Passion Players: The Ebbs And Flows Of The PPP Jiyala
Dancing as they set themselves on fire in protest, courting the wrath of the Zia regime, alternating between unquestioning support and fierce criticism of their leaders - Nadeem Farooq Paracha tells the story of the jiyala phenomenon
Jiyala (جیالہ) is an Urdu word meaning a passionate devotee. It is often associated with diehard supporters of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). A jiyala is no ordinary supporter. He/she has a temperament that is steered by the ebb and flow of the party. Jiyalas are perceived to be impulsive and emotional, and their identity is shaped by the joys and tragedies of the Bhutto family that has been leading the PPP since the party’s formation in 1967.
A jiyala is bound to stick with the party, or with the Bhutto family’s overriding claim over the leadership of the PPP. He or she passionately defends the party, and is willing to fight for it in the streets. Many jiyalas are also known to have literally ‘given their lives’ for this cause. Yet, contrary to popular belief, jiyalas are not blind followers, as such. For they can also be one of the harshest critics of the party. There have been incidents in which jiyalas have publicly confronted the party’s leadership over various issues. For example, in 1989, Najib Ahmad, the then president of the party’s student-wing, the PSF, in Karachi, was reported to have ‘slapped’ a senior member of the PPP for being unable to aid the PSF during the violence that erupted between PSF and MQM’s student-wing, the APMSO.
In 1993, when Murtaza Bhutto, the estranged brother of Benazir Bhutto, returned from exile, a group of jiyalas sided with him after he declared that he was more worthy of leading the PPP than Benazir. I was a reporter at an English daily at the time, and witnessed an episode in which more than a dozen jiyalas gathered at the resident of Nusrat Bhutto (mother of Murtaza and Benazir) and demanded that Murtaza be made the chairperson of the party and Asif Ali Zardari (Benazir’s husband) be ousted from the PPP.
It is often believed that the jiyala today, as a unique breed of supporter, is becoming extinct. And the reason for this assumption is mainly to do with the PPP’s dramatic loss of support in the Punjab. However, only recently, Benazir’s son, Bilawal Bhutto, was able to attract impressive crowds in Punjab during the party’s ‘Awami March’ against the PTI government.
It was in the Punjab that the idea of the jiyala first emerged. Ironically though, there is no mention of the term jiyala during the first PPP regime (1971-77) headed by Z.A. Bhutto. Yet, the breed of PPP supporters who would go on to be known as jiyalas were first identified in a 1975 issue of the Urdu daily Musawat. The newspaper reported that a particular kind of PPP supporters (in Punjab) had begun to be addressed as “dam-a-dam.”
According to the political economist Haris Gazdar, PPP’s traditional voters remain passive and almost impersonal to the fate of the party when it is in power, but become highly active when it is in the opposition or facing a challenge from the establishment or the opposition
The dam-a-dam were perceived as passionate devotees of the PPP and of Z.A. Bhutto. They were compared to the devotional vagabonds who dance at the beat of the dhol outside the shrines of Sufi saints. Bhutto often alluded that he was a 20th-century embodiment of the 13th century Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Lal’s shrine stands in the town of Sehwan in Sindh, but a majority of the saint’s devotees are Punjabi. A song praising the free-spirited nature of the saint had become hugely popular in 1969.
It was written by Amir Khusrau (d. 1325) and then reworked as a more upbeat poem by the Sufi saint Bulleh Shah (d.1757) whose shrine is in Punjab. Shah’s version became popular among the devotees of Lal Shahbaz until it was again re-worked as a song (sung by Madam Noor Jahan) for the 1969 Punjabi film Dillan De Sode. The song, composed by Nazir Ali, was titled “Dam-a-Dam Mast Qalandar.” It was structured to induce a trance-like feeling in the listener so he/she could dance to the beat of the dhol, often with reckless abandon.
The song was frequently played during PPP rallies just before the 1970 elections. Eventually, some time during the campaign, the main chorus of the song became ‘dam-a-dam mast qalandar, Bhutto da pehla number.’ So, PPP supporters in Punjab who were unabashed about their devotion towards the party and ZA Bhutto, began being referred to as ‘dam-a-dam.’
The word jiyala did not come into play till at least 1978, a year after the Bhutto regime was toppled in a military coup. Bhutto was arrested and charged for ordering a 1974 murder. The military regime headed by General Zia-ul-Haq arrested hundreds of PPP leaders and workers. They were delivered harsh sentences by military courts and thrown in jails. Some were publicly flogged as well. According to Raja Anwar, a former PPP man and advisor to PM Bhutto on youth affairs, activists who managed to avoid being nabbed by the dictatorship set up ‘secret cells’ in Punjab. Their mission was to organise spontaneous protests and to court arrest.
The jiyala phenomenon began to expand beyond Punjab. Jiyalas appeared among the Urdu-speakers in Karachi, and among the Sindhis, and among the Pakhtuns in the erstwhile NWFP. But central Punjab, and the Lyari area in Karachi, remained bastions of the most hardcore jiyalas
On the 1st of October 1978, two young PPP workers from Lahore travelled to Rawalpindi. Both belonged to poor, working class families. Their names were Rashid Nagi and Waheed Qureshi. Both appeared in the middle of a congested commercial area of the city, doused themselves with petrol and set themselves on fire. According to Raja Anwar, Nagi and Qureshi “danced like vagabonds as they burned.” Instead of trying to douse the fire, most people who had gathered to watch the spectacle, began to dance as well. Qureshi died, and Nagi lost a leg.
Then on the 7th of October, two more PPP workers, again from desperate working-class families, readied to set themselves on fire, this time in Lahore. They were Mehr Rashid Ajaz (from Faisalabad) and Pervez Khokar (a Christian from Gujranwala). They appeared in an area of old Lahore, sprinkled themselves with petrol and turned into human flames. They, too, danced like vagabonds. According to Anwar (who was an eyewitness), Khokar, engulfed in flames, was heard shouting Christ’s words uttered on the cross, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?). This was not the birth of the jiyala, but the birth of the word. Some Urdu newspapers described Nagi, Qureshi, Ajaz and Khokar as “jiyaley.”
One can claim that the 1980s was – if I may – the golden decade of jiyalas. As the party’s top leadership was jailed, forced into exile, or made to quit the organisation, party matters fell in the hands of second and third tier leadership. These tiers were the most active during the early years of the party. But their influence had begun to decline when, from 1974 onwards, PM Bhutto started sidelining the radical wing of the party. This wing suddenly found itself thrown into action when Bhutto was toppled and then executed through a controversial murder trial in 1979.
The reins of the party were taken over by his widow Nusrat and eldest daughter Benazir. Bhutto’s two sons had formed an urban guerrilla outfit (Al-Zulfiqar) and were planning to set up a base in Afghanistan, that had been invaded and occupied by Soviet forces. But on most occasions, Nusrat and Benazir were either under house arrest or in solitary confinement, especially Benazir. Other senior leaders had mostly melted away, or escaped into exile. Some were even advising Nusrat and Benazir to strike a compromise with Zia (by quitting politics).
They appeared in an area of old Lahore, sprinkled themselves with petrol and turned into human flames. They, too, danced like vagabonds. According to Anwar (who was an eyewitness), Khokar, engulfed in flames, was heard shouting Christ’s words uttered on the cross, “Eli, eli, lama sabachthani?” (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?)
Young PPP activists now gained greater access to Nusrat and Benazir, and had more say in party matters. Cells and committees sprang up across Pakistan and they were mostly headed by members of the party’s radical wing, that had earlier been subdued. The jiyala phenomenon began to expand beyond Punjab. Jiyalas appeared among the Urdu-speakers in Karachi, and among the Sindhis, and among the Pakhtuns in the erstwhile NWFP. But central Punjab, and the Lyari area in Karachi, remained bastions of the most hardcore jiyalas. Lyari’s Baloch jiyalas (and ‘jiyalis’) were quite militant. They turned Lyari into a hotbed of anti-Zia activity.
Many jiyalas lost their lives during the Zia dictatorship. Some were even hanged, such as Razaq Jharna (Punjab, age 24), Usman Ghani (Punjab, age 25), Idris Todi (Punjab, age 25), Idrees Beig (Punjab, age 25), and Ayaz Samu (Sindh, age 24). They were all accused of being members of Al-Zulfiqar. Whereas many young jiyalas did travel to Kabul to join Murtaza’s organisation, a majority of them rallied around Benazir Bhutto, who had denounced Murtaza’s tactics. In fact, according to her, Murtaza had fallen into a trap laid by Zia – who wanted to use Al-Zulfiqar as an excuse to maintain his crackdown against the PPP.
According to the political economist Haris Gazdar, PPP’s traditional voters remain passive and almost impersonal to the fate of the party when it is in power, but become highly active when it is in the opposition or facing a challenge from the establishment or the opposition. Of course, the traditional voters of the PPP are not all jiyalas. But this shift from going passive to active is also reflective of the jiyala mindset.
Jiyalas were in their element the most when their party was facing a political or existential crisis. My own experience as an active member of the PPP’s student-wing, between 1984 and 1989, greatly informed my understanding of this mindset. My close interaction with the party’s leadership and support in the mid-and-late-1980s, often left me feeling baffled by the manner in which many jiyalas switched from being daring, impassioned and uncritical activists and street fighters during the reactionary Zia dictatorship, to becoming either disinterested in, or severely critical of the party leadership, once it was voted back into power in November 1988.
A kind of myopia gripped the jiyala when the party was struggling against an ‘enemy’. But what happens when the party outsmarts the enemy and comes into power? In 1988, when the PPP was close to grabbing power, jiyalas suddenly went from being unquestioning foot soldiers to becoming angry critics
During the period when I was heading the PSF at a college in Karachi, I met the student wing’s leading member in the city, Najeeb Ahmed, on a couple of occasions and saw him rise to become PSF’s president in Karachi. He had good relations (as did we all) with the PPP’s Sindh leadership and no questions were ever asked of its decisions. Zia and his supporters were the enemies, and the party and the Bhutto family were the victims.
Most differences within the student-wing were resolved by the party’s Sindh leadership, and questioning these resolutions was like betraying the party’s cause. I remember: during the massive rally that Benazir Bhutto held in Lahore after she returned from exile in 1986, a group of PSF members began torching a US flag (because the US was supporting the Zia regime).
Benazir (from the rostrum) castigated the young men, asking them not to burn the flag because this is what Zia would like to show to the Americans (i.e. what a dangerous militant Benazir was and how she will pull Pakistan out of the anti-Soviet ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan). Those burning the flag stopped immediately. No questions were asked.
It was, after all, Benazir — the young daughter of Bhutto, the woman who had spent years in Zia’s jails and under house arrest, and now here she was taking on a powerful military dictator. Questioning her at that stage by a jiyala was next to impossible. A kind of myopia gripped the jiyala when the party was struggling against an ‘enemy’. But what happens when the party outsmarts the enemy and comes into power? In 1988, when the PPP was close to grabbing power, jiyalas suddenly went from being unquestioning foot soldiers to becoming angry critics.
Today, jiyalas come in many shapes. In fact, anyone prepared to even politely defend the PPP is called a jiyala. It has become more of a catchall term than an act.
As an act, it had meant a deed of passion and defiance against oppressive odds. The jiyala mystique peaked when Benazir returned from exile. But after the 1988 elections, her interaction with the jiyalas began to decrease. It was as if with Zia dead, and his legacy avenged by the coming to power of Bhutto’s daughter, the jiyala mission exhausted itself.
Then, during the deadly tussle between PSF and APMSO in the early 1990s, Benazir made a conscious effort to once and for all eliminate the more militant dimensions of jiyalas that had emerged during the party’s struggle in the 1980s. Ever since the 1990s, the PPP jiyala is now more of a rally organiser or participant. And if he or she is close to the leadership, he/she becomes part of its security apparatus. Mind you, some of them are still willing to die for the party, as was witnessed in the manner they stood between Benazir and suicide bombers in Karachi and Rawalpindi in 2007.
Also, contrary to popular belief, the party’s post-BB chairperson Asif Ali Zardari has had more interaction with the jiyalas than BB did in the late 1990s. There are still quite a few classic jiyalas.
But what happened to the original ones who were most prominent between 1977 and 1988?
Many were killed. Many experienced torture and long jail sentences. When they were released after Zia’s death, they bid farewell to politics. There were also those who vanished from their homes and colleges, never to be seen again; while some became leaders and the party’s representatives in the Parliament and the Senate.
But as one former PSF colleague of mine, who quit politics in 1990, once said:
“No matter how much of a distance a jiyala would like to put between himself and the party, he (or she) will always remain a jiyala.” He then added, “It’s a spiritual state.”