Many Pakistani Pushtuns find themselves in a spot of bother when some political commentators and analysts define extremist organisations like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as an extension and expression of Pushtun nationalism.
Though religion has always played a central role in the make-up of Pushtun identity, Pushtun nationalism (especially in the 20th century) was always a more secular and left-leaning phenomenon. It still is.
This nationalism’s modern manifestation was founded on the thoughts and actions of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (Bacha Khan) and expressed through such left-wing parties as National Awami Party (NAP), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and the Awami National Party (ANP).
However, for nearly three decades now, or ever since the beginning of the US/Pakistan/Saudi-backed ‘jihad’ against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Pushtun identity (at least in popular imagination) has been gradually mutating into becoming to mean something that is akin to being aggressive, fanatical and entirely religious.
Yet, till 2008 the county’s Pushtuns were enthusiastically voting for secular Pushtun nationalist parties like the ANP, and till even this day, there are a number of Pushtuns who are openly canvasing to eradicate not only religious violence and extremism from the Pushtun-dominated province of Khyber-Puskhtunkhwa (KPK), but also busy working towards debunking the belief that Pushtuns are by nature fanatical, driven by revenge and radically ‘Islamist’ in orientation.
Such Pushtuns point out the unique Pushtun-centric secularism of men like Bacha Khan and how left-wing parties like NAP were once KPK’s most popular exponents of electoral politics.
They blame the Pakistani ‘establishment’ for corrupting the notion of Pushtun nationalism by radicalising large portions of the Pushtuns through radical religious indoctrination and the Saudi ‘Petro Dollar.’
The idea was to neutralise Pushtun nationalism that had been the leading player in NAP, a party that also included Baloch and Sindhi nationalists, and was suspiciously eyed (by the establishment) to have had separatist and anti-Pakistan sentiments.
In the last decade or so - especially ever since extremist violence gripped the country, and with the KPK and the tribal areas that surround the province becoming the epicentre of this violence - various Pushtun parties, groups and individuals have been aggressively using political, social and cultural platforms to challenge the perception that religious extremism found in certain Pushtun-dominated militant outfits have anything to do with Pushtun culture or nationalism.
But so far it has been an uphill task and unfortunately the word Pushtun continues to trigger images of bushy, violent fanatics exploding themselves up in markets and mosques or beheading ‘infidels’ in the hills and mountains of KPK and the tribal areas.
But how many know that most of the hilly, rugged areas that have been held and have become bases of extremist outfits in KPK and its surrounding areas, were once bastions of militant Maoist groups?
This slab of history has been forgotten in the noise emitting from those who only have a superficial understanding of Pushtun nationalism and continue to equate it with religious fundamentalism. _________________________________
Post-1947 Pushtun nationalism empathised with Sindhi, Baloch and Bengali nationalisms (and vice versa), all of whom exhibited concern that the Pakistani state’s centralising tendencies and emphasis on adopting a single variant of Islam, language and culture were cosmetic and artificial constructs to undermine and eliminate thousands of years of the history and dynamics of Pushtun, Sindhi, Baloch and Bengali cultures.
These nationalists saw state policies to be an extension of Punjab’s economic and political hegemony. They eventually came together to form the National Awami Party (NAP).
Formed in 1957, NAP included pioneering Pushtun, Baloch, Sindhi and Bengali thinkers and politicians.
NAP’s founding members included: Former Muslim Leaguer and socialist, Mian Ifikharuddin; Sindhi scholar and nationalist, GM Syed; Pushtun nationalist and thinker, Bacha Khan; Pushtun nationalist, Abdul Samad Achakzai; Bengali leftist leader, Maulana Bhashani; and Baloch nationalist, Ghaus Baksh Bezinjo.
A number of intellectuals also joined the party, including popular Urdu poet and activist, Habib Jalib.
It described itself to be a socialist-democratic party working towards achieving democratic reforms and greater autonomy for the country’s non-Punjabi and non-Mohajir populations and provinces – even though NAP also included Mohajir and Punjabi activists who were once associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) that was banned in 1954.
NAP was thus radically opposed to the ‘One Unit’ - a state-backed initiative that had clumped together all of West Pakistan as one province (most probably to equal and neutralise the Bengali majority in East Pakistan).
When the 1956 Constitution promised to hold Pakistan’s first ever direct election based on adult franchise by 1958, the NAP was poised to bag the most seats in West Pakistan as well as in the Bengali-dominated East Pakistan.
The other two major parties of the era, the Muslim League and the Republican Party, were both besieged by infighting, whereas religious parties like the Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) did not have much electoral support. NAP stood out to be the most organised outfit at the time.
However, the promised elections never took place. Field Martial Ayub Khan imposed Martial Law through a military coup in 1959 and banned all political parties.
NAP leaders were released from jail when Ayub lifted the ban on political parties and authored a new constitution in 1962.
NAP returned to agitate and demand for provincial autonomy, removal of the One Unit, the holding of direct election, and the adoption of a non-allied policy in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
However, by the time of the 1965 Presidential election, some cracks began to appear in the party.
Due to the growing hostility between the time’s two communist powers, Soviet Union and China, various leftist parties of the world began experiencing splits.
But NAP, in spite of the fact that a pro-China (Maoist) and a pro-Soviet faction had emerged in it as well, remained intact.
Nevertheless, when the pro-US Ayub regime’s foreign policy began to tilt a bit towards communist China, NAP leader, Maulana Bhashani, a pro-China figurehead, insisted that NAP begin to support Ayub.
So though on the surface NAP remained to be a united front, beneath the veneer its leaders had begun to disagree among themselves on the question of supporting Ayub.
When Ayub set out to compete with Fatima Jinnah in the 1965 Presidential election, the Bhasahni faction of NAP supported him whereas the Wali Khan faction opposed him and backed Jinnah instead.
In 1966, when the 1965 Pakistan-India war ended in a stalemate, Ayub’s young Foreign Minister, Z A. Bhutto (the initial architect of Pak-China relations), resigned, accusing Ayub of ‘losing the war on the negotiating table.’
Bhutto’s animated antics in this respect were hailed by leftist student groups and eventually he gallivanted towards finding a position for himself in NAP.
But since NAP was packed with veteran leftist and nationalist figureheads, Bhutto decided to form his own socialist party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
Though a Sindhi, his party (formed in 1967) attracted the interest of various socialist and Marxist ideologues from the Punjabi and the Urdu-speaking communities. Many of them had been with NAP but were alienated by the party’s aggressive anti-Punjab stance.
In 1967 the split in NAP became an open secret. During its on-going analysis on how to achieve a socialist revolution in Pakistan, the NAP leadership failed to come to a common consensus.
The pro-Soviet faction (led by Bacha Khan’s son, Wali Khan), suggested working to put Pakistan on a democratic path and then achieve the party’s goals of provincial autonomy and socialist policies by taking part in an election.
The pro-China faction led by Bhashani disagreed and advised supporting Pakistan’s growing relationship with China. The faction also rejected democracy and labelled it as being a tool of the bourgeoisie. Bhashani instead advocated that the party should ally and work with peasant groups to initiate revolutionary land reforms.
The pro-Soviet NAP became NAP-Wali while the pro-China one became NAP-Bhashani.
The largest student party at the time, the left-wing National Students Federation (NSF) that had become the student-wing of NAP too suffered a split with the majority of NSF groups taking the Maoist line.
Most of these however began to associate themselves more with the politics of the PPP, whereas two new student groups, Pushtun Students Federation (PkSF), and Baloch Students Organisation (BSO), came under the umbrella of NAP-Wali.
It was NAP-Wali that became the bigger faction, mainly due to the fact that the party’s main Pushtun, Baloch and Sindhi leadership (sans GM Syed) decided to join the Wali faction.
Also, whereas the pro-Soviet student and trade unions also attached themselves to the Wali faction, most Maoist groups, instead of backing the Bhashani faction, decided to attach themselves with Bhutto’s PPP.
But soon a third faction in NAP appeared. A more radical group within NAP-Wali broke away in 1968 and decided to adopt the Maoist strategy of achieving a socialist revolution through an armed struggle and organising peasant militias.
Thus was born the Mazdoor Kissan Party (Worker & Peasants Party) that held its first convention in Peshawar in 1968. _________________________________
Populist leftist politics reached a nadir in Pakistan in the late 1960s. Leftist student groups like the NSF and the National Students Organization (NSO) controlled most of the country’s student unions, and along with labour unions, PPP and NAP-Wali successfully agitated against the Ayub dictatorship and forced him to step down.
The PPP made crucial inroads in the Punjab and Sindh provinces, whereas NAP-Wali gained momentum in KPK (former NWFP) and Balochistan.
The Bengali nationalist party, the Awami League (AL), rose to become a major force in former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
The trend was reinforced in the results of the 1970 election in which Bhutto’s PPP swept Punjab and Sindh, NAP-Wali bagged a number of seats in KPK and Balochistan, and AL won 98 per cent of the seats in East Pakistan.
The Mazdoor Kisan Party (MKP) refused to take part in the election. Inspired by the beginning of the Maoist Naxalite guerrilla movement in India and Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, MKP activists, led by former NAP leader and Pushtun Maoist, Afzal Bangash, traveled to Hashtnagar in KP’s Charsadah District and began to arm and organise the peasants against the local landlords.
MKP’s manoeuvres in this respect were highly successful as its activists joined the area’s peasants and fought running gun battles with the mercenaries hired by the landlords and against the police.
As the area of influence of MKP’s struggle grew, another communist, Major Ishaq Mohammad, joined MKP with his men.
Unlike Bangash and most MKP cadres, Ishaq and his men were not from the KPK. They were from the Punjab.
Ishaq had been a Major in the Pakistan Army before he was jailed and dismissed after he had taken part in an abortive coup attempt against the government of Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951.
The coup attempt that was headed by General Akbar Khan was planned in league with the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). It was nipped in the bud and its main leaders were all arrested and jailed.
Both men led MKP to spread its influence across various rural and semi-rural areas of the KPK and gained the support of the area’s peasants and as well as some tribal elders.
MKP’s guerrilla activities continued to grow and gather support and their fighters even managed to ‘liberate’ some lands by ousting the landlords.
MKP fighters with their Pushtun peasant army were gaining ground when after a Civil War, East Pakistan broke away and became the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971.
Angry officers of the Pakistan army, who blamed General Yayah Khan (who had replaced Ayub in 1969) for the break-up, invited Bhutto’s PPP to form the government of what remained of Pakistan.
The PPP enjoyed a majority at the centre and in Punjab and Sindh Assemblies, whereas NAP-Wali was able to form coalition governments in KPK (with JUI) and in Balochistan.
Relations between the pro-Soviet Pushtun nationalist and chief of NAP-Wali, Wali Khan, and the pro-China Bhutto, were anything but cordial.
Scholar and historian, Ishtiaq Ahmed, who was a friend of Afzal Bangash, suggests that in a secret meeting between the MKP leadership and Bhutto, Bhutto assured that his government will not take action against MKP guerrillas in KPK that was now under the rule of the NAP-Wali coalition government.
Encouraged by Bhutto’s promise and believing him to be a kindred Maoist soul, MKP increased its attacks on landlords and the police in rural and semi-rural areas of the KPK.
Encouraged by its victories in KPK, MKP dispatched Major Ishaq to generate a similar movement and struggle in the poverty-stricken rural areas of South Punjab.
But since the Punjab in those days was the electoral bastion of the PPP, the Bhutto regime came down hard on the MKP in the Punjab and was able to crush its plans to initiate guerrilla warfare in the region.
With Bhutto distracted by the police action against MKP in South Punjab, labour unrest in Karachi (also initiated by MKP-backed labour unions), and intelligence reports that the NAP-Wali government in Balochistan was helping arm Baloch nationalists (allegedly supported by Iraq and the Soviet Union), the NAP-JUI coalition government in KPK unleashed a brutal crackdown against the MKP.
Heavy fighting between mercenary militias formed by landlords backed by the police and MKP guerrillas erupted in Charsadah and surrounding areas, as the KPK government attempted to retake the land that the MKP fighters and the Pushtun peasants had brought under their control between 1968 and 1972.
About 200 sq. miles of land was under MKP’s control when the KPK government began to send wave after wave of armed policemen against the guerrillas.
Some MKP members blamed NAP-Wali of protecting the interests of the landlords while others suggested that it was NAP-Wali’s coalition partners, the JUI, that were to be blamed.
MKP accused NAP-Wali of using Pushtun nationalism and the JUI of exploiting Islam to protect the economic interests of the landlords who had 9allegedly) bankrolled their electoral campaigns during the 1970 election.
NAP-Wali and JUI accused MKP of becoming a tool in the hands of the Bhutto regime to stir up trouble in KPK - even though the MKP movement was present there almost four years before Bhutto came to power in 1972.
The MKP movement was finally crushed in 1974, not by the NAP-JUI government as such, but by the Bhutto regime.
In 1973 Bhutto dismissed the Balochistan government, accusing it of fostering separatist Baloch tendencies and groups. The KPK government resigned in protest, giving Bhutto the opportunity to install his own men in the two provinces.
He then moved in against MKP.
The blow that MKP received in KPK triggered an intense debate within the party. One section urged that since MKP had gathered large support from Pushtun peasantry, it should join electoral politics.
Those opposing the idea suggested that there was no room for ‘bourgeois democracy’ in Maoism and that the suggested move would reduce MKP into becoming a Pushtun nationalist party.
Yet another group in the party maintained that in spite of the losses suffered by MKP in 1973-74, its guerrilla campaign should continue.
Major Ishaq however had already begun perceiving MKP to be a militant expression of Pushtun nationalism. In 1976 he broke away from the party, returned to Punjab and formed his own faction of the MKP.
The Bhutto regime and the military that was already fighting a Baloch nationalist insurgency in Balochistan, arrested and jailed NAP-Wali’s Pushtun and Baloch leadership. He then influenced the courts to ban NAP.
When the Bhutto regime was toppled in a right-wing coup by General Ziaul Haq (July 1977), MKP’s influence in the KPK was receding and NAP-Wali failed to reorganise itself, leaving politics in the KPK wide open.
As Zia ended the military operation in Balochistan and allowed the Baloch insurgency’s main components to leave the country (in spite of the fact that he was staunchly opposed to their leftist ideology), he then moved to neutralise Pushtun nationalism as well.
Taking advantage of NAP’s withering status and the banned party’s anti-Bhutto sentiments, and also of MKP’s factionalisation, he then used the opportunity of using Saudi and US funds (that began to pour in after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979), to set-up recruitment and indoctrination centres and madressas in KPK to prepare fighters for the ‘anti-Soviet Afghan jihad.’
Afghan jihadists (Mujahideen) were given aid and space in the KPK and interestingly, one of the first Pakistani fighters that were inducted into the ‘jihad’ where those peasants and tribal Pushtuns who were radicalised by the MKP in the early 1970s.
Trained by the MKP and bred on the sayings of Mao and Marx, these fighters were shown the glitter of the American Dollar and the Saudi Riyal, then indoctrinated in the ways of jihad, promised a glorious hereafter and converted into becoming mujahids.
Over the years, these early Pakistani fighters who fought in Afghanistan would take the memories of their Maoist past with them, and would eventually be replaced by Pushtuns with little or no memory of such a past at all.
To them being a Pushtun always meant being a Jihadist. This way the state was successful in absorbing the left-leaning tendencies of Pushtun nationalism into the Pakistani state’s obscurantist paradigm of Pakistani nationhood.
On the other end, attempts were made by former NAP leaders to revive the party after the fall of the Bhutto regime.
And though it was the Zia dictatorship that had squashed the treason cases against NAP leaders, Zia soon came down hard on leftist forces and NAP’s reformation was thwarted.
Nevertheless, when PPP’s new chairperson, Benazir Bhutto, returned from exile in 1986 and began taking the Zia dictatorship on, some former Pashtun, Baloch and Sindhi NAP leaders finally managed to revive the party, this time calling it the Awami National Party (ANP).
By the late 1980s, however, after ANP’s Baloch and Sindhi leaders broke away and formed their own nationalist groups, ANP watered down the old NAP’s Marxist rhetoric and became exclusively a secular and left-liberal Pashtun nationalist party.
Ever since the 2008 election, it has been in the forefront of the Pushtuns’ identity battles with Pushtun-dominated extremist outfits, trying to eradicate the now overwhelming militant Islamic factor from the foundations and make-up of Pushtun nationalism.