Short, sad history of Left in Pakistan

[Note: This was written back in 2007 as part of my work as a Saneeya Hussain fellow, PANOS South Asia]

The world today is in the clutches of strong imperialist forces. The United States is leading these forces with strong allies like the United Kingdom. Over the years, the sole superpower – the United States – has ransacked many countries by using military force. Afghanistan and Iraq are two countries that have borne the brunt of imperialism. The forces that can counter imperialism are not strong enough. Today people feel the need for a system to substitute capitalism. That system can only be socialism, but the world over, the Left movement was buried along with socialism when Moscow and Beijing turned towards capitalism.

The recent success of socialism in some Latin American countries, particularly in Venezuela, has revived a hope in the leftist circles of the world. But there are a lot of challenges for socialism to counter capitalism in today’s imperialist world.

In our part of the world, South Asia, the need for a socialist movement is being strongly felt. There are voices emanating from the two South Asian neighbours, India and Pakistan, for a revival of a strong Left. Comparatively, the Left in India is far stronger than the Left in Pakistan, which is almost non-existent. This essay would try to analyse why the leftists were marginalised in Pakistan and what needs to be done in order to revive a Left movement in the country.

The areas now comprising Pakistan saw the growth of Leftist ideas long before Pakistan emerged. This growth was an offshoot of the Indian National Congress Party in which the Communists were active from later 1920s. The 1930s were the period when two separate forces were shaping up in undivided India: The Congress was essentially a Hindu-dominated bourgeois or middle class party that claimed to be secular and nationalist. But it also had a small but vigorous Leftist fringe. Punjab, for instance, had Kisan Sabhas some TUs that were run by communists and generally progressive ideas were common, especially among those who were influenced by Urdu literature. Although the number of Leftists could not have been very large, but in terms of influence they were an emerging factor. They were not decisive but could not be ignored. The records of the Indian intelligence services would establish the fact that the whole period of 1930s was dominated by two basically antagonistic but formally separate forces. There was the Hindu-Muslim question or communalism as a force to reckon with. Hindu-Muslim question was becoming worse with every passing day; and secondly it was the growth of the Left piggyback on the Congress in the beginning, though they had taken off from the general nationalistic movement and more becoming an independent force by later 1930s that was vigorous enough in Lahore and some cities of Punjab. True, the Left movement was dominated by prominent Hindu intellectuals and activists. But Muslims were not absent from it. Their numbers may have been relatively small but they were no less significant for that.

Everyone knows that eventually communalism overshadowed everything in Indian politics in later 1930s and 1940s. It involved the growth of Muslim League and Pakistan Movement, on the one hand, and its progressive alienation and antagonism with the Congress, representing the nationalistic and vaguely progressive ideas with a significant fringe of the Left proper that came to a head during the Second World War, on the other. The Second World War caused a sharp parting of ways between the Congress and the Left; Congress started Quit India Movement and its Ministries had resigned earlier while a small group of Left led by M.N. Roy supported Allied Powers from 1940 onward and communists termed it a ‘People’s War against Fascism’ after Germany attacked Soviet Russia.

The World War ended, the division of the British Indian Empire became inevitable. The Muslim League was allowed to convert two zones of India into one Pakistan, viz. one in the eastern region of India and the second in its western parts.

Almost a hundred years before the partition of the subcontinent, Marx had predicted that unless the industrial proletariat asserts itself, the imperialist designs of the West would control the destiny of the people in the subcontinent. “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked... The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether” —Marx, Karl, ‘The future results of British rule in India’, New York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853. Despite being aware that even after partition the divided subcontinent would remain under the control of the imperialists, one of the biggest mistakes that the Communist Party of India (CPI) made to wrongly analyse the Indian national question. The demand for a separate state by the Muslims was accepted by the CPI in guarded terms. The CPI should have questioned whether the demand for a separate state fell in the category of ‘self-rule’ despite its obvious religious basis. But it did not do so and the failure of the Left movement began due to the CPI’s cautious approach.

“The CPI could have acted as a powerful factor in taking up the interests of national minorities in identifying their specific interests and to fight for them within the framework of their struggle for independence. It is true that CPI arrived rather late, historically as an effective political force at a time when communalism had already become a very powerful factor in Indian politics; but even then if they could meaningfully link up class struggle with the struggle of national minorities since the early 1930s, then the political developments in India could have taken a different turn…
“The CPI could have acted as a powerful factor in taking up the interests of national minorities, but in spite of making some efforts in that direction they floundered on the national question and failed to expose the communal designs and conspiracies of Indian big capital…In order to extend their support to the Congress and Muslim League regimes in Pakistan and India, the Communist Party virtually withdrew all the programmes they were following just preceding independence…
“Following the Popular Front stance, the CPI theoreticians totally failed to take into account the very clear power factors and the state of the existing production relations. Thus they failed miserably to analyse the actual situation in India after partition. In the absence of such analysis their political line was full of imaginary ideas and doomed from the very outset. It was nothing short of surrender to the Indian ruling classes. In order to justify their line the Indian communists involved themselves in the stupid exercise of separating Nehru from the Indian monopoly capital which he represented. The greatest mistake of the second congress of the CPI was lumping India and Pakistan together as one unit. Much of their analysis rested on their attitude to Jawaharalal Nehru, a factor totally irrelevant to the situation of Pakistan. It is true that till that time the CPI remained formally undivided, but this did not mean that exactly the same strategy could be applicable to both India and Pakistan” — Iqbal, Jamil, ‘The Crime of Partition (part 3): The role of the Communist Party of India during Partition’, Socialist Appeal.

Until the end of the World War, the Muslim intelligentsia throughout the subcontinent was under heavy influence of the Progressive Writers Movement that was Leftists’ creation originally. Although it cannot be said that the Muslim intelligentsia was Leftist because traditionalism and Muslim communalism were far too strong to be dwarfed by Leftist ideas, particularly because of the poetry of Allama Iqbal and Urdu novels of the conventional kind that harked back to Muslim generals of the past in various Islamic wars in what is today’s Arab Middle East Turkey, Iran and Central Asia. The nostalgia for Muslim greatness and traditionalist ideas were a dominant part. But the growth of the progressive ideas was rapid; it was not merely discernable but was creating problems for Pakistan Movement. Mr Jinnah tactfully handled them and made use of them just as Congress had made use of the communists and other socialists and when it succeeded in capturing power, dumped them all. This is what happened on a smaller scale in Pakistan. The Pakistan Movement did contain people with vaguely leftist and populist ideas, men like Mian Mumtaz Daultana, Nawab Mamdot and a few others.

Muslim League became more conservative after achieving power in Pakistan. The Left met the same fate in Pakistan that it did in India, though the Indian Left was far too vigorous and the intellectual challenge it faced were different from those their comrades in Pakistan faced. Pakistan was a special case. The Pakistan Movement relied on a rampant pan-Islamist sentiment plus the nostalgia of the Muslims for a magnificent past in India and elsewhere. The Muslims were a great force to reckon with throughout the known world of Euro-Asia. The Islamic consciousness was far too overpowering and the movements among the Muslims were, from the beginning of the 20th century, influenced by events taking place in other Muslim lands. A raging and tearing Khilafat Movement had taken place in 1920s that was also supported by Mahatma Gandhi and Congress. A conservative Muslim radicalism had been created in the 1920s and 1930s that eventually became triumphant with the creation of Pakistan. But in Pakistan what happened was a development that no Muslim League leader had foreseen.

The rightwing religious parties got together, led in Punjab by Majlis-e-Ihrar and various other religious bodies, particularly Jamaat-e-Islami. They argued that ‘now that Pakistan has come into being and the leaders of the Pakistan Movement had invoked Islam, therefore Quran and Sunnah would be the basic law of the land. Pakistan would be a uniquely Islamic state’. Earlier the Muslim League leaders’ rhetoric was also that Pakistan would be a laboratory of Islam and it would produce something entirely new that would not be either crudely capitalistic or communistic. Given that background of the Muslim League rhetoric, the demand of the ulema, with Maulana Maududi in the lead, acted like an intellectual tsunami and everything seemed likely to be swept off. But the leadership stayed pro-western and moderately Islamic without being too orthodox or rigid. Their communalism was politically motivated to get the votes against the Indian National Congress which they got by harping on Islam being a progressive force in itself with immense potential. But the Muslim League leadership was faced with a serious challenge from orthodox ulema that was capable of overthrowing it. It resorted to a clever by half stratagem: It produced the Objectives Resolution in order to defang the argument of the religious Right. They appeared to concede all the major premises of the ulema without giving up democratic practices for running the state. Although the religious Right at the time found no reason to reject the compromise between their demand and the minimum needs of modernists. But they unhappily accepted it, only later to find it inadequate. Religious Right remained dissatisfied with all the many concessions that the conservative Muslim League made in early and middle 1950s while writing constitutional provisions; later Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and most importantly General Ziaul Haq each made significant concessions of religious provisions. Each time the ulema of the day were happy with them, but soon they came back for more demands of enforcing Shariah.

But the Muslim League leadership in Objectives Resolution had conceded so much to the religious Right that it radically weakened the foundations of any democratic structure to be raised in Pakistan. The social structure of Pakistan society throughout West Pakistan was based on private land ownership which was highly iniquitous and a large amount of social prestige and political power was rested in the hands of large landowners whose mentality was unambiguously feudal. The dominant values in the area were feudal in character and later the political rise of civil and military bureaucracy in the 1950s depended on feudal elements’ support, particularly against the rebellious and radical-minded and radically-inclined members of Pakistan’s central legislature and the Constituent Assembly from East Bengal. The feudals feared the Bengalis would somehow want land reforms of the kind they agreed for their area: viz. abolition of absentee landlordism so they hid behind a coterie of Punjabi bureaucrats led by leading civil servants of the day. But it enjoyed the clear support of Pakistan Army. West Pakistani leadership was a politically reactionary, pro-feudal that quickly accepted an alliance with America and the west in their cold war against Communist bloc; that alliance cemented the politics of the Muslim League government and it became as rightwing as possible and as anti-left as possible. The Baghdad Pact of 1955 was all about anti-subversion efforts in Muslim lands, particularly in Pakistan and in Iraq which was a leading Arab country of the day along with Egypt. But Egypt saw a purely nationalistic revolt against traditionalism led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and in the cold war, the west treated him as an enemy. That is why the idea of a whole Middle Eastern alliance against the Soviets had to be given up and a truncated Baghdad Pact was created in middle 1950s during which period Pakistan purged its society of the Left as thoroughly as it could.

The feudals unleashed the mullahs on elements who threatened their vested interests, especially the Communists who demanded rights for the peasantry. The rising strength of the mullahs perturbed the Socialist forces in Pakistan. Renowned leftist Mian Iftikharuddin’s newspaper, Imroze, voiced a dissenting note against this and asked if it was not time that a democratic system should be established in Pakistan. It was argued in the same newspaper that since Islam does not allow exploitation of the peasantry, shouldn’t capitalism’s and feudalism’s undemocratic values be reformed? This raised alarm bells for the Pakistani elite and Islamist forces. The communist movement, led by the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), was now being perceived as a grave threat to the overall imperialistic culture prevalent in Pakistan, especially in Punjab. Since the movement asked for the rights of the peasantry, the feudal lords felt threatened by it and the mullahs denounced the Communists due to their non-religious views. The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case – which some say was an unsuccessful attempt at a coup by anti-imperialist forces within the army in 1951, but which the communists say was only a ‘discussion’ between some people from the Army and the CPP – gave the government an excuse to persecute the Communists. It is said that since the general elections were about to be held as per the 1956 Constitution, the ruling elite feared that the Left-inclined parties would win the elections as the Muslim League had been discredited over the years. In order to avert this, the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case was used as an excuse to curtail the leftists. Later on, the CPP was officially banned in 1954. The CPP and the Communist movement then went underground.

In March 1969, when Ayub Khan announced his decision to leave public life and passed the presidency to General Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, Yahya announced his intention to hold elections and hoped that all political parties would maintain the integrity of Pakistan and Islam’s glory. Yahya Khan’s minister for information and national affairs, Major General Sher Ali Khan, came up with a strategy that would divide the political parties. The plan was to favour parties committed to Pakistan’s (religious) ‘ideology’, engineer infiltration of the left-wing and regional parties by intelligence agencies, spread disinformation against them and mobilise attacks by religious groups against the un-Islamic beliefs of these left-wing and regional parties. The Ministry of Information also started a ‘Pakistan and Islam are in danger’ propaganda campaign, thus putting the Islamists and/or Islam-lovers on one side and the communists, socialists and secularists on the other side of the divide. The July (1969) Martial Law Regulation No. 51 included “a maximum penalty of seven years rigorous imprisonment for any person who published, or was in possession of, any book, pamphlet, etc., which was offensive to the religion of Islam” (Feldman, Herbert, The End and the Beginning: Pakistan, 1969-1971, London: Oxford University Press, pp. 46-47). This granted the state the authority to censor any material by citing it as un-Islamic, which consequently led to the curtailing of freedom of academic thought. There was great ambiguity about what constituted offence to Islam. This was clearly an attempt to target socialist writings.

Religious dogma was being pumped into the political arena during the campaign for the 1970 general elections. The establishment-funded parties that advocated a religious ideology, Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami, greatly benefited from this, as it was campaigning for the protection of Pakistan’s (Islamic) ideology. The intelligence agencies colluded with many ulema to sign a joint fatwa that declared secularism and socialism as ‘kufr’, leading to a battle between Islam and socialism. This was to thwart the growing influence of the secular Awami League and the socialist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Radical Islamists targeted the leftists in universities and trade unions, and the media was also largely taken over by such orthodox elements. When the results of the general elections came out, the Awami League swept the polls in East Pakistan while the PPP came out as a winner in West Pakistan. The Islamist parties only secured around 10 percent share of the popular vote across the country. When the election results went in favour of the Awami League, a military operation was launched in East Pakistan, consequently leading to the dismemberment of Pakistan into two states – Pakistan and Bangladesh. The PPP formed its government in what was left of Pakistan.

“When the PPP came to power in 1972, many communists joined the government. However, the PPP did not bring about any fundamental change, save some radical reforms. This disillusioned the working class. The proletariat took to the streets during the period of May-Sept 1972. The movement was especially strong in Karachi. The government decided to crush the movement. A demonstration of workers was fired on in Landhi, Karachi leaving dozens dead. This angered the communists who had joined this government. Some of them resigned in protest. Perhaps they had forgotten the fact that capitalist governments, no matter how at times radical they may appear, always repress the proletariat. Disillusioned by Bhutto and the PPP, the Left went looking for other more progressive bourgeois figures, leaving the working class, having illusions in PPP, at the mercy of its feudal and capitalist leaders. The Left failed to offer any alternative during this period. Hence when disillusionment grew, it was right wing religious fanatics and reactionary forces that became an alternative to the PPP. In 1977, a movement began against the government spurred by economic conditions and US intervention. The Left did not understand the nature of the movement nor did it analyse the nature of the movement's leadership. The Left termed it a movement for democratic liberties and urged the working class to join it. In a statement from Hyderabad Jail on April 12, 1977, Miraj Mohammad Khan, Sher Mohammad Marri and Ata Ullah Mengal said: ‘We appeal to the workers, peasants, students, intellectuals and toiling masses to join the ongoing peoples movement which is a movement of democratic liberties. We believe this movement will rid our motherland of the dictatorship.’ They hoped to rid ‘our motherland’ of ‘dictatorship’ through religious fundamentalists...the hope of democracy from religious fanatics backed by the USA – was irrational” — ‘Past, Present and Future of Left Movement in Pakistan’, Labour Party Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Left movement traces its origins in the Indian communist movement. The CPI decided that its Muslim comrades should go to Pakistan. Sajjad Zaheer was sent to Pakistan, where he was elected (first) general secretary of the newly reconstituted CPP. The government of Liaquat Ali Khan was not very happy with him. Sajjad Zaheer tried to organise trade unions. But the problem was that even under Zaheer’s auspices, the CPP was only paying lip-service to the peasantry movement. Apart from the Hari Tehreek in Sindh and small movements in other parts of the country, the peasantry was not being supported through any committed movements. Sajjad Zaheer was implicated in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and was arrested along with other notable leftists like Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The ban on the CPP was a huge setback for the Left movement in Pakistan. When Sajjad Zaheer was released, he went back to India. After this Hassan Nasir tried to revive the party underground. But he was also arrested in 1960. He was tortured to death while in prison.

One of the mistakes of the Left in Pakistan was that the communist movement thought of finding a mainstream democratic party after the death of Hassan Nasir. The communists thought that by joining a mainstream democratic party, they would be able to continue their work underground while openly doing politics. This was a miscalculation, as the leftists got absorbed in the large parties like the PPP.

The international split between Moscow and Beijing also led to a worldwide split between all communist parties in the early 1960s. The National Awami Party (NAP) in Pakistan also suffered the consequences. NAP (Bhashani) was pro-Beijing while Wali Khan’s NAP was pro-Moscow. This was very unfortunate as the divide between the already weak leftists made them even weaker.

Renowned socialist Tariq Ali, once asked during an interview with Newsline why the Left has failed to leave any impact on Pakistani politics, rightly pointed out: “The Leftist movement was never strong in Pakistan. The bulk of the Left in this part of the world went to India after Partition. Punjab, in particular, was probably the most reactionary and conservative province in British India. In the NWFP, you had a progressive nationalism led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the Khudai Khidmatgars who fought the British politically and non-violently. The NWFP had a strong, secular, progressive force, but it was not a radical left-wing movement as such. In Balochistan, Sardars dominated the society, so if two Sardars became left-wing, people thought Balochistan was very radical. But the basic institutional structure remained the same. Sindh was not a very radical place at all. The tiny communist party that existed here in trade unions and the peasant movement made a big mistake by linking up with nationalists inside the army and trying to organise a half-baked coup in 1951. The Pakistan Labour Party, in a very modest way, in the recent movement to reinstate the chief justice was good. Left groups can play a good role in society if they are linked to it. If they are not linked to it, then it is a joke.”

The Left in Pakistan had lost its nerve even before Pakistan was created. The rise of Muslim communalism had robbed them of popular support because popular was for the idea of a new Islamic state where Muslims would do good and great things as supposedly envisaged by Islam. After partition and the rise of the religious Right, in Lahore particularly, their loss of nerve became a terminal illness. They have not come out of it even now. What was left of the 1950s and 1960s purges of the Left and destruction of the trade union movement were a few thousand leftists existing from the past, including those that came from India. They are bitter and sullen. The destruction of the Soviet Union in 1990s has made them even more bitter and confused. They still want something progressive for their country. They still want to reshape their country but they have no organisation. A very large number of groups call themselves Leftists. There were several individuals who claimed that they were the nucleus of groups which were not visible to others.

The left has not come out of the trauma that the dissolution of the Soviet Union caused them. The 20th century history largely comprises the stories of the rise of communism in Russia and fascism in Germany and Italy, both products of the same social conditions of growing poverty and unemployment typified by 1930s Depression. The overall structure of the world was described by British and French imperialisms that weakened themselves no end through two World Wars. The Second World War was designed originally to destroy the fascist powers, which was accomplished by that war. But it quickly converted itself into a Cold War that lasted half a century. The latter was intended to destroy Soviet Union and its friends, which efforts of the West largely succeeded in the last decade of the 20th century. That century has left most people agonising over where to go intellectually. The period immediately in which Soviet Union collapsed and disintegrated saw the rise of a new laissez faire capitalism, working against even the improvements in capitalism that Keynesianism had wrought in the immediate post-Second World War period. It gave rise to the unipolar world and the growth of globalisation that has profoundly confused political and social thinkers in the West as well as in the east. The issues now seem different and the current recession in the United States is affecting many other countries in Europe and Asia. The fallout of these developments will have much influence over how events in the 21st century develop.

In terms of Pakistan politics, a few conclusions are clear, if basic imbalances in Pakistan politics are kept in view. The original contradiction between feudal-dominated west and a volatile east resulted in the disintegration of Pakistan in 1971 and ever since Pakistan has described the roller coaster course in which fascistic military dictatorships have alternated with bogus democracies that were manipulated by Army from behind the scenes. Pakistan’s course is rigidly set in an alliance between America and the social, political and economic elites of Pakistan, led by Pakistan Army. The need for a left-of-centre, if not a left party proper, is being felt keenly. There is need for it.

Some go to the extent of saying that the current ominous phenomenon of the rise of Taliban in NWFP presages a possible Talibanisation of Pakistan itself. They say that the Taliban represent the same kind of mentality that gave rise to Maoists in Nepal and Naxalites in India: utter poverty and hopelessness. These makes the youth respond to any extremist idea such as was the case in 1920s and 1930s in Europe. The two separate movements grew in Europe as a result of economic difficulties, particularly during the Great Depression. Left grew very strong in most countries of Europe but so did Fascist parties. A Fascist party is, at bottom, pro-capitalist but it calls itself national socialist which combines the appeal of nationalism with an elusive social justice and effort to end unemployment through re-armament which is what Hitler and Mussolini did in Germany and Italy respectively. In Pakistan the only idiom that semi-educated or uneducated young Pakistanis without jobs, sometimes without homes, without rights have heard is Islam, Islam and Islam. Islam is such, it is this, it is that; it is going to have a big impact on the world. It is claimed to promote political equality and social equity here in this world and a grand permissive world in the year after. This idiom results in a naxalism that wears an Islamic garb, as some people hold.

Another factor that hinders the path of a new Left movement is that the old leftists did not leave any accounts of why their movement actually failed. Most of the people are left in the dark about it. It is said that there was so much polarisation between the pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing factions that even till this day they are not willing to have a debate on things. Frustration with lack of achievement and lack of direction made the Left turn on itself in Pakistan. Petty egos also played a part in this and by 1980-81, almost all the leftist parties in Pakistan split. Ironically, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but the Left in Pakistan collapsed ten years before that.

There is no denying that the Left in Pakistan made a lot of intellectual, literary, cultural and social contributions. Thus there is a strong need for a revival of the Left as Pakistan is now in the grip of religious extremists who have taken the country by storm. Pakistan needs a leadership with a vision and sincerity to address issues; with a political will to allow provincial autonomy and challenge injustices; with moderate policies and future vision to control problems like education, population, water distribution, etc. A military ruler can never be a just ruler, but even a civilian government has thus far done nothing in this regard. That is why the need for a revival of the Left movement is being urgently felt in today’s Pakistan.

If the leftists in Pakistan want to revive the Left movement, then they first have to explain to the masses what socialism stands for. They also have to explain the failures of socialism and for this they first have to have a programme of broad parameters. They must do it in the Pakistani context. In the Pakistani context, the leftists will first have to understand the dynamics of feudalism, quasi-capitalism, imperialistic interest, religio-political and socio-cultural factors. All these have to be analysed first and then a foundation has to be built over it. We must not forget that society and the world are not static; change is accelerated. Economics and politics of the world are now inter-linked. Unless the leftists in Pakistan understand the dynamics of change themselves, they cannot present an advanced theory. And without an advanced theory, no movement can be effective.

(Acknowledgement: Veteran journalist and columnist the late Mr M.B. Naqvi was consulted for this essay. He was a great help)


M.Anwarul Haque said…
Book launching ceremony of Dr. Aziz Ul Haq will be held on 24 dec 2012 at Alhamra Cultural Complex Hall Number 3 at 3 pm.
Guest of Honor Abid Hasan Manto

In Chair : Dr.Manzur Ejaz


For any queries, contact M. Anwarul Haque
GREEN HERITAGE(study circle)
422B, block Q, Model Town, lahore,Pakistan

Popular posts from this blog

It’s IM?!

Up close and personal with M J Akbar

The myth of September 6, 1965