CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Elangovan


[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.]

CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam
Author: Kamran Asdar Ali
July 27– Ananya Jahanara Kabir, Professor of English Literature,  Kings College.
July 31– Atiya Singh, University of Chicago.
Aug 14– Author’s response
Communism in Pakistan: Politics and Class Activism 1947 – 1972 by Kamran Asdar Ali. London and New York: IB Tauris. xiv + 298 pp.
Surkh Salam
Surkh Salam
Arvind Elangovan, Assistant Professor of History, Wright State University.


A Defiant History

Kamran Asdar Ali’s Communism in Pakistan is a towering testament to the presence of a once vibrant brand of left politics in Pakistan. Ali’s probing, sympathetic, and yet critical account leaves none in doubt about the genuineness and promise of the communist project of emancipation or at the very least fulfill its potential to be the critical voice of Pakistan. However, as Ali illustrates, the communist project could not achieve either of these ends. Instead, ‘bigger’ imperatives such as the need to create and maintain the integrity of the state of Pakistan through a strict enforcement of nationalist and religious inspired rhetoric and the geo-political maneuvers of the United States and Great Britain in their interests of the fight in the cold war severely affected not only the trajectory of left politics but also entangled the movement in contradictions almost from the beginning. The resulting tensions also contributed to the swift decline of left politics.

However, Ali’s aim is not merely to record the contextual decline of left politics in Pakistan as a minor part of a grander narrative of Pakistan’s political history in the postcolonial period. Instead, it is a defiant account of a once influential strand of Pakistan’s political fabric that even in its ‘ruins’ dares to emit a beacon of hope for the present and future generations. This defiance can be seen in both the methodology that Ali employs as well as in the substance of his narrative.

Methodologically, Ali laments the overbearing presence of nationalist accounts of Pakistan’s political history that has marginalized other and alternative historical events, processes, and personalities during this period. He notes, ‘The challenge remains of how to represent the multiple layers of Pakistan’s history in order to remove it from the Muslim nationalism, gender discrimination, security studies/Islamic threat paradigms – important as they may be – that constantly inform the scholarship on Pakistan.’ (p. 2). Such nationalistic accounts have led to ‘selective amnesia’ that have erased and thereby engendered the silencing of the diversity of Pakistan’s political history. Much in the spirit of recovering subaltern voices, Ali aims to record ‘…the history of those who are inaudible in the grand narratives of national history projects.’ (p. 2). In this sense, by revisiting the ‘ruins’ of left politics in Pakistan, and following Ann Stoler’s suggestions of the possibilities of engaging with such ruins, Ali hopes to recover, ‘…what is tenacious in the residues and how there are emergent and resurgent histories embedded in the ‘ruins’ of the past.’ (p. 20).

It is important to note that though writing in defiance of this silencing of diversity in Pakistan’s history, Ali consciously avoids a flattering account of left history. If anything, the account is quite acutely critical of the many contradictions and lack of clarity exhibited by the leaders of the left movement at various stages of its existence. Consider, for instance, Ali’s account of Sajjad Zaheer (1905-1973), who was appointed as the first General Secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan. Coming from an aristocratic family from the United Provinces, Zaheer had a privileged background, moving in similar circles as Jawaharlal Nehru. (p. 52). In the short period that he was in charge of the Communist Party (1948-1951), Zaheer reorganized the party machinery in West Pakistan, and gradually his control over the party activities, however minute, became increasingly tighter. Ideologically, Ali tells us, Zaheer became critical of ‘…even the slightest deviation from party policy.’ (p. 68). At this time, Zaheer believed in the communist revolution by adopting a confrontational approach to issues of labor management, for instance, which resulted in several cadre members being arrested, leaving the offices and press to be run by junior workers. (p. 76-77). Moreover, Zaheer also closely supervised the party newspaper organ, Naya Zamana. Ali underscores the way Zaheer, ‘…would give advice on every aspect of the production of the paper and see to it that his orders were implemented.’ (p. 71). In assessing his contribution, Ali sympathetically notes Zaheer’s many achievements in working under difficult conditions (for instance, organizing much of the party, while remaining underground) but at the same time points out that he was someone who grossly overestimated the capability of the miniscule proletariat. (p. 83). Similarly, though Zaheer could intellectually understand that the under development of proletariat force would greatly hinder the move towards socialism, yet, in his own work in Pakistan, he did not espouse that idea. Ali’s sharp assessment of Zaheer’s work is not an undiluted celebration of early communist party work but rather a somber and reflective account of the many contradictions that characterized this moment in Pakistan’s history.

Similarly, Ali’s account of the intellectual debates around this period is an instructive window to assess the tensions within the cultural aspects of the communist party during this early period. Ali notes an interesting difference of views between Sajjad Zaheer and Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi (1916-2006). While Zaheer believed in communist inspired emancipatory politics with no role for Islam, Qasmi considered communism and Islam to be complementary and not antithetical. (p. 89). Ali notes that Qasmi was the first general secretary of the All Pakistan Progressive Writers’ Association (APPWA), an organization that Zaheer helped found in India (All India Progressive Writers’ Association, AIPWA) and later in Pakistan attempted to control it as well. Indeed, Ali uses this exchange between Qasmi and Zaheer as a preview to indicate the larger tension that the question of Islam and associated value of morality that divided the progressive writers. One of the interesting examples that Ali mentions is the discussion of Sa’ adat Hasan Manto’s work among the progressive writers. Even as some writers appreciated the deft portrayal of social problems in Manto, others saw the reference to sex and sexuality as a ‘deviance’ and distraction from the communist project. Ali notes two interesting consequences as a result of these discussions. Firstly, it led to a situation where the progressive writers themselves began censoring works that were not palatable to the Marxist ideology, which was ironic since they were victims of censorship from the state and secondly, it also led to one time sympathizers of the movement like Mohammad Din Taseer who, after being one of the founders of the progressive writers’ movement actually became a critic and then sympathizer of the nationalist project in Pakistan by the late 1940s. (p. 110).

Ali, thus carefully draws a nuanced picture of not only the evolution of left politics within a complex milieu of the imperative of creating a new state and multiple ideas of nationhood that clamored for recognition but also points to the numerous fractions that simultaneously emerged within the leftist movement. Ali’s discussion of the fate of the communist party and left politics in the aftermath of the Rawalpindi conspiracy and the brutal suppression of communist party workers and sympathizers by the militaristic regimes of Ayub Khan and Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, paints a picture of a violent encounter between the state and ‘its dissidents.’ However, here too, Ali is careful to point out that the relationship between these military regimes and communist ideology was not always antithetical. In fact, there was a faction of leftist workers who felt aligned to the social project of Ayub Khan’s reign and thought that they should work together with Khan. (p. 163.) Similarly, the rise of Pakistan People’s Party under Bhutto began with a promise of fulfilling the ideological needs of the communist party, when it called for working alongside with peasants and industrial workers. However, soon after, the Bhutto regime brutally quelled labor unrest and redesigned the industrial workplace to marginalize such unrests in the future. (p. 176-194). Left politics in Pakistan, then, ultimately succumbed to its own internal divisions engendered by the most non-conducive template of swiftly changing political scenarios dominated by militaristic regimes that were deeply suspicious of ‘de-stabilizing’ forces in the country.

Indeed, in resurrecting even such a tortured, contradictory and ultimately failed attempt at retaining a vigorous leftist politics, Ali’s account is one of defiance. A most telling example comes in the form of the epilogue, where Ali breaks the silence of historians on the question of violence committed by West Pakistan on East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. In just narrating the political events and atrocities committed by the Pakistani army, Ali moves away from the heart of his narrative (that of the fate of the communist party) to record the violence unleashed by the state of Pakistan as a ‘timely reminder’ of continuing nature of struggle that hovers over our present existence. (p. 205).

Ali’s historical and resilient narrative of the communist party’s politics in Pakistan is an insightful account of the nature of challenges that a leftist politics of emancipation faced at the time of decolonization. The book’s methodological imperative of ‘re-membering’ the past in order to find histories of resurgence and the empirical impetus to record the complex careers of individuals and associated events in this period raises at least three interesting sets of questions. Firstly, what was the influence of the Communist Party of Pakistan among the general population? Since much of the discussion in the book is centered on the formal political organization and its main leaders, it would be useful to explore the reception of this ideology among the people. Of course, Ali does address this issue tangentially, when he mentions the conversations he had with his informants about labor strikes, for instance (p. 177), and also more centrally when he mentions that often the views of the workers themselves get eclipsed in favor of the leaders of the movement. (p. 192).

Recovering these subaltern voices may be critical to not just fill an empirical lacuna but to engage with the project of exploring the resilience of the Left in Pakistan. For, the site of the ‘ruins’ may not only be the formal institutions but it could be buried and often leaves a trace (in a Derridean sense) in some of the most innocuous ways of everyday life. Indeed, Ali’s own telling encounters with Khadijah Omar and Joan Afzal reveal such a trace. For instance, Ali notes that during his conversation with Omar, ‘…I got the feeling that even after 60 years, the training of a communist cadre to not reveal anything to strangers was still quite intact.’ (p. 52). Similarly, on meeting Joan Afzal, Ali was greeted with an offer of a drink, either scotch or gin, in the afternoon. When Ali was ‘taken aback’, Afzal remarked, ‘All Pakistani communists started drinking before noon and they loved scotch, neat.’ (p. 116). I wonder about the immense possibilities of a genealogy of politics that can emerge with such innocuous and yet crucial remnants of practice that may continue through generations. Indeed, Ali’s work certainly gestures towards recovering such moments and it may be fruitful to expand the scope of the influence of the communist party on the general population.

Secondly, on a more general methodological note, while I am sympathetic and indeed agree with the project of writing histories that resists the hegemonization of nationalist inspired narratives, I am struck though by the conceptual and empirical capaciousness of nationalism. Often, I wonder whether by writing non-nationalist histories, we unwittingly replicate a template of nationalism that reproduces the same faults that one seeks to disavow. I guess, the more general question here is, how do we write histories of a nation (however critical one is of nationalism) without a semblance of nationalism influencing such an effort?

Finally, Ali’s discussion of the differences of views between Qasmi and Zaheer is very telling and I remain curious about the larger conceptual relationship between Islam and communism. (Chapter 3). The debate remains somewhat under explored in the chapter and it seems that this relationship, if unpacked, would yield rich and meaningful insights.

To conclude, Ali’s book, Communism in Pakistan makes for a riveting reading. In an elegant and sophisticated way, Ali reminds us that we often forget but it is important to remember that there are institutions at work to aid this amnesia. The task, therefore, is to defy such acts of memory lapses. I could not agree more.


Arvind Elangovan is an Assistant Professor of History at Wright State University. He is interested in political and constitutional histories of India and is currently working on his book, Norms and Politics: Sir Benegal Narsing Rau and the Making of the Indian Constitution, 1935-50.

3 Replies to “CM Roundtable I: Surkh Salam – Elangovan”

Comments are closed.