Pakistan’s early communists - Pakistan Today

Pakistan’s early communists

  • The dream of a socialist Pakistan

Celebration of birthdays of living and dead leaders is a norm in Pakistan, however, Karl Marx’s birthday, which was celebrated worldwide, passed unnoticed, here. Marx’s idea of communism revolutionised whole societies in Russia, China, Cuba and North Korea, to name a few; little is known as to how Marxism affected Pakistan after its creation in 1947, especially when that time was the heyday of the global communist movement.

Communism did ‘infect’ Pakistan, nonetheless, its beginning was inauspicious in some ways according to the research by Himayatullah Yaqubi, a Research Fellow at the National Institute of Historical and Cultural Research, Islamabad. Ironically, the need to set up a communist party in Pakistan was not felt by Pakistanis but by the Communist Party of India (CPI) at its Calcutta conference in March 1948. Within six months of Pakistan’s creation, the Indian communists had come to the conclusion that the ruling Muslim League which had spearheaded the movement for Pakistan was a reactionary organisation upholding the interests of landlords, princes and capitalists and their policies were suppressing the genuine demand of self-determination of ethnic nationalities such as the Bengalis, Pashtuns, Sindhis and the Balochis as well as pushing the toiling masses to poverty and serfdom.

The CPI sent Sajjad Zaheer from UP, India, with the mission to form the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) in 1948. The CPP was not an independent entity as it depended upon the instructions of the CPI regarding its policies and operations. Sajjad Zaheer did raise a team of active comrades, prominent among whom were Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sibte Hassan and Ferozuddin Mansur. In addition to the constitution of a party structure, they tried to organise workers and intellectuals through Pakistan Trade Union Federation and Progressive Writers Association, respectively. The chief objective of the CPP was to revolutionise Pakistan into a secular socialist state. This was profane for many Pakistanis then as it is now. Despite strong economic and political reasons behind the creation of Pakistan, the League had successfully built the ‘Two-Nation’ narrative which promised a homeland for the Muslims where they could live their lives according to the pristine precepts of Islam. This narrative had sold successfully even in the Muslim majority provinces that became Pakistan despite no threat from the Hindu or Sikh minorities. While the euphoria of religious nationalism was still high, the prospect of a socialist Pakistan propagated by a bunch of communists taking instructions from India was least attractive at best and a ‘conspiracy’ against the ‘religious basis’ and ‘integrity’ of the nascent state at worst. Overall, there were few buyers of socialism but in relative terms the takers were more in east Bengal than the western provinces.

The last meeting of the CPP members, who escaped imprisonment, was held in Karachi in May 1951 in which some disheartened members proposed to dissolve the party

Added to this was the problem that the CPP leadership itself lacked deep understanding of the Marxist doctrine and training as to how the communist movements worked in Soviet Russia and China. It is true that there was abject poverty as well as exploitation and oppression of the toiling masses; the Pakistani communists just failed to tap this potential to their advantage.

The prospect of a communist awakening doomed when the CPP got involved in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy in 1951. When Latif Afghani, the CPP person, in charge of cultivating contacts among the ‘progressive’ elements in the army reported the resentment of Major General Akbar Khan regarding the Kashmir policy and subservience of Premier Liaquat’s government to the Anglo-American policies, the Communist Party convened an emergency meeting of its top leadership in which on the insistence of its secretary general, Sajjad Zaheer, it was decided to join hands with Akbar Khan to overthrow the government. As a price for supporting the coup as well as the new government under Akbar Khan, not only the arrest warrants against the CPP members were to be withdrawn but the party was to enjoy full freedom to organise peasants, workers, students and professional classes on socialist lines, however, the conspiracy was busted by Liaquat’s government. The core leadership of the CPP was thrown behind the bars on charges of high treason, the party apparatus was smashed and its secret documents were seized. Thus ended the dream of a socialist Pakistan.

The CPP vanished into thin air well before it was officially banned by the state of Pakistan in 1954. The role of the top leader is the key to the success or failure of any organisation. The last meeting of the CPP members, who escaped imprisonment, was held in Karachi in May 1951 in which some disheartened members proposed to dissolve the party altogether and put the entire blame of the failure of the CPP on its leader Sajjad Zaheer. Success has many fathers while defeat is always orphan! Had Sajjad Zaheer been successful, the history of the CPP could have been different? But why did he choose the undemocratic way over the democratic way of electoral politics to secure power? The answer lies with Sajjad Zaheer’s Indian handler, BT Ranadive of the CPI, who pushed him to adopt a militant approach to grab power.

After the ban, the CPP leadership as well as the rank and file went hither and thither. On release, Sajjad Zaheer went back to India while Ashfaq Beg and Muhammad Afzal escaped to Moscow and London, respectively. Those who remained in Pakistan joined other parties. The Bengali communists gathered around the ‘Red Mullah of Bengal’ Maulana Abdul Hameed Bhashani in the Awami League; the Punjabi communists flocked around Mian Iftikhar ud Din’s Azad Pakistan Party (APP); the Pashtun communists sought refuge in Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgar Movement and later on played a significant role in the formation of the National Awami Party (NAP) in 1957; the Sindhi comrades found a new life in the Hari Committee while a group of loose communists continued to survive in Karachi.