From the late 19th century, humanity began to move faster than it ever had before in history towards specialisation in various disciplines of knowledge. At the same time, we witnessed the divide between academic parlance and the common reader widening. Today, leave alone mathematical philosophy or theoretical physics, the knowledge offered by texts of literary criticism and applied sociology is becoming inaccessible to those untrained in these subjects.

The specificity of language and style in each discipline that evolved over time was perhaps necessitated by the need for seeking depth and rigorous investigation within each subject. However, that specialisation has also contributed to a compartmentalisation between branches of knowledge even at the rudimentary level.

This existence of knowledge streams in silos leads to a lopsided understanding even among subject experts — besides the general population — be it around history, economics, society, politics or advancements in science and technology. Consequently, what most people find manageable to read is news analysis and journalistic commentary.

There is a need to strengthen an interface between development in research and thought in each subject and the overall human condition and experience. This is essential for an informed and purposeful dialogue at both local and global levels. The ability to create an interplay between different categories of analysis from different subjects and offer an inclusive view is displayed only by a limited number of public intellectuals. Most importantly, it is the use of accessible language and idiom.

For instance, it was Isaac Asimov in the physical sciences, Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker in linguistics, Edward Said and Terry Eagleton in cultural studies and literature, Eqbal Ahmad in political science and James Wood in literary criticism, who made their thoughts available to non-specialists and continue to create an impact. Undoubtedly, there are other such writers as well, but we certainly need more of this style of writing.

In Pakistan, the leading linguist and language historian Dr Tariq Rahman is among those few who were able to create the interplay between language, history, politics and power. Most recently, this is what Pakistani historian Ali Raza has also done successfully in his book Revolutionary Pasts: Communist Internationalism in India.

He tells us a compelling story of 20th century colonial India in a highly engaging manner, and develops a narrative by bringing together the compulsions of the global economic order, the reconfiguration of political forces, complex social upheavals, and the resistance of the Left during that time.

However, the story is as authentic as it gets — fully referenced and citing a plethora of books and documents. First published by the Cambridge University Press in 2020, the Pakistani paperback edition has been released by Folio Books, Lahore, in 2021. Raza meticulously records and analyses the ideology and struggle, and the changing shape and form of the Left in South Asia, from its very inception under colonialism to the early years after Partition.

The book’s seven chapters interlink neatly, without any transitional problems in the narrative. From an overview in the opening chapter and a conclusive commentary in the last, each chapter in between looks at a variety of trends in leftist politics, emerging at certain key junctures in India’s colonial history.

Raza calmly looks at the strands of dissent within the Left’s ranks on several occasions during the larger struggle they were collectively waging. He also studies the political movements of Indians living in diaspora at that time, besides what was happening within British India. From the Ghadar Party abroad, to the Kirti Kissan party in Punjab, and then from the Communist Party of India to other regional formations and outfits across the Subcontinent, he examines the movement while situating it within the global communist aspirations.

The breadth is huge. From Delhi, Punjab and then NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to Malabar, Telangana and Bengal, there is incisive commentary on every important individual and event. Rare photographs of Sohan Singh Bhakna, Bina Das and Dada Amir Haider Khan among others, pages from newspapers, pictures of activists in chains and fetters, and reproduced images of posters challenging colonial power, bring texture to the narrative.

Raza skilfully demonstrates how the Left in India viewed colonialism, bolstered the anti-colonial movement and, therefore, suffered immensely under colonial repression. In some places, it seemed to me that Raza has not concealed the bitterness he feels against colonial exploitation and violence. There is an inherent desire in him to keep that memory alive.

He also explains how the two new countries of Pakistan and India — born out of British India — viewed the Left in the same way as their colonial predecessors did. In fact, in many cases, they went a step further to persecute leftists and ban their outfits, from the Communist Party in Pakistan to the Progressive Writers’ Association. It was different in India, but Raza quotes none other than India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s scathing views on communists.

Some may read Revolutionary Pasts as a compassionate tale of idealism, commitment, suffering and tragedy spread over decades and told through individuals, events, upheavals and struggles. But there is much more to the book. Something that Raza also brings forth, and insists upon, is how important it has become in current times to learn that a utopia is never lost. He appreciates that the time for a particular imagination that produced a particular form of ideological struggle is over, but it has left behind so much to learn from.

Raza writes in the last chapter: “The historical moment narrated by this book inaugurated a utopian subject that refused to accept the present as given. By that same token, that subject also refused a foreclosed future.” Earlier in the book, he had said: “At the very least, I argue, a history of the [Left] encourages a re-envisioning of ethical possibilities and subjectivities in modern South Asia.”

The columnist is a poet and essayist. He has recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His latest collection of verse is No Fortunes to Tell

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 25th, 2021


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