Retracing Pakistan’s left

Published January 10, 2016
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In a meticulously researched study, Pro­fessor Kamran Asdar Ali has presented a history of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) from its birth in 1948 to its being banned in 1954, barely six years later. In his book titled Surkh Salam/Communism in Pakistan he also covers the party’s influence on the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) and the labour movement inspired by the ideas of class struggle in Karachi and its disintegration in the wake of the 1972 violent crackdown by the first Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government.

The CPP was a fractured party from the very beginning as it never became a single nationwide party; its area of operation was limited to West Pakistan, while East Bengal had its own Communist Party. Further, throughout this period the party remained the target of state repression of a most vicious variety. Warrants for the arrest of the party chief, Sajjad Zaheer, had been issued before he arrived in Pakistan and he and his senior colleagues remained underground or in prison throughout the period of the party’s legal existence.

The party’s travails had begun before it was carved out of the Communist Party of India (CPI). The story began with confusion caused by an interplay of several factors — senior CPI ideologue Adhikari’s endorsement of the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan on the basis of Indian Muslims’ right to self-determination, rejection of this thesis by, among others, Rajani Palme Dutt, the India expert in the British Communist Party, and the party’s faith in India’s unity. The situation was further complicated by the replacement of CPI general secretary P.C. Joshi by B.T. Ranadive at the Kolkata congress in 1948, adoption of the latter’s thesis for an all-out assault on the new Indian government, the division of CPI on the pattern of the Partition of India, and appointment of Zaheer as secretary-general of the newly created CPP.

Zaheer’s selection for the job and his acceptance of it was obviously influenced by the fact that he enjoyed great prestige in both India and Pakistan as the principal architect of the Progressive Writers Movement. Additionally, he promoted the Adhikari thesis with great vigour and repelled his colleagues’ tendency to dismiss Pakistani society as much too conservative to be able to accept progressive ideas by referring to G.M. Syed’s radical demands.

A history of the Communist Party of Pakistan, the Progressive Writers Association, and the labour movement is presented by Kamran Asdar Ali

The author has shown in detail that Zaheer faced an uphill task. The party had a small number of members (around 50) and lacked a reliable cadre. That obliged him to rely on party notables sent by CPI from India, especially Sibte Hasan and Ashfaq Mirza, who together with Zaheer formed the politburo. Forced to work from underground his freedom of action was largely curtailed. Apart from the hostility of the state and right-wing forgers of the new state’s religion-based nationalist ideology, he also faced criticism from within the party. Senior leaders Fazal Elahi Qurban and Jamaluddin Bukhari were dumped for suggesting accommodation of the people’s nascent nationalism and their romance with Muslim revivalism. More difficult to meet was Eric Cyprian’s criticism of the party thesis about a revolution under the leadership of industrial workers. He suggested mobilisation of the peasantry and creating pockets of sympathisers among white-collared professionals and the lower middle class have-nots.

The writer gives Zaheer credit not only for leading a band of selfless associates, but also, and more importantly, for launching “a different trajectory of politics among the urban working class, peasants, students, middle class intellectuals, artists and literary personalities that grew to sometimes challenge the status quo and demand changes in governance structure...”. The author also finds the slogans raised by CPP in its short life inspiring the labour that played a leading role in the successful struggle to overthrow the Gen Ayub Khan regime in the late 1960s.

However, the author does not hesitate to point out what may be described as the weaker side of Zaheer’s leadership: his habit of talking down to party workers and leaving little to the initiative of journalists working for the party publications, his reluctance to inform the rank and file of the abandonment of the Ranadive line by CPI and the Soviet Communist Party’s change of track and adoption of the peaceful co-existence plank once it had acquired its own nuclear deterrent. And of course the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case that receives an extended treatment from the writer, in which he assigns Faiz Ahmed Faiz a greater role than the poet was perhaps interested in assuming. He leaves the readers free to accept Shaukat Ali’s version of direct and primary CPP involvement in the absurd episode or Sibte Hasan’s account of the way the party scotched Akbar Khan’s proposal though the evidence of a prolonged debate on the matter in the CPP working committee creates doubts about the party’s role in the affair that denials by some of the executive’s members (not noticed by the author) cannot erase. It is not possible to disagree with the author’s finding that the CPP could not fully recover from the setback caused by the Pindi conspiracy case.

While Ali’s scholarship in reconstructing what was done by CPP or what happened to it is impeccable, one is intrigued by his casual treatment of certain facts. He perhaps over-emphasises Zaheer’s friendship with fellow émigrés as a factor of his early successes. A more plausible explanation might be the emergence during the early 40s of anti-imperialist elements among the educated communities that respected the communists for their commitment even if they did not agree with their theories of dialectical materialism

Besides, Ali takes note of the cooperation between Indian and Pakistani police on the morrow of independence, the functioning of an anti-communist cell in the federal government, and a 1949 decision to create a similar cell in the ministry of information and broadcasting without informing the prime minister. Yet he does not investigate the possibility that the state might have decided to crush CPP before it had done anything because Pakistan mattered in the eyes of the cold war stalwarts only as a bulwark against international communism and that this was the condition for their support for its creation.

While coming to the government’s decision to ban the CPP in 1954 the author refers to the riot in Narayanganj jute mills which claimed several hundred lives and the rise of Bengali nationalism following the Jugtu Front victory in the provincial elections of 1954. But he takes no notice of the annoyance caused to the West by the election of a few communists in these elections or Pakistan’s being sucked into Anglo-American military pacts during 1952-1954 and the preparations for the Seato and Cento pacts that had entered a final phase before the CPP was banned (in both the wings).

Leaving CPP in the doldrums in mid-1954, Ali moves on to the literary scene. First the aggressive posture of the Progressive Writers Association, no doubt induced by the Ranadive thesis of a full-scale attack on the lackeys of imperialism and collaborators of the reactionary forces, is brought out. Then the debate between advocates of art for life and those for art for the sake of art is enlivened by introducing Manto’s alternative view of human beings and their inherent dignity, which is affected neither by belief, nor ethnicity, nor even by political affiliation. But while Manto was unnecessarily and quite senselessly pilloried by the progressives he was lionised by the rightists without understanding him.

“By 1946, following the changing trend within the party, Sajjad Zaheer had himself changed his position and started to write articles critical of the Muslim League, in Naya Zamana, the CPI’s post-war Urdu organ. One such piece was against the League’s call for a Direct Action Day. This call was given to pressurise the British on accepting the League’s proposal for an independent Pakistan. In his article, Zaheer warns that the Muslim League’s action would lead to communal violence and civil war, whereas this was a time to unite against the imperialists rather than instigate conflict among the population itself.” — Excerpt from the book

The vanguard of the forces out to vanquish the Progressives was led by the vastly influential Mohammad Hasan Askari whose eclecticism virtually overwhelms the author. This discussion, thoroughly readable though, seldom rises above a one-sided contest as the Progressives were left without a head or even middle-rank advocates. The fight was too much for Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi who had faced Zaheer’s censure with a courteous response.

The author also misses the intra-PWA debate. For instance, Faiz’s unhappiness with the PWA decision to disown and castigate a number of writers and not stopping short of denouncing Iqbal. This alienated him to the extent that he stopped participating in PWA meetings.

Before moving from literature to labour, the writer pauses at the London house of Joan Afzal. Her husband, Mohammad Afzal, deserves mention not merely as a victim of state excesses but essentially as one of the most dedicated and efficient trade unionists Pakistan has had. He then stops for a while to pay a tribute to Hasan Nasir, one of the most prominent fighters for the cause of Pakistan’s labour and one of the worst victims of a predatory state. This is a chapter where the academic in the author is not afraid of baring his humanism.

The chapter under a heading that paraphrases Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s warning to Husain Naqi, that the power of the street will be met with the might of the state, is again remarkable for emphasis on detail. The author notes all the fissures in the labour movement in Karachi in early 1970 — a band of well-trained migrant trade union fighters’ attempts to turn first-generation workers on the other side of the ethnic divide into disciplined fighters with long stamina for bearing hardships, the division in labour leadership on preferring good rulers to bad ones, and the inability of the labour force to resist a vastly stronger and merciless authority.

The author has no doubt in his mind while indicting the PPP government for using bullets to fatally injure the workers who had helped its rise to power.

One wonders whether the author took due notice of the deadly attacks on labour’s rights under the Gen Ayub regime’s 1959 labour policy, and its anti-labour laws that undermined labour’s strength in 1969-70 and which are eroding its rights to this day. Also there are observers who argue that the PPP government dealt a severe blow to the trade union movement by nationalising a large number of industrial units. The security of tenure the workers received drove them away from trade unionism. This and the trade union leader’s decision to renounce any political ambition perhaps proved to be more decisive than the killing of workers by an arrogant administration.

While the Writers Association and labour were two important arenas in which CPP cadres were active, they also organised students and journalists to fight not only for their individual and group rights but also for a democratic and egalitarian order. The democratic students movement survived the setbacks of the 1950s and the progressive journalists gave the country a union that played a leading role in resisting authoritarian attacks on basic freedoms. Some of these journalists were imprisoned in 1951, 1954, 1958, 1972, 1978 and 1981, whenever a crackdown on the left was considered necessary to enable the state to suppress people’s rights. Quite strange that these areas of left activism did not attract Ali’s attention.

Although the author thinks “CPP’s history and that of the progressive movement in Pakistan are part of a forgotten past at best and can be considered as discarded ‘debris’ at its worst”, he recognises the resilience of the left activism and its ability to resurface every now and then. Summing up the left’s contribution to Pakistani people’s history he says: “Most importantly and to re-emphasise, this initially small and disjointed group of people created a space in the new country to speak about social reform, labour rights, land distribution, free education, economic and social justice and women’s rights with an intensity and focus that surpassed all others. These discussions and debates developed in scope and energy over the years and have remained within the public sphere as an ideological force that although most of the time is only rhetorically acknowledged by those in power, can seldom be ignored.”

A significant point on which the writer takes Pakistani society to task is its collective amnesia — the way it has erased the memory of what was done to the people of East Bengal in 1970-71, and finds a parallel in the Balochistan story. While forgetting what must always be remembered is a recipe for self-invited disaster, in Pakistan what is saved in collective memory about the non-Muslims, about the West, about the Bengalis and the Baloch carries the seeds of a catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions. Finally, one must acknowledge that the academic route followed by Ali and his recourse to several disciplines in writing a people’s history makes his work a pleasurable and stimulating read.

The reviewer is a senior columnist and Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Communism in Pakistan: Political and Class Activism 1947–1972
By Kamran Asdar Ali
IB Tauris Co Limited, UK
ISBN 978-1784532000

Pakistan edition published as:

Surkh Salam: Communist Politics and Class Activism in Pakistan 1947-1972
OUP, Karachi
ISBN 978-0199403080


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