When it snowed in Moscow, overcoats would come out in Karachi. No longer.
There used to be a time when the village Bulhereji near Mohenjodaro in Pakistan’s Sindh province used to be known as Little Moscow, so strong was the communist influence there. Today, Bulhereji shows hardly a trace of the once-active Left movement.
The waning of communist fervour is the same all over Pakistan. Former members of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) are now a divided lot. Some have surrendered to other political ideologies, some have taken solace in Islam, while there are also those who desperately bank on the comeback of communism. Some praise Mikhail Gorbachev, others curse him; many have nothing to do with their past and a few proudly clutch on to it.
The collapse of the Soviet Union may have shattered the belief of many in communism, but not so for the few who maintain that it was not communism that fell but a “handful of corrupt communist leaders”. This never-say-die group is no longer active in politics, but that does not prevent it from celebrating even a small communist victory in any part of the world, and being crestfallen when reverses take place. It rejoiced when the communists returned and replaced Lech Walesa in Poland, came to power in Nepal, and maintained their hold in India’s West Bengal. On the other hand, there was deep shock when the Taliban hung the communist leader Najibullah (who, incidentally, was the brother-in-law of a former Peshawar communist).
Lenins, Ches, Castros
In the Cold War past, entering the Russian embassy or consulate meant being hounded by Pakistan’s secret service. Successive rulers in Pakistan declared communists a “serious threat” to the country’s security and religion. But, despite bearing jail, torture and punishment, Pakistani communists persevered in their ’cause’ and they would proudly name their children after communist heroes Lenin, Che, Castro or after characters in post-revolution Russian Grovels Tanya, Natasha, Kibral, etc.
The communists were men and women from every class background. Many of them had been to Moscow for studies, mostly via Afghanistan, India and Sri Lanka. Some married Russian women and a few even died in Moscow. The communists had their own insular jargon, culture, attitude, sects and factions, whereby members of every faction would regard themselves as the genuine brand, while deriding competing factions as “CIA agents”. They were also said to divorce their wives and abandon their families due to political differences. The only constant was in the form of address —”comrade”.
Not only politically and economically, the communists also seemed to be connected to Moscow in spirit. So much so that there was a joke on the communists: “They wear overcoats in Karachi when they hear of snow fall in Moscow.”
But that was a long time ago. Says a former member, “After the 1970s, the Communist Party gradually lost its significance in the political sphere and acted as no more than a marriage bureau or travel agency sending people to the USSR and serving as an institution where men and women met.”
But the lifestyle and politics of the Pakistani communist was so secretive that the public came to know of the full extent of leftist activity only after the fall of the Soviet Union. Until the collapse of the USSR, there were only three declared communists in Pakistan —Imam Ali Nazish, Jam Saqi and Hassan Nasir. Others referred to themselves as “Leftists”, “Progressives”, “Marxists”, or “Maoists”. The term ‘communist’, however, was the convenient label by which politicians slandered their opponents. When the first supposed coup d’etat in Pakistan in 1953, led by the first commander-in-chief, Maj Gen Akber Khan, failed, it was promptly dubbed a “communist conspiracy” by the rulers. In what came to be known as the “Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case”, General Khan and some other army and airforce officers were tried, along with civilians and leftists including celebrated Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sajad Zaheer (the first secretary general of the CPP) and Sobho Gayanchandani. Following this crackdown, in which the accused were convicted, the CPP and its sub-organisations were banned and a manhunt for leftists was ordered. It has now come to light that the entire episode was a government frame-up.
During the struggle for independence, the Communist Party of (undivided) India had supported the formation of Pakistan. “This was because the USSR was an ally of Britain’s during World War II,” recalls a veteran communist, and supporting the idea of Pakistan was equal to helping the British. A number of Pakistani communists, poet Faiz included, even joined the British Indian Army. (It was only in 1976, during the second congress of the ‘underground’ Communist Party of Pakistan, the communists admitted that their support for the formation of Pakistan had been a “blunder”.) Following the creation of Pakistan, some CPI members were directed to relocate and start propagating communist ideology in the new country. Sajad Zaheer, scion of an aristocratic Indian Muslim family (known as “Bunnay Bhai” to family friends Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru), returned from Oxford and took up the task of organising the Left in Pakistan, leading to the formation of the Communist Party of Pakistan in 1948. He became the party’s first secretary general.
Zaheer was followed to Pakistan by another young communist, Hassan Nasir, who became the office secretary of the party. While Zaheer went back to India in 1954 after the CPP was officially banned, Nasir went underground. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1959. The government of Ayub Khan claimed his death was a “suicide”, but many Pakistanis did not buy that account, and still believe that Nasir succumbed to torture at the notorious Lahore Fort. (Pakistani communists idolised Nasir, and his death for them was comparable to Che Guevara’s in 1967. Nasir’s life became the theme and metaphor for the poetry and prose of many Leftist writers in the country. Many named their sons after him and his death anniversary on 13 November is still observed by the remnants of the Pakistani Left.)
Like communist parties everywhere, the underground CPP too split into “pro-China” and “pro-Moscow” factions in the 1960s. The differences between the two widened when India and China went to war in 1962, and came to a head during the India-Pakistan war of 1965. The pro-China communists supported the Pakistani government, and many pro-Muscovites were jailed as “suspected enemy agents”. It was only when the USSR threw its weight behind the Tashkent ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan that the Moscow faction got a reprieve.
Meanwhile, with the banning of the CPP, many communists and other Leftists, had joined various mainstream political parties. The majority of pro-Muscovites became part of Wali Khan’s National Awami Party, while most of the pro-Chinese joined Maulana Abdul Hamid Bhashsani’s National Awami Party based in East Pakistan. After Ayub Khan’s foreign minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto resigned protesting the Tashkent Treaty, a number of the pro-Beijing communists, especially from West Pakistan, supported Bhutto and joined his newly formed Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
Even as the communist cadre infiltrated other ‘like-minded’ political organisations, they never admitted to being communists. They would rather say they were sympathisers, and preferred to be vaguely called “Leftists”. The communists had also formed “fronts” in many professions and institutions such as the Anjuman Taraqi Pasand Musnifeen (Association of Progressive Writers), Anjuman Jhamooriat Pasand Khawateen (Association of Democratic Women), Kisan Party, Sindh Hari Committee, Tulba and Mazdoor Kisan Rabita Committee. The last organised its “Conferences of Democratic Forces” against the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto regime in all big cities of the country, which was attended by a large number of Leftists in 1976.
Like many of their counterparts elsewhere, Pakistani communists too were cafe-sitters and drawing room intellectuals. “We were day-dreamers. The dreamers of revolution,” concedes one. Many idealists considered smoking expensive brands of cigarettes as bourgeoisie indulgence, and stuck to the ‘down-to-earth’ local brand, K-2. When those from the upper classes gave up their rich lifestyle, it was called “declassification”.
The communists had their own press, periodicals and publishing houses, set up with party funds. The better known among them were Lahore’s People’s Publishing House, Standard Publishers in Karachi and Hyderabad’s Qaumi Kitab Ghar. Along with Russian fiction, the People’s Publishing House brought out Urdu translations of political treatises of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, while Standard Publishers and Qaumi Kitab Ghar mainly sold communist literature published in English and Urdu from Moscow. Aided by Urdu and Sindhi translations, Mao’s Red Book and Che’s Bolivian Diaries were widely circulated among young comrades.
After Bhutto came to power in December 1971, the administration came down heavily on the communists (while also purging the PPP of Leftists like J.A. Rahim, Mairaj Muhammed Khan, Khurshid Hassan Mir and Mubashir Hasan, all of whom were once Bhutto’s close associates). But even in those days, serious radical literature was being produced by communist ideologues like Syed Sibte Hassan and Abdullah Malik. The books written by them were bestsellers among Pakistani leftists. Hassan’s famous works Moosa Se Marx Tuk (From Moses to Marx) and Secularism Kya Hay? (What Is Secularism?) bear particular mention because they helped define “communist” for a Pakistani mass fed on the idea that it meant “infidel”.
Though the ban over the CPP had unofficially been lifted by the early 1970s, the communists remained underground. From 1973, the CPP began secretly circulating underground publications with mostly anti-American and anti-martial law content, and provided an alternative to the censored press. This was when the communists were able to show their expertise in producing dissent literature in the form of hand bills, pamphlets and graffiti.
When General Zia-ul Haq overthrew Bhutto and imposed martial law, the CPP and other Leftist groups, whatever their opposition to Bhutto, condemned the act. “We looked upon Bhutto as a representative of the rising bourgeoisie against the monopoly of capitalists or ruling oligarchy, the clergy and military bureaucracy,” says a former comrade. “The people of Pakistan know that Bhutto was toppled and killed because he opposed America, and called it a ‘white elephant’.”
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave Zia an excuse to persecute the communists. “Though there were only a handful of communists in Pa kistan, Zia convinced America that they posed a serious threat to American interest in the region,” says Mir Thebo, an ex-communist. “This way he not only succeeded in getting approval from the West for his unpopular rule, but also exposed communists as paper tigers at home.”
During Zia’s rule, a large number of communists were jailed, or went underground or left the country. There were also those who opted for Afghanistan after the communists came to power there, and later made their way to Western Europe (where some of them have now become rich businessmen). Those that stayed back in Pakistan, meanwhile, published a mimeographed handbill against Zia titled “Snatch Power from the Usurpers”. On Bhutto’s first death anniversary, the party raised slogans such as “Welcome, welcome, Russia, welcome”; and “Snatch, snatch Pakistan, as you have snatched Afghanistan”.
Afghanistan’s communist regime allegedly used many communists from the NWFP and Balochistan to work against Islamabad. Many of them became rich overnight, apparently from money distributed by Khad, the Afghan secret service, a fact that led to rifts among the Pakistani comrades.
It was during this period that Jam Saqi, “the only self-proclaimed communist in Pakistan”, was arrested in December 1978. Within a year of his arrest, the government raided two rented houses in working- and middle-class Karachi and netted Jamal Naqvi, a communist ideologue, Ahmed Kamal Warsi, a labour leader, journalists Sohail Sangi and Shabir Shar, writer Badar Abro and student leader Nazir Abbasi.
The arrested communists were tried by a special military court in what has come to be known as the “Jam Saqi Case”. The trial was widely covered by national and international media, and Saqi and his associates benefitted by airing their views in the courtroom. They sought as their defence witnesses some of the country’s top leaders, including Benazir Bhutto, and a number of intellectuals. Saqi even wanted Zia as his defence witness, but the request was turned down. Benazir Bhutto, who was under house arrest, was brought to court to record her statement. She said later, “Zia probably wanted to show me as a collaborator with the communists.” The accused were given prison sentences of 8-10 years, and were only released following the restoration of democracy in 1985-86.
In the meantime, an incident occurred that showed the intransigence of the communist prisoners towards any compromise on their fate. In March 1980, a PIA plane was hijacked, and in the list of prisoners whose release was demanded by the hijackers, the names of the accused in the Jam Saqi Case also figured. The martial law authorities complied with the demand and prepared to send the prisoners to Damascus. But Jam Saqi and his comrades, despite having been tortured to make them agree, refused to board the plane. “General Zia needs to be sent,” they said.
Ironically, martial law’s departure also signalled curtains for communism in Pakistan. A number of factors contributed towards this end: ruthless torture during Zia’s rule; the restoration of quasi-civilian rule under Muhammed Khan Junejo; Junejo’s signing of the Geneva accord leading to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan; and Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost. “When we came out of jail, we found ourselves standing nowhere,” says one of the accused in the Jam Saqi Case. “Our Don Quixotic saga came to an end by the crumbling of the first brick in the Berlin Wall.”
“There were no more perks they were receiving as part of the party,” says a former party member. “No more roubles, Russian books or trips to Moscow, Sofia and east Berlin.”
“With the demise of communism in the mid-80s and early 90s many of us became ‘politically unemployed’ and this came as a ‘culture shock’ to us,” says another.
Many of the former communists picked up mainstream journalism, while others turned to human rights organisations and other NGOs — over a 1000 foreign NGOs working in NWFP and Balochistan after the end of the Afghan war accepted Leftists into their folds. The communist missionaries returning to lead normal social lives between 1980s and early 1990s was akin to the hippies tripping back home to the West in the late 1970s.
Perhaps the most striking metamorphosis of the Pakistani communist is seen in the lives of those who sought refuge in religion and religious preaching. People like the late Shaikh Ayaz, the Sindhi doyen of poetry and prose who inspired generations of communists (and atheists) and who once said, “Be it the dyed beard of the mullah or the black pony tail of the pundit, to me both are the same because the two deceive the masses by preaching religion. I do not accept them because I am a rebel.” When Ayaz passed away on December 1997, the possessions he left behind included a book of prayers; Ayaz had turned to religion in his last days.
Until a few days before Ayaz passed away, Ghulam Rasool Sahito, the former peasant leader and member of the Sindh Committee of CPP, had been saying, “The ideology still possesses the romance and appeal of dying for the cause.” But Sahito these days goes by Ayaz’s book of prayers and preaches to his erstwhile comrades the “right path, the path of religion”. As for Jam Saqi, once the general secretary of the CPP and the proudest of communists, he is today a sufi preacher.
The decline of communism in Pakistan is mirrored in the isolated lives led by those who refuse to give up the ideology. Before he died, some months back, Imam Ali Nazish spent his last days as an inmate at Karachi’s Ojha TB Institute. Hardly any of his former comrades used to visit him. For them, Nazish might well have been a ghost, much like the party they had given up on, but Nazish continued to claim to be the secretary general of the Communist Party of Pakistan. By then his party didn’t even have the members to contest that claim.