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The rise and fall of the communist party of Pakistan

Updated April 13, 2014

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File photo
File photo

Pakistan’s first communist party was actually formed in India (!). The Communist Party of India (CPI) was of the view that the newly created country (Pakistan) was ripe for a communist revolution due to the fragile nature of the country’s politics and economics at the onset of the partition of India in 1947.

The CPI sent a number of its Muslim members (led by Marxist intellectual, Sajjad Zaheer), to Pakistan for the purpose of fostering ties with labour leaders, students and leftist politicians and to prepare the ground for a communist revolution in Pakistan.

‘Entryism’ — originally a Marxist concept (honed by Soviet communist leader, Leon Trotsky) in which dedicated members of a small communist party were encouraged to infiltrate strong progressive and/or socialist ‘bourgeoisie outfits’ to gain direct access to a larger polity — was also explored.

Zaheer formed the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) in 1948 in Kolkata and then shifted the party to Pakistan. The party began organising itself in both wings of the country (East Pakistan and West Pakistan).

As planned, it also forged links with labour leaders and trade unionists and gave shape to an active student organisation, the Democratic Students Federation (DSF). The latter not only became the party’s student-wing, but also the country’s leading student outfit at the time.

As a strategy the student group and the labour unions were not officially proclaimed to be wings of the CPP but had secret CPP workers at the helm of these organisations.

CPP was Leninist in orientation. Due to lack of developed bourgeoisie capitalism and the consequential absence of a strong urban proletarian base in the newly formed country, CPP tried to implement the Leninist idea of triggering and guiding a communist revolution through a small, well-trained and dedicated group of intellectuals and workers (like the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, had done in Russia in 1917).

Interestingly (and ironically) Leninist and Trotskyite concepts such as of forming a select group of revolutionary elite and of Entryism would both be eventually embraced and incorporated by such anti-left religious parties as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).

Equally interestingly, though the CPP was active in organising industrial workers and peasants for the purpose of creating a communist uprising, it tried to hasten the revolutionary process in Pakistan by unwittingly getting involved in the ambitious plan of a military coup by Major-General Akbar Khan.

Major-General Akbar was a popular personality in the Pakistan Army and had fought in Pakistan’s first war with India in 1948 (over the Kashmir issue).

He was offended by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan’s decision to end the protracted war (in 1949) and began planning to overthrow the government.

Akbar had also been an avid admirer of Turkey’s Kamal Ataturk and was given to outbursts against the government in gatherings. He had befriended Sajjad Zaheer and some Marxist intellectuals and progressive poets (such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz), with whom he began to discuss his idea of pulling off a ‘progressive-nationalist coup.’

After recruiting some officers from the military and the police, Akbar approached his friends in the CPP and asked them to help him streamline his post-coup government through the CPP and the influence that the party had at the time over progressive/leftist student groups, labour unions and the intelligentsia. However, in 1951 some officers that Akbar had recruited spilled the beans and Akbar’s planned coup was nipped in the bud by the government and the military.

Akbar, his wife, poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and dozens of officers and CPP members (including Sajjad Zaheer) were arrested, tried and thrown in jail. The CPP was banned.

Though initially given long jail terms, by the mid-1950s however, the failed coup-makers were pardoned. Sajjad Zaheer and those who had come with him from India were deported back to India.

The remaining CPP leadership went underground and used its student-wing, the DSF, as a front organisation. In 1954 the DSF too was banned.

But the party continued to operate in a more clandestine manner as many CPP members (through Entryism) continued to function secretly within progressive parties like the Azad Pakistan Party and the National Awami Party (NAP).

The NAP had risen to become the largest leftist party in the country in the 1960s. Though it was largely made-up of progressive Pakhtun, Baloch, Sindhi and Bengali nationalists, most of its Punjabi and Mohajir members belonged to the CPP who were operating from within NAP.

CPP’s Entryism also saw it infiltrating the time’s largest leftist student group, the National Students Federation (NSF).

1960s was also a period when ‘socialist sectarianism’ in the communist world came out into the open as the world’s two major communist powers, the Soviet Union and China, suffered a major political and ideological rift.

As a consequence, communist parties all over the world split into pro-Soviet and pro-China (Maoist) factions.

NAP suffered the same fate when in 1967 the pro-Soviet faction became NAP-Wali and the pro-China faction became NAP-Bhashani.

The CPP operating within NAP and NSF also experienced a split. Its pro-Soviet members moved into NAP-Wali (that was the larger faction), whereas its pro-China members either joined NAP-Bhashani or Z A. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). However, some pro-China CPP members also formed their own organisations, like the militant Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP).

Inspired by the beginning of the Maoist ‘Naxalite’ guerrilla movement in India and Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, MKP activists, led by Pakhtun Maoist, Afzal Bangash, travelled to Hashtnagar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Charsadda District and began to arm and organise the peasants against the local landlords.

MKP’s movement was crushed in 1974.

The CPP continued to stick to its policy of Entryism and functioning within mainstream progressive parties and student groups. It was active against the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s, working inside parties like the PPP, Awami Jamhoori Party, NSF, etc.

However, as enthusiasm for leftist ideologies began to wane in the late 1980s and the Soviet Union began to suffer from grave economic problems, the CPP’s decision to give up its policy of Entryism and exist as it had in the early 1950s came a tad too late.

It could not retain its original shape and sheen and became increasingly marginalised.

What’s more, not only did it continue to experience splits and further marginalisation, it completely failed to update its narrative and historical and dialectic understanding of international and local economic and political affairs and their socio-political consequences in a very different post-Cold War and then post-9/11 world.

However, though the CPP’s existence in the country’s mainstream political scene was short- lived, it threw up an impressive number of Marxist activists who went on to drive a series of left-wing political and student parties, trade and labour unions and progressive publications.