Karachi, Pakistan — Iqbal Haider is a difficult man to find. He is the only leading political figure in Pakistan to have evaded arrest at a time when an estimated 8,000 Pakistanis are under house detention or swelling the country's already overflowing government guest houses, prisons, and jails.
He has thus become the chief coordinator of a surprisingly persistent and well organized civil disobedience campaign, which has hoisted Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan's strong man, atop a potential power keg.
A lawyer and socialist, Mr. Haider is secretary-general of the banned National Liberation Party of Pakistan and joint secretary-general of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) - the eclectic coalition of banned parties representing Pakistan's body politic that launched the present protest movement, now in its third week.
The call to meet him came just after midnight, following a series of telephone calls. There were changes of cars and changes of drivers, reflecting Mr. Haider's style since he went underground to evade security officials. For the past month he has been moving about Karachi and its sprawling suburban belt, switching friends, transport, and houses.
It was thus with some surprise that this reporter entered a housing complex and heard Mr. Haider talking to a top political figure, now arrested, on the telephone. He had no sooner finished than a call came through from Peshawar, in the North West Frontier. This was something of a miracle in a country having persistent problems with its over-tapped, thus sluggish, network of phones.
He readily conceded that the strength of the present movement is ''well beyond our expectations,'' considering the vast numbers of politicians under arrest: the splits and lack of natural affinity within the MRD, whose only common aim is the end of military government and the restoration of democracy.
The rural mass movement protesting General Zia's regime has taken hold in Sind Province. But as irritating as that may be for Zia, it is the Punjab, according to Mr. Haider and political observers here, that holds the key to the future for Pakistan's military regime.
''Yet, in the long term,'' Mr. Haider said, ''if the Punjab does not come in, it will be even more damaging for the future of Pakistan. We (Pakistanis) are Pathans, Baluchis, Punjabis, Sindis, and Mohajirs. Only a democracy based on some autonomy for the provinces will keep this country integrated,'' he said.
''And, if Sind is isolated, it will have a very damaging effect. Our movement will then be viewed as just another secessionist movement, and it is precisely this which will give impetus to movements advocating independence for Sind.''
When asked if he thought pressure from elder statesmen, much of the government-controlled press, and others was pushing Zia toward a dialogue with politicians, Haider said:
''Absolutely not - though this is a red herring that the government will obviously leak, primarily as a means of getting the people off the streets.''
Sure enough, the following day a senior government official took me aside and confidentially told me, ''We're over the hump. President Zia has agreed to enter a political dialogue.''
It would appear that General Zia is not yet ready. A dialogue, by definition, would be an unwanted compromise. He had seized the initiative from his political foes earlier when he announced Aug. 12 that elections - albeit highly controlled - would be held and martial law lifted within 18 months. Then, to the surprise of many, thousands across the country demonstrated and ''courted arrest.''
If nothing else, for the moment, Pakistan's general and his proffered democracy appear to have lost a good deal of political credibility.
Thus, unless Zia wants to be just another military officer who has seized power by force and covered himself with a political cloak, he must, many say, open a dialogue.
Zia has attached importance to the first step in his three-tiered electoral plan. Local elections are scheduled in all four provinces during the next month. In Sind, he has dogmatically decided to go ahead and hold them as scheduled on Sept. 28, but diplomats fear that could ignite an even greater wave of violence.
Throughout Pakistan many lower-level politicians who had registered for the nonpartisan contests before the protests began have withdrawn their papers. In Sind, a number of offices where the applications were stored have been burned by rioters. Thus, from Punjab to the North West Frontier, it appears that General Zia's local elected councils will be little more than rubber stamps.
His ongoing talks with political moderates appear to have suffered a fatal blow. And, if he wants even a facsimile of a credible political framework, diplomats see no option other than a political dialogue. This time, against the backdrop of protest and violence, it will of necessity have to be on the politicians' terms.
Clearly anxious to avoid more bloodshed, yet attempting to control the interior of Sind, Zia has sent nearly a division of military reinforcements into the hamlets and towns of the Indus River Valley. For the moment, the troops have shown great restraint.
But they have seen the violence firsthand, and they are members of the same army that in April reluctantly went to Karachi's streets to subdue sectarian riots. Thus, if the present violence spills over the borders of Sind, it could be the local army commanders, and not General Zia, who become the final arbiters of Pakistan's political future.
The present national campaign of civil disobedience, however, appears to need an additional nudge to take things to a level that could threaten Zia's longevity.
There are still a number of fence-sitters - students, trade unions, fundamentalists, and, with the exception of the country's lawyers, Pakistan's professional groups.
Yet General Zia is already astride potential power keg. During the past week, a growing number of Sindi protesters have been armed, and the province's more radical nationalistic voices are clearly gaining support.
In Sann village, G. M. Sayed, father of Sind nationalism, guiding force behind the ''Sinduh-Desh'' independence movement, and a hereditary religious leader, or ''pir,'' receives a stream of visitors - tribal elders, students, provincial government civil servants from Sind. He has been under house arrest in his village for the last 20 years.
There is no longer room for compromise, he told this reporter, in an interview. ''Sind must become an independent state.''
Mr. Sayed was delighted that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had given tacit approval to the present protest demanding the restoration of political rights to Pakistan.
Sayed sits in his stucco villa, ceiling fans swirling to compensate for the unrelenting heat, and says he prays that the Punjab doesn't enter the movement against the Zia regime. The Pakistan People's Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto - the executed premier, which had always controlled Sindi politics - will then be forced to become a regional party, he reasoned. A new impetus then will be given to Sindi nationalism and pride.
He cites figures resented by all Sindis which point to the fact that Sind is dominated by Punjabis. This provided a key explosive charge for the rioting and bloodshed against the Islamabad government over the years.
Only 2 percent of Pakistan's armed forces now come from Sind. Sindis make up only 5 percent of the federal civil service. Of 2,000 industrial units now operating in the province, only 500 are controlled by indigenous Sinds. And Sinds now represent only 45 percent of the province's population. In Karachi, the provincial capital, the percentage is even less.
Does Sayed support armed struggle, considering all of the firearms now flowing into Sind? He hedges the question, but looks westward toward the Baluchistan mountains. (The Baluchis have sparked three armed rebellions in Pakistan in the last 36 years.) He does not discount the danger of a revival of secessionist movements in both Baluchistan and Sind.
Sayed notes that his friend Mir Ghaus Baksh Bizenjo, former Baluchistan governor and head of the rugged province's largest political party, is in a Karachi hospital, under house arrest.
Baluchi leaders, as those in the Punjab and the North West Frontier, are part of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. They have led small-scale strikes and demonstrations, have ''courted,'' or been placed under arrest. But they, too, are waiting to see what happens in Pakistan's largest province, the nation's breadbasket and Zia's power base.
''There is no doubt,'' Mir Bizenjo echoed, ''Punjab is the key. . . . What happens in Baluchistan depends on the Punjab, but also on the extent of government force. If the government forces us into an armed struggle, then Baluchistan will be in the lead. Traditionally, the Baluchi struggle . . . has not been of civil disobedience or of demonstrations in the streets.
'' Our people have gone to the hills and taken up arms. We sincerely don't want this to happen, again. But, it can happen if Zia refuses to restore democracy and forces our hand.''