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Communists in a Muslim Land: Cultural Debates in Pakistan's Early Years*


This paper will introduce intellectual debates from Pakistan's early years to show how the country's future culture was being discussed, deliberated and reshaped in these circles at the moment of its own inception as an independent state. By focussing on the communist perspective on Pakistan's independence, it will seek to illuminate some of those historical moments in Pakistan's history that have not received much attention either from historians or from the public. Within this context, the paper will present contesting voices that are critical of one another—particularly regarding the place of Islam in the new state—in order to rethink Pakistan's early history as a period that could have led to a range of possible future historical trajectories.

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1 David Gilmartin (1988). Empire and Islam: Punjab and the Making of Pakistan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

2 Ibid. p. 189.

3 Ibid. p. 190.

4 Ayesha Jalal (1985). The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, The Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5 David Gilmartin (1998). Pakistan and South Asian History: In Search of a Narrative. Journal of Asian Studies 57 (4): 10681095.

6 Ibid. pp. 1090–1091.

7 Shahid Amin (1995). Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922–1992. Berkeley: University of California Press, wherein he describes the The Chauri Chaura incident of February 1922.

8 However, see Khizar Ansari, Humanyun (1990). The Emergence of Socialist Thought Among North Indian Muslims (1917–1947). Lahore: Book Traders, for a selective understanding of Muslim progressives and their role in the national movement; Leghari, Iqbal (1979). The Socialist Movement in Pakistan: An Historical Survey 1940–1974. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Laval University, Montreal. This text is to-date the only comprehensive attempt at the history of the Left in Pakistan, yet it remains unpublished. Finally also see, Hafeez Malik (1967). The Marxist Literary Movement in India and Pakistan. Journal of Asian Studies 26 (4): 649664, for a detailed discussion on the politics of the Progressive Writer's Movement during Pakistan's first 20 years.

9 The Communist Party of Pakistan was banned in 1954.

10 A dominant narrative for the first ten years of its independence is one of failure by the ruling classes to institute a parliamentary government. The Muslim League, the party that led the nation to its independence had, by the mid-1950s, disintegrated into multiple factions representing different social, economic and regional interest groups. By 1956, when the first constitution of the country was passed, the bureaucracy aligned with the military had effectively sidelined all other political forces and was in control of the state machinery. Another narrative retells the story of Muslim nationalism and its logical continuation in the late 1940's Objective Resolution for an Islamic State, culminating in the Zia era Islamization and the proliferation of Islamist politics. In contrast to these views, the endeavour in this paper is to show those moments that have not received the attention they deserve and those that undermine the teleological assumptions of the above mentioned trajectories.

11 Ranajit Guha (1994). ‘Discipline and Mobilize’, in Partha Chaterjee and Gyanendra Pandey, Subaltern Studies VII, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

12 Gilmartin, Pakistan and South Asian.

13 Within this broader context, the Mohajirs (literally, refugees who migrated from India) along with the majority Punjabi ethnic group have been the most closely linked with Muslim nationalism and with the demand for making Urdu the Pakistani national language.

14 Manto, Saadat Hasan. Zehmat Meher Darakhshan. The lines were cited in Hanfi, Shameem, (2008). Adab Me Insan Dosti ka Tassawar (The Concept of Humanism in Literature). Dunyazad (Karachi), number 21 p. 24.

15 See, Sajjad Zaheer (1944). A Case of Congress-League Unity. Bombay: People's Publishing House.

16 Ibid, pp. 1.

17 Adhikari G. M. (1943). Pakistan and Indian National Unity. London: Labour Monthly Publication, pp. 532.

18 Overstreet Gene and Windmiller Marshall (1960). Communism in India. Berkeley: University of California Press. See pp. 188; also see Sajjad Zaheer (1971). ‘Recent Muslim Politics in India and the Problems of National Unity’, in Lonkandawalla S. T., India and Contemporary Islam, Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, pp. 202216.

19 Dr Gangadhar Adhikari, one of the pioneer members of the Communist Party of India, was a member of the Politburo between 1943 and 1951 whilst also serving on the Central Committee during that period.

20 Overstreet and Windmiller, Communism in India, p. 214.

21 Adhikari, Pakistan and Indian National Unity, p. 31.

22 Joshi P. C. (1944). Congress and Communists. Bombay: People's Publishing House.

23 Ibid. pp. 16–17.

24 Overstreet and Windmiller, Communism in India. p. 231.

25 In Punjab, since the 1920s, there were Ghadar Party influenced peasant and workers groups. The most prominent among them were the Kirti-Kisaan Party (peasant-workers party), the Kisan Sabha and Naujawan Bharat Sabha. Most had a large percentage of Sikh membership and they also dominated the leadership positions, although they were 14 per cent of Punjab's population, in relation to 56 per cent Muslims and 26 per cent Hindu. In the early 1940s two dominant tendencies of left activism, primarily the factions in the Kirti Party in Punjab, had been brought together by the Communist Party of India headquarters in Bombay to constitute the Communist Party of Punjab. However, the Provincial Communist Party in Punjab by 1947 still retained these two dominant groups. These factions were led by Teja Singh Swatantara and Sohan Singh Josh respectively and included prominent Muslim communists like Ferozuddin Mansoor and Fazal Elahi Qurban within its fold.

26 Legahri. The Socialist Movement, pp. 27–32.

27 It remains one of the most progressive documents of the Muslim League's pre-independence history. The document asks for state planning of the economy with nationalization of key industries and banks, full employment in the industrial sector with minimum wage guarantees, right to strike and acceptance of collective bargaining agents. In the rural areas, it speaks for the landless peasant and the small landholders and pushes for debt relief and ownership of state land by landless peasants, while arguing for progressive taxation on larger holdings. See Leghari. The Socialist Movement p. 28. Also, see Gilmartin, Empire and Islam, for detailed discussion.

28 Leghari, The Socialist Movement. p. 30.

29 Ibid. Based on interviews with communists who participated in the Punjab movement in the 1940s, Leghari argues that they felt rejected when prominent communist workers in the Muslim League like Ataullah Jehanian were not given party tickets during the 1946 elections. Work with the Muslim League aided some Communist Party of India members to either leave the Party or become more firmly entrenched in Muslim League politics in the post-partition years.

30 Overstreet and Windmiller, Communism in India, p. 239.

31 Palme Dutt Rajani (1946). A New Chapter in Divide and Rule. Bombay: Peoples Publishing House, p. 13.

32 See, 1946 August Resolution, in For the Final Assault: Tasks of the Indian People in the Present Phase of Indian Revolution. Bombay: People's Publishing House. Reprinted in Documents of the Communist Party of India (1997), Volume 5. pp. 103–127.

33 These new formulations from the Communist Party of India came at a time of popular upsurge in India during the immediate post-war period (the protests on the Indian National Army Trials, the uprising within the Royal Indian Navy, the Quit Kashmir Movement and the Telegana struggle in the South amongst others). While these multiple events were progressing, the radicalized nature of Indian polity was not under the control of, or was not being directed by, the Party's central leadership, although there were local communist elements involved in all these struggles.

34 See A. Dyakov (1947). A New British Plan for India, pp. 13–15, New Times (13 June), Moscow.

35 They feared partition along with the retention of Princely states would lead to the Balkanization of Indian territory and indirect British colonial rule would continue. See Dyakov, A New British, pp. 14–15.

36 See, Note prepared by Sir William Jenkins on P. C. Joshi. FO 317/84237 Public Records Office, UK.

37 Palme Dutt, A New Chapter in Divide and Rule.

38 See Dyakov, A New British, pp. 14–15.

39 See FO 317/84237. Note prepared by Sir William Jenkins on P. C. Joshi. Public Records Office.

40 Bhowani Sen was a major figure in the Bengal Communist Party, he was re-elected to the Central Committee during the 1948 Congress and was also elected to the Polit Bureau. He was considered to be one of B.T. Ranadive's chief lieutenants.

41 See Report on Pakistan, Review of the Second Congress. pp. 757–761. Documents of the Communist Party of India. Vol. 5.

42 See, Chief Event in Past History of Communist Party of Pakistan. Public Record Office, D0 35/2591. It goes to Zaheer's credit that he never used his family's influence and wealth for his personal gains. Even during moments of extreme financial burdens that the family faced during Zaheer's time in Pakistan and after his return to India in the mid-1950s, he seldom received (or asked for) assistance from his more well-off relatives. A glimpse of this relationship can be gauged from Zaheer's youngest daughter, Noor's memoirs. See Noor Zaheer (2006). Mere Hisse Ki Roshnai, Karachi: Sanjh Publishers.

43 Chief Event in Past History of Communist Party of Pakistan. Public Record Office, D0 35/2591.

44 Ali Anwer M. (1952). The Communist Party of West Pakistan in Action. Lahore: Criminal Investigation Department, Government of Punjab, Pakistan.

45 See, Coppola, Carlo (1974). The All India Progressive Writers’ Association: The European Phase. In Carlo Coppola. Marxist Influences and South Asian Literature, Volume 1. pp. 1–34. Asian Studies Center, South Asia Series Occasional Papers. Michigan State University.

47 See, Malik, The Marxist Literary Movement

48 Manshoor (Manifesto) (1950), Sawera # 7–8, pp. 24–31. Lahore.

49 Ibid. It will take a longer article to unpack the puritanical bent in Progressive discourse of this era.

50 The complete reference of the Imroz article is not available. While researching other documents, I found the translated exchange in Ali, Anwer. Communist Party. pp. 311–320. Corroboration of this exchange comes from Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi himself. In a much later article published at Zaheer's death in 1973, Qasmi speaks about corresponding with Zaheer on an identical topic (apparently letters went back and forth at least twice). He suggests that his letters to Zaheer and his to him were confiscated in police searches in 1951 and were evaluated by high officials of the police department. It seems that he may have been right as at least one set of the letters was reproduced in the CID internal documents that I have used to discuss this exchange. See Qasmi, Ahmad Nadeem (1973). Tawana or Ba Sha'ur Adabi Tehreek Ka Rahnuma. Weekly Hayat, New Delhi, Sajjad Zaheer Number November 11. Reprinted in, Ahmad Syed Jaffar (ed.) (2005), Sajjad Zaheer Shakhsiat Aur Afkar, Karachi: Maktaba Danial pp. 176179.

51 Ali, Anwer, Communist Party pp. 311–320. Translation in the original.

52 I am borrowing here from Benjamin, Walter (1968). Theses on the History of Philosophy. In Arendt Hannah, Illuminations,. New York: Schocken Books, pp. 253264.

53 For a short autobiographical sketch, Qasmi, Ahmad Nadeem (1946) 1969. Jalal-o-Jamal. Lahore Altahrir Press, second edition.

54 See Leghari. Socialist Movement, pp. 47–73.

55 Ibid. Zaheer after coming to Pakistan expelled Qurban from the official Communist Party of Pakistan on charges of subordination. Teja Sing Swatantar had by then left for India.

56 For example, Ahmad Ali and M.D. Taseer were founding members of the Progressive Writers Association at its inception in London in the mid-1930s. Akhtar Hussein Raipuri, Saadat Hasan Manto and even Hasan Askari had been close to the Association at one time or another.

57 While the poets like N. M. Rashid and Miraji were closely aligned with the Halqa, people like Hasan Askari were at times fellow travellers and at others, critics. Another important intellectual figure of this era was M.D. Taseer, who was a founding member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, but in the post-independence era became their severe critic. Hasan Askari, an opponent of the progressives, in the late 1940s wrote a scathing critique of Taseer's discussions of Pakistani culture. So, there were various kinds of tensions and alliances within a broad group of scholars who were not formally associated with the All Pakistan Progressive Writers Association. See Askari Muhammad Hasan. (2000) Majmu'a (Collections). Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Press.

58 It is clear that many among these intellectuals chose to speak for the state but several had other political affiliations; many were vehemently anti-communist.

59 Mufti, Aamir. (2000). The Aura of Authenticity. Social Text 64, 18:3 pp 87–103.

60 See Farooqi, Mehr Afshan (2004). Towards a Prose of Ideas: An Introduction to the Critical Thought of Muhammad Hasan Askari. Annual of Urdu Studies pp. 175–190.

61 Specifically see ‘Pakistani Hakumat or Adeeb’ (October 1948), ‘Taqseem-e-Hind ke Ba'ad’ (October 1948) and ‘Pakistani Adeeb’ (November 1948) all published in Askari, M. Hasan (2000). Majmu'a.

62 Although a severe critic of the Progressives and Communists, Askari would also condemn the state for censoring progressive literature or banning journals associated with the All Pakistan Progressive Writers Association. As Intizar Hussain notes in his memoirs Askari maintained it as his right to criticize the Progressives, but was not willing to give the government this right. See Hussain Intizar (1999), Chiraghon Ka Duhan. Lahore: Sang-e-Meel Publishers. p. 48.

63 In this same long paragraph he mentions meeting a prominent communist leader in Lahore. He describes him as a Maulvi (a religious leader, sheikh), who on mentioning the Muslim League became red in the face, his face became contorted and he resembled a man possessed. Sajjad Zaheer among friends was often called Maulana (another form of the same word Maulvi) and this description of the unnamed communist leader may be Askari's ‘subtle’ description of his meeting with Zaheer. See Askari. Majmu'a. p. 1132.

64 This argument about the Soviet Union was used by other intellectuals who wanted to attack the Progressives and their commitment to the Soviet model. See, Taseer, M. D. (1949). Ishtrakiat Pasando ka Nazaria –e-Ilm o Adab (The Socialist Point of View on Learning and Literature). Weekly Chattan, 27 June.

65 Askari, M. Hasan. 2000. Majmu'a. pp. 1132–1133. Such attacks on the Progressives were also based on Askari's understanding of tradition as a key element in the development of new Urdu literature. In an essay on Askari's life and work, Meher Afshan Farooqui shows how the terms progressive (taraqui) and modernist/modernity (jadidiyat) are not connotatively very far apart. She argues that for the progressive writers the issue of form was not relevant and for most (there were always exceptions like the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz) the desire was to break from the past, bringing in modern Western concerns to show the decadence and backwardness of Muslim society and relate literature to immediate political concerns. People like Askari wanted to retain a link with the more classical tradition of Urdu literature and then put it into a dialogue with Western influences. Hence the issue of relationship with Muslim history and Muslim past retained an important hold on Askari's formulations. See Farooqi, Towards a Prose.

66 Mufti, Secular, p. 95.

67 Askari. Mussalman Adeeb p. 113 (see footnote 69 in this paper). Askari in his distinctive sarcastic mode here hints at Faiz Ahmed Faiz's famous poem, Subh-e Azadi (the Dawn of Independence). In this poem Faiz talks about how this Dawn was not the promised one and the destination was still far. Faiz received criticism from his progressive colleagues and from others for this major poem.

68 Along with Askari, people like Mohammad Din Taseer, an eminent man of letters who was also one of the founders of the Progressive Writers Movement in the 1930s, had by the late 1940s become one of its major opponents. In a trenchant piece published in 1949, Taseer clearly states that although all progressives are not socialists, and all progressives are not traitors, but all socialists are traitors to the cause of Pakistan. This is so, Taseer explains, because their loyalties are with Soviet Union or with India and they seek destruction of the new nation. See Taseer, M. D. (1949). Adab mai Taraqui Pasandi aur Ishtrakiat (Progressiveness and Socialist ideas in Literature). Inquilab, 28 May.

69 See Askari Muhammad Hasan, 2000 (1948). Mussalman Adeeb aur Mussalman Qom (Muslim Writers and Muslim Nation). In Majmu'a pp. 11111119. Lahore: Sang-Meel Press; 2000; Mussalman aur Tarraqi Pasandi (Muslims and Progressiveness), in Sheema Majid. Muqallat Muhammad Hasan Askari, pp. 58–63. Lahore: Ilm-o-Irfan Publishers. (First Published in weekly Chattan, September 1951). In the earlier published paper Askari directly attacked Sajjad Zaheer and quoted from his speech at a literary conference in which Zaheer openly advocated support for India's troops in Kashmir in 1948 to defend the democratic aspirations of the Kashmiri public against foreign aggression (meaning Pakistan); a position that continued to haunt the communists in later years as being anti-Pakistan.

70 Sardar Jafri had initially moved to Pakistan and then moved back to India.

71 Jafri Ali Sardar (1957). Taraqi Pasand Adab (Progressive Literature). Aligarh (India): Anjuman Taraqui-e-Urdu, pp. 204205.

72 Allen McGrath (1996). The Destruction of Pakistan's Democracy. Karachi: Oxford University Press. pp. 6568.

73 See Communist and Communist Activities in Pakistan, 1949 FO 1110/210. Public Record Office, UK.

75 The conspiracy was exposed by the government on the eve of the first post-independence provincial elections in Pakistan (Punjab). Liaquat Ali Khan, the Prime Minister, was touring Punjab and his party was facing a stiff challenge from newly formed parties, the Jinnah Muslim League of Nawab of Mamdot and the Azad Party of Mian Iftikharuddin. There are indications that the announcement of a threat to the country was used as a cynical ploy to consolidate votes by the Muslim League leadership in its own favour. See Dawn, 10 March, 1951; and also see Inward Telegram to Commonwealth Relations Office from UK High Commissioner in Pakistan. FO-371–92866 (Public Records Office).

76 Major General Akbar Khan, Chief of the General Staff of Pakistan Army, was deemed the leader of the coup attempt. His deputy in this alleged conspiracy was Brigadier M.A. Latif, who was a Brigade Commander at Quetta. Mrs Nasim Akbar Khan, daughter of a prominent female Muslim League politician, Begum Shahnawaz, was also accused of being a co-conspirator.

77 Zaheer spent the next several years in jail and soon after his release in 1955 he went back to India. Tufail Abbas, who later became the secretary general of the Party in the late 1950s, among other criticisms addressed the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case as a process that showed haste on the part of the leadership (personal interview). He argued that people were in a hurry to bring about the revolution and could not wait for the Party to develop its roots among the masses. Whether this is a serious analysis or not, it does seem that the Communist Party of Pakistan leadership in the early 1950s had decided to keep all options for capturing state power open. Similar views were expressed by Eric Cyprian, member of the Party's central committee at the time of the ‘conspiracy’, in his interview with Hasan Zaheer in 1995. See Hasan Zaheer (1998). The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case 1951. Karachi: Oxford University Press, especially Chapter 4. Also see, Inward Telegram to Commonwealth Relations Office from UK High Commissioner in Pakistan. FO-371–92866 (Public Records Office).

78 Pakistan in 1947 had an estimated industrial workforce of about 480,000 within a total population of 75 millions in both wings. See Ali Amjad. (2001). Labour Legislation and Trade Unionism in India and Pakistan. Karachi: Oxford University Press, p. 67.

79 This is not to say that the intellectual elite in Pakistan Punjab, where the medium of instruction had been in Urdu since the late nineteenth century, did not itself have an investment in making Urdu the national language.

80 See Jafri, Taraqi Pasand, p. 207. In Pakistan, progressives constantly argued for the supremacy of Urdu in relation to English that had gained currency in government circles in the process sidelining Urdu as the national language Masroor, Hajra (1949). Tul'u. Nuqush #9, p. 3.

81 There is not enough space to discuss in detail the ambiguities of the Communist Party of Pakistan's position on the language question; perhaps the leadership was not clear itself. There is a hint, however, in their formulations of how Urdu would eventually acquire a more dominant relationship vis-a-vis other language or national groups. Here we are reminded of how the Soviet Union, after a vigorous Nationality Policy in the immediate 1917 period, reflected partially in the Adhikari Report, had by the 1940s started the process of Russification where Russian had become the Soviet lingua franca. All through the post-revolutionary period, Russian language and the Russian territories had remained unmarked and without a particular nationalistic claim as they were considered to be the most culturally advanced, modern and urbanized group and hence beyond nationalistic traces. While other ethnicities, whether Ukrainian or Uzbek, due to their social backwardness needed to be brought forward through the Soviet policy of promoting their languages and national culture. Within this context, more research needs to be conducted on how Urdu and its related cultural forms were considered by the Party to be the unmarked category (the advanced, the urban) of Pakistani cultural politics. For an excellent discussion on the USSR's nationality policy see, Yuri Slezkine. (1994). The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or How the Socialist State Promoted Ethnic Particularism. Slavic Review 53 (2): 414452.

82 See note by Eric Cyprian in Ali, Mian Anwer. The Communist Party of West Pakistan. pp. 246–249. Eric Cyprian was a senior member of the Party. In an internal Party document he argued that people like Ghaffar Khan or G. M. Syed, who were speaking for provincial rights against the centralizing state structures, were nothing but landlords and representative of the feudal classes who wanted to safeguard their own territorial political power. By the mid-1950s a banned and now underground Communist Party did eventually make alliances with these regional nationalist leaders and had a broader recognition of the nationalities question in Pakistan.

83 For a somewhat detailed discussion of the Bengali question see Yunus Samad (1995). A Nation in Turmoil Nationalism and Ethnicity in Pakistan, 1937–1958, New Delhi: Sage. Also see, Saadia Toor (2005). A National Culture for Pakistan: The Political Economy of a Debate. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 6 (3): 319340. Baluchistan had also witnessed a growing movement for provincial autonomy and self-determination in the late 1940s and then again in the late 1950s culminating in an all-out insurgency in the early 1970s.

84 This hierarchical distance between the Party leadership and the rank and file continued in Leftist politics. In an earlier paper, Ali Kamran Asdar (2005). Strength of the Street Meets the Strength of the State, International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 37: 83107, I show that in the 1972 labour movement in Karachi the trade unionists spoke of representing and leading the workers. Not unlike the state, the predominantly urban leadership sought to contain the chaotic potential that they saw in the workers. The majority of the non-Urdu-speaking workers were considered bodies that needed to be tamed and organized. They were seen as newly urban people who had yet to shed their tribal culture steeped in hierarchical social relations. For that matter they may have been conceived as peasants who could not represent themselves but needed to be educated into being a part of the trade union culture of discipline and constraint giving them a distance from their non-egalitarian past towards an egalitarian membership into a democratic process. In this process the trade union leaders, who were mostly Urdu-speaking and had come from India, always retained the onus of educating and guiding.

85 Chakrabarty Dipesh (1989). Rethinking Working Class History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

86 Guha, ‘Discipline and Mobilize’

87 See Gilmartin Pakistan and South Asian History, pp. 1090–1091.

* Funding for this research was provided by the University of Texas, Austin, by a Fulbright Fellowship, and by a fellowship at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden. I thank the staff and archivist at the International Institute of Social History (IISH), Amsterdam, The National Archives, Washington DC, and the Public Records Office, London. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at Cambridge University and at the University of Virginia. I thank the organizers and participants of those events for their encouragement and comments. My sincerest thanks to Aun Ali, Asif Aslam, Abdul Haque Chang, Azfar Moin, Mubbashir Rizvi, and Ruken Sengul for their criticism and suggestions on earlier versions of this paper. Finally I reserve my utmost gratitude for David Gilmartin and Humeira Iqtidar for their support and invaluable critical input in the writing of this paper.

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