The untimely death of Lal Khan (Tanvir Gondal, as I knew him) has struck a bitter blow, not only to the ongoing struggle and future hopes of the working class in Pakistan and internationally, but also to me personally. Ever since we first met almost forty years ago, I counted him an ally and a comrade, and also a loyal friend.
As often in Tanvir’s life, his personal circumstances were inextricably entangled with the sweep of history. It seems appropriate, then, that when our paths first crossed in 1982 he was in the midst of a drama that could have come straight out of the pages of a political thriller. Along with his friend Farooq Tariq and sixteen other Pakistani comrades based in exile in the Netherlands, Tanvir had been conducting relentless agitation against the brutal Zia military dictatorship, publishing the revolutionary underground journal Jeddo-Jahed (The Struggle). As it happened, at that time an international hockey match had just been played in Amsterdam between teams from the Netherlands and Pakistan. In full view of live television cameras, the comrades had daringly raised a huge protest banner denouncing the regime, images of which had thus been beamed directly back to countless thousands of viewers back home. Enraged by this audacious challenge, the Zia regime was hell-bent on revenge, and proceeded to deploy its top intelligence personnel to target all eighteen comrades, framing them up on the preposterous charge of plotting the hi-jack of a Pakistan Airlines plane. The comrades were duly arrested. Facing the imminent threat of extradition, deportation, jail, torture and probable execution, they launched a campaign throughout the labour movement for support and solidarity. That is how they came into contact with the influential British Marxist paper Militant and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), of which I was at that time the secretary. The charges were soon exposed as a vicious frame-up. The comrades were released and offered a public apology by the Dutch authorities. Their entire group soon affiliated to the CWI.
Over the following decade, the CWI was building significant nuclei throughout the Indian sub-continent. With the fall of the Zia dictatorship in 1988, Lal Khan and Farooq set about building a solid home base, and over the years they won substantial support within trade unions and peasant organisations and among students and radical academics. During that period I was working on the spot with comrades throughout the sub-continent, including Sri Lanka and all the main regional centres of India, and I thus had the honour of visiting the comrades in Pakistan many times and participating closely in their day-to-day work. In those days I stayed many times both at Farooq’s and at Lal Khan’s apartments in Lahore, and I remember one occasion when Lal Khan invited me to his ancestral family home, where he introduced me to the joys of hunting.
In 1991 the CWI split apart. This precipitated a damaging international rift in the forces of Marxism, and within Pakistan a temporary political divergence between Lal Khan and Farooq. Lal Khan joined the group headed by Ted Grant and soon became a leading international figure within it, while his group in Pakistan operated first as a Marxist tendency within the Pakistan People’s Party and later independently. Under Lal Khan’s political inspiration, a lasting theoretical base was established in Pakistan for Trotskyism, culminating in the monumental achievement of publishing a new Urdu translation of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution in time for the centenary of that seminal event. Meanwhile, Farooq was continuing to work within Peter Taaffe’s CWI majority, while maintaining principled and growing differences with its leadership.
My own political trajectory ran along similar lines. I had opposed the split, which I considered pointless, and very briefly remained by default a token member, albeit a very critical one, of the CWI’s “majority faction”. By the turn of the millennium, a number of disaffected former CWI members had joined me in founding the Workers’ International Network.
Personal relations rarely survive political differences within the left. It is therefore a remarkable tribute to Lal Khan’s integrity and principle that throughout this period of political separation he showed not a trace of rancour or rivalry; on the contrary, he maintained constant ties of mutual friendship and respect both with Farooq and with me, and these relations remained intact. To take one example: I still recall the warmth with which Lal Khan greeted me in 2008, midway through this period of mutual separation, when we met at the otherwise sombre occasion of the funeral of our common teacher, the veteran Marxist theoretician Ted Grant.
It gave me real pleasure, then, both politically and personally, when Lal Khan took the initiative to resume contact with me at the beginning of 2017. In the three years since then, Lal Khan and I remained in constant communication, by phone, e-mail and mutual visits. Lal Khan came to London on two occasions during that time and we spent many evenings together in deep discussion. I introduced him to militant activists from my local Labour Party and to an Iranian Marxist living in exile, and I visited his family in their temporary accommodation in London. In November 2018 I had the honour to accept an invitation to make my first visit to Pakistan since 1991 and participate in the congress of The Struggle. The congress was eloquent testimony to Lal Khan’s gigantic contribution over his lifetime.
Pakistan is plagued as much as ever by communal bigotry, the monstrous legacy bequeathed by British imperialism and nourished at the time of partition by the cynical manipulations of both Congress and the Muslim League. In the days leading up to the weekend of the congress, the entire country was paralysed by the agitation of fundamentalist mobs. For days on end, main roads were blocked, phone signals were cut, and Pakistan had ground to a near-standstill. Despite these daunting political and logistical obstacles, a massive 1500 comrades from all over Pakistan attended; all the more credit to their persistence and dedication. And that is largely due to comrade Lal Khan.
The influence of his personality flowed through that congress; in the banners, wall posters, logos, portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that festooned the hall; in its location in the biggest and most expensive hall in Lahore; in the superb efficiency of the chairing, security, stewarding and catering; in the discipline, the enthusiasm, the songs and poems; in the determination of its participants to brave the communal mobs and the road blocks to get there; in its overwhelmingly proletarian composition; in the fact that nearly all the comrades who spoke were unmistakably leaders in their own areas; in the number of women, young people and even children present; in the punctuation of the debates with revolutionary songs and poems; in the number of comrades who contributed; above all, in the high political level of debate, the passionate oratory, the revolutionary spirit. As I said at the congress in my closing remarks (and I meant every word of it!): there were times when I felt as if I’d walked into the pages of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, or slipped through a hole in space-time and found myself attending a congress of the Bolshevik party.
The terrible news of Lal Khan’s death was ominously foreshadowed at that very congress. I was staying with Lal Khan and his family at the time, and it was clear that he was already suffering a serious health problem. He had been scheduled to sum up the session on Pakistani perspectives, but during the previous night he had been admitted to hospital; as a result he was absent from the conference hall. But the most eloquent testimony to the legacy of Lal Khan’s contribution over the previous four decades was the fact that his absence did not leave the huge gap that might have been expected, such was the quality of the many other leading comrades that he had helped to nurture.
Great man though he was, Lal Khan was no marble icon. He was a warm human being, with abundant charm, charisma, humour, and an all-too-human liking for the good life – a factor which may tragically have hastened his end.
On the floor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, its architect Christopher Wren has left an inscription: “Si monumentum requiris circumspice” (If you want to see my monument, look around you.). That too could be Lal Khan’s epitaph. It is in the flesh and blood of the revolutionary movement he inspired that Lal Khan’s memory will be honoured.