Interview with Kamran Asdar Ali, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Middle East Studies and Asian Studies and the Director of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas, Austin who recently published Surkh Salam -- Communist Politics and Activism in Pakistan from 1947-1972.
Kamran Asdar Ali, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Middle East Studies and Asian Studies and the Director of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, is the author of Planning the Family in Egypt: New Bodies, New Selves. He has recently published Surkh Salam -- Communist Politics and Activism in Pakistan from 1947-1972 that presents a detailed account of the left-wing politics and progressive movement in Pakistan.
Following are excerpts of his interview with The News on Sunday.
The News on Sunday: What was your inspiration for documenting and analysing the history of the communist movement in Pakistan? Can this history help us understand the current crisis in Pakistan, and perhaps even aid us in imagining an alternative future for the country?
Kamran Asdar Ali: I became politically aware when I was in 9th or 10th grade. This was a time in the mid 1970s and there was still a vibrant discussion, at least in some circles, of a Left oriented option in Pakistani politics. I was not a major activist by any means, but in those days I would often think about documenting the history of the larger Left, its struggles for an egalitarian future, its various factions, the positions they took at particular junctures in Pakistan’s history etc.. There was a time in the 1980s during my college years when I became involved in a progressive theatre group (Dastak) which brought together a range of activists from various progressive persuasions. Dastak allowed me to meet people who had played a major role in the country’s Left oriented politics; intellectual work, underground party work, labour struggles and more. These interactions kept the desire about writing a history of the Left alive.
The book has taken its time, and it is what it is, but the inspiration has a long history. At that earlier moment in my life, I was eager to learn and had read what I could lay my hands on, but did not have the training or resources to pursue the task of writing the history. The idea lingered with me through college years in Pakistan, the time spent in graduate school in the US, the thesis and its completion, the pursuit of an academic career and finally I started working on it. Within this personal history was embedded a desire to document the lives and times of those people who had selflessly dedicated their lives for a more egalitarian and just future.
I had strongly felt their life histories and contributions have largely remained undocumented; such voices remain virtually unheard and perhaps unrecognised in Pakistani political life. They belong to a past that like many other collective struggles of the Pakistani people remains buried in the hearts and minds of the actors themselves, seldom shared or celebrated by the nation as a whole.
Regarding second part of your question. I am not sure the history I have written has any predictive value. Of course most histories are partly that of the present and one feels that one can learn lessons from the past as we move into the future. Perhaps that may be so. My book, as all histories do, offers a version of the past that in most cases is not widely available to the public. We live in a somewhat changed world today, where the working class does not even have the safety net of a strong trade union movement. The issue of difference as a category is also much more salient in terms of ethno-nationalist politics (and other sectarian and religious identities), yet the question of social and economic justice is still with us. How a politics that takes account of difference, yet does not lose sight of issues of social and economic justice is the political challenge for our times.
TNS: Communists were often labelled "anti-Pakistan" by the Pakistani state. Yet, you demonstrate how the relationship between the Communist Party and the Pakistan movement was a complicated one. What was the nature of this relationship and how were communists eventually designated as the enemy number one of the newly-found state?
KAA: The Communist Party of India’s (CPI) leadership was primarily nationalist and had until the early 1940s thought of the Muslim question as a British ploy to weaken the national movement through a divide and rule policy. However, due to the German invasion of Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, the CPI changed its position on the Second World War and now saw it as a war again Fascism. This meant a tactical support of the British in the war effort. This change also led to a change of policy toward considering India not as a cultural whole, but as constituting various cultures, language groups and national sentiments. The challenge for the CPI was how to be sensitive to the question of diversity and yet not allow the break-up of the country. The thesis on the self-determination of different nationalities was proposed by the CPI in 1942. This policy accepted the right to secede from the Indian Union. The right of people living in contiguous territories to create autonomous states if they so desired clearly signalled an acceptance of Muslim separatism that by 1944 the party openly supported. In pursuing this argument, the CPI cadres worked closely with the Muslim League, at times joining the party in the 1945-46 elections.
Despite the desire to work for the League, by the mid-1940s there were other competing and vocal tendencies that shaped the CPI’s outlook on the partition of British India and the Muslim League. Rajani Palme Dutt, the British communist leader and influential journalist who also served as the principal advisor on Indian communist politics, emphasised that the unity of India was the progressive point of view and partition would be a reactionary step. Due to this reversal or re-articulation, where earlier the party had pushed for the right of secession for all nationalities, by the spring of 1946 it had gone back on its earlier position and stressed that the best interests of the Indian people would be served by remaining together in a common union. 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. I would emphasise that although the CPI finally accepted the creation of Pakistan by arguing for the division of the party itself in 1948, the 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 relationship with 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 and others remained part of the Muslim League (like Mian Iftikharuddin). However, within the first year of Pakistan’s existence the ruling elite became suspicious of any challenge to its authority. Jinnah and the Muslim League had brought together a range of interests and social classes in support of the call for Pakistan. However, once Pakistan was created, the lack of clarity on any social and economic policy made governing the new state a matter of political gamesmanship where the party officials continued to manipulate colonial laws and legal procedures to stay in power.
Following Jinnah’s death, his tradition of centralising power was carried forward by Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan who openly advocated the supremacy of one ruling party and derided those who opposed the Muslim League as traitors and enemy agents. There is no denying that the new state had enormous economic and social challenges, foremost being the settling of refugees who had poured into the country, mostly destitute and without resources. There were secessionist tendencies in the NWFP politics that were being encouraged by the Afghan government and the lingering problem of Kashmir was ever present, making the security of the country vulnerable. The government, taking advantage of these issues, continuously relied on Public Safety Act and other new draconian measures to keep a check on political opponents.
The early history of Pakistan is littered with disagreements on a range of issues, but the landowners, lawyers and the emerging mercantile elite were united in their fear of communist politics which threatened the status quo and demanded radical change. 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 in providing the people of Pakistan with political stability along with social and economic policies that would work in their favour.
TNS: You highlight the difficult relationship between the communist movement and ethnic politics in Pakistan. Do you feel communists privileged the class question over all other antagonisms prevalent in society? In other words, how did Pakistani communists respond to the problem of ‘difference’ in their politics?
KAA: This is a difficult question. The leadership of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) who had migrated from India and also those few cadres who had remained in Pakistan already had been nurtured on the discussion of self determination and on the nationalities questions. Hence, there was a general sympathy toward the various language and cultural groups that constituted Pakistan. However, the CPP leadership that had generally arrived from India was not familiar with the cultural and political landscape of the country and most belonged to the North Indian ashraf, a highly educated and self-conscious Muslim elite. There is no doubt that these people were dedicated to establishing a future socialist society that was committed to democratic values, distribution of wealth and an end of exploitation of the oppressed.
In the early days of Pakistan’s existence there was a major push by the state, by intellectuals close to the politics of Muslim Nationalism and by major cultural figures who shared the cultural tradition of North Indian Urdu-speaking respectable gentry to establish Urdu as the major language for South Asian Muslims. Further, sensing communist ambivalence towards the creation of Pakistan, many in this camp’ openly questioned their patriotism, accused them of favouring India on the Kashmir question and also of fomenting ethnic divisions by supporting the demand of the Bengali population for Bangla to be given the place of a national language on a par with Urdu. Unlike those who pushed for Urdu’s exclusive right to be the only national language (including Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan), the progressives were against the imposition of one language over the cultural and linguistic diversity of the land. This was an old position that linked them back to the earlier assertion of national self-determination. Yet CPI did put forward the argument for Urdu as the language of communication. In doing this the communists thought that rather than impose Urdu on the population, conditions had to be created whereby different linguistic groups would by consensus agree to accept it as a common language of interaction among the various provinces. This was indeed a more democratic resolution of the language question, and a partial acknowledgement of cultural diversity within the populace that was taking shape in Pakistan in the late 1940s.
Further, even if CPI was open to the question of diversity of language, in the late 1940s it remained hostile, at least in this early phase of its existence, towards the emergent nationalist leadership of various linguistic groups, whether Pashtun, Baloch, Sindhi or Bengali. It deemed nationalist leaders as belonging to elite classes and hence did not recognise them as class allies in the struggle for ‘real’ emancipation. Ironically, this analysis was the anti-thesis of the national question debate that had emerged in the mid-1940s in Indian communism. The CPI was making a more class-based argument to negate the thrust of discussion on the need for national rights for smaller and marginalised nationalities. However, the progressives eventually did get involved in the 1950s and later in movements for provincial autonomy and language rights against the centralising state (the formation of NAP).
TNS: You critique the Communist Party’s attempt to discipline writers and intellectuals through the progressive writers’ movement. What is the basis of this critique and what do you feel should be the relationship between art and politics?
KAA: Perhaps I can answer the first part of your question, what I feel about the relationship between art and politics is a longer discussion and may need a different forum. I can say this that the way creative and aesthetic experiments create a political language and inspire political action cannot be reduced to a redundant discussion of form versus content, or a narrow ideological reading. This said, let me turn to critique of writers by the progressive writer’s movement. It is evident to most who know the history of the period that culture and intellectual creativity was of immense importance to the CPP and to its new secretary general, Sajjad Zaheer. Zaheer was one of the founders of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). The PWA was one of the most influential literary movements in the decade preceding the partition of British India. From its very inception, the PWA was influenced by socialist and Marxist tendencies. Although the PWA was open to all those who broadly agreed with its manifesto -- that called for a new literature that addressed progressive ideals and focused on the issue of poverty, deprivation and servitude of the Indian masses -- it soon became closely aligned with the CPI.
The All Pakistan Progressive Writers Association (APPWA) was a continuation of the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA) and similarly closely affiliated with the newly formed CPP. Within this context, by the late 1940s the CPP, in control of APPWA and influenced by the CPI’s radical line (the Ranadive Line), had started to purge from its ranks those that did not completely toe the new party line. This became more evident after the introduction of the new manifesto which targeted "non-progressive" writers during the first APPWA conference held in Lahore in November 1949.
During this conference, "non-progressive" intellectuals were severely criticised for their perceived political failings, alliances with state machinery and the lack of social consciousness. The manifesto for this meeting clearly divided the Pakistani cultural scene into many factions and spoke positively of those intellectuals who raised their voices against the ruling class and who struggled against oppression and for independence, peace and socialism. Their writings, the manifesto proclaimed, were full of optimism, progressive ideals and a willingness to move the working class toward action.
In opposition to these intellectuals were the groups that were undemocratic, supported the status quo and through their writings created confusion in peoples’ minds. The manifesto, in strong and uncompromising language, established three groups of reactionary intellectuals. The first were the writers who proclaimed the ideology of art for art’s sake. The text criticised these writers as denying class struggle and hence colluding with the ruling classes. The second group was designated as those that claimed to write Pakistani literature. They too were condemned as people who favour the capitalist and feudal classes of the new country and who, in their communalist hatred toward India, could not differentiate between Nehru’s fascist government and the Indian working classes. The third group was labelled as Islamic writers who sought to establish Islamic law in the country. The manifesto lumped all of these writers -- the Islamists, nationalists and liberals (art for art’s sake) -- together and painted them as reactionaries.
The manifesto then turned toward those writers who used bourgeois psychology and Freudian parameters to understand society. These authors were labelled obscene, perverse, pornographic and decadent for their depiction of life through the lens of sexuality. They not only distorted peoples’ experience, the manifesto asserted, but also disrespected love as a pure form of desire. Hence the manifesto portrayed these writers as anti-humanists who could only make fun of the peoples’ creative faculty and were insensitive to the struggle for human existence. The protagonists of their works were killers, thieves, prostitutes, and those elements of society that do not contribute in the productive process; they wrote pessimistic stories that sang of darkness and of death (these were references to the works by writers like, Saadat Hasan Manto and poets like Meera Ji and N.M. Rashid).
During the late 1940s, the progressives were dominant on the literary scene and their insistence on creative activity that focused on a clear ideological position was the legacy of their anti-colonial and class-based politics. For example, they argued that reactionary authors did not understand or write about the social and political aspect of Partition violence and merely presented psychological and sexual renditions of the events.
TNS: You end your book with a discussion on the 1972 labour unrest in Karachi, which was brutally crushed by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. What were the causes of the movement and why do you see this event as the beginning of the end of the labour movement in Pakistan? What does it tell us about the social and political character of the Bhutto government?
KAA: Indeed on February 10, 1972, the newly installed president and civilian martial law administrator of Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto addressed the nation to present the salient features of his government’s new labour policy. These features included participation of labour representatives in the management, more democratic grievance procedures, access to labour courts by either party, increase in profit sharing, non-payment of medical dues by workers with increased employer’s contribution and workmen compensation in case of death or injury.As Bhutto laid out the details of workers’ benefits, he also warned of dire consequences if they did not refrain from participating in ‘lawless behaviour’. He asked the working class to desist from their ‘gherao and jelao’ politics, ‘otherwise,’ Bhutto raged, ‘the strength of the street will be met by the strength of the state’.
A few months later Bhutto’s government fulfilled his threat. On June 7, 1972, the Karachi police killed several workers when they opened fire on demonstrating labourers in the major industrial area of the city. The next day the police fired again on the funeral procession of one of the deceased workers. Press reports indicate that at least ten people were killed on that day including a woman and child.
These killings marked what is considered by many as the beginning of the end of one of the most protracted labour struggles in Pakistan’s history. From the late 1960s this movement was pivotal in shaping the transition from military rule to democratic forms of governance. Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had itself come to power through the overwhelming support of the working class, students and radical Left groups, the key participants of this movement. It is indeed ironic, and also revealing of Bhutto’s politics, that the PPP was instrumental in suppressing the worker’ struggle. We need to acknowledge, however, that Bhutto’s labour laws gave workers benefits previously unheard of in Pakistan’s labour history.
Further, Bhutto’s government, inclusive of its populist rhetoric and genuine attempts to institute reform in Pakistan’s cultural and political life, 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. One of the most egregious acts 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.
Bhutto’s political legacy is hence a complex one. But eventually one has immense respect for him as he went to the gallows with his head held high rather than succumb to the dictates of Ziaul Haq, the military dictator who deposed him.
TNS: You use a very different methodology to tell the history of this period than most other writers. Rather than the using structural analysis of political economy, you often tell the story of the communist movement through the interpersonal relationships between communists, mainstream political leaders, state functionaries and media personalities. What are the advantages of such an approach that emphasises personal experiences in historical writing?
KAA: I am an anthropologist by training, not an historian. I have tried to be sensitive to the craft of history writing by sincerely documenting all the sources that have helped me write the narrative. But my impulse has been that of an ethnographer. I am indebted to my teachers Sidney Mintz and Michel-Rolph Trouillot whose works have helped me retain my anthropological perspective while involving myself in history writing (looking for cultural patterns, the silences, the marginalised).
The book is based on oral testimonies, ethnographic fieldwork, memoirs, literary texts and archival research. By paying 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. I have used my sources (the multiple and different kinds of archives) not as passively informing me about some hidden "truth", but rather I have actively and critically engaged with them. There is very little cultural history written on Pakistan’s early period, so tracing certain assertions through a range of memoirs became ‘detective’ work that had its own pleasure. In all this, I remain sensitive to the voices that get unrepresented in histories of "big men" and "large events". In that sense my book seeks to bring forward (to the best of one’s ability) the inaudible and the marginalised voices. As the stories I share take their own life in various narrations, they also opened up avenues for further speculation and analysis.
While in graduate school I was impressed by the writings from the social history movement that produced amazingly important work from the 1970s onwards, historians like Carlo Ginzburg and Alf Ludtke come to mind. There were other influences from the cultural and literary Marxism of E.P Thompson and Raymond Williams. Then there was the literary turn of Hayden White, who opened up questions of narrative and trope in history writing. So the influence has been eclectic in theoretical terms. But most importantly it was the subaltern studies collective from India that opened up a new avenue for people of my generation to engage with history writing in the South Asian context. We who were working on Pakistan and other non Western cultures realised that we needed to write different kinds of histories where other voices (perhaps "small" voices) mattered.
In the book, I mention a number of young and established scholars (anthropologists, literature scholars, historians, art historians, architectural historians, sociologists) who are trying to rethink how best to intervene in the writing of Pakistan’s past and present and move the discussion away from histories that primarily focus on either Muslim Nationalism, on Islam or on Gender issues (that too very narrowly).