HISTORY: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE PROGRESSIVE WRITERS’ MOVEMENT

Published March 26, 2023
Authors of Angaarey, Rashid Jahan (second from right) and Mahmud-uz-Zafar (extreme left)
Authors of Angaarey, Rashid Jahan (second from right) and Mahmud-uz-Zafar (extreme left)

One of the most significant literary movements to emerge from India — the All-India Progressive Writers’ Movement (AIPWM) — had its roots in the political revolution that formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1917 and its consolidation.

Though AIPWM has left behind a rich literary legacy that aimed to bring to the surface various sufferings of people in India, it became controversial soon after its creation. Accused of ‘using the plight of a common man to push a Marxist agenda backed by the Soviet Union’, it was eventually dismantled.

Under the banner of socialist realism — an ideological catalyst in the early 20th century — the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union merged all its existing literary organisations to create the Writers’ Union of USSR. As it gained complete agency over Soviet literature, the Writers’ Union came to play a vital role in sustaining communist doctrine by influencing fiction and distributing it to the masses.

Soviet fiction became popular in other parts of the world. A few years after the Writers’ Union had been established, the socialist intellectuals of India, who at that time had been scattered throughout the country, joined together to organise the first All-India Progressive Writers’ Conference in Lucknow. The meeting was led by renowned Urdu writer Sajjad Zaheer and the presidential address was delivered by none other than Jawaharlal Nehru.

One of the most influential literary movements of the Subcontinent was inspired by Marxist ideology emanating from the Soviet Union. The partition of the Subcontinent and the movement’s close alignment with political ideology led to its undoing as well

A LITERARY MOVEMENT IS BORN

Lucknow in the 1930s was a roaring hub of zestful voices and endless discourse.

Four years prior to the conference, a collection of nine short stories and one play, titled Angaarey, was published in Urdu, authored by four young writers: Rashid Jahan, Ahmed Ali, Mahmud-uz-Zafar and Sajjad Zaheer. The book was considered so controversial that it was banned months after its publication and the authors faced a trial in Lucknow for hurting communal sentiments.

As copies of Angaarey were burnt in a public display of hostility towards emerging liberalism in literature, Ahmed Ali would call Angaarey a “declaration of war by the youth.”

In 1936, the same year when the first All-India Progressive Writers’ Conference took place, the Communist Party of India formed its farmers’ wing and, at the annual session of the Indian National Congress, the Communist Party of India united with the Congress Socialist Party to challenge the right wing’s longstanding authority. A cultural and political shift was inevitable, and it would come to life by introducing a new ideology to the masses through a literary movement.

The manifesto of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA), formed as a result of the conference, called for the ‘spirit of progress’ by introducing scientific realism, to ‘rescue literature from the conservative classes’ and for the literature produced to focus more on the basic problems of existence — such as hunger and poverty.

Sajjad Zaheer, who had co-authored the manifesto for the conference a year earlier in London, was elected as the Secretary General of AIPWA. Although at this point in his career he was recognised primarily for his literary works, he would have to take on a political role and begin organising linguistic associations on a provincial scale.

The cover of Angaarey, a collection of short stories written and compiled by some of the future Progressive Writers, caused literary upheaval in the Subcontinent
The cover of Angaarey, a collection of short stories written and compiled by some of the future Progressive Writers, caused literary upheaval in the Subcontinent

ENTER PREMCHAND

Among the sea of notable writers in the Subcontinent during the early 20th century was one prolific genius called Premchand. Premchand wrote about the common man and his struggles. He pioneered the exploration of social hierarchies and caste systems in India through fiction. He wrote about the hardships of women and highlighted their noble femininity. There was sensitivity woven deeply in his works, which made Premchand a venerated author in both Urdu and Hindi literature, with over a dozen novels and two hundred short stories under his belt.

Premchand was elected as the President of AIPWA, which gave the movement the credibility it needed to establish itself as a ‘legitimate’ literary one. Sajjad Zaheer was a known communist and it was in the interest of the movement to appoint an apolitical figure in a leading position. Zaheer’s political stance was far more detectable for the public than Premchand’s subtle and nuanced takes that evolved with his writing throughout his career.

In his presidential speech at the first conference, Premchand outlined the objectives of the movement by stating that its purpose was to create an atmosphere in India that would help progressive literature flourish. The members of the movement wanted to promote a creative literary life that encompassed reading papers, holding discussions and thorough criticism. He was confident that AIPWA would become a mode through which a literary renaissance in India would take place.

One of the primary objectives of the movement was to promote purposeful art and literature, something that was inspired by the Writers’ Union of the USSR. Premchand emphasised how there was a need to renounce religious revivalism and create works that would devote all of man’s energy to “economic and political freedom.”

Premchand’s senior post in the association was a tactful decision, primarily because it was used to deflect allegations about the associations’ pro-communist agenda, aimed at Sajjad Zaheer. The emergence of the left was uplifting the common people culturally as well as politically. They were being systematically disillusioned towards a system that had long been working against them. With broken promises of reforms and fair wages, they were awakening to class consciousness, which only further helped the work of AIPWA prosper.

PARTITION AND DIVISION

After the partition of the Subcontinent in 1947, Pakistan and India inherited institutions and political ideologies that had existed under British rule. Sajjad Zaheer was sent to Pakistan by the Communist Party of India to revive the momentum of Marxist literature, after many Hindu and Sikh writers moved out of the newly formed state. He set up the All-Pakistan Progressive Writers Association (APPWA) and also founded the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) in 1948 and became its first Secretary General.

But anti-communist sentiments carried from British India had infiltrated Pakistani politics; APPWA had to earn the public’s trust and gain credibility through its work once again.

Prominent figures during this time, such as Saadat Hasan Manto, were writing about conflicted views towards the Partition, which resonated deeply with the masses. Krishan Chander wrote Hum Wehshi Hain [We Are Barbarians] about the mass murders of 1947. The association wanted to produce literature that used the Partition to catalyse a communist revolution, but notable figures of the movement, such as Krishan Chander and Saadat Hasan Manto, were writing about what it meant to be a human during a traumatic period in history, witnessing agonising bloodshed and dealing with the loss of an identity.

Furthermore, Pakistan’s first long-term plan for economic development relied heavily on the private sector. It was inevitable that the country would lean towards capitalism and, subsequently, APPWA was accused of anti-nationalism by reactionary writers who criticised the organisation’s Marxist agenda.

Sajjad Zaheer, the leading force behind the Progressive Writers’ Association
Sajjad Zaheer, the leading force behind the Progressive Writers’ Association

PAKISTAN AND THE MOVEMENT

During the first few years of Pakistan, all factions of the state were looking to form a unified social identity in order to artificially manufacture homogeneity. The progressive writers wanted to adhere to a rigid framework that was distinctly Marxist, but liberals and nationalists wanted to explore and interpret humanism, state and morality under their own terms. Much like the case with the Writers’ Union of the USSR, progressive writers were having trouble producing original work that had unique dynamics and explored their individual style.

The first meeting of APPWA was held at the YMCA Hall in Lahore, in 1949. To show their support, the Soviet Union had sent four delegates to the conference, all four of whom had received the Stalin Prize for Literary Excellence.

The halls of the conference were adorned with life-sized pictures of Russian authors Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky. The writers attending the meeting drafted a new manifesto based on contemporary Urdu literary trends in Pakistan and assessed that writers and poets could no longer remain politically neutral. They had to be more dogmatic in their works and assertive in propelling the movement forward.

Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din had established a publishing house in 1947 called Progressive Papers Limited and Faiz Ahmed Faiz had become the first editor of its weekly magazine, called The Pakistan Times. The Pakistan Times became a medium through which young intellectuals of Pakistan were influenced by the work of the Progressive Writers’ Movement. The magazine’s affiliation with notable figures such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, who had established themselves as prolific Urdu writers at this point, added to the appeal of the movement.

The up-and-coming generation of writers were bringing a youthful, arguably politically naive, perspective to the socio-cultural domain of Urdu literature. They romanticised a socialist future and juxtaposed it with present-day conditions of poverty and class struggles in Pakistan, defined by a Marxist lens.

DISSOLUTION OF THE CPP

The split of the All-India Progressive Writers’ Association after Partition significantly abated the fierce trajectory of the movement.

Progressives in India were facing anti-Urdu discrimination and experiencing difficulty in having their work published, whereas the progressives in Pakistan were facing political challenges that halted their growth and reach. Every act of rebellion from APPWA was met with vicious retaliation by the government. Additionally, CPP was now under constant surveillance of the Government of Pakistan, which considered it critical to contain communist ideology from seeping into the rest of the nation.

From its inception, the government of Pakistan had remained wary of the CPP’s agenda. With a plethora of problems arising during the infancy of Pakistan, a political party destabilising the country from within was the last thing the country needed.

Regardless, the members of the CPP and Marxist intellectuals of the Progressive Writers’ Movement remained driven in their mission to spread the principles of socialism by finely lacing them in the literature produced for the public.

It was the over-ambitious nature of the CPP and its plan to swiftly bring about a communist revolution that became the reason for its downfall. In 1951, the CPP reached the peak of its controversy when its members Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz were caught colluding with Maj Gen Akbar Khan in his scheme to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan through a military coup. The plotters were arrested and the CPP banned.

DEATH OF APPWA

In 1951, APPWA was declared a political party right around the time when the CPP was outlawed. Over the next seven years, the association faced extreme difficulty in redressing its position.

In 1958, the heart of APPWA, Progressive Papers Limited, was accused of colluding with foreign communist states and Gen Ayub Khan used these allegations as an opportunity to dismantle the hub of the Progressive Writers Movement by forcibly auctioning off the assets of the company for Rs. 4.6 million. The Progressive Writers’ Movement officially died in 1958 and its members swiftly scattered throughout Pakistan to seek other employment positions.

THE LEGACY

The goal of the Writers’ Union of the USSR, which had subsequently inspired the Progressive Writers’ Movement, was to create purposeful art and literature. It was meant to uplift the working class by understanding them and their struggles on an individual level. The writers were supposed to possess a close understanding of the adversity the working class faced.

However, it was the class difference between many of the notable progressives and the people they were writing about that created dissonance between the two. At some point, the Marxist literature that was written for the masses became leisure reading for the elites.

In 1919, Vladimir Lenin had written a letter to Maxim Gorky, an author he greatly admired, and criticised him on his growing distance from the people he was writing about. Lenin wrote: “If you want to observe, you must observe from below, where it is possible to survey the work of building a new life in a worker’s settlement in the provinces or in the countryside. There one does not have to make a political summing up of extremely complex data, there one needs to observe.”

The letter would have been perhaps equally relevant for the progressives of the Subcontinent.

Despite its weaknesses and its failure to sustain itself, the Progressive Writers’ Movement bequeathed a rich literary legacy to contemporary readers and writers in Pakistan, seeking to inspire works of fiction similar to Angaarey and other writings that came into being during this era. And in spite of everything, it did develop a collective consciousness to resist oppression that sustains in many writers and readers to this day.

The writer is an academic and historical social researcher

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 26th, 2023

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