A debating group in search of politics

The Communists had no understanding of Pakistani society and were divided into pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions

February 04, 2014 01:32 am | Updated May 18, 2016 05:41 am IST

NEW ROADS: In any attempt to rejuvenate the Left, there is an understanding that it needs a new identity which forges links with anti-Taliban and anti-fundamentalist forces. Photo: AP

NEW ROADS: In any attempt to rejuvenate the Left, there is an understanding that it needs a new identity which forges links with anti-Taliban and anti-fundamentalist forces. Photo: AP

When Abid Hassan Minto joined the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) in 1949, one of the first unions he formed was a workers’ union in the Military Engineering Service and another in a multinational oil company at Attock. Such a thing would be unthinkable now, he grins. At 80, he is president of the Awami Workers Party (AWP), formed after a merger of three Left parties in 2012 which plans to hold a congress in March. There is a renewed attempt to forge a clearly defined Left in Pakistan, he says.

Beyond activism

Writing in The News , Sarah Humayun says, “the left has lost visibility in the public space; in this respect, it has fared even worse than the NGOs, whose liberal pro-civil-society thought has been similarly assimilated without increasing the appeal of liberal thinking as such in the public space.” The Left in Pakistan was scattered after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War and the resurgence of the global corporate system in the shape of the New World, Mr. Minto says. Pakistan was badly affected by the disarray of the Left especially since its trade union movement was weak, resulting in many factions. Trying to regroup, the key question is: what kind of politics has the Left to come up with to deal with new challenges in Pakistan where many things haven’t changed at all? It also wants a distinct identity from the liberals, who hail from a class not interested in social change, according to Aasim Sajjad, secretary general of the AWP, Punjab. “Activism alone won’t help us consolidate or add up to a coherent movement. Something beyond activism needs to happen and we are trying to bring all the left groups together,” he points out.

For the AWP, the challenge is mainly to create an alternative to the neo-liberal economic system. Opting for a social democratic method is the only way out for the new party. For the three parties in the merger, there was no choice but to revert to the principles enunciated in Left/Marxist politics and they have to be adopted to the changing situation, Mr. Minto says. Departing from the earlier internationalist politics which split the Communists between China and the Soviets, the new party has decided to stick to anti- imperialism and anti-colonialism in some manner and formulate a joint programme on Marxist principles at the congress.

While peasant communities organised in the mid-20th century, and there were some reforms, the ban in 1954 of the Communist Party and its affiliated unions put an end to further struggles. The Left was more of a talking and debating group than a political group. There is uncertainty if the Left in a classical fashion will be able to tackle new liberal politics. There is an understanding that it needs a new identity which forges links with anti-Taliban and anti-fundamentalist forces.

Challenging extremist forces

In the past, the Left had its students, peasant and trade union federations plus the Progressive Writers Association. The AWP feels there is a critical mass for the Left to grow in Pakistan and this could be due to the joint impact of Taliban terror and the onslaught of the middle classes coming up as the partner of the political system. The Communist Party of Pakistan was formed in 1948 at the Calcutta Congress when it was decided to have a separate party. Even at its peak, it had 650 or so members, the cardholders — the numbers were small but the politics was clear, they were committed to Marxism as a gospel, Mr. Minto says. When writer Noor Zaheer visited Pakistan recently, people called her Comrade Noor, in memory of her late father, Sajjad Zaheer who headed the party before it was banned.

Ms Zaheer says what is most needed now is for splinter groups not only in Pakistan but all over South Asia to come together and challenge the religious and other right-wing forces. Her father had left behind a legacy which should be taken forward, and there’s a lot left to be done, she feels.

However, there is scepticism about the AWP. Critics like Fayyaz Baqir, director of the Akhter Hameed Khan Resource Centre, who was in Left student politics in the 1960s point out that the strength of the Communists was in their strong literary and artistic agenda. Right from the beginning, the serious shortcoming which persists till today is that they had no understanding of Pakistan society. They were divided between pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese and had no analysis of the class structures or class interests and the way the state or the political system worked. Also, they didn’t have an understanding of mass politics. As a result, when the Pakistan People’s Party was formed with many elements from the Left, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto captured power. The Communists didn’t produce mass leaders and they didn’t produce non-traditional intellectuals, he says.

The Left lacked an understanding of religion and they can’t blame problems only on religious leaders, he says. When Baqir joined the Nationalist Students Organization at 18, he thought that scientific socialism was the tool to ignite every heart. In no time, millions of people would be following them and the system could be overthrown. “We are not ready to accept that the world which existed in our dreams is not relevant anymore; we need different dreams,” he adds.

No regeneration

Accepting that there was need for a solid intellectual analysis of Pakistani society, Mr. Sajjad says the collapse of the Left eroded its organisational capacity and the people who stayed on were very junior and were pushed to the top. Even the old assembly lines like students’ unions and study circles had stopped and subsequent efforts were made to keep the flag flying. There was lot of dynamism but no real regeneration in terms of a cadre of younger activists. It will take a long time to build a cadre to replace the old one. A lot of impetus is coming from the younger cadre which doesn’t have the baggage of the Cold War demons, he feels.

The difficulty now is in raising a cadre of younger people. With the banning of students’ unions in the Zia-ul-Haq regime, there is no politics on campus. Students have to sign an affidavit which says that they will not partake in any political activity against the administration. The National Students’ Federation (NSF), the oldest left-wing organisation, is trying to revive unions but getting students to take an interest especially in the Punjab is difficult. Alia Amirali, general secretary, NSF, in Punjab, says the first task is to educate people on what a union is and how it’s different from a non-political organisation which is allowed on campus. Students are worried about getting into the NSF — they fear jails and court cases and there is an antipathy to mainstream politics in Punjab as opposed to Balochistan where the students’ movement has fed so many political groups or in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The Left, despite all its restrictions and bans, did have an influence on thinking but if it has to grow, it has to have a more inclusive approach, says Nasreen Azhar, member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. There is also a realisation that while the Left can be effective despite the small numbers, as it was during the Lawyers’ movement, it ended up having more of a discursive impact. But, as Mr. Sajjad says, the Left is sorely needed for a third perspective — ideologically, society shifted to the right and no one is talking of class, gender or social cleavages in society. The challenge for the new party then is to make inroads into politics which is vitiated by terrorism and dominated by the right wing, and to inspire confidence in a more progressive and egalitarian stream of thinking.


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