Marx out of ten

The Friday Times | Jan 3, 2006

Imaduddin Ahmed

Why Pakistani communism lags behind India’s – an encounter with Taimur Rahman

“Marxist” is not a term of abuse in India, at least not to the voting majority in West Bengal or Tripura where the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), currently holds government, or to its over 800,000 paying, participating and versed members. The CPI(M), also a dominant force in Arundhati Roy’s Kerala, is only one of several communist parties in India and boasts to be India’s third strongest party in the national parliament. CPI(M) Marxism is an institution with muscle. But on this side of the border, one finds that it’s quite a different situation.

“Marxism? No! That’s against our religion,” concur an engineering student and a young rent-a-car businessman. “They still exist? I thought they were extinct. They must still be an endangered species,” replied a sardonic vice chancellor of a university. He had just heard that the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP) and Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) of Pakistan had invited a delegation of 24 Marxists from the All India Progressive Writers’ Association for a nine-day tour through cities in Sindh and the Punjab.

Taking the centenary birthday of the late founder of the Communist Party of Pakistan, Sajjad Zaheer, as a time to reflect how far the communists had come in Pakistan, the charismatic Taimur Rahman, President of the Punjab CMKP and faculty of Lahore University of Management Sciences, explained that having Indian communist delegates share in the tribute would give CMKP members the opportunity to ask, “How did you get so big?” and reassess the question, “why are we so small?”

Unfortunately, the event hosted on 29th December, 2005 in Lahore at Shirkat Gah by the CMKP left little space for the Indian delegates to speak, let alone speak in any depth. Representatives from the Pakistan’s Women Worker’s Organisation (an anti-military, pro-woman party that advocates for women workers, peasants and home-based workers’ rights), the Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz (Brick Kiln Workers Front), Anjuman Mazarin Punjab (Landless Tenants Movement Punjab) and Pakistan Trade Union Federation introduced themselves with a mix of fiery and sedate but long speeches. The emphasis lay on singing (very melodiously, lead by LUMS student Shahram Azhar) and chanting variants of “Inqilaab! Zindabad!” (Long live revolution!), “Pak-Bharat dosti! Zindabad!” (Long live Pakistani and Indian friendship!) and “Socialism! Zindabad!” – perhaps indicative of how the CMKP leadership felt that they could hold the attention of their predominantly worker audience of 70 from districts Okara, Kasur, Faisalabad, Raiwind and Lahore. Tellingly, the workers from Okara also instigated the chant, “alkia! Maard!” (Ownership or death).

The constitution of the Indian panel that sat on the guest chairs for the tribute revealed part of India’s success story. They were a mix of academics, educationists, theatre group owners and writers – it seems like India’s communists are consolidating their credibility by establishing themselves in indigenous culture and holding teaching posts from where they can influence students. Having been sent over from India to set up and run the Communist Party of Pakistan as Secretary General in 1948, Sajjad Zaheer used the same vision of integrating communism with culture and students. Along with the Lenin-prize winning Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the CPP set up the organisations Progressive Writers Movement and Democratic Students Front alongside the Pakistan Trade Union Federation and the Railway Workers Union.

The existence of these culture-orienting organisations, however, was short-lived. CPP members were incriminated in the 1951 Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, which resulted in the incarceration of the CPP’s top leadership, including Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and the groups were banned.

With time running short before the Indian delegates had to move on, and exhausted after a bus journey from Sindh and seven days of packed seminars and media conferences, Noor Sajjad, a writer, theatre company owner and the daughter of Sajjad Zaheer, invited Taimur Rahman, a masters degree holder in International Relations from the University of Sussex, to share the CMKP’s history and current initiatives.

In an earlier interview, Taimur Rahman had set the scene: “India has a vibrant nationalist movement, it has a strong industrial base and it is a state which has democratic freedoms, where people are left alone to practice the politics they want to. Indian society has a broad cultural outlook as they look both East and West. Pakistan is a lot more insular. Pakistan is a country where the state decides what politics the people can practice and persecutes the left.”

Taimur Rahman walked the Indian delegation through a history of Pakistan’s communist movement, mentioning that the communist student activism of the 1960s was crushed and replaced by state sponsored Jamaat-e-Islami student activism in the 1980s. “The students had arms and used them with a right-wing, fascist viciousness,” he said Communist teachers were also purged from state-run universities, which he added, was a big blow to the communist movement because, “communism traditionally uses three mediums: teaching, study circles and literature.” Another blow that hurt the left movement in general, he added, were Benazir Bhutto’s terms as prime minister. Expecting a revolution from the leader who had fought against military rule and promised roti, kapra, makhan (bread, clothing and housing), many communist sympathisers who had supported the PPP became disillusioned with politics.
A former lecturer at Lahore School of Economics and current faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences, Taimur Rahman’s success at recruiting students to the movement was somewhat evident. Ten of his former or current students had helped organise the event, and, explained Rahman, the students and factory workers would share “bookish” knowledge and labour experiences in study circles. The Punjab chapter of the CMKP also engages in publishing news and agitational pamphlets in Urdu, 50,000 at a time for workers in the Punjab. Currently, the CMKP’s paid and participating membership is only in the hundreds, but, with the introduction of an online discussion and news forum, the CMKP has identified 1800 more subscribed sympathisers from the “intelligentsia.”

Besides the external circumstances that confined communism’s growth in Pakistan, Rahman explained that internal factors were also at play, despite a re-unification of the Communist Party of Pakistan and the Mazdoor Kissan Party in 1994: “We could have been a lot more popular if we didn’t talk about revolution. We decided to advocate directly for communism and introduce Marxism.” Internal rifts with allies also were aired as he implored the delegation to recognise who the ‘real’ communists in Pakistan were – likely referring to the Progressive Writers’ Association, with whom there was rivalry in hosting the Indian delegates’ visit. Further, people had left the party after it had decided that the intelligentsia should lead peasants and workers. “People who weren’t really committed communists but were broadly secular and socialists went into NGOs and into the PPP,” was yet another remark that showed that compromise and accommodation of a diversity of views were not on the CMKP leadership’s agenda.

Comparing this to The Banker’s Oct 2004 analysis of CPI(M) policy, one can guess how the CPI(M) has been able to gain a lot more popular appeal – much of the CPI(M)’s rhetoric against big business and foreign capital has been toned down in recent years in favour of a more pragmatic approach: ” . . . [the] party is open to the idea of privatising loss-making state firms but not profitable ones, and it will not oppose foreign investment provided it creates new jobs and brings in technology. While conceding that no country can stay isolated from the world today, [CPI(M) leader] Mr Yechuri stresses that the ‘opening up’ should not be at the expense of local industry or national sovereignty.”

A history that won’t be making it to Pakistan’s history curriculum any time soon . . .  History of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party, courtesy of the CMKP

1948: The Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) was set up by Sajjad Zaheer, an LLB from Oxford University with a journalism diploma from London University. Having been a founding member of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) and gained experience in India as the Secretary of the Allahabad Congress Committee, later of the UP State Committee and a Central Committee Member of the undivided Communist Party of India, Sajjad Zaheer was chosen to set up the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and convene as its Secretary General.

1951: An unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government by anti-imperialist officers within the army led to the incrimination CPP members and:
– the imprisonment of CPP leadership, including Sajjad Zaheer and Lenin-Prize winning Faiz Ahmed Faiz
– the ban of the CPP and the organisations that it had set up, including the Democratic Students Federation, the Progressive Writer’s Movement, the Railway Worker’s Union, the Progressive Papers.
The communist movement went underground.

1957: The CPP joined forces with other leftist and regional nationalist anti-imperialist groups under the cover of the National Awami Party (NAP).

1960s: The CPP built grassroots support within workers and peasants mass organisations.

1970: As a result of the rift between Chinese and Russian communist ideologies,
– the Maoists formed the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP)
– and immediately launched into guerrilla war against feudalism in the valley of Hashtnagar, Charsadda. The ‘People’s War’ mobilised peasant control over 200 square miles.
– The pro-Soviet CPP began an armed peasant struggle in the region of Patfeeder in Balochistan and fed mass based militant workers unions in the cities.

1977: Martial Law was declared throughout the country and almost the entire leadership was jailed.

Sa1982: Major Ishaq Muhammed, guiding force of the MKP, died of illness in jail, aged 62. Popular communist peasant leader Ghulam Nabi Kalu took leadership of the MKP.

1980s: Hundreds of activists were arrested and tortured during Zia ul Haq’s regime.

1991: The Soviet Union dissolved and left the communist movement demoralised, wavering and confused.

1994: Following self-criticism, the CPP and MKP re-unify to form the CMKP to uphold the banner of communism in Pakistan.



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