Trying to ride the state’s coattails to power, Pakistan’s ageing Maoists concede that they misjudged the nature of their country and population.
Down at the Anarkali Bazaar teashops in Lahore, the aged leftovers of what was once the Left of Pakistan have time in their hands. When they tire of the television screens at home, they come here to debate the merits and demerits of the pro-China and pro-Russia decisions made so long ago by their respective factions.
Ironically, this is perhaps the only place in the country where you can hear such discussion, for there is hardly a trace of the Left remaining elsewhere in the polity. The Maoism that permeated the political thinking of the intelligentsia in the 1960s, if not mainstream politics itself, today survives only in teashop gossip of late-night Lahore.
Ironically enough, the decade-old history of Maoism in Pakistan had very little to sustain, anyway. Listening in to the conversation, one realises that even the staunchest Maoists today accept that their analyses and politics “back then” were misconceived.
The paradox of Maoism´s short-lived history on the Indus plain is that it was born in the very womb of the Pakistani state. The fountainhead of Maoism lay in the establishment which it was out to eliminate. For, instead of springing up among the masses to fulfil an ideological appetite or stemming from philosophical discourse, Maoism came to Pakistan simply because the government had aligned itself with China in the context of regional politics.
Against the backdrop of a growing relationship between General Ayub Khan and the US administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Foreign Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto pushed through a dramatic shift in the country´s foreign policy in the early 1960s. The Indo-China war of 1962 had already brought Pakistan and China close as both had a common enemy in the region. But it was the 1965 Indo-Pak war which actually paved the way for a strong alignment between the two adversaries of India.
This also laid the groundwork for Maoism in a country where, since its conception in 1947, communists had been the state´s first target. As Imtiaz Alam, a former Maoist leader who later developed differences and formed his own Punjab Lok Party, puts it, “The state level friendship between China and Pakistan certainly provided an overall psychological atmosphere and it did play a very important role in the development of Maoism.” But, he adds, “There were other factors as well.”
Beyond the state-level friendship with China, Maoism´s growth can be attributed to the much romanticised parallel that the Pakistani communists drew between their society and that of the Chinese. Says Mr Alam, “It was intellectually stimulating to deviate from the Russian line and explore the Chinese model since it apparently had some similarities with our conditions. The Chinese way of revolution attracted a lot of intellectuals here because Pakistan was also an agriculture-based society. Also, by the mid-1960s, cracks in the USSR model were already visible. The emergence of a strong bureaucracy disillusioned some of our young communist leaders.”
However, the romanticised parallel proved quite incorrect. “In this thesis we were basically confusing China´s semi-colonial experience with Pakistan´s neo-colonial experience,” says Khalid Mehmud, onetime Maoist who later left the party.
Whatever the intricacies of the Maoist debate at that time, the fact remained that the Communist Party of Pakistan, banned in 1952, discovered the environment suddenly conducive to its activities in the 1960s. After the 1965 war, Pakistan was flooded with Mao badges and caps along with bundles of red books. The small underground communist groups were only too happy to use the cover provided by the Sino-Pak friendship to take the message of Mao Zedong to the masses.
The communists of West Pakistan who, in the wake of the official ban, had joined the obscure centre-right Azad Party, resurfaced to form the National Awami Party (NAP). Immediately, a debate began within the NAP over the Moscow-Peking split. As was the case in every other South Asian country with a communist movement worth the name, the party broke up into two groups. One was led by Abdul Hameed Khan Bhashani, who preferred to go the Chinese way, and the other by Khan Abdul Wali Khan, who found it difficult to severe ties with the Russians who were supporting him from neighbouring Kabul.
Those who advocated NAP´s alignment with Peking sought to take advantage of the popularity of China for its support in the 1965 war. They thought this would help the NAP enlarge its support base without developing direct antagonisms in a society not quite responsive to left-wing politics. In opposition to the pro-Peking Maoists was the Russian school, which based its arguments on a somewhat stronger footing.
The Russian experience had relevance for Pakistan, said this faction, because the Soviets put an emphasis on population diversity within their country. This was not a problem that had to be addressed seriously by the Chinese, given their largely homogeneous population. Thus, the Chinese model failed to take the “national question” of Pakistan into account, meaning the tackling of provincial aspirations, and merely emphasised the unitary integrity of the Pakistani state as a regional ally of China.
Because Maoism did not offer much guidance on the question of ethnic identities, the leftist groups from the smaller provinces tended to become disenchanted with the Peking model. They preferred to stick to the pro-Russian Wali Khan, who laid special emphasis on the national question and the rights of the smaller provinces. Leading left-wing nationalist leaders such as Ghous Bux Bazinjo, Khair Bux Marri and Sardar Atta Ullah Mengal from Balochistan and Hakim Ali Zardari from Sindh supported Wali Khan, who himself belonged to the Frontier Province.
“In a country where diversity is still a fact, it was a blunder to ignore it,” recalls Khalid Mehmud. Maoism, therefore, paid its price, as is clear from the fact that it only made limited progress in the province of Punjab and in the metropolis of Karachi – both were areas where nationalism has never been an issue since they always retained the lion´s share of power in the Pakistani state.
Thus, the Maoists positioned themselves incongruously with the bigger nationality groups, in Punjab and Karachi, even though their ideology should have put them with the smaller, more oppressed, nationalities.
Even when given the opportunity to chart out their own course, the Maoists of Pakistan were found wanting. In 1970, Abdul Hameed Khan Bhashani, who was leading the Chinese group and was one of the few Maoists with a strong support base in his hometown in East Pakistan, was kicked out of West Pakistan by the governor-general, Musa Khan. Strangely enough, upon returning to the East, Bhashani chose to support Sheikh Mujibur Rahman´s Awami League rather than contest elections with his own party. Many of Bhashani´s old colleagues still find this decision extremely strange, for he seemed to have missed an opportunity of posing a credible challenge to the Awami League.
Back in West Pakistan, many of Bhashani´s comrades took a similarly curious decision when they joined Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto´s Pakistan People´s Party (PPP), which had by then managed to mobilise a mass movement against Ayub Khan´s martial law regime. The Left hoped to use the PPP´s mass platform, and thought it strategically wise to work with the man who had been the architect of the China-tilt of the Pakistani government. The list of those joining the PPP at that time included the names of leading Maoists such as Malik Meraj Khalid, Tufail Abbas and Zareena Rana. Today´s human rights crusader Mubashir Hassan, at whose residence the PPP was actually formed, was himself known for his inclination towards Maoism.
By 1977, most of the Maoists who had joined the PPP with the hope of using it as a mass platform for radical change had lost their grip on party affairs. Tired and disillusioned, many of the leading Maoists found some comfort in the increasingly popular Frankfurt School, with its emphasis on sociology and culture in political thought. Choosing to lower their sights from mass-based national politics, the Maoists began to form small groups whose interests turned more towards culture, language and local economic issues. Essentially, these Maoists had decided to do away with their past.
The largest and most active of such groups was the Punjab Lok Party, which had Imtiaz Alam, Zubair Rana and Lakht Pasha now advocating change of the system from within. Perhaps the biggest contribution of Punjab Lok Party, in its brief flicker from 1978 to 1984, was to put aside borrowed Marxist jargon and seek answers in the study of local social realities and economic requirements. It was also this group which initiated a debate on change from within after a thorough self-criticism of the Left´s history.
While some Maoists found a niche for themselves in the state order, the indecisive ones were swept away by the Afghan revolution and the subsequent rise of Soviet influence in Pakistan. The 1980s proved a barren decade for Maoism. Those who had joined the PPP faced extreme repression under General Ziaul Haq, while those who had stayed pure were completely sidelined by the onslaught of Russian influence.
Back at the Anarkali tea-shops today, there is a consensus which eluded Maoists in the past. To paraphrase what these tired fighters have to say, “We never really tried to develop something from our own culture and land. Most of the time our politics and thought were determined by events outside of our culture. And that´s why we could never get anywhere in this country.”