Socialism, Dogmatism and the Intellectuals - II

Progressives were once at the forefront of critically acclaimed writing in Pakistan. Raza Naeem explains why that is no longer the case

Socialism, Dogmatism and the Intellectuals - II
The role of translations and translators is also very critical in deciding which of these writers get translated from Urdu into English, which is now the international lingua franca for the exchange of ideas. Some writers are luckier than others in this respect. Their work will not only be picked up for translation, but it will also be discussed and celebrated at literary festivals, of which there is now a profusion with its attendant prospects of global celebrity and fame. For example, in the last few years the birth centenaries of quite a few Progressive literary stalwarts like Ghani Khan (2014), Aziz Ahmad (2014), Mirza Adeeb (2014), Ali Abbas Jalalpuri (2014) and Gul Khan Naseer (2014) took place, but apart from nominal seminars in small pockets of the PWA in Lahore and Karachi, none of these luminaries even received a token mention at any of the major Pakistani literary festivals. The same appears to be the case with the centenaries of Qasmi and Sibte. These literary festivals are increasingly attuned to the English-language and middle-class tastes, mimicking their counterparts in neighbouring India and the West. Thus through this relatively newer link between the global literary festival culture and the English language, a whole new niche for Pakistani writers writing in the English language has been created at the expense of some of our most prominent progressive writers. We have lost writers of the caliber of Abdullah Hussein, Nasreen Anjum Bhatti, Afzal Tauseef and Afzal Ahsan Randhawa in the last few years, but why is it that death has been kinder to Intizar Hussein than the four aforementioned writers, when it comes to the frequency of remembrance at literary festivals? Similarly, some writers like Intizar Hussein are either blessed with greater frequency of translations into English, or simply good translators; while important progressive writers like Qasmi and Sibte have either not been translated as much or suffer from poor translations. Thus the politics of literary festivals and translation have adversely affected the reach, readership and popularity of Progressive writers. The issues on which some of the best progressive writers built their stellar careers have not gone away, but have been replaced by an English-speaking bubble.

I want to return to the cases of Sibte Hasan and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and link them up with the issue of socialism being an imported ideology raised by Fateh Malik in his book. It should be noted at the outset that Malik has never been part of the PWA and is known for making patriotic Pakistanis out of his literary treatments, controversially of Manto, and less controversially of Intizar Hussein. Unfortunately both Manto and Intizar are not around anymore to contest or refute the claims Malik makes for them on their behalf.

He has dedicated his book Anjuman Taraqqi PasandMusanifeen Pakistan Main: Islami Roshan Khayali ya Ishtiraki Mullaiyat? toIntizar Hussain and then goes on to make some very damaging accusations about Sajjad Zaheer, the first General Secretary of the Communist Party and a moving spirit of the PWA; and his role in Pakistan. In his defence, he cites Rakhshanda Jalil’s well-known 2014 treatise on the literary history of the PWA in India. Using this evidence, he charges Zaheer with being an ‘infiltrator’ tasked by the Communist parties in both Moscow and Delhi to destroy ‘Islamic’ Pakistan. On the basis of Zaheer’s dogmatic understanding of communism and progressive literature’s role in propagating it among the masses, Malik by extension also makes out socialism to be a foreign ideology.

The book then goes onto summarise the often extremist attitude to Allama Iqbal’s poetry (‘demolish Iqbal’) adopted by some of the stalwarts of the PWA, including Zaheer in the early days of the PWA in Pakistan, as per the old manifesto adopted by the PWA in 1949.

Initially, the book seems more like a charge-sheet against Zaheer and socialism, as well as an affirmation of love and admiration – and a defence – for the ‘Pakistani’ and ‘Islamic’ socialist Qasmi rather than an exploration of the battle of ideas alluded to in the title of Malik’s book. In fact, Malik’s book has three chapters on Qasmi, including his correspondence with Zaheer on the efficacy of utilising Islam to rouse the masses for socialist revolution in Pakistan. In defence of his charge-sheet against the PWA, Malik provides appendices which contain references to the internal struggles within the PWA between ‘extremist’ and ‘patriotic’ Progressives; the PWA stance towards Kashmir; the attempts by some members of the PWA to sideline and marginalize Muhammad Iqbal; copies of the old and new manifestos of the PWA; and finally, copies of correspondences Qasmi had with other comrades regarding revival of PWA after its dismantling in the 1950s.

The book had earlier been reviewed by a critic in a respected English newspaper as a ‘research-based work’; however it is all the more breathtaking for what it chooses to miss and omit, for which it makes up by adding such ‘research’. Nevertheless the book comes out at an important time as mentioned at the outset of the essay and it is important to engage with its arguments.

Firstly, the information which Malik cites from Dr. Jalil’s aforementioned book on the PWA in India in support of his case against Sajjad Zaheer is hardly new or earth-shattering in its implications. The information which he cites has been in the public domain since 2014, when Jalil’s book was published, and it hardly caused a furore in India.

Secondly, what Malik refuses to acknowledge in the book is the fact that the Communist Party (CPP) and the Progressive Writers (PWA) were not monolithic blocs, as he himself realises in his introduction – nor was Zaheer the only major leader in the CPP and PWA. In fact, Zaheer was part of a Politburo inside the CPP in which he was closely assisted by Sibte, Faiz and Ashfaq.

As far as the PWA was concerned, the very reason that both Sibte and Qasmi could garner such a mass audience despite belonging to different traditions of the left; originating from different socio-cultural milieus; and writing in different genres altogether was proof that it was not under orders from either Delhi or Moscow. Sibte was a communist, while Qasmi subscribed to Progressive Islam; Sibte had migratedmfrom undivided India while Qasmi was a son of Punjab, never having to witness the horrors of partition; and Sibte chiefly wrote about subjects as diverse as anthropology, the history of socialism and culture, while Qasmi was a great poet and short-story writer. In their own ways, both stalwarts kept the Progressive flag flying amid difficult times of persecution and dictatorship, and their respective writings were a major reason the masses were able to understand the Progressive ideology better.

Malik, in his zeal to prove that Zaheer’s socialism was an ideology foreign to Pakistan, forgets to mention that the Communist Party of India supported the Muslim demand for creation of Pakistan at considerable risk to itself and its future in an independent secular India; while the Jamaat-e-Islami which was the first party to move its offices to the new country following its creation had been heaping abuses and invectives on Jinnah and his Pakistan Movement.
The politics of literary festivals and translation have adversely affected the reach, readership and popularity of progressive writers. The issues on which some of the best progressive writers built their stellar careers have not gone away, but have been replaced by an English-speaking bubble

Granted that Zaheer was more dogmatic in his dealings with the CPP in Pakistan, but there were others like Faiz and Sibte, who cannot be described as dogmatic. It is surprising that Malik acquits Faiz honourably but has almost nothing to say about Sibte Hasan, who is mentioned just once throughout the book. In his essay ‘Is Socialism a Foreign Ideology?’ published in the progressive weekly Lail-o-Nahar in 1970, from his book Marx aur Mashriq (Marx and the East), Sibte Hasan masterfully dissects the ruling elite’s fixation with ‘foreign ideology’ and proves that over the course of centuries, the people of the Subcontinent have accepted many foreign ideologies like Islam; and all the modern concepts of politics, statecraft, human and social sciences; and that ideologies have no homeland :

“Actually whether we accept or reject an ideology does not depend on where it was born and to which country or nation it belongs, but on whether that ideology is useful for us or not, whether it helps us in intellectual, spiritual and material progress or not. If the answer is affirmative, then we accept it otherwise we reject it. Every nation has usually followed this tradition.”
Both Sibte and Faiz were among the two prominent writers who vehemently opposed the expulsion of writers like Manto and Noon Meem Rashid

Also, Malik alleges that the PWA manifesto given in 1949 was an imposition of the Communist Party and complains about the expulsion of some Pakistani nationalist writers (curiously Malik mentions Manto here, though his stance on Partition was well-known). This is patently untrue because both Sibte and Faiz were among the two prominent writers who vehemently opposed the expulsion of writers like Manto and Noon Meem Rashid. Also, in an interview given to Altaf Qureshi in 1984, later published in monthly Palak (Eyelash) from Lahore, Sibte denied the accusation that the manifesto approved by the PWA in 1949 was ‘Communist Party Manifesto’ and lamented the fact that later experience had taught them that the manifesto indeed was an extremist manifesto. In fact, he goes on to say in the same interview that the manifesto was passed with consensus by the delegates; no amendment was introduced; that even that Qasmi was elected as the PWA General Secretary in that meeting. This interview is reproduced in the collection of Sibte’s collected literary essays titled Adab aur Roshan Khayali (Literature and Enlightenment)

Malik has also devoted a whole chapter to the attitude of the PWA towards Pakistan’s national poet Muhammad Iqbal in its early days in Pakistan. While Faiz boycotted subsequent meetings of the PWA after Malik’s favourite Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi read out a stinging critiqueofIqbal’s poetry, Sibte Hasan consistently evolved in his evaluations about Iqbal. For example in the opening line of his earliest thoughts on Iqbal, published in 1937 in his essay “Philosophy of the Eagle”, compiled in the aforementioned collection Writers and Social Process, Sibte says, “Iqbal is the greatest poet and thinker of the Urdu language.”

Among friends - Sibte Hasan, Dr M. Sarwar and Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Then in his second essay on Iqbal, published in his own journal Pakistani Adab as “The Courage of Refusal”, he warns against attempts to demean Iqbal’s status from a cosmic poet to an ordinary poet from Sialkot by pruning and censoring the content of his revolutionary poetry.

Finally, Sibte included an important chapter on “Iqbal’s Concept of Man” in his final book published in his lifetime, The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan in 1986. He writes on Iqbal, “This conspiracy to project Iqbal as a revivalist, and as a champion of lost causes, is not only a disservice to the poet, it is also doing a great harm to the people, especially to our new generation. Since our young men and women have been, for years, fed on Iqbal’s metaphysical ideas alone, the radical-minded among them disown Iqbal as an obscurantist who has no message for the future. Some of our progressive critics also suffer from similar prejudices against Iqbal. They, too, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But this subjective approach is both unscientific and ahistorical because if Iqbal is studied objectively, if the husk is removed from the kernel, it would become apparent that Iqbal was a great friend of the people and an apostle of social revolution. By identifying Iqbal with reactionary forces of society, the progressives would be depriving themselves of an effective weapon against their opponents and allowing the vested interests to use Iqbal for their own anti-people interests.”

The picture of Sibte Hasan in relation to Iqbal which emerges from the above-mentioned contributions is in stark contrast to the image of the Progressive intellectuals painted by Malik in his book. In fact, Sibte Hasan has a vital role in rehabilitating and reclaiming both Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Allama Iqbal from the clutches of the religious obscurantists and ironclad leftists and made them relevant for my own generation. One wishes Malik had consulted Sibte Hasan’s writings before passing his hasty fatwa on the PWA vis-à-vis Iqbal!

In fact, Malik’s book would have been more fruitful had he not used it to bait SajjadZaheer, who certainly was more extremist in his methods than his other comrades, and did not end up spending too much time in Pakistan. Had he chosen to write about Sibte, he would have discovered that Sibte was anything but a dogmatic communist and in his two books Pakistan main Tehzeeb ka Irtiqa(The Evolution of Culture in Pakistan) and Naveed-e-Fikr (The Glad Tidings of Thought), he went beyond the paradigm which orthodox leftists like Zaheer were willing to adopt at the time about Pakistani culture and about Islam, and about which Malik complains throughout his book. Sibte comes across as a socialist in tune with his culture and with a refreshingly open-minded view about Islam and its progressive role in history.

Unfortunately, despite the mass appeal of Progressive intellectuals like Sibte and Qasmi, these two stalwarts were the last of their own kind. Their work might not be replicated in Urdu letters for years to come. To remember them both in their birth centenary year was thus the least our literary festivals and scattered Progressives could have done at the moment.

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are mine.

Raza Naeem is a social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is presently working on translations of the selected work of Sibte Hasan, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi and Abdullah Hussein. He has curated a first-ever edition of Banned Books Week in Pakistan in Lahore in September 2014, and subsequent editions since then, in collaboration with Olomopolo. He is currently the President of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic novel The Weary Generations. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979