A History of the Left in Pakistan – 18

By Ahmed Kamran

Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued)

Punjab – The Main Battleground

Owing to its large fertile irrigated lands, majority Muslim population and economic strength, Punjab was going to be the principal theater for Muslim League’s battle with Congress. In its strategic importance for Pakistan in future, Punjab was even ahead of Bengal, which had been a forerunner in the Muslim’s independence movement. Bengal’s importance lied mainly in its large Muslim population; otherwise, barring for Calcutta and its jute mills the economic assets of the Muslim East Bengal were not significant. Muslim League desperately needed to mobilize the peasants and aspiring Muslim middle classes and petty bourgeoisie of Punjab, Sindh, and NWFP to exert full pressure on the big landlords for them to fall in line with its push. Despite it being a large producer of food grains, the food scarcity during the war followed by large scale post-war demobilization of soldiers created massive unemployment and restlessness in the rural areas of Punjab. It jeopardized the popularity of the Unionist Party among large agrarian producers who had been the traditional mainstay of the party. Muslim League’s political appeal to Punjab’s middle classes and rich peasants resting only on ‘religious’ and ‘communal’ issues had not been very successful. Muslim League was trying to lend a mass appeal to its campaign for Pakistan directly approaching the peasants, combining its religious appeal with economic appeal and bypassing the big landlords. Now it was the time for the Muslim League to re-brand itself and reach out to Muslim peasants and working classes in Punjab.

During about last 75 years being the principal ground of massive ‘social engineering’ experiment of canal colonies, a large part of Punjab had been through a ‘sea change’ in its class composition and patterns of class relations. Unlike much of the rest of India, Punjab’s rural area was the home of a very large number of independent peasants, petty bourgeoisie and rural middle classes who had long freed themselves from the traditional relations of production and feudal bonds. It was a unique feature of Punjab compared with other parts of north or south India. As Ian Talbot observed, ‘The rural elite which remained loyal to the Unionist Party could, the League leaders believed, be by-passed by a direct appeal to the peasant masses. Why did this policy achieve such limited success? The answer lies in the fact that, firstly, the Punjab League’s religious appeals were being made through the wrong channels, and, secondly, that even when they were made through the right ones, peasants are not readily moved by such appeals alone. They must be accompanied by efforts to solve their immediate social and economic problems.’ (Talbot, 1982:15). Joining hands with socialists and communists in Punjab was Muslim League’s master stroke to garner ground support for its cause among the rural middle classes and lower peasants of Punjab and to bring its traditional big landlords under check. The need to join hands was not one sided. Extending its hand towards Communists in Punjab was a timely tactical move on the part of Muslim League.

As we noted above, Muslim League’s popular support started gaining ground after 1940 with its shift in focus from Muslim-minority provinces to Punjab and other Muslim-majority provinces with a promise of an independent state comprising of Muslim-majority areas (see Chapter Three). This shift in focus in geography also accompanied with a simultaneous shift in its target audience. It now started directly addressing the students, urban and rural middle classes, and peasants in Punjab with a new promise. With the CPI’s policy of supporting Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan towards the end of 1942, the Muslim Communists in Punjab were encouraged to work closely with the Muslim masses and join Muslim League as their growing representative political party. Sajjad Zaheer, by now a member of the Central Committee of the CPI, was made in charge of the work among Muslims. He was, together with G. Adhikari, responsible for developing and defending CPI’s new and changed policy on Pakistan and the Muslim question. According to CPI’s political assessment in Punjab, the replacement of Unionist government of the big landlords by a Muslim League’s government was expected to be more liberal and, therefore, preferable. Sohan Singh Josh and Daniyal Latifi from CPI met Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Lahore in April 1944 to offer CPI’s support. Jinnah and the Muslim League welcomed the move but with caution. Liaqat Ali Khan made it a condition that the Muslim communists joining Muslim League must resign from CPI. Accordingly, Abdullah Malik and Daniyal Latifi formally resigned from CPI and joined Muslim League. Others joining Muslim League included Ataullah Jahanian, C.R. Aslam, Anis Hashmi, and Ghualm Nabi Bhullar. Firozuddin Mansoor was made in charge of the ‘Muslim Front’ in Punjab CPI. Daniyal Latifi went on to be appointed as the Office Secretary of the Punjab Provincial Muslim League and together with Abdullah Malik is said to have drafted the Muslim League’s election manifesto of 1944, declaring support for the land reforms and universal adult franchise. Marxist Urdu poets like Majaz and Makhdoom Mohiuddin wrote poetry for Pakistan. A young and ambitious Mian Iftikharuddin, a prominent progressive leader of the Congress enjoying confidence of Nehru, also joined Muslim League. Mian Iftikharuddin had close links with some prominent CPI leaders. He soon became a favored protégé of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the fast expanding Muslim League, the kind of leader M.A. Jinnah was reported to pin his hopes on for the new Pakistan.

Nevertheless, despite Punjab being the largest pocket of upwardly mobile and ambitious Muslim peasants and petty bourgeoisie concentrated in the central and parts of western Punjab, the middle class was still not strong enough in national level politics to tilt the balance of power. The Muslim national bourgeoisie of Bombay, Gujarat, and Calcutta leading the Muslim League and relying on the petty bourgeoisie and middle classes of both Muslim majority and minority areas needed the decisive vote of the big landlords of Punjab, Sindh, and NWFP in their favour. In the given situation, all these diverse classes and interest groups could have been galvanized based on their ‘Muslim’ identity coupled with their ‘economic’ interests. Boldly coming out in support of the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan, CPI had successfully addressed the issue of the ambitious Muslim petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes, particularly of the Muslim majority areas. Sajjad Zaheer said, “the task of every patriot is to welcome and help this democratic growth which at long last is now taking place among the Muslims of Punjab. The last stronghold of imperialist bureaucracy in India is invaded by the League. Let us all help the people of Punjab capture it” (40). Envisioning themselves in a separate Pakistan, free from dominance of a large and overbearing Hindu petty bourgeoisie, the lure of Pakistan as it was getting closer to achievable reality was too powerful for them. CPI’s effective network in Punjab and its sympathizers supplemented the channels to gain access to the Muslim middle and lower peasants and petty bourgeoisie with vague promises of land reforms and expanded market opportunities. But, while reaching to the Muslim masses CPI could not simultaneously address the concerns of prosperous Sikh peasants and Hindu and Sikh petty bourgeoisie in Punjab. Thus, the Indian national aspirations sharply split into three conflicting and rising cross currents, which eventually swept the feet of the CPI leadership off the ground.

During 1945-1946 elections, Muslim League won all reserved Muslim seats in Punjab. CPI held a unique and an awkward position. It supported candidates from both the Congress and the Muslim League. Support of Indian Muslims’ separatist demand based on their right to self-determination should have logically lead to the conclusion of supporting Sikhs as well in their aspiration of a ‘Khalistan’ within or without India. The united Indian national aspirations viewed in this new prism sharply split into three divergent streams: Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh. A significantly large number of Communist leaders and party cadre in Punjab were Sikhs. The CPI’s support for Pakistan and its thesis of Muslims being a ‘nation’ qualified for self-determination led Sikh Communists to believe that they also qualify to be a nation to claim self-determination. By now many of the astute members of the Indian bourgeoisie leading the Congress Party had grudgingly reconciled to the idea of letting the upstart Muslim bourgeoisie spin off the Muslim majority areas in the west where in any case they had little political prospects in future; a kind of right-sizing the future India. In the process, they were getting rid of the nuisance of a significant part of a perpetually recalcitrant minority. But, further fragmentation of their market by allowing Sikhs, who were widely dispersed in Punjab and didn’t enjoy a majority in any significantly large part, or for that matter any other community to have their own sway was not acceptable to them. For the same reason, Congress bourgeois’ leadership strongly opposed and immediately killed the idea of Sarat Bose and Suhrawardy in 1947 for an independent undivided Bengal for which M.A. Jinnah is also said to have given his in-principle consent. The CPI’s policy shift on Pakistan, however, caused major ripples in the party, especially among Sikh and Hindu communists of Punjab. Sohan Singh Josh drafted a ‘Khalistan’ scheme but it was rejected by the Central Committee of the CPI. Among CPI leaders, Dr. Adhikari had realized that now with CPI having committed itself to support the idea of Pakistan, leaving Sikhs with no choice but to seek whatever terms they could negotiate for themselves with the Muslim majority of West Punjab, there was hardly any hope of winning Sikh’s support for this policy. To secure safeguards for Sikh’s interests in future Pakistan he even suggested various alternative plans (41). Caught in the rising cross currents, however, the party remained mute and essentially followed the Indian Congress in its bid to keep Sikhs firmly included in the new independent India.


40. Sajjad Zaheer, Light on League Unionist Conflict, People’s Publishing House, Bombay, July, 1944, pp. 26-33.
41. Mirdula Mukherjee, p. 218.

Chapter 4… To be Continued

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