By: Dr Lal Khan
One of the most brutal, murderous acts of the Zia dictatorship was the massacre of the workers of the Colony Textile Mills in Multan in January 1978. The author was a participant in this struggle. A close friend and one of the most militant leaders of the workers in Multan, Mohammad Shafi was martyred in this bestiality. There were thirteen thousand workers in the colony textile mills. It was perhaps the largest and most profitable textile factory in Pakistan. After the reforms of 1969 and 1972 the workers used to get annual bonuses in November or December every year, equal to about three months of their salary. The workers knew that in the year 1977 the production and profits on the mill were much higher than in the previous years, so they were expecting a higher bonus. But in July 1977, now that Bhutto had been overthrown and a Military dictatorship imposed, the bosses used the Martial Law regime to deprive the workers of their rights.
Due to the terror of the military regime several traditional trade unionists and the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agent) union had capitulated to the owners. They were even negotiating with the textile mill bosses for a far smaller bonus that year. November 1977 passed by, and December was coming to an end, but still no sign of any bonus! Anxiety amongst the workers began to rise; they had waited all year for this bonus to help make ends meet. The bosses were showing an attitude of contemptuous indifference while the discontent amongst the workers was turning into a wave of frustration and anger. Talk of taking some action was going round on the factory floors.
On the morning of 29 December 1977 the workers arriving for the first shift went to their machines but refused to work. The workers who had done the night shift refused to leave the premises and sat down in the compound of the mill. A ‘tools-down’ strike had commenced. There was no violence yet the strike was complete. The bosses sent in their goons and police to threaten the workers and break the strike. The workers refused. The persuasion of the trade union leaders also failed to get the workers to start work. These parlays continued for the next three days. On 2 January 1978 the daughter of the owner of Colony Textile Mills, Mughees A. Sheikh was getting married. The mill owner was a very close friend of Gen. Zia, who had flown in from Rawalpindi to attend the ceremony. This further aggravated the already tense situation. The news spread among the workers that the dowry being given to the daughter by the owner was worth at least ten times the bonus that was due for the 13000 workers of the Colony Textile Mills.
At almost midday the workers who were on a tools-down strike were moving towards the factory’s main gate for their daily midday gate meeting. A rumour reached the ear of Zia ul Haq that the workers were coming to attack the wedding ceremony. Shaking with hatred and rage, the general stood up and contemptuously ordered the workers to be crushed, which was exactly what the agent provocateur and the bosses’ goons had wanted. The police, who had cordoned off the mills for three days, and the paramilitary forces of the state, took up their positions then all hell broke loose!
The paramilitaries started firing directly at the workers who were gathering for a peaceful gate meeting. In a scene of indescribable horror workers screamed and stampeded over the bloodstained corpses of their workmates, crushing many others as they desperately tried to evade the carnage. Blood was everywhere, streaming from the bodies of the workers whose only crime was to ask for their basic rights.
The firing continued uninterrupted for three hours. By six-o’clock in the evening, when darkness had set in, the state forces had ‘conquered’ the textile mill workers.
In the factory compound and lawns the state forces had prevented the bodies of the injured from being taken to hospital. Those who tried to pick them up were hampered by the police. Dozens had died on the spot. Several injured had died due to excessive loss of blood because they were prevented from being rushed for medical treatment.
In the darkness of the night the state forces, without differentiating between the dead and the injured, brought up trucks and threw the bodies into them. Some were thrown in the huge factory gutter, while others were buried without coffins in the nearby village of BagaSher.
In spite of the terror of this ruthless state, hundreds of workers and students (including the author) kept on taking the injured to the hospitals and tried to save the lives of as many workers as possible.
Later on an effort was made to remove the bodies of the workers from the gutter and place them elsewhere, in order to arrange for their proper burial with their comrades and relatives present.
There are varying estimates of the casualties that occurred during this massacre. There were eighty bicycles standing in the factory stand, the workers who once rode them to work had gone for ever, never to ride back to their homes in the shanty towns. The press, under Martial Law, reported 18 deaths and 25 injured. Most workers thought that more than two hundred were killed. The workers action committee that had emerged during this struggle estimated that 133 were killed and more than 400 injured in this brutal, wanton slaughter by the military dictatorship. Instead of arresting the goons of the bosses, who had, along with the state forces, fired on the workers, along with the manager and the owner, Mughees A. Sheikh, who instigated this massacre, the regime didn’t even allow a case to be made against them. In its callousness the state arrested and charged with murder the members of the Workers Action Committee, some of whom had been killed in the massacre. Those who escaped it were prosecuted by the state. Those arrested included Amir Ali, Nur Din, Mukhtar Shah, Mohammad Yousaf, Mohammad Sharif and Mohammad Ramzan.
But, even after this bloody massacre, the workers still had the courage to come out in protests and demonstrations, after which the administration had to release most of the arrested members of the Committee. Due to these protests, on 4 January 1978 the Martial Law administrator of Multan said that an inquiry would be held. The workers leaders’ refused to join the inquiry in the local Martial Law head quarters, and demanded that if any genuine inquiry was to be held it should not indulge Martial Law authorities; the workers steadfastly refused to recognise the legality of the regime. They demanded that an inquiry should be held at the factory gates, conducted only by lawyers and judges who would be nominated by the workers of the factory.
The other industries that faced similar repressive acts in these months were: Premier Textile Mills, Lyallpur (now Faislabad); Sutlej Cotton Mills, Okara; Rustum Sohrab Factory, Shahdra (Lahore); and the ADC Workshop at Quetta. But, if we take into account the eleven long brutal years of this dictatorship, the acts of tyranny and repression of the workers continued throughout the whole period.
Source: Pakistan’s Other Story by Dr Lal Khan, Chapter 9 Dictatorship and Democracy – Regimes Changed, the Masses Continue to Suffer