With his memoirs Surkh Siasat:
Kitab-i-Zeest Ke Chand Katey Phhattey Auraq, Abdur Rauf Malik has considerably enriched ongoing studies on Pakistan’s left. His theme is neither a history of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) nor an elaboration of left doctrines; he only offers us an account of what he did as a faithful communist worker and as the keeper of the party’s People’s Publishing House for more than half a century, in extremely difficult circumstances.
Malik is well qualified to tell us about the left’s role in Pakistan’s politics during the short period the CPP was allowed to work openly — though never freely — or when it mattered in any way. Having joined the Communist Party of India (CPI) as a student in 1945, he is one of the oldest survivors of the red flock, if not the oldest. Apart from running a principal centre for the dissemination of communist literature for decades, he was a trendsetter in the publication of Progressive writers’ works, which included Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s outstanding collection of verse, Dast-i-Saba; Ahmad Rahi’s pioneering contribution to Punjabi poetry, Taranjan; Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s collection of poems, Shola-i-Gul; and publication of Amrita Pritam’s first post-Partition Pakistani collection. Besides this, he found time to write a number of books himself.
The life of a Pakistani communist and the full details about 1949’s Progressive Writers’ Conference
Malik has not forgotten his lessons from his youthful days in debating and putting forward his point of view as fervently as he can. He devotes considerable space to an authentic and more complete account of the Progressive Writers’ Conference of 1949 than what is generally available. He also tries to dispel the impression that the CPP continued following the adhikari thesis — upholding the demand for Pakistan on the basis of the right to self-determination — even after it had reportedly been abandoned by the CPI.
The narrative on the writers’ conference falls into two parts. In the first, Malik offers what should appear as fresh material to present-day readers, including the full text of Chiragh Hasan Hasrat’s stimulating and balanced projection of the ideals and accomplishments of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA), as well as some immature writers’ waywardness, in his opening address. The prominence given by the organisers to the projection of national languages other than Urdu and their great writers also deserves notice.
The author’s major contribution in the second part is his presentation of evidence of vilification of the PWA by the religious lobby and its cohorts in the conservative Urdu newspapers. The common demand in these writings was that the PWA was opposed to Islam and therefore its conference should be banned. The author’s purpose, perhaps, is to suggest that instead of opening hostilities against anyone, the Progressive Writers were victims of unprovoked calumny and wanton violence. (A group of musclemen indeed tried to disrupt the conference by force.)
As regards the conference resolution that ostracised not only ‘reactionary’ writers but also independent figures such as Saadat Hasan Manto, who was Malik’s friend and one of his favourites, the author does not condone the PWA leaders’ horrible blunders. He earnestly urges the people on the left to follow the dictates of ‘scientific Marxism’ and develop a habit of self-criticism, advice that is frequently repeated throughout the volume.
Malik’s contention that the adhikari thesis was not withdrawn is backed less by evidence and more by the argument that there is no record of this thesis having been abandoned at a party conference, the only forum competent to review basic formulations.
The author also discusses communists’ work in Punjab before the party was allowed to function legally and recalls the rather simplistic reasons offered for their refusal to support the Quit India movement launched by Congress in 1942. He then goes on to focus on the Pakistani establishment’s hostility towards the communists since independence. And he is not afraid of naming the leaders of the anti-communist brigade, some of whom demonised the communists for a living while others sought eminence in society.
According to Malik, the communists, too, created difficulties for themselves by following the Ranadive line of confrontation with both the new post-Partition states. He attributes the fact that the CPP did listen to Major General Akbar’s plan for a coup — the infamous Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case — before rejecting it also to the same hard line.
While conceding the losses suffered by the CPP because of the confrontational policy, Malik is quite critical of the way the CPI formed two separate parties for Pakistan, one for each wing. He would have liked such decisions to have been taken at a convention of party workers in Pakistan. His purpose in writing his memoirs is to urge the country’s communists to take a critical look at their past, especially the wrong turns taken, and to ensure that “as progressive (activists) we must focus on facts instead of relying on emotion, prejudice and false pride.”
Malik also tells in detail the story of the People’s Publishing House, and his trials and tribulations in keeping it going, for which he will receive credit from friend and foe alike.
While telling the story of his early years, the author throws considerable light on the politics of the Ahle Hadith and gratefully remembers Maulana Dawood Ghaznavi’s humanist gesture — in a departure from the sect’s tradition — in allowing his mother to visit her husband’s grave. We are also introduced to dignitaries, especially the Kakazais, who lived in Kucha Chabuk Sawaran, often described as the Chelsea of Lahore. This account informs us of the status of the Muslim men of learning in the capital city of a Muslim majority province. They had their quarters away from those of the British period community of rich and influential residents. Much of this terrain has been covered before, but Malik’s account should not fail to attract students of Lahore’s social history.
A good part of the book is devoted to brief sketches of important personalities that the author encountered. The longest of these pieces is on Sajjad Zaheer, but it also includes short introductions to his wife, Safia, and his closest colleagues, Sibte Hasan and Ashfaq Beg. Malik simply adores Mian Iftikharuddin, Faiz and Manto. The other distinguished figures in the gallery are Syed Muttalabi, Zafarullah Poshni, Abdul Samad Achakzai, Professors Hamid Ahmad Khan and Dr Afzal, Amrita Pritam, and Dr Ayub Mirza. The author is so fond of the hammer and sickle logo with which the Indian filmmaker Mehboob Khan opened his films that he includes the sketch in the book.
The appendices of the book include several important documents, especially extracts from Qaumi Jang, CPI’s wartime periodical.
The memoirs were dictated in Punjabi to Aamir Riaz who has done a splendid job translating the narration into Urdu, putting it together and adding an index. In this method of compilation, it is not easy to avoid repetition of recollections and losses of concentration here and there. Hence one wishes the editor had used his prerogative a little more firmly to make the text crisper and less uneven.
Surkh Siasat: Kitab-i-Zeest
Ke Chand Katey
By Abdur Rauf Malik
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 26th, 2017