Volume 5, No. 12, December 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The Left in Pakistan has been marginalised more than ever for the last four decades. Its collapse around 1980-81 was for the usual reasons: factionalism, personality clashes and all kinds of mud being flung around, an almost inevitable staple of such ‘breakups’, with precious little of serious ideological or political value. The Pakistani Left’s collapse predated the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialism by a decade. Despite efforts by well-meaning members of the Left to resurrect the Left and place it at the head of a mass revolutionary movement to overthrow Pakistan’s perpetually-in-crisis, moribund, elite-captured ‘system’, confidence in the Left’s ability to undertake this historic task is, perhaps justifiably, thin, to put it politely.
To understand this crisis of the Left, a brief foray into history may serve to throw light on the reasons for this failure. Although East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was the location of significant movements of the Left in united Pakistan, a delineation of that wing’s (now independent country’s) history in this respect is beyond the scope of this article.
As for the western wing (now Pakistan), during the struggle for independence from British colonialism during the 20th century, the areas now constituting Pakistan have to be considered from the angle of British colonialism’s treating this area as a ‘frontier’ region whose most important role was to provide security and defence against a (real or ‘manufactured’ by the colonial power for convenient political purposes) threat from Tsarist Russia. The political reforms that areas conquered earlier by the British (e.g. Bengal, the first), which extended limited rights of representation to the colonial subjects, were not extended to the ‘frontier’, where the foundations of the national security state laid by the British were inherited by the new country and continue in place to date, with precious little in terms of democratic rights for the people.
Nevertheless, these ‘frontier’ areas have a rich reservoir of the history of the Left after independence. First and foremost, the Communist Party of India’s (CPI’s) Calcutta Congress in 1948 adopted the Adhikari thesis accepting the right of self-determination for nationalities such as the Sindhis, Baloch, Pashtuns, Punjabis (and, at the time, Bengalis), including the right to form an independent state. However, while quoting Stalin’s definition of a nation: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture”, the CPI accepted the idea of a nationality, Muslims, arising on the basis of religion. Having consciously or inadvertently internalised communalism in this manner, the CPI decided a separate Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) should be created. To this end, ‘Muslim’ communists such as Sajjad Zaheer were ‘parachuted’ into Pakistan to organise the CPP. Sajjad Zaheer was appointed the Secretary General of the CPP, but he lacked in depth knowledge of the areas constituting Pakistan and therefore struggled to understand the society he was now operating in. Having to remain underground did not help his efforts to come to grips with the class and national contradictions at the heart of the new state. Steeped in Soviet orthodoxy, the CPP’s main concentration was on whatever incipient working class existed at the dawn of independence, of which the railway workers were the most notable. Whatever efforts were made to weld a worker-peasant alliance eventually petered out with the decline and collapse of the Sindh Hari Committee and the peasant movement in Punjab. Sympathetic though the CPP was to the oppressed nationalities in Pakistan – Sindhis, Baloch, Pashtuns, and at that time Bengalis – it failed to effectively harness these struggles and contradictions into its strategy.
Taking a leaf out of the British colonial authorities’ approach to dealing with such forces, the Pakistani state in 1951 charged the CPP leadership (including Faiz Ahmed Faiz) and some military officers with a conspiracy to overthrow the government. This was the famous Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. Major General Akbar Khan, the highest rank military officer charged in the case, along with Sajjad Zaheer, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Major Ishaq (later leader of the Mazdoor Kissan Party) and many others were sentenced to various prison terms. The CPP was banned in 1954 and went even further underground. Sajjad Zaheer returned to India after his release. The CPP now sought to work under the umbrella of the National Awami Party (NAP) created in 1957. NAP was a conglomerate of democratic, nationalist and communist forces led by Maulana Bhashani and Khan Abdul Wali Khan. But even this cover of an umbrella party did not save Hassan Nasir, the replacement Secretary General of the CPP from arrest and horrible torture in the notorious Lahore Fort. Hassan Nasir was martyred in 1960 as a result of the heinous torture inflicted on him.
This tactic of working under the umbrella of an open mainstream party, initiated by the CPP of pro-Soviet orientation, was ironically copied by some Maoist groups in the 1960s and 1970s vis-à-vis the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a populist, Left-oriented (Islamic socialism) party led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Both the pro-Soviet and pro-China Left were left high and dry when their umbrella parties deviated from, and eventually abandoned the alliance with the Left.
Another front on which the Left struggled was the oppressed nationalities. For example, a group of Marxists joined the Baloch nationalist struggle in the 1970s, and under the banner of the Balochistan People’s Liberation Front (BPLF), conducted an armed struggle against the Bhutto regime’s military crackdown from 1973 to 1977. That armed struggle movement imploded because of internal conflicts around 1979-80. The Baloch nationalist struggle continues through new guerrilla groups, now increasingly oriented towards independence for Balochistan.
This brief, and wholly inadequate foray into the history of the Left in Pakistan suggests some weaknesses and mistakes and the possible remedial steps for the future. One, the depleted state of the working class trade union movement because of repression and the restructuring of industrial production along the lines of outsourcing, labour contractors and home-based workers has rendered the weakened trade unions falling back on economic struggles in the absence of ‘taking’ revolutionary ideas into the ranks of the workers, as Lenin emphasised in his seminal work What is to be done? Two, the virtually moribund peasant movement for an agrarian revolution based on land distribution to the poor by taking it away from the feudal landlords and large landowners needs to be resurrected in the light of changes over time in the distribution of landholding and current relations of production in agriculture.
While these two mass bases, the working class and poor and landless peasantry are the main areas still for any socialist revolutionary movement, the Left can no longer ignore the struggles of the oppressed nationalities (Baloch, Sindhi, Pashtun), women, religious minorities and all other oppressed groups or communities. The challenge is for the Left to stand with, and help mobilise on a mass scale, this ‘coalition’ of the oppressed to overthrow the moribund existing order and replace it with a democratic socialist regime.