Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/

For over two decades, Pakistan’s socio-political landscape has been dominated by narratives and actions of the religious right.

Those concerned by the right’s onslaught and dominance have bemoaned the decline and defeat of the country’s ‘moderate’ and liberal polities, rightly complaining that their voices have been drowned.

The religious right’s growing intolerance, intimidation and sometimes outright violence (ever since the 1980s), has actually helped it control and almost monopolise Pakistan’s religious and political discourse, allowing the spread of various right-wing fringe groups.

Though both the religious right and liberal sections of the population still have their mainstream political outlets, it is the religious right that is ruling the roost when it comes to visible militancy and affective propaganda.

But it wasn’t always like that. Below we look at the once thriving militant expressions of secular and left-wing Pakistan that offered stiff resistance to right-wing militancy but today lie forgotten under the cruel heap of contemporary history.

Red Guards
Group formed by the workers of the left-wing Democratic Students Federation (DSF) in 1955.

DSF was Pakistan’s largest student organisation in the 1950s, but it was banned by the government for being the student-wing of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) that too was banned for allegedly indulging in ‘anti-state activities.’

The Red Guards was put together to (physically) tackle the police and pro-government student groups on the eve of DSF’s attempt to initiate another student organisation (All Pakistan Students Organization).

The Red Guards – made up of pro-DSF toughies – clashed with the police and government-sponsored hoodlums who were sent to disrupt APSO’s launch in Karachi but were able to keep them at bay.

The Red Guards were armed with chains, knives and knuckle-dusters. Some ex-members maintain they also had a few pistols but they were never used.

The outfit was disbanded with the rise of another left-wing student organisation, the National Students Federation (NSF), in the late 1950s.

Further reading: Through a Pakistani’s Eyes: Life on Three Continents –Dr. S Akhtar Ehtisham (Algora Publications)

National Students Federation (Meraj)
NSF was the country’s largest and most influential student group in Pakistan in the 1960s, in spite of the fact that it broke into various pro-China and pro-Moscow factions after 1965.

Among the most militant of these factions was NSF-Meraj, led by former firebrand student leader of the University of Karachi, Meraj Muhammad Khan.

While most NSF factions retained affiliation with the left-wing National Awami Party (NAP), the Meraj group moved closer to the then nascent Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in 1967.

It was also this group that led the widespread youth movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship in the late 1960s in Karachi and dominated politics in the educational institutions of the city.

Its main nemesis here was the student-wing of the Jamat-i-Islami, the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), with which it regularly clashed on the city’s campuses.

NSF-Meraj was Maoist in orientation and some of its members had advised PPP chairman, Z A. Bhutto, to initiate a ‘Maoist style revolution’ in Pakistan instead of campaigning for social democracy.

Nevertheless, Meraj joined the PPP and became a minister (in 1972), but had a falling out with Prime Minister Bhutto. He was expelled from the party in 1974 and arrested for inciting unrest among factory workers.

NSF-Meraj began losing influence and clout across the 1970s, folding in the late 1980s after a failed attempt by some of its senior patrons to arm its fledgling members at the University of Karachi.

Further reading: Political Dynamics of Sindh – Dr. Tanvir Tahir (Pakistan Studies Centre).

Peoples Guard
During the campaigning of the 1970 general elections, PPP rallies were repeatedly attacked by members of the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT) whose mother party had accused the PPP of ‘undermining Islam’ by spreading ‘atheistic ideas’ like socialism.

The PPP accused the IJT attackers of being funded and backed by the country’s top industrialists and the military regime (of General Yahya Khan).

After another such attack took place at a PPP rally in Lahore, left-wing student leaders like Meraj Muhmammad Khan and Raja Anwar advised Z A. Bhutto to form a ‘Peoples Guard’ to tackle the attackers.

Thus was born the Peoples Guard, structured by Meraj and Raja Anwar and overseen by the brilliant PPP organiser and left-wing intellectual, Shaikh Muhammad Rashid.

The outfit consisted of various young militants belonging to NSF factions and pro-PPP musclemen from Lahore and Karachi’s working-class areas.

They were armed with knives, clubs, chains and a few pistols and were involved in running battles with IJT in the streets of Lahore. No firearms were used.

IJT attacks on the rallies soon came to a halt and the Peoples Guard evolved into becoming Peoples Students Federation (PSF) in 1972 after the first PPP government came into power.

Further reading: Pakistan Peoples Party Rise to PowerPhilip E. Jones (Oxford University Press).

Peoples Students Federation (Tipu)
With the fall of the first PPP regime at the hands of Ziaul Haq’s military coup in 1977, PPP workers faced immediate arrests, harassment and torture.

The party chairman, Z A. Bhutto, too was arrested and then put on death row (through a highly controversial trial) for supposedly ordering a murder.

Facing intense reactionary action from the new military junta, the police and its politico-religious backers, former NSF leader and youth minister in Bhutto’s cabinet, Raja Anwar, began forming cells of young working-class PPP members and supporters.

The cells were secretively formed to put pressure on the military regime through court arrests and disrupt the regime’s implementation of harsh laws that included public floggings of anti-Zia students, journalists and, of course, PPP workers.

The cells slipped into disarray when in 1978, a number of PPP workers set themselves on fire to protest against the regime.

Some suggest that Anwar also wanted to arm the cells to conduct urban guerrilla warfare against the right-wing dictatorship, but he has rejected this claim.

Anwar escaped arrest by slipping into the then Soviet-controlled Afghanistan (in 1979-80) to join Bhutto’s exiled sons, Murtaza and Shahnawaz.

Meanwhile the party’s student-wing, PSF (in Karachi) that had been a part of various progressive student alliances in the city’s colleges and universities was facing severe harassment from the police and IJT.

As other progressive and anti-IJT groups like Baloch Students Organization (BSO), Pakhtun Students Federation (PkSF) and the nascent All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization (APMSO) formed the United Students Movement (USM) at the University of Karachi, PSF got together with NSF to form Taleba Ittihad (TI).

IJT had armed itself with sophisticated weapons; soon USM and TI too began arming themselves.

But shortly before the formation of USM and TI, a loose group from among PSF emerged in Karachi led by Salamullah Tipu.

Tipu who belonged to a lower middle-class Urdu-speaking (Mohajir) family in Karachi had begun his career as a student politician in 1973 with the IJT.

However, he was soon expelled from IJT and he then joined the left-wing NSF in 1974 (According to his maternal uncle, Tipu was convinced that ‘Marx made more sense than Mauddudi!’).

By the time he joined PSF in 1975 at Karachi’s National College, he had bagged a raunchy reputation of being a ‘drunken brawler’ and ‘street-fighter’ who (according to colleagues) ‘specialised in terrorizing IJT members.’

Tipu rose rapidly in PSF and was named the president of PSF’s Karachi wing in 1978.

After IJT began arming itself and Zia regime’s persecution of progressive student groups increased, PSF (in Karachi) became the first non-IJT student outfit to begin arming itself.

The outfit’s most militant and armed group was (unofficially) called PSF-Tipu. In 1980 it attacked an IJT gathering at the University of Karachi (in which an IJT leader was killed).

The incident took place a day after IJT’s notorious (and well armed) ‘Thunder Squad’ had attacked an anti-Zia rally at the university being held by progressive student groups.

IJT members had then handed over some progressive student leaders to the police who dutifully tortured them.

PSF-Tipu folded after Tipu, who too wanted to initiate urban guerrilla warfare against the Zia regime, escaped to Afghanistan and joined Murtaza Bhutto’s Al-Zulfikar.

Further reading: The Terrorist Prince Raja Anwar (Verso Press).

- Illustration by Abro

Al-Zulfikar (AZO)
Formed by Z A. Bhutto’s sons, Murtaza and Shanawaz Bhutto in 1979.

AZ was initially funded and supported by Afghanistan’s communist regime as well as by the radical Ba’athist regime of Syria, Kaddafi’s Libya and Yasser Arafat’s PLO.

It operated from Kabul.

Bulk of AZO’s members consisted of renegade PSF members and workers of radical Pukhtun, Sindhi and Baloch student groups, even though many of its early members hailed from Punjab and Karachi.

AZO fashioned itself as a left-wing urban guerrilla outfit and was involved in a string of political assassinations, bank robberies (to raise funds) and an assassination attempt on the Pope who visited Pakistan in 1981.

It also attempted to twice shoot down the plane carrying Ziaul Haq.

It’s most prominent act came in the shape of the 1981 hijacking of a PIA plane. The hijacking was led by Salamullah Tipu and three other PSF members.

Though the hijacking forced Zia to release dozens of PPP, PSF, NSF and members of various Baloch and Pukhtun organisations rotting in Zia’s already cramped jails, it left the still jailed PPP co-chairperson, Benazir Bhutto, disowning and chastising AZO.

By 1982 a power struggle between AZO chief Murtaza Bhutto, Tipu and the Afghan intelligence agency, KHAD, erupted, and by 1983 Murtaza was convinced that Tipu had managed to form his own group within the AZO.

A paranoid Murtaza prevailed over the increasingly wayward Tipu and – according to Raja Anwar – tricked Tipu into murdering an Afghan for which KHAD arrested and executed Tipu (in 1984).

The second version of AZO (beginning in 1986) only had radical Sindhi militants and AZO was reduced to being a violent Sindhi nationalist organisation before fading away in the early 1990s.

Further reading: The Terrorist Prince – Raja Anwar (Verso Press); Pakistan: A Modern History Ian Talbot (Palgrave McMillan Press).

Black Eagles
Formed in 1979 in various universities and colleges of Lahore by radical leftist students as a militant anti-Zia student outfit.

Co-operated with other progressive student groups during student union elections, but also began arming itself after IJT started using sophisticated weapons.

Managed to oust IJT from various colleges in Lahore (through both the ballot and the bullet), before folding after the Zia regime’s most severe crackdown on left-wing student groups in 1984.

Black Tigers/Nadeem Commandos
Though the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organization was formed (in 1978) by ex-IJT members, it became a self-proclaimed progressive mohajir group.

It also joined various progressive student alliances in Karachi (USM).

APMSO soon spawned Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) in 1984 which too presented itself as a progressive and secular party.

APMSO gradually became IJT’s leading nemesis in Karachi clashing with IJT’s ‘Thunder Squad’ in its bid to oust IJT from Karachi’s campuses.

It was largely successful in this respect, even though IJT was heavily armed.

To meet this challenge, APMSO/MQM formed secret militant cells and its members began being called Black Tigers.

Though formed to tackle the militant off-shoots of various religious parties in Karachi, the Tigers ended up battling PPP and PSF militants during Benazir Bhutto’s first government (1988-91).

The Tigers evolved into the even more militant ‘Nadeem commandos’ an enigmatic group within MQM which (the government and Army) accused of initiating an urban war (against the state) to form a separate ‘mohajir state.’

As it turned out, though militant cells were present in the MQM, most of them were first constructed to tackle IJT militants.

They were never formed for any separate ‘mohajir state.’

Further reading: Migrants & Militants - Oskar Verkaaik (Princeton University Press); Guns, Slums & Yellow Devils - Laurent Gayer (Cambridge University Press).

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and