In a Pakistan special issue in 2010, we interviewed him for the first time. Since then, he has been to India several times, the first two times on invitations from Kindle. Taimur Rahman, the lead vocalist and guitarist of the much celebrated band, Laal and the general secretary of the Communist Mazdoor Kisaan Party, Pakistan talks to us this time on his music, politics, ideology and the vibrancy of social media in these charged times of censorship, extremism and a depressive economy. By Nidhi Dugar Kundalia.
How has your political journey been as a General Secretary of the Communist Mazdoor Kisaan Party been so far?
Well, it’s been a very tough journey. It’s difficult for progressive politics in Pakistan to survive. Left wing politics in Pakistan was pretty much destroyed in the 1990s. Political parties were not banned under Musharraf’s military government, but they were sidelined from the political process. Pakistan has always been a front-line state against communism. Yahaan pe to hamesha se socialism and communism has been banned and it has been very difficult. Our party was formed in 1995, and from 1995 to 1998 there was a massive development. The party was again split into two groups, one having a soft corner for the military dictatorship but my group was contrary to that. Then from 2006 to 2007 the party grew massively as the lawyer’s movement was in place. In that era, our profile rose pretty high but when the movement’s pace reduced, the party’s membership also reduced. I believe we have been growing a lot in the last 10 to15 years but there is a long way to go. Reviving a socialist movement in the context of the post- Soviet period of world history, where socialism has been in retreat, is a very difficult task. It’s been a very uphill task but one of the things we tried to do was that we tried to talk about socialism in a new and creative way through music and art and literature, utilising the social media. Of all the experiments we’ve done and all the theories we’ve tried to work with, socialism has proven to be the most successful.
Do you consider your music as primarily political? What political/social activities is Laal involved in?
Yes, our music is ekdum political. For the last few years we have been campaigning against religious extremism. We have been writing songs, making music videos and talking to people on this issue. But I think our greatest victory is our tour of the Punjab which we had organised as a fight against extremism that took us to countless universities, colleges, schools and villages where mainstream commercial bands never perform. And the energy, love and determination that we saw among these young people is truly inspiring.
You are the General Secretary of a Communist Party who leads a rock band. Have you ever been asked to pick between music and politics?
Yeah, there have always been some people who ask us to stop doing all this music and focus on politics. But the thing is the music has been so powerful and so successful, that the majority has always said “No. That would be very stupid and what you’re doing is absolutely fantastic.” So far there hasn’t been a problem. And let us not forget that at the end of the day Pakistan has a very vibrant artistic tradition and for that reason, Laal fits in very nicely with that political outcry. We sing Faiz and Jalib etc. So for that reason as well I think, things have been very positive. I’ve been opposed within the party and within the left for many other reasons but my music has generally been accepted and loved by pretty much the entire left.
What do the poets, Faiz and Jalib, whose works you’re essentially inspired by represent for you? Are there any poets today that can match their legacy and political importance?
No, absolutely not. I think Faiz in particular. They are responsible for the renaissance of Urdu poetry. Examine Urdu poetry before the progressive writers came about it and it was either in the form of Ghazal tradition or it was in the form of devotional poetry and it was all highly elitist. Faiz’s poetry served his Marxist leanings. Personally, I believe that the most marvellous feat of his poetry was the fact that he was able to convey a public-favoured ideology through the channel of elitist language. The very admirers of his breathtaking lyricism, were helpless against the social-consciousness that it was garnering against them. As known by most readers of Faiz’s work, the symbolic structure of his verses serves a purpose much higher than that of catering to plain decoration. These figures introduced a new idea that poetry was not just for the nawabs or for the elite and it wasn’t just about its form but it was about social change, about class, about revolution, about socialism. If you notice, they are often depicted as humanist, liberal or awami poets. But the fact of the matter is that they did what they did because they wished for the establishment of a classless society. I think poets of the same calibre exist even today in Pakistan. They introduced a new idea into the fundamental Urdu speaking intelligentsia and through them, to others as well. However, it is rare to find thinkers that match their talent at a time when the worldwide project for socialism is only just recovering from the defeat of 1991.I was always familiar with the poetry of Faiz and Jalib, but I really understood what they were talking about when I started reading Marxism and started understanding the struggle for socialism. It was only then that I really sort of began to understand the depth of what they had introduced into Urdu poetry, so that was after I graduated from college and I came back to Pakistan, I joined the communist party and began to take an interest in progressive Urdu poetry.
So what would you say to critics who say communism has lost its relevance and is a failed ideology…?
They are talking nonsense…these people who say that communism is a failed ideology. Because if you really study the theory of Marxism, in the context of history or philosophy, there is so much. The historical development of ideas such as materialism and dialectics and the concept of the state, the criticism of democracy, the theory of surplus value, the law of concentration of capital, the law of disproportionality, what we call the business cycle, the falling rate of profit, we examine the… you know the view of history that Marx has enunciated, but with respect to his critique of Hegel, and so on. I mean there is so much… such an enormous wealth of knowledge in the entire theory of Marxism. People who say that it’s over and it’s done with, they’re talking utter nonsense. Of course, this communist party or that communist regime may fail, but that’s another topic for another day. But at the deeper historical and more philosophical level, Karl Marx is really the Socrates of our time. Marxism is the Socrates philosophy of our time in the sense that it has caused a shift in the way that mankind thinks about society, history, philosophy, science, social relations, economics. It is the fundamental theory and regardless of the success or failure of communist parties or social regimes, it will continue to have enormous effect on the society. Despite the break up of the Soviet Union or lack of success of communist parties at the philosophical level, it is a remarkable, remarkable step forward for mankind. And if you look at the history of ideas and the history of philosophy, which great philosopher has succeeded in their lifetime? Socrates ko dekhlo. He was made to drink poison. Pythagoras, one of the greatest philosophers, his entire school of thought was burnt down and he was made to leave Athens for committing blasphemy. Look through our history of ideas and philosophy. New revolutionary ideas are filled with turmoil and ups and downs and failures and successes. But intelligent minds should not look at the vagaries of politics to determine the success or failure or the truth or un-truth or the philosophical depth of relevance.
So how relevant do you think your kind of movement is right now, in the current situation that Pakistan is in? A coup doesn’t seem to be a possibility; there is so much instability, both within the country and at its borders…
We are right now in a very key position to influence the course of politics in Pakistan given that Laal has emerged as one of the loudest voices or well heard voices, on the Progressive Left front. As you correctly pointed out, the scenario in Pakistan, we are and we will continue to play a very key role in mobilising young people against religious extremism and fundamentalism with the tools of socialism and democracy.
Do you have any particular plans for Laal in the near future?
There is no absence of plans at all. There are three major plans. First, I’m going to do a series of lectures, 28 lectures, in fact, on the history of philosophy in Urdu and they’re all in September of this year. Secondly, in September, we are launching a very big tour of Laal across the villages of Pakistan. Yes, it’s going to be a rural tour of small towns and villages and it’s going to be bigger than any other tour we’ve done before. Hopefully, we’ll be visiting a whole host of locations. We’re actually in the planning stages of that tour right now. And third, hopefully I’ll be able to record my third album before the end of this year and launch that album. Let’s hope for the best.
There was a lot of finger pointing regarding the ban on Laal’s Facebook page within Pakistan. But no one was really ready to take the responsibility. What’s your take on that?
It caused enormous embarrassment to the Pakistan Tele Communications Authority… Communication authorities because Facebook clearly stated, when asked by the New York Times and also by the Agence France-Presse, that they took down Laal’s page at the request of the Pakistan Tele Communications Authority (PTA) and that they had an agreement with the PTA whereby any complaint sent by the PTA, Facebook would have to comply with it. Under this agreement, they banned 162 such pieces of content on Facebook. So, one of the two has to be lying. Either Facebook was lying or PTA was lying and most people understood that it had to be PTA because Facebook had no interest in lying about a ban in some third world country.
Internet censorship seems to be tricky issue for Pakistan because minority liberals often oppose the government censorship yet they’re also critical of the western countries that allowed dissemination of hateful and potentially destabilising material. What’s your stand on it?
I believe there should be due process of law. I don’t believe that hate speech should be allowed. I don’t believe that if somebody is utilising social media to kill people and discriminate against people. I’m not in favour of absolute free speech. There have to be certain restrictions and limitations but the rule of law has to be followed in the sense that if somebody’s speech is going to be restricted then they have to be notified of why they are being restricted. There has to be a process of appeal. Jis tara you print something that is incorrect about someone, they can appeal against it. They have a due course of law to abide by. Make a law about it and stick to the law. But ye toh nahi hai ki I don’t like xyz guy, so I’ll shut his page down.
How long was the Laal’s page shut down for, Taimur?
Did you appeal to any public bodies?
Hell yeah! We campaigned like crazy. The very next day I called up PTA and I spoke to many of their departments, and finally when I spoke to their technical department, they admitted that they had shut down Laal’s page and I said I want to appeal against it and they said, “Oh all right, send an email out” and “call this number”. Our fans were really fantastic because they started to Tweet about it and post about it on Facebook. So, for those two days Twitter and Facebook in Pakistan were full of anger. “Why the hell has PTA banned Laal?”. It caused a lot of embarrassment to the government and when it came out in the press, it just made it worse and when it was on television, it caused even more embarrassment and so finally after two days the government decided to back down.
In many countries the mainstream or traditional media seems to largely ignore internet rights issues. Isn’t that the case in Pakistan, too? Why do you think they lag behind in advocating for internet rights in the way they might for media rights?
I think media rights is a stronger lobby because of course there is big money behind media, so for that reason media is able to lobby for it rights. And social media is a people’s media and there isn’t big money behind social media in the sense that if I run a little page on social media, it’s my individual page, you know. I might not necessarily be that powerful. So it’s a more diffused group of people. It is definitely more people but more diffused and less organised group of people. There are exceptions, though. Laal’s page is a case in point, where lots and lots of people thought this is an outrageous move and social media made its power felt when everybody began to talk about it, everybody began to tweet about it or write about it or comment on it. Collectively, social media can be powerful but individually it’s very weak.
In Pakistan, doesn’t the civil society need to be more proactive in lobbying for a free internet?
They’ve been working on it for quite a while. There’s a separate organisation, in fact, organizations working on lifting the ban on YouTube and other websites. In fact, they were working with Laal for the restoration of our page. So, yeah there are several organisations, there’s one called Bytes For All and there’s another organisation called Digital Voices. They are doing great work. It’s difficult for voices like these to survive in Pakistan. But they survive nonetheless.