A History of the Left in Pakistan – 19

By Ahmed Kamran

Chapter Four: The Road to Pakistan – (Continued)

A Complex Knot

Indeed, for CPI it was highly complex and difficult situation. As soon as it was visible that the scepter of the foreign rule over Indian political horizon will not last for long, the ‘national question’ in its naked form in India overshadowed the ‘class question’. The Indian National Congress was started as a political party of the national bourgeoisie, the aspiring middle classes and petty bourgeoisie of the whole of India. CPI’s support for National Congress in its fight against British colonial rule, big absentee landlords, traditional Jagirdars, and Nawabs and Rajas of the princely states for a national democratic revolution was a progressive policy in the right direction, provided it had maintained its political independence and had built and maintained its organizational capacity for simultaneously pursuing its long-term goal of a peoples’ democratic revolution. But, confronted with the growing aspirations of other religious and national minorities and long suppressed Shudras and outcaste Achuts (Untouchables) of India, the National Congress had quickly reduced and crystallized itself into a representative party of upper caste Hindus, the big bourgeoisie, and the middle classes only. Failing in subduing the increasingly powerful Muslim identity and separatist movement led by its intelligentsia and financed by Muslim businessmen of Bombay and Calcutta, the big Hindu bourgeoisie was losing its patience for a protracted and, in their eyes, quite ‘useless’ negotiations with Muslim League. In fact, many of them realized the potential value and ‘political and electoral benefits’ of getting rid of ‘undesirable Muslim irritants’ in their future governance of Indian state. The big bourgeoisie was impatient, frustrated and worried about the stalemate. Powerful Indian industrialists such as G.D Birla were seeing in the plan of loose confederating units— as was proposed in the Cabinet Mission plan— all their dreams for a strong, centralized India coming to a naught. These industrialists and influential upper caste Hindu middle classes were hoping for a powerful central government in free India, footing the bill for capital-intensive projects, paving the roads, transmitting electric power and pumping the water supplies to develop new domestic markets that Indian business desperately needed. The Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell, after a meeting with Indian leaders, noted in his diary, “The Congress premiers of Bombay, UP, Bihar, Central Provinces and Orissa pressed for the establishment of a strong centre and said that the Muslims had been given far more concessions than they were entitled to” (42). The prospect of a large restive Muslim minority and particularly an army with dominant Punjabi Muslim recruitment was an undesirable ‘irritant’ for them to carry forward for vague emotional reasons. Without publicly admitting and taking blame for it in public, they were, in fact, quite willing or even encouraging to let these irritants cut away from the body politics of an independent India. But in an emotionally charged situation expected to develop because of the great human tragedies that were bound to follow this amputation the blame of the vivisection of the ‘Mother India’ was needed to be put on someone else’s doorstep.

On the other hand, by 1945-46, with the prospect of an ‘independent’ India becoming a reality getting brighter every day, the big Muslim landlords and Jagirdars of Punjab were getting fearful of Congress’ avowed policy program of radical land reforms. Failing to stem the tide and the great resurgence of highly charged and increasingly radicalized Muslim middle classes and peasants, they swiftly changed side and threw their weight with Muslim League to secure their position in its leadership and protecting their class interests in a free Pakistan. With this shift taking place in Punjab, the fate of a united India was completely sealed and Pakistan becoming a reality was almost assured. The joining of the big landlords and Jagirdars of the Muslim majority areas in an essentially a Muslim middle class movement for Pakistan sowed the seeds of strong undercurrents and intense conflicts in the factional politics of Muslim League in future in post-independence Pakistan.

Evidently, due to its lack of clear understanding of the conflicting class, social and national interests, and therefore, its inability to put forward bold political formulations for satisfying the political needs of all national and religious minorities and oppressed castes of the traditional Indian society in its confused bid of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, the CPI was discredited among Sikhs and the oppressed ‘scheduled’ castes alike. The Sikhs, particularly, faced a bitter prospect of getting nowhere. In a communally charged atmosphere of imminent partition of their homeland, Sikhs didn’t have the majority in any part, neither in east Punjab (to be part of India) nor in the west Punjab (to be part of Pakistan) where many of their revered religious centres were located. With an acute feeling of being loser on both sides of the divide, most of the Sikh Communists tended to take up independent Sikh ‘national’ cause with a new vigour as now Akalis were seen more committed to Sikh self-determination than either the Congress or the Muslim League. A CPI leader, Harkishan Singh Surjeet who later became a prominent CPI-M leader, described the helplessness of communists in Punjab, “if the ‘Peoples War’ line had meant that the cadre were working with their hands tied behind their backs, the vacillation on the nationality question tied up their feet as well and whatever success they achieved was remarkable considering they achieved it by crawling on their bellies” (43). The Kirti Communists, in particular, who had earlier grudgingly submitted to the discipline of CPI in 1941, were again restless. They were the mainstay of the communist party in Punjab. In the Kirti Kisan Party elections in 1946, Kirtis took most of the seats; Out of 258 delegates to the state conference, 229 were Kirtis while only 29 were from ‘CPI group’. Owing to their intransigence and formation of an independent group in the party in Punjab, CPI finally expelled Teja Singh Swatantar, Bhag Singh, and Ram Singh from the party in 1946. Teja Singh even formed a parallel Communist Party in Punjab but due to the eruption of extensive bloody communal riots in Punjab in 1947, Teja Singh and other Sikh communists were compelled to cross the border. They later founded a parallel Red Communist Party in January 1948 at Nakodar, Jalandhar. This was perhaps the first ever split in the CPI due to policy differences. Red Communist Party in Punjab also adopted aggressive radical policies and raised its military wing for carrying out direct armed revolutionary struggle. It exhorted peasants to refuse sharing of crops with landlords and paying water charges and other taxes. It also engaged in armed clashes with state police. In 1949, during an armed encounter with police at Kishangarh in Bhatinda a police inspector was killed and the police contingent was forced to take flight. Finally, the state government sent in army units to quell rebels and the Red CPI soon surrendered, with six of militants killed and 26 arrested.

NWFP – ‘The Pukhtun Question’

Unlike Punjab and Sindh, NWFP and Pukhtun parts of Balochistan, which were arbitrarily separated and made part of Balochistan in 1901 for administrative reasons, were a predominantly Muslim area with a remarkably egalitarian social structure and traditions of communal land holdings. The society was, however, divided along Pukhtun clans and tribes with Maliks as their tribal leaders among equals and traditionally bound by the decisions of a rudimentary democratic form of Jirga (a tribal council). All were, however, not equal. Few, like ‘settlers’ from other tribes and areas, menial service providers (shopkeepers and artisans) of village society, and Fakirs— landless peasants did not enjoy the privilege of a full member of the tribe. Syeds, Mullahs and religious leaders were traditionally allowed a degree of social respect and some share in the agricultural produce for their upkeep and occasionally some paltry land grants for the purpose. The Mughal Kings and subsequently British colonial administrators had given large land and cash grants to some prominent and powerful Maliks and bestowed titles upon them thus creating a thin top layer of Nawabs and Jagirdars, usually entrusted to collect and remit land revenues, keep their tribes under leash and main communication highways open for royal army movements, and provide soldiers when needed. The advent of modern commercial life and socio-economic interaction slowly gave rise to a Pukhtun intelligentsia of rural background, essentially belonging to rich peasant classes, which showed the first signs of ‘national consciousness’ and ‘political activism’ for socio-economic reforms in the Pukhtun society in the beginning of the twentieth century.

For the rising Pukhtun intelligentsia in its conflict with the traditional Nawabs, Jagirdars, big landlords and moneylenders of NWFP who were mostly Muslim here, the vehicle of Islam as a rallying tool was not useful at all. Therefore, the politics of Muslim League struggling for the Muslim minority rights had not much attraction for it. The Muslim League was unable to establish its provincial organization in NWFP till as late as 1937. But the contradiction of the Pukhtun intelligentsia and enlightened rich peasants with the colonial rulers in its bid for greater share for itself in civil services and government contracts was more direct. The British government in collaboration with the Punjabis dominating and holding the best jobs in the province were clearly seen as ruthless defender of an oppressive ‘colonial social order’. The early reformism of Khan Brothers of Uthmanzai near Peshawar—Dr. Ghani Khan and Abdul Ghaffar Khan and their ‘Khudai Khidmatgar’ (Servants of God) movement in late 1920s necessarily assumed a strong ‘anti-British’ and ‘anti-Punjabi’ Pukhtun nationalist colour. Although, located on the fringe of India and otherwise isolated from the mainstream Indian politics in large measure, the Pukhtun nationalism soon became a strange bed partner of the Indian National Congress. The absence of the push of anti-Hindu socio-economic compulsions in his homeland endeared Ghaffar Khan with Gandhi and Nehru rather than with a Muslim’s leader M.A. Jinnah, winning him the sobriquet of ‘Frontier Gandhi’. In their bid for independence from British rule, the budding Pukhtun middle class was eyeing for possibility of uniting all Pukhtun tribes on both sides of the Afghan-India border in a united ‘Pukhtunistan’ either as an autonomous federating unit inside a free India or as a separate state outside of it. The Durand Line was drawn as a border in 1894, between Afghanistan and British India, cutting across vast tracts of Pukhtun lands and splitting their tribes between Afghanistan and India. In India Pukhtun tribes were further divided between NWFP and Balochistan. The Khudai Khidmatgars gained significant support among Pukhtun middle classes and rich middle peasants in their rising ambitions. It could form provincial governments in coalition with Indian National Congress both in 1937 and 1946 elections. But, a rapid change in the political dynamics of Muslim majority parts of India in 1940s and an independent Pakistan as a separate country of Muslims becoming a reality the gradual political isolation of Ghaffar Khan and his party from the Muslim masses was becoming obvious and the going for it was getting increasingly tough.

Although, Muslim League had lost 1945-46 elections in NWFP it was still able to mobilize many people to gain support for its movement. The political influence of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement that was led by rich middle peasants and supported by the Congress was clearly on the wane. The failure of its government in bringing the promised change in the lives of poor peasants or providing any significant relief to them in reducing peasant debt and rent burden was slowly taking its toll. The few tenancy regulations that were introduced helped only an elite group of rich tenants. Though, CPI organization in NWFP was very weak and rudimentary but any attempt to organize the working class and poor peasants was suppressed by the Khudai Khidmatgar-Congress joint provincial government with colonial firmness. The best jobs in the province were still going to more educated Hindus and Punjabi and other settlers. Meanwhile, the top landed aristocracy of NWFP in the footsteps of big landlords and Jagirdars of Punjab was also getting fearful of the radical rhetoric of Congress and was gradually moving towards Muslim League. As the independence of India and the partition of Punjab and Bengal on religious lines was getting closer, the Red Shirt government demanded that instead of only two options of either joining with India or Pakistan in the proposed referendum to be held in NWFP, an option to secede and form an independent Pukhtunistan be also granted. But having this option been flatly denied by the British government and, consequently, in the face of clear prospects of most people opting for the only practical option of joining with Pakistan, Ghaffar Khan and his party decided to boycott the referendum. Obviously, the results of the referendum were almost assured; the overwhelming majority (98%) of those who casted votes (over 51% of registered voter turnout) opted for Pakistan.


42. Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 59.
43. Mirdula Mukherjee, op cited, p. 219.

Chapter 4… To be Continued

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