During the Fall of 1983, Azmat Qadir landed in Moscow with his Multani heartthrob. She was a very cultured and bright young woman and because of our Multani connection, she started calling me Chacha (uncle). Her parents were as much opposed to this marriage as these lovebirds were determined to make it happen. I received both of them with open arms. Azmat Qadir had another, much bigger surprise for me as well. He told me that he worked for AKRSP in Gilgit before coming to Moscow. I heard that name for the first time from him. “What does AKRSP stand for”, I asked. “Aga Khan Rural Support Programme”, he said. The account of AKRSP’s work with low-income mountain communities that he gave me was fascinating. I wanted to know more about it. It seemed to address many of my questions related to party building. I did not know that it was going to become my identity mark in the future. AKRSP was launched in Northern Areas of Pakistan in1982, the same year that another path breaking programme Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) was launched by Aga Hasan Abidi in the southern metropolitan centre Karachi. This year was a turning point in the social struggle for change in Pakistan. It took me another five years before I had a direct encounter with AKRSP, its General Manger, Shoaib Sultan Khan and his mentor and a legendary development practitioner Dr Akhter Hamid Khan. I got the opportunity to interact closely with Dr Khan in 1993 when I accompanied him to Multan to have a dialogue with local leaders of the religious community who were nominated as witnesses in a blasphemy case registered against him Multan. I have documented the proceedings of this dialogue separately which was published as part of a valedictory volume on Dr Khan published by Vanguard Books.
The path for social change introduced by AKRSP and OPP was stereotyped as ‘imperialist conspiracy’ or trivialised as ‘NGOisation by many veteran left wing intellectuals and political workers. For me, it does not matter whether this stereotyping was good or bad, what matters is that no open public debate took place in the leftist circles on issues related to NGOisation. A large number of committed and honest leftist workers became leading lights of NGOs in the coming years and made very significant contributions through their work. But many of them are apologetic of their work to this day. For me, it is important to note that no open debate took place on three important issues; collapse of the communist system, failure of party building in Pakistan and significance of NGOs as vehicles for non-partisan social change. Many left-wing intellectuals considered the work of AKRSP as an imperialist conspiracy to create a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet ‘influence’ in Pakistan. It is interesting to note here that Urdu language signs of AKRSP read Agha Khan Dehi Ishtiraki Programme. Traditionally the word Ishtiraki was used for communists and AKRSP had no reservation in using that word.
Some leftists predicted AKRSP’s failure, as according to the Marxist theory the feudal class will not allow the formation of community organisation in rural areas at any cost. Both these predictions proved wrong. AKRSP was able to create community organisations in 1000 villages in three Northern districts of Pakistan and double their income in 10 years without a bloody revolution. OPP was able to transform largest informal settlement (Katchi Abadi) Orangi during the same time and both these programmes drew world attention. I also want to mention here that while Pakistan and India have been at loggerheads since partition, India has carried out its largest and most successful poverty alleviation programme under the leadership of former General Manager Shoaib Sultan Khan since 1996. In the state of Andhra Pradesh alone 8 million households were lifted above poverty line due to his work. During my visit to Andhra Pradesh, I heard that even Naxalites used to attend local community meetings of the poverty alleviation programme due to its effectiveness. Indian politicians across the party divide and civil servants have officially paid glowing tributes to Shoaib Sultan Khan for his path-breaking work. The so-called NGOisation work that started in 1982 offered in-depth insights on issues relating to i) political practice- with critical implications for the concept of people and vanguard and dichotomy of materialist and idealist framework for social change ii) suitability of partisan and non-partisan strategies for social and political change iii) the scope and limitations of revolutionary press and its narrative in building a party of the people in Pakistan. In the coming pages, I shall comment on each of these three issues under the overarching theme of NGOisation and Nonpartisan social change.