were furious street battles in Karachi… Workers, students and unemployed burnt buses, trams, petrol pumps, oil stations and government offices. Workers raided banks, brought safes out into the streets and blew them up. The class hatred of the Karachi proletariat was unequalled elsewhere in the country. Hundreds of people were injured and over five hundred arrested.[52]

In February, Ayub desperately offered concessions to the movement, releasing Bhutto from prison and lifting the state of emergency – but these had no impact in slowing down the uprising.

The Hyderabad bazaar was set afire, demonstrators were tear-gassed and beaten in Lahore, and Karachi was a virtual no man’s land. In East Pakistan two more newspapers were put to the torch and labor strife began in earnest. Business and public transportation were at a standstill in both provinces and total paralysis was beginning to set in. The period was one of uncontrolled passion.[53]

A nation-wide general strike (hartal) occurred on 14 February:

Every shop, tea-shop, restaurant, and cinema was closed and those hardy spirits who wanted to open their establishments were ordered by the police to close on the ground that to remain open would provoke trouble. Most cars, trucks and motor-cycles carried a black flag or black ribbon, not necessarily because the driver sympathized with the opposition, but because it was wiser to do so. Even officially-owned vehicles, such as municipal dust-carts, carried black flags. In any case, by noon there was very little traffic on the road.[54]

Ayub Khan resigns

Over the months of February and March, Ayub had kept giving away reforms and concessions – for example, promising on 21 March that he would step down from the presidency by 1970 – hoping that a big enough price offered could buy back the people’s stake in him and dull their sense of anger and outrage; but these had no noticeable effect on the uprising’s events or sentiment. Fearful and desperate, Ayub could see no way out – except for a full-scale military assault on the uprising: declaring Martial Law and imposing a nation-wide curfew, getting troops to occupy the streets of every major city, using all necessary violence in order to shut down demonstrations and picket lines, and placing every student and labour leader under detention. But the army chief, General Mohammad Yahya Khan, refused these orders point blank. He didn’t have the confidence that military discipline could withstand a civil war of that magnitude. He was also aware of growing tension and grumbling inside the military: the ideas of injustice and rebellion had made their way into the lower ranks and support for the PPP among regular soldiers was very strong. After lights-out, they would often have long conversations in the dark, on topics ranging from the cruelty of their commanding officers to the possibility of socialism. Insubordination was widespread and it was commonplace to act against officers’ orders. On many occasions, soldiers refused to fire on demonstrations; there were even a couple of times when soldiers directly sided with the uprising, abandoning their posts and joining the masses. Yahya Khan advised Ayub that only a genuine political settlement would provide the foundations for resolving the crisis.[55]

With no good cards left in his hand there was no way that Ayub could remain president. If this movement was allowed to grow and spread for much longer, it could very well become insurrectionary and threaten the very existence of the Pakistani state. The only credible option left was to offer up to the masses a tremendous human sacrifice, in the hope that that might satisfy their hunger for blood and begin to settle them down. Ayub would give up the presidency so that the rest of the system – and especially the privilege and power of the civilian and military bureaucracies – might remain in place. On the evening of 25 March, Ayub Khan gave his final broadcast address to the nation:

The mobs are resorting to gheraos at will and get their demands accepted under duress… The economy of the country has been crippled, factories are closing down and production is dwindling every day… The security of the country demands that no impediment be placed in the way of the Defence Forces… In view of this, I have decided to relinquish today the office of the President.[56]


Lenin famously provided us with a straightforward and dialectically sound explanation of how a truly revolutionary period arises, namely through a deep social crisis that fundamentally destabilises the normal working relationship between the two major classes, thereby making their reconciliation and a societal re-stabilisation impossible. When both classes reach the point where going back to the old ways is taken out of consideration, then all-out class warfare is the only alternative route left available:

The fundamental law of revolution…is as follows: for a revolution to take place it is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way. It is only when the “lower classesdo not want to live in the old way and the “upper classes” cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph. This truth can be expressed in other words: revolution is impossible without a nation-wide crisis (affecting both the exploited and the exploiters).[57]

But this algorithm doesn’t apply, either modestly or seriously, to the events in Pakistan in 1968-9. There was no deep, grave and unrelenting social crisis; the two major classes hadn’t reached a state of irreconcilability, and civil society hadn’t destabilised to a point of no return. The uprising of workers and students that overthrew Ayub Khan was, without doubt, a tremendous and awesome accomplishment – but it didn’t come anywhere near laying the groundwork for a comprehensive transformation of Pakistani society and the emergence of a new social order. On the contrary, Pakistan had been in a period of stability, with new wealth being constantly created; modernisation spreading and profitability growing; and with still greater prosperity visible upon the horizon. Sure, the pie was being very unequally distributed among the different classes – but that’s just a general symptom of capitalism across the world across history, not unique to Pakistan in the 1960s.

But it was precisely this prolonged state of economic boom which inadvertently created a general sense of resentment and frustration, thereby supplying the fuel to the popular uprising. Under such a thriving climate, the subaltern classes can develop a generalised feeling of “hitting the ceiling” with regard to their own economic and social wellbeing: this current era is the apogee, the best that things have ever been or ever will be; life could never get any better than it is right now and could only go downhill from here. Without that carrot of slow, steady, evolutionary progress being dangled in front of them, without the hope of a better life in the future if only they keep their heads down and continue working hard, the masses could no longer be kept obedient and servile through the old social contract of gradualism. And then, the outrages relating to society’s various injustices, inequalities and undemocratic political system could no longer be carefully redirected into the harmless yearnings for a slightly better tomorrow – but instead were being openly expressed on a nation-wide level in the most violent and dangerous of displays.

The second topic for us to consider is the role a student movement can play in provoking and instigating a broader uprising. In general, university students are a more unstructured, fluid, flexible and unpredictable social force than the urban proletariat, which is disciplined, monitored and held into place through ruling class ideological misinformation, economic pressures, trade union reformism and hostile intimidation from management. Because students are relatively more difficult to supervise and manage in terms of their ideas and actions, they have greater freedom for political trouble-making. This means that they are the perfect candidates to take the initiative: breaking through the ruling class’s monopoly of legitimacy by militantly protesting when no other force in society is willing or able to do so; able to cause a sufficient amount of chaos on the streets that a radicalised political climate begins to emerge; and also, offering up some human sacrifices to help unveil the ruling class’s true intentions and agenda.

The working class, despite its potential economic and social power being infinitely superior to that of students, because they are under tighter ideological and bureaucratic controls, will often not be the class that launches the dawn of a new revolutionary period. Workers are somewhat more conservative and risk-averse with regard to their willingness to take the primary initiative in militant action against the government. Instead, their daring and eagerness for a fight is usually going to be paralleled with the perceived likelihood of their victory, which in turn is determined by the general political climate of society.

Student militancy, expressed through a small but intense protest campaign for some sort of democratic reform, filled with audacity and defiance, can in the right circumstances help transform the political climate into one of confidence, resistance and heroism, opening up space for the birth of an alternative, oppositionist discourse. This can then penetrate the consciousness of the working class, giving them newfound confidence in their ability to stand up for their interests and resist the pressures that have been hitherto controlling and suffocating them. The labour movement then enters the national stage in a tremendous and mighty display of economic strength, going from irrelevant stagehand to central player in this great battle over the future direction of society. By the second act, industrial strikes have become the key ingredient to maintaining and increasing the uprising’s energy and potency; student protests are thereby demoted to the role of support act.

The 1968-9 Pakistan revolution gives us a case study that’s demonstrative of just how powerful the proletariat can potentially be. During the uprising, the working class brought about an incredible amount of instability – and, quite frankly, complete chaos – to the national economy through wave after wave of strikes and gheraos. A protest campaign on its own, made up of just students and professionals, could never have achieved so much in such little time. It reached the point where Ayub Khan’s position as president was simply no longer tenable. The man who had once ruled Pakistan with such complete authority, who had only a few months earlier marked his decade anniversary of rulership as a great boon for the country’s prosperity, had no alternative but to bow before the mighty Pakistani working class, slithering away off-stage into the shadows of historical irrelevancy.

Ali, Tariq 1970, Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power, William Morrow and Company.

Ali, Tariq 1983, Can Pakistan Survive? The Death of a State, Penguin Books.

Ali, Tariq 2008, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power, Simon & Schuster.

Feldman, Herbert 1967, Revolution in Pakistan: A Study of the Martial Law Administration, Oxford University Press.

Feldman, Herbert 1969, “The Toppling of Ayub Khan”, Round Table, 59 (235).

Feldman, Herbert 1972, From Crisis to Crisis: Pakistan 1962-9, Oxford University Press.

Khan, Samin 1959, “The Revolution in Pakistan”, Pakistan Horizon, 12 (3), September.

Khan, Lal 2009, Pakistan’s Other Story: The 1968-9 Revolution, Aakar Books.

Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich 1999 (1920), “’Left-wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder”, Resistance Books.

Talbot, Ian 1998, Pakistan: a Modern History, Palgrave Macmillan.

Ziring, Lawrence 1971, The Ayub Khan Era: Politics in Pakistan 1958-69, Syracuse University Press.

Ziring, Lawrence 1999, Pakistan in the Twentieth Century: a Political History, Oxford University Press.


[1] The author would like to offer his warmest gratitude to Shail Shah, Hamza Culin, Sandra Bloodworth and Mick Armstrong.

[2] See Ali 2008, p64.

[3] Feldman 1972, p241.

[4] Khan 2009, p107.

[5] Ali 1970, p20.

[6] Feldman 1972, pp259-60.

[7] Talbot 1998, p148.

[8] Ali 2008, p65.

[9] Ziring 1971, pp7-8.

[10] Ziring 1999, p218.

[11] Ali 1983, p60.

[12] Ziring 1999, pp218-9.

[13] Quoted in Khan 1959, pp228-9.

[14] Ali 1983, p70.

[15] Feldman 1967, p100.

[16] Quoted in Khan 2009, p140.

[17] Feldman 1967, p100. See also Khan 2009, p137.

[18] See Ali 1970, p106.

[19] See Ali 1970, pp106-7.

[20] Talbot 1998, p215.

[21] Talbot 1998, pp216, 215.

[22] Ziring 1971, p48. See also Feldman 1972, p314.

[23] Ziring 1971, p49.

[24] Ziring 1971, p61. See also Khan 2009, p122.

[25] Throughout his time as foreign minister, Bhutto placed his pro-Kashmir and anti-Indian views on the public record. Alluding to the national myth that Pakistan’s raison d’être was as a homeland for all South Asian Muslims, he wrote that “Kashmir must be liberated [i.e. annexed] if Pakistan is to have its full meaning”; quoted in Ziring 1971, p51. On another occasion, he suggested that Pakistan was so determined to reclaim Kashmir that it would wage a “thousand-year war” with India in order to get it; Talbot 1998, p172.

[26] Khan 2009, p122. See also Talbot 1998, p179.

[27] Feldman 1972, p158.

[28] Ziring 1971, pp68-9.

[29] Quoted in Khan 2009, p273.

[30] Phillip E. Jones, quoted in Khan 2009, pp286-7.

[31] Ziring 1971, p89.

[32] Ali 1970, p154.

[33] Ziring 1971, p98.

[34] Ali 1983, p75.

[35] Feldman 1972, p235.

[36] Ali 1970, p159.

[37] Ali 1970, p159. See also Khan 2009, p130-1.

[38] Ali 1970, p160.

[39] Ali 1970, p161.

[40] Michael Stewart, quoted in Khan 2009, p132.

[41] Feldman 1969, p256.

[42] Quoted in Ali 1970, p166. See also Feldman 1972, p242.

[43] Ziring 1971, pp100-1.

[44] Ziring 1999, p312.

[45] Ali 1970, p169.

[46] Ali 1970, p171.

[47] See Khan 2009, pp143-144.

[48] Quoted in Ziring 1971, p101.

[49] The Guardian, quoted in Ali 1970, p194.

[50] See Ali 1970, p186.

[51] Ziring 1971, pp102-3.

[52] Ali 1970, p198.

[53] Ziring 1971, p105.

[54] Feldman 1972, p265; emphasis in original.

[55] See Ali 1970, p209-10; Khan 2009, pp160-3; Feldman 1972, p254.

[56] Quoted in Feldman 1972, p271; all ellipses except the third from original.

[57] Lenin 1999, p83.

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