The party line

In an exclusive interview for the Friday Times, Raza Rumi talks to Kamran Asdar Ali about his book and the history of the Pakistani left

The party line
Your book employs an interdisciplinary approach with literary texts playing a major part. What were the key reasons for adopting such a hybrid approach?

As I am trained as an anthropologist, my impulse has been that of an ethnographer while involving myself in history writing (looking for cultural patterns, the silences, the private sphere, the everyday). In the text I try to pay close attention to people’s lives, their writings and practices, I show the entanglement of their experiences in multiple and cross-cutting processes and political motivations. To capture these layers of Pakistan’s history, the book is based on oral testimonies, ethnographic fieldwork, memoirs, and archival research. Yet to excavate the nuances of people’s everyday existence during a particular era I also relied on fiction and literary texts. This provided me, as it does to numerous scholars who are trying to understand the cultural specificity of an era, a window into the life and times of the period I was trying to capture in the book. Reports, journalistic accounts, sociological descriptions and historical sources do provide an understanding of the past (as part of the formal archives), yet many historians use diaries and personal letters to enter the private and intimate domain. In these terms fiction also helps us understand the mood, sentiment and the affective experience of a particular moment in history. The bringing together of various genres of writing helps me to strive toward a more complete understanding of my subject matter.

The acceptance of Pakistan by the Communist Party of India remains a contested issue. Did the Communists foresee that they would soon face intense repression by the new state? 

The Communist Party of India (CPI) since 1942 onwards did seek to work with the Muslim League and also propagate Congress-League alliance. In pursuing this argument, CPI cadres worked closely with the Muslim League, at times joining the party in the 1945-46 elections. However, the CPI changed its position on Pakistan in 1946 and emphasised that the unity of India was the progressive point of view and partition would be a reactionary step. Later still in August 1946, the CPI issued a resolution asserting that surely the Muslim League represented the bulk of the Muslim masses, yet declared that the demand reflected the feudal and Muslim elite interests that sought to compromise with imperialism for a share in administering a divided India. Indeed, CPI finally did accept the creation of Pakistan by arguing for the division of the party itself during the Party Congress in 1948. But a deep suspicion of Muslim League politics and the agony over British India’s division was the overwhelming sentiment that was shared by a majority of party workers of all religions and ethnicities. Pakistan’s creation was, according to the CPI, non-progressive and hence reactionary.

The communist leadership in the 1950s may have kept open all options for capturing state power

This said, the relationship between the communists and the Pakistani state did not sour immediately. After all, some of them had worked together with Muslim League leadership during the 1945-46 elections. In my opinion the leadership of the newly formed Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) - which had come from India under the direction of CPI - was aware that they would face immense difficulties in reorganising a party that had been depleted of its trained members in the region that was Pakistan (the Hindu and the Sikh members had left for India) and that had minimal funds to support itself. Despite these pressures the CPP tried to take advantage of all the political and cultural spaces available to it in a still consolidating state structure (trade unions, writers’ forums, student groups, civil rights organisations). Yet, the CPP started work in an international climate in which the Pakistani state was soon enmeshed in Cold War politics. British and US intelligence agencies worked closely with the higher echelons of the Pakistani state to curtail the ‘communist threat’. This played well with Pakistan’s then ruling elite which became suspicious of any challenge to its authority. The government in Pakistan’s early days continuously relied on the Public Safety Act and other new draconian measures to keep a check on political opponents. In the emerging atmosphere of the Cold War, perhaps the bogey of the communist threat offered an easy target for the government to deflect attention from its own shortcomings.

The Rawalpindi Conspiracy perhaps altered the fate of Left movement. Was it haste, a flawed approach for societal change (working from the above) or an incorrect understanding of a postcolonial state?

In the late 1940s and early 1950s there was no dearth of anti-communist and anti-Soviet sentiment within Pakistani governing structures. The British government and increasingly the US, through their networks within the Pakistani intelligence services and the Pakistani army, had an excellent knowledge and understanding of the “communist” threat (which was minimal). There is ample evidence to suggest that the government created the aura of a communist plot to create an anti-Soviet argument out of what may have been a ‘conspiracy’ of disgruntled senior army officers - a tussle between factions within the young army on Kashmir, a discussion among nationalist army officers against the dominance of British officers in command positions or on promotional issues. However, the intriguing question is not why the state clamped down on the communists, but why the CPP entered into a dialogue with the military (howsoever unsuccessfully). The discussions with the disaffected military leaders that became the basis of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, tentative as they may have been, did expose the political stance of the CPP’s leadership, a party position that may have momentarily thought of relying on the military to bring about social change from above. These discussions could themselves be interpreted as a move by the CPP to short-circuit a future popular revolution. This ‘change from above’ model may have been based on the CPP’s analysis of Pakistan’s economic development: at its independence the country had inherited only 9 per cent of the total industrial establishment of British India. It showed the CPP leadership’s understanding of the ‘Muslim masses’, as being socially backward due to religious influence and susceptible to manipulation by the Muslim League’s politics. It may also have been reflective of the severely anti-British position within the CPP leadership that brought it closer to the anti-British stance of the officers involved in the case. Yet, the question still remains as to why the CPP even contemplated such an adventurist position when the Indian Communist Party - on which it relied for guidance - had already made a major reversal in its policies, towards a more moderate line. Perhaps the CPP leadership were tired of the repression its cadres were facing and in a hurry to bring about social change did not want to wait for the party to develop its roots among the masses. Whether this is a serious analysis or not, it does seem that the CPP leadership in the early 1950s may have decided to keep open all options for capturing state power.

Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz - communist leaders accused in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case
Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz - communist leaders accused in the
Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case

Why did Bhutto crackdown on the labour movement in 1970s? Was this an imperative of exercising power or is that he never truly believed in the ideals he vocally espoused? 

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is not an easy political figure to understand. He was a left-leaning populist - a product of his times. He can be compared to leaders like Peron, Sukarno and Nasser. Like all of them Bhutto too had contradictions that were sometimes at cross purposes. He came to power in the early 1970s through the overwhelming support of the working class, students and radical left groups, but was instrumental in suppressing the workers’ struggle. He had democratic ideals, yet squashed the movements for the rights of marginalised nationalities, as in Balochistan.

Perhaps in its effort to re-establish state authority immediately after the debacle in Bangladesh, the Bhutto government crushed the radicalised labour movement of the era to bring civic stability to the country in a time of political chaos. Yet, there is no doubt that Bhutto’s labour laws gave workers benefits previously unheard of in Pakistan’s labour history. Allowances for inflation, social security benefits, old age pension, increased participation in management by workers, increase in the percentage of the workers’ participatory fund and the increase in gratuity funds are some of the salient features. However, the trade union movement also suffered immensely in this period. Labour laws were periodically announced without taking into account labour’s view itself. Strikes were broken up through administrative and coercive means. There was a continuation of centralised and bureaucratised handling of industrial disputes as the state’s Labour department and the newly formed Industrial Relations Commission became prominent in coercing or corrupting the labour leadership.

Imran Khan invokes some of the populism behind Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto
Imran Khan invokes some of the populism behind Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto

Bhutto's labour laws gave workers benefits previously unheard of in Pakistan

Bhutto’s government, inclusive of its populist rhetoric and genuine attempts to institute reform in Pakistan’s cultural and political life - his government was instrumental in giving the country its Constitution - continued to harass and persecute any and all political opposition within and outside the party, from the left or from the right of the political spectrum. Such examples made others uneasy about entering the arena of confrontational politics. Even PPP members and Ministers like Mairaj Mohammad Khan were not spared. Khan resigned as Minister of State in protest against the October 1972 police action in the Landhi mill area. In November 1973 he resigned his basic membership of the party in opposition to the increasingly undemocratic character of the Bhutto regime. He was also later arrested and tortured in prison on charges of aiding the popular insurrection in Balochistan. Of course the most egregious act by the Bhutto government was the dismissal of the Balochistan NAP government in 1973 on the pretext that it was receiving arms shipments from Iraq and was involved in a conspiracy with the Soviet Union and Iraq to break up Pakistan and Iran. This dismissal led to the protest resignation of the NAP-JUI coalition government in the NWFP. On a yet more serious note, it led to a popular armed insurgency in Balochistan that was brutally crushed by the PPP government. Bhutto provided the Pakistan military with a free rein in that province, enabling the military to return to public life after its defeat in East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. In 1977 this invigorated military forced Bhutto out of power after a coup. Yet, he needs to be respected for the manner of his death. He defied the military’s trumped-up charges and went to the gallows with his head held high.

The newest avatar of the Pakistani left is the Awami Workers Party
The newest avatar of the Pakistani left is the Awami Workers Party

The book mentions how the memory of repression and especially 1971 crimes against Bengalis has been erased from our public consciousness through the ‘historical method’. Can you elaborate for our readers? 

Among the many silences in narrating Pakistan’s history is the blotting out of the creation of Bangladesh. Every passing year there continues to be a silence in present-day Pakistan around what happened when the country lost its eastern wing in December 1971. Of course, in recent years there have been some editorial pieces and discussions on television, but the history of that period is neither in Pakistani textbooks nor has any official recognition. This is a period that has been systematically erased from Pakistan’s national discourse and popular memory. In the epilogue of my book I briefly remind the readers about the events of 1971 in order to remember a forgotten past, but also to think about why there has been a silencing of this particular history. What we have in place of history is a shelf full of memoirs of generals and bureaucrats who have written self-serving books about their involvement (or not) in events that led to the most significant political crisis in Pakistan’s history. It is clear that most people in Pakistan get their history not from well-researched academic texts but from the media (popular newspaper columns, television) or from discussions within the household (as most Americans in the 1950s and 1960s learned about colonial America and the ‘Wild West’ by watching John Wayne movies). No wonder the understanding of this past is based on versions of personal recollections presented to the people as history. I argue in the book, following the scholar Michel Rolph Trouillot’s work on silencing the past, that the erasure is not merely the result of shame involved in narrating the defeat of a standing army, or due to a desire to hide the atrocities that were committed. That may be the case, but perhaps among the elite West Pakistani establishment, its military and its intellectuals, the creation of Bangladesh may have been conceptually incomprehensible as a phenomenon; yet it was an impossibility that became a fact. This non-acknowledgement of its past is based on the way many West Pakistanis thought about the Bengali people in general. At best there was a condescending attitude towards them, the West Pakistanis considering themselves the “elder siblings” who would teach them civilising habits. Their women were less ‘decent’ because they did not wear blouses with their saris, they ‘reproduced senselessly’, were ‘weak’ and ‘submissive’. Everything about them was seen closer to nature, to the animal world. Such racist renderings found them ‘dark skinned’, ‘lazy’ and ‘lethargic’ - people who could not be trusted. Even when there were clear signs of Bengali political dissatisfaction with West Pakistani rule, no one could imagine that it would culminate in a resistance so severe that the Pakistani Army would have to leave the region in defeat. The only answer given in the popular Pakistani press after the surrender of the Pakistani Army to Indian forces was that the ‘scheming Bengalis’, the ‘traitors’, could not have done it without India’s help. Even in their defeat the heroic struggle of a subjugated people could only be attributed to the assistance of its worst foe, the Indians (who of course had Jats and Sikhs, the ‘valiant’ groups and ethnicities, among them). Pakistani rulers remained unable to recognise the humanity of the Bengali people, making their liberation struggle unthinkable, I contend, has also made it erase the history of the creation of Bangladesh from Pakistan’s popular memory.

The history of the East Pakistani struggle for self-determination remains suppressed in Pakistan
The history of the East Pakistani struggle for self-determination remains suppressed in Pakistan

Pakistani rulers remained unable to recognise the humanity of the Bengali people

How do you view the current state of Left politics in Pakistan? Is there scope for reorganisation of Left movements in Pakistan?

During the last twenty five years, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rethinking by China of its path to development, the political terrain for the Left in Pakistan (as elsewhere) has shifted. The question begs a comprehensive analysis that goes beyond our current discussion. The best one can say is that the social-democratic ideals that were part of the PPP’s legacy from the 1970s were not part of its governance during its last tenure in office.

For example, there was mere lip-service given to poverty alleviation or major social sector projects (there may be some benefit in the BB Income Support Programme that may become evident as time passes) and issues related to subsidised housing, affordable health, free and quality education and employment generation - all hallmarks of the first PPP government - were not part of the agenda this time. With all its pitfalls, the 1970s PPP government sought to invest in these social sectors. So, the broader Left politics in the PPP has been silenced. Even the issue of food security and a policy debate that was front and centre in the earlier era (ration cards, utility stores etc.) have not been brought up in recent years. Rather there is a continuing reliance on the market to provide services. Neighbouring countries like India have retained ration systems and also introduced school lunches and other such provisions to provide relief to the poor, but no major political party has suggested such projects here.

Pakistan cannot remain isolated from the world and news from Spain, Greece and Latin America does filter in about movements that are seeking to challenge the new neo-liberal world order. The objective conditions of organising the people on a people-friendly political agenda are present, but the building of a progressive political group to address the cultural, social and political needs of the people still remains a challenge in today’s fractured political landscape. One glimmer of hope in this scenario is the coming together of various Left groups to form the Awami Workers Party a few years back. The AWP has managed to capture the imagination of broad range of young activists, especially in Punjab and parts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. It has made linkages with various struggles around urban evictions, fishermen and their rights, peasant movements and industrial workers. AWP recently participated in the local bodies elections and has managed to capture some seats in diverse constituencies. They have created a dedicated cadre from the middle classes, but also from marginalised communities. Like all parties there are debates and discussions in the party on a range of issues, including the situation in Balochistan. But unlike other more established parties, AWP has created arenas within the party for internal criticism and disagreements. This has been most recently evident in the inner party discussion on gender and women’s issues. Some of it was reported in the media. Along with its progressive and people-friendly agenda, the democratic party culture (which of course needs further deepening) is in itself an important contribution to Pakistan’s political culture. We will have to wait and see how AWP matures as a political group in the coming years.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, left-leaning populist and product of his times
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, left-leaning populist and product of his times

Can Imran Khan deliver the structural ‘change’ that many in Pakistan - especially the youth - are clamouring for?

The post-dharna Imran Khan is leading a more tarnished party than the one who excited the imagination of the youth and a large section of the populace in 2012-2013. One will have to see the performance of the PTI government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (which has not been exemplary) to gauge how people will react in the next elections. The electoral arena for PTI - as for the Sharif’s - is primarily Punjab. With the largest number of seats in the parliament, it is clear that in Pakistani politics those who have overwhelming majority in Punjab can form the central government with the support of smaller coalition partners from other provinces. Both PTI and PML (N) are going to compete for seats in this province. Further, Imran Khan’s continued flirtation with Jamaat Islami (the local bodies election) have also made him less appealing to the more liberal upper middle class crowd of major cities of Pakistan, especially in Karachi.

I have been skeptical about Imran Khan’s political positions since his surge in popularity in late 2012. I had indeed written a column before the 2013 elections that despite many apprehensions about what the party actually stands for, its popular appeal may bode well for the larger field of Pakistani politics. If nothing else, PTI had brought a younger generation of potential voters into the political arena. I had also compared his popularity with Bhutto’s populist politics. However, I had cautioned that the politics of populism revolved around a charismatic figure and historically it has given rise to authoritarian and undemocratic governance structures (populism of the Left or Right). In their desire to succeed, populists (like Bhutto or Imran Khan) tend be less ideologically focused and pragmatically accept a range of political actors in their parties, many from the established elite circles. Further, a crucial difference between the PTI and that earlier incarnation of PPP is programmatic vision. Imran Khan’s vision - if there is a coherent one - is an approach that intertwines modernist rationality with calls for transparency and technological innovation; approaches clearly gleaned from texts taught at elite US business and management schools. This technocratic fix (efficient systems, orderly management, maximising profit, curbing waste) is part of the lingua franca of contemporary global capital and ‘best business practices’ from which the PTI chief borrows heavily and dresses it in a language of cultural nationalism. But it may also point toward an underlying thought process that in its populist rendering encapsulates an elite agenda - which knows how to fix problems through the application of correct technocratic solutions; a somewhat simplistic top-down approach, ironically not different from what the Sharif government is doing now with very little attention to the parliamentary or democratic process.

As suggested above, the challenge for any political party in Pakistan remains to address the issues that are pertinent to the lives of the people, such as poverty, health, education and housing. But this should not be at the cost of democratic freedoms or cultural rights. If the PTI, or any other political group, truly wants to deepen democracy in Pakistan then they need to bring these several threads of political practice together: respect for cultural difference, economic justice and civic liberties. Only then can a more meaningful democratic future be imagined.

The author is Editor-at-Large, The Friday Times and founder of Naya Daur Media. Earlier, he was editor, Daily Times and a broadcaster with Express News and Capital TV. His writings are archived at