Has the Left left Pakistan?
By Haider K. Nizamani: Dawn, December 4, 2007
INDIA'S West Bengal and Pakistan's Punjab are comparable provinces in terms of population. About 80 million people live in each.
Since 1977, the people of West Bengal have voted Communist Party Marxist (CPM)-led coalitions into office. It would be preposterous to imagine communists forming the provincial government in our Punjab after the January elections. The Left simply does not matter when it comes to Pakistan's political chessboard.
Is there any Left left in Pakistan? What happened to it as an organised entity? What about the ideas it championed? Are the issues that provided the Left rationale for action resolved in today's Pakistani society? Should we mourn or celebrate the death of the Left?
The fate of the Left in Pakistan from the very beginning was bound-up with the machinations of Cold War politics and the way Pakistan's ruling elite firmly aligned itself with the West in that conflict. The role of the Left in the country varied in each decade of Pakistan's history up-to the 1990s. This brief run-down on the changing fortunes and misfortunes of the Pakistani Left since independence is offered here in the spirit of initiating discussion on this issue. The overview is confined to the present day Pakistan which until 1971 had less than half of the country's population.
What do we mean by the Left in Pakistani context? For this article it refers to self-identified Leftist parties and individuals who question the existing social property relations and the international order associated with them. Marxism in some form remained its intellectual inspiration.
The Left identified itself with the cause of economically exploited urban and rural classes of the country. The state was seen as a custodian of the interests of absentee landlords and the big capital at home and world capitalism led by the United States at the global level. At the time of independence, the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), an offshoot of the Communist Party of India (CPI), became the organisational base to coordinate efforts to dismantle what it viewed as prevailing unequal and unjust socio-political order.
The CPI had lent its support to the Muslim League's demand of Pakistan invoking the principle of national self-determination. That support, however, did not translate into a congenial working atmosphere for the CPP in the newly created state. Faiz Ahmed Faiz's poem Subh-e-Azadi (Freedom's dawn) succinctly summarised the 1950s for the Left in Pakistan. He called it 'the night-bitten dawn.' In March of 1951 several high ranking military officers, including Major General Akbar Khan, and their civilian cohorts were arrested for allegedly planning the overthrow of the government to install a pro-Moscow regime.
The Rawalpindi Conspiracy, as it is commonly known, was used as a ruse to suppress dissent and punish those individuals who were identified with the Left. It was also used to strengthen pro-West officers within the higher echelons of the armed forces. The subsequent witch-hunt led to the arrest of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Syed Sajjad Zaheer, who had relocated to Pakistan in order to lead the CPP, and other intellectuals and trade unionists associated with the Left. And this, in Ayesha Jalal's words turned Pakistan 'into a veritable intellectual wasteland'.
The Pakistani Left, in term of organisational capacity, was in disarray during the 1960s. Consolation for this weakness came in the shape of issues which dominated the political discourse in the late 1960s. Spin-doctors of the Ayub regime organised celebrations under the banner of 'the decade of development.' All that ordinary West Pakistanis saw was growing disparity and pauperisation. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had jumped the Ayubian boat, and the Pakistani left joined hands to express popular sentiments in the slogan of 'roti, kapra, aur makan' (bread, clothing, and housing). These were quintessential Left issues added by call for an independent, which meant less pro-American, foreign policy.
The 1970s started with the revolution of rising expectations which swiftly slid into the revolution of rising resentments and disillusionment. The political honeymoon between Bhutto and the Left didn't last long. Imperatives of strengthening his hold on power compelled Bhutto to cozy up to Pakistan's traditional power bases. The Left did not have the organisational capacity to match Bhutto's populist polemics. In marked contrast with the 1970 elections where agenda revolved around roti, kapra, aur makan; the agenda of the 1977 elections was largely shaped by the clergy questioning Bhutto's Islamic credentials. The Left had waned from the political horizon.
Then came General Ziaul Haq and his penchant to turn Pakistan into Islam's fortress. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan resulted in what Fred Halliday calls 'the second cold war' with Zia teaming up with Ronald Reagan to bleed the Soviets. Support for the Mujahideen was matched by repression at home. Intelligence and police forces actively hunted down Leftists, often on trumped up or trivial charges. As a result, university teachers, students, journalists, and assorted other activists with actual or imagined connections with communism were more likely to be found behind bars during much of the 1980s.
The tenacity with which some of these individuals faced the Zia regime made up for their lack of organisational capacity and intellectual depth. When most of these towering individuals were released by 1987 their mystique evaporated as they struggled for political anchorage in changed Pakistan.
The collapse of the Soviet Union dealt the ideological and psychological blow to the Left for which it was least prepared. The folksy Marxism it subscribed to viewed Soviet Union as infallible. The West celebrated the end of the Cold War as the 'end of history' where capitalism and liberal democracy had triumphed as the organising principle for political communities.
Formal political space in Pakistan was now occupied by centrist and right of the centre parties. Where did the Left go in the 1990s? Individuals belonging to the Left ran helter-skelter and most of them eventually ended up in two fields; media, both print and electronic; and mainly externally funded non-government organisations (NGOs) working in areas of education, health, micro-credit, and women's empowerment.
The remunerative edge of the NGO sector means it is more appealing. But the changed ideological milieu has made erstwhile opponents of capital into means of spreading its reach in far flung corners of society in the name of micro-credit. Whereas in the past the Left spoke of classes and contradictions the new jargon is centred on community and cooperation.
Anti-imperialism and the struggle for equitable and just order at home went hand-in-hand in the traditional leftist agenda. In today's Pakistan the plank of anti-imperialism is occupied by overly-simplistic anti-Americanism as championed by assorted religious parties and individuals like Imran Khan. Concern for an equitable and just socio-political order is conspicuously absent from the current political discourse.
With the Left nowhere to be seen in the formal political arena, Pakistan's political discourse revolves around phrases like 'extremism versus moderation' both of which leave the fundamental structures of the society untouched. 'The night-bitten dawn' Faiz lamented half-a-century back has indeed lasted for a long time and shows no signs of ending.