[The CM Roundtable is a new series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. Each new roundtable will conclude with the author’s response. We thank each of our distinguished panelists and the authors for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]
Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 – 1972 by Kamran Asdar Ali. London and New York: IB Tauris. xiv + 298 pp.
Sarah Besky, Professor of Anthropology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University
The acknowledgements to Communism in Pakistan describe a conversation between Kamran Asdar Ali and an activist in Karachi. As they sat and drank tea in the midst of political tumult in Pakistan in the late 1970s, Asdar Ali’s interlocutor remarked that a history of the Pakistani Left had yet to be written. Not only was that history unwritten; in the activist’s opinion, it needed to be written. Asdar Ali’s book sets out to fill that need. It focuses on the years between Partition and the formation of Bangladesh and the accession of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to power.
Asdar Ali begins by invoking Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s deceptively simple question from Silencing the Past (1995): “What happened?” (p. 10). Specifically, Asdar Ali asks what happened when the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) broke off from the Communist Party of India (CPI). The simple answer is that Partition put these two organizations on separate paths, but Asdar Ali provides a fascinating behind the scenes look at the CPP, describing the group’s marginalization and ultimate outlawing in the early decades of Pakistan’s political life. Following Trouillot, for Asdar Ali, to narrate the Pakistani Left is to write against silences. There is a “national amnesia,” he writes (p. 6), that obscures certain voices in mainstream scholarship on Pakistan. This scholarship, he notes, tends to examine themes of Muslim nationalism, gender discrimination, and militarization (p. 2). These themes are important, but he argues that the early years of the Pakistani state, wrapped in the ideology of Muslim nationalism, put forth a deceptive “metanarrative of an undivided nation on the populace” (p. 5).
To do the work of narrating “what happened” to the Pakistani Left, Asdar Ali de-centers dominant figures in Pakistan history–namely Jinnah and the Muslim League. “In Pakistan’s early history,” he writes, “we find contesting voices of uncertainty and confusion, against an emerging nationalist framework, debating the shape Pakistan’s social, political and cultural life would take in the ensuing years” (p. 13). Continue reading “CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Besky”