Sunday, January 04, 2009

A Revolutionary’s Tale - Dada Amir Haider Khan

BOOK REVIEW: A Revolutionary’s Tale
Reviewed By Dr Muhammad Ali Siddiqui, Dawn, January 4, 2008

Chains to Lose: Life and Struggles of a Revolutionary (Memories of Dada Amir Haider Khan) I & II; Edited By Hasan N. Gardezi
Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi

Dada Amir Haider’s autobiography, published by Pakistan Study Centre University of Karachi in two volumes, is the first reminiscences of a worker-revolutionary of the subcontinent who periscoped the panoramic view of the world of his times right from the age of 14, when he left the shores of Bombay as a coal-boy on a ship, to the time he returned to his homeland in 1945.

Having acquired the first-hand experiences of numerous countries, he eventually became a naturalised American leading to his association with the American Communist Party which enabled him to proceed to Moscow soon after 1917 revolution. He also attended the Communist International moot in 1919, finding time to join the University of the Peoples of the East for a two-year course. He went to China to witness the Kuomintang treachery against Russia. His narrative covers Europe, North America, South America, and South American countries of Brazil and Argentina with particular emphasis on the conditions of the working classes of these places. His account of becoming a naturalised American citizen in the 1920s shows that America was waiting to enlist cheap labour in its exploitative system as soon as the migrants presented themselves for naturalisation.

The first part of Dada’s autobiography appeared in India during his visit to India after serving a long jail term in Pakistan. Prof Gardezi did the yeoman’s job in collecting scattered pieces of his reminiscences to prepare the first and second volumes of this book. The Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi, did well to have these volumes published along with the first volume which was not available.

Dada was, at best, a minority group’s icon. He couldn’t be a popular figure even in the Punjab. Maybe the reason is that he had to remain outside India during the best part of his life. In 1945, the year of his return to India, he saw the Communist Party eating humble pie by dissociating itself from its support for Pakistan during the P.C. Joshi’s stewardship of the party in 1943.

Rajni Palme Dutt of the British Communist Party had succeeded in changing the course of the party’s catalytic role. The Royal Indian Navy’s rebellion was also around the corner. Dada has not commented upon this important event which dented Churchill’s resolve to stay on. The tattered British economy, which couldn’t survive without the heavy tranches of America’s financial aid, had hastened the process of Indian independence. The subsequent events – removal of Wavell and Mountbatten’s assignment as the last British Viceroy in India, had virtually pushed the Communist Party of India to change it.

Dada’s return towards the eclipse of the British power in the subcontinent was not the time for much ado in the progressive circles. Dada’s reminiscences about life as a ‘coal boy’ on the ship convinces us that Britain’s position as the leading sea-faring and trading nation was being challenged right from 1870s but it was still a major player. From the areas adjoining the Persian Gulf to the way up to countries beyond Turkey, the awe of British Empire could be felt. The ignominy which was inflicted on Turkey after manipulating it to side with Russia against the Allied Forces, paved the way for the Balfour Declaration leading to the eventual creation of Israel.

Dada’s political consciousness records for us all significant moves and events of his time from progressive viewpoint. Dada discusses Bombay, Basra, Colombia, Rangoon, Port Said, Gibraltar, London, New York, Panama, Vladivostok, Shanghai, Manila, Madras, Cape Town, New York, Buenos Aires, Baltimore, Naples, Trinidad, Port of Spain, Yokohama, Moscow and Shanghai of his youthful days in a frank manner.

There is hardly any book which describes the reminiscences of an Indian who crossed Panama Canal twice as a young man in the first two decades of the 20th century. Dada reports the hostility between the Mexicans and Americans so vividly that the reasons for the present day tension between Mexico and the US become clear. He describes New York – which he later came to call ‘his city’ – of the 1920s and portrays the lives of African-Americans labourers. He throws light on the Ku Klux Klan movement, a remnant of the US Civil war with sympathy for the underdogs.

His portrayal of life in Italy, England, Germany, Russia, China — particularly post-revolution Russia and Chiang Kai Shek’s China under threat from the Communist movement is valuable.

Dada, during his stay in China, met M.N. Roy, and his impressions of M.N. Roy who later became Radical Humanist and has been alleged by the British to be in their pay, matches, more or less, with Mao’ Ze Dong’s impression as Stalin’s folly to hoist him on China.

Dada’s advocacy of Stalin, when he embarked on the First Five-year plan despite Trotsky’s opposition, is really a welcome appreciation. Dada thinks that Russia’s sacrifices for the support and sustenance of international communism were of pivotal nature and Trotsky was working for a narrow Russian interest by opposing this action.

Dada describes his two years course days at the University of the Peoples of the East as well. Only the last 128 pages of Volume II pertain to the meetings with old friends in India and about the working class movement and Indian Communist Party. One could see that Dada was nowhere in the limelight. It was not modesty on his part but a fact of life.

Dada doesn’t suffer from any complex of emerging bigger than life. He calls himself a worker and what a worker he comes out to be. What a wealth of the first hand experience which could serve the contemporary and latter-day readers with the message that one couldn’t have a better teacher than adversity and consequent struggle against it. This kind of teaching steels one with resolve to work for changing the world, not merely interpreting it.

His childhood account of the Potohar life is very interesting and it is strange that nothing has changed much in the social landscape of the area since then in spite of the phenomenal development of Islamabad and Rawalpindi area.

It is hoped that the next edition of this important work will pay due attention to condensation and chronological sequencing of this important work.

For more on Dada Amir Haider Khan, click here, and here

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