Karachi communists in the early 1950s: a contribution to the ‘Sarwar Reference’ by Eric Rahim

Eric Rahim: A journalist and activist remembers

Eric Rahim:A journalist and activist remembers

In celebrating the life of Dr Mohammad Sarwar, many of his friends and student and political activists have recorded their memories and experiences from the period of the early 1950s. As far as I can tell this is the first time that so many people from the Left have come together (physically or in their thoughts) to pool together their memories from that period – a period of hope and optimism – about the future of democratic politics in Pakistan. What could be a better tribute to Sarwar’s outstanding contribution to the student movement and democratic politics?

The random and disconnected notes that follow, drawn from a hazy and failing memory of events that took place almost sixty years ago, are a contribution to the Sarwar Reference. Very broadly speaking, they deal with two related issues that have received only marginal attention in the contributions made so far – the presence of the Communist Party in Karachi, and the causes of the inability of the student movement to sustain itself beyond the early 50s.

To take the second of these issues first. The student movement in Karachi flourished from around 1949 until 1954, but from then on it ceased to be a significant force in the student community. In 1954, a number of student leaders and activists, along with a number of journalists, college lecturers, trade union workers, etc., were arrested and incarcerated in Karachi jail. (Interestingly, this wave of arrests coincided with the dismissal of the popularly elected, Awami League-led government in East Pakistan and imposition of central rule in the province, and Pakistan’s entry into a military alliance with the United States). However, most of those arrested, including students, were released within twelve months. The released students went back to their classes, those who were in their final year of study, completed their courses and went on to pursue their professional careers. Some of them later played a prominent role in the life of the community. (For instance, Sarwar and a number of other medical doctors played a highly positive role in the Pakistan Medical Association.) But the student movement did not recover from the setback it had received through the arrests of its leaders.

A general problem with student movements is that student population in any single institution is not stable: every year one cohort of students leaves the institution and a fresh one enters it. To provide continuity in the movement (and links between different institutions) there needs to be a stable body, outside the student community, that nurtures and initiates the new entrants into the movement. This is of course done through the students who are already in the institution. In the absence of such a body that provides continuity, student movements appear on the social scene as eruptions (though sometime making their mark on the history of their country) and then disappear.

In the case of the Karachi student movement, such continuity was provided by the Communist Party, through its student members and sympathisers. In the 1954 wave of arrests most its members, many of them students, as already mentioned, were put in Karachi jail, and with this swoop the structure of the party was badly damaged. So, the question as to why the student movement was not able to sustain itself turns into: why was the Karachi Communist Party not able to recover and thrive from 1955 onward when most of its members had been released from Karachi jail?

To be sure, some of those released struggled on;  Hassan Nasir, for instance, who died in the notorious Lahore Fort during the Ayub era in circumstances which to this day have remained unexplained. But, as I have already noted, most of the student members went to pursue their careers, others, that is, non-student members, were disheartened and became politically inactive (though, it should be said, in other ways, as teachers, journalists, etc., they made their contribution to the social and cultural life of the country). The Karachi party never achieved the kind of vitality it had achieved before 1954. Here, as in the case of the student movement, the decline cannot be attributed to government repression. The situation in other parts of Pakistan was not much different. In the second half of the 50’s Lahore did not have a functioning party unit, though Major Mohammad Ishaq was struggling to form one.

To try to discuss the question, I go back to the formation of the Communist Party in Karachi soon after the partition of the country. I start on a personal note, though I promise I will not strain readers’ patience with details. I was introduced to Marxist ideas by a lecturer in philosophy at the beginning of my final year (BA) in Forman Christian College, Lahore. The year was 1946 (heady days, but we leave that aside). I read the weekly journal of the Indian Communist Party, the People’s Age, assiduously and on the basis of this reading formed my general worldview. After completing my exams in December 1947 (exams were postponed repeatedly from May because of the communal riots), on a whim I decided to come to Karachi (instead of staying on in Lahore) with the ambition to pursue a journalistic career.

One day as I was walking along Bunder Road, I saw the Red Flag hanging out of the balcony of a building approximately midway between the Dow Medical College and the old Municipal building. I went up to the party’s office and introduced myself to a gentleman, by the name of Hangal, and asked if there was anything I could do for the party. I remember seeing Sobho Gianchandani and Sharaf Ali (who had just arrived from India as a refugee) but I did not speak to them. Hangal gave me the task of taking cuttings from different newspapers and filing them according to the subject matter. This I did for a period – I do not remember for how long, but it could not have been for more than a month. During this period Sobho and Sharaf Ali were arrested, and Hangal and other Hindu party members departed for India. The party office was now deserted, except for a ‘Malabari’ comrade called Ibrahim, a former ‘bidi’ worker, who lived there as a kind of caretaker. I kept visiting Ibrahim now and then, but there was nothing to do there. This was the end of the old, pre-partition Karachi Communist Party.

It was sometime in 1949 (possibly late 1948) that Hassan Nasir, a young man in his mid-twenties, appeared on the scene to organise the district Communist Party with an altogether new membership. Hassan Nasir had recently migrated from India with little or no political or organisational experience behind him. He had been nominated by Sajjad Zaheer, who also had recently (possibly, 1948) come from India, and had assumed the general secretaryship of the Communist Party in West Pakistan. (Sajjad Zaheer was a leading figure in the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association, but with little organisational experience outside that Association.) The membership of the new Karachi party was overwhelmingly drawn from the muhajir community – there was only one Sindhi party member from the pre-partition days, and only two or three Punjabi migrants. Sobho, from now on was located in Sindh or lodged in jail. These were overwhelmingly urban, middle class young people whose families had been exposed to the Indian independence movement, and possibly (as in the case of Sarwar and his brother  Mohammad Akhtar, who tragically died in 1958) to Left political influences. In other words, they had all arrived in Pakistan with a degree of progressive political outlook.

The Party’s main work was focused on the student ‘front’. This was the case because there were already a number of students who were, as I have indicated, left-leaning and ready for joining the party or be sympathetic to its way of thinking. And it was these students (from whom the bulk of party membership or sympathisers came at this time) who were to organise the Democratic Students Federation, and later the students ‘movement’ which made headlines all over Pakistan, and, in fact, beyond. As SM Naseem and others have already discussed different aspects of the Karachi student movement of the early 50s, I will say nothing more about it. (In any case, I was not a participant, and observed the movement from the outside, as it were, as a journalist).

However, there is one point that is worth making. The party in this case was not something ‘external’ that was directing the student movement from the outside. As already observed, students formed a large chunk of the party membership and they exercised as much influence on party policy as the party influenced student activities. For instance, as Naseem has already observed, the content of the student magazine, The Student Herald, was contributed entirely by the students themselves and any assistance they received from non-student sources was entirely of a technical nature provided by journalists, such as Ahmad Hassan, a sub-editor in Dawn.

During this period (1949/50), the Party also promoted the formation of the Pakistan Soviet Cultural Association and a little later, of the Pakistan-China Friendship Society. Also established was a Film Society whose aim was to exhibit films from socialist countries. (Sarwar’s brother Akhtar played a leading role in the work of the Society) The aim of these activities was to bring to the attention of the public in Karachi the economic and cultural progress that was being made in socialist countries.

Party members also participated in the activities of the Progressive Writers Association – here the name of Mumtaz Hussain, the literary critic, (who, at times, was also a member of the Karachi party district committee) comes to mind. And they gave what support they could in promoting the work of the Karachi Union of Journalists and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists which were established on the initiative of independent-minded journalists such as MA Shakoor and Asrar Ahmad. It will be noted that all these were essentially middle class activities.

The Party’s main shortcoming lay in its inability to establish any roots in the working class. Before partition, Karachi was a sleepy kind of town, with very little industry (though, being a port town it had a significant degree of commercial activity). What contacts the pre-partition party had had with organised working people, for instance, among the Karachi port workers, were of course lost with the departure of Hindu party members.

It is true that after partition, some industries began to be established in Karachi, but the workers in these factories had no tradition of trade union organisation. For instance, one party member who was active in the field at the time was bemused at the attitude of workers from the NWFP’s tribal areas who were coming in increasing numbers to work in textile mills that were being set up in Karachi. They felt that a union should be set up specifically to deal with a particular problem and then, once the problem had been dealt with, disbanded. They did not contemplate the notion of a durable organisation.

Now, to return to the question regarding the failure of the party to develop. In some of the contribution to the ‘Sarwar Reference’ reference has been made, with regard to the student movement, to government repression. In the standpoint adopted here this view does not provide an adequate explanation. Firstly, the repression exerted on the party was not of the kind as to close all avenues for further progress. Historical experience provides irrefutable evidence that the development of the Left and democratic forces does take place despite the repression; movements suffer setbacks, then recover, and continue to develop.

Another point that could be made (though has not been made in the course of the ‘Reference’) refers to the quality of the leadership of the party. Perhaps, the leadership was not up to the mark. This is, in one sense, obvious. However, this point does not refer to the personal idiosyncrasies of individual members of the party. As I have noted, those who in 1949/50 established the party were young and inexperienced; this was not the situation that could have called forth leadership of great stature (a PC Joshi or a Dange). This consideration is reinforced by the fact that not only the Left, but even the non-Left democratic forces in the country failed to make any headway during the period or indeed later. One could hardly find fault with a non-existent leadership – a leadership that failed to emerge to create and lead a left or a democratic movement.

I am arguing that the question of the failure of the Communist Party or of the Left  to develop is in fact part of a wider question that relates to the failure of the democratic forces in general to emerge and develop in Pakistan. It will be agreed, I think, that this is a large question. All I can do in the present context is to make some suggestions and hope that others, better equipped than I, will take up the issue and that this will lead to a better understanding of the nature of the problem under discussion.

The territories from which West Pakistan was creatd had had very little history of industrialisation. And much of business life that was there was in the hands of the Hindu community which left for India at the time of partition. This means of course that West Pakistan had to start with a negligible bourgeoisie and a meager middle class. What working class there existed, was unorganised and with very little history of trade union organisation. In other words, West Pakistan was predominantly agricultural, and more importantly, its agrarian structure was feudal in character. Political and social power lay in the hands of the class of large landowners. (Compare  this situation in West Punjab and Sindh with that in the Indian Punjab).

Further, the Muslim population of this region had had very little exposure to the independence movement, which, we should note, also was a democratising process. The Muslim League was hardly a democratic organisation, and in the region of West Pakistan where it existed it had a flimsy organisation. The feudals, who were quite content with the Raj, fell into line to support the creation of Pakistan only when it became clear that the new country was becoming a reality. Furthermore, Pakistan movement when it came to this region was not a political, developmental process; it was based on a simple, emotional appeal to the masses on religious grounds. This region did not experience any politicising process, let alone a democratising process (as many other parts of the sub-continent had done).

The political horseplay at the Centre that we saw in the 50’ was largely an outcome   of these conditions. The muhajir (migrant) leadership of the Muslim League had no roots in the region (except among the muhajirs on ethnic grounds). The indigenous leadership was largely feudal in character and its roots were entirely of a feudal character; feudals could get elected through the electoral process only because of the economic and social power they exercised by virtue of their landownership. (It is a remarkable fact that the only progressive member of the Constituent Assembly, Mian Iftikharuddin, could get elected entirely only because of his feudal position and caste connections.)

In these circumstances in which the political leadership had no popular roots whatsoever and in which the general population had undergone no politicising process, it was entirely logical that bureaucrats such as Ghulam Mohammad, Chaudhri Mohammad Ali, Iskandar Mirza, and the army (also because of the Hindu-India factor) should have captured power and have made such a heavy impact on the destiny of Pakistan. Explanation for these developments lies not so much in the character of the individuals who came to exercise power, but in the economic and social structure the country had inherited from history which provided such fertile soil for their exploits. (Obviously, I have no time for such nonsense as ‘only if Jinnah had lived longer’ or ‘only if we had had more honest leaders’.)

One could go on in this vein. But my purpose here is a limited one. I am trying to understand why the Left and progressive forces failed to develop and have a positive impact on the country’s political process. (I am not forgetting the many individuals who are making significant contributions to progressive causes.) The conclusion I am reaching is that the (a) the upsurge of the early ‘50s failed to sustain itself because it had no ground, economic and social, to stand on, and (b) that progressive and democratic forces have failed to develop for the same reason.

This sounds like a bleak conclusion. But I am not suggesting that we stand on ground that is arid and should wait for some cosmic intervention to make it fertile. As Marx said famously, men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. What history does is to prescribe certain limits within which we operate.  It is for us to understand the nature and extent of these limits and find ways of extending them, of pushing the boundaries out.

Eric Rahim
Glasgow, 2 October 2009.

8 Responses

  1. […] In celebrating the life of Dr Mohammad Sarwar, many of his friends and student and political activists have recorded their memories and experiences from the period of the early 1950s. As far as I can tell this is the first time that so many people from the Left have come together (physically or in their thoughts) to pool together their memories from that period – a period of hope and optimism – about the future of democratic politics in Pakistan. What could be a better tribute to Sarwar’s outstanding contribution to the student movement and democratic politics? Karachi communists in the early 1950s: a contribution to the ‘Sarwar Reference’ by Eric Rahim […]

  2. Hello

    It is fascinating to read about under currents of progressive movements in fifties. I recently met Sobho in Karachi (met him in seventies as well). My question to him was (did not get detailed response due to his health) and I am asking the same to this group, what happened in seventies, One thing which we have observed has been that left movement never found its ground on the soil it was trying to launch the revolution, in response to any question, most we used to hear from top leadership were quotes from Marx, soviet literature etc, they had difficulties understanding, local conditions, define the problems and articulate them in a way to reflect local issues, consequently movement never took off at mass level. This is very over simplified view from my side however I would like to learn from this group.

    Mazhar Memon

    • Mazhar Memon has raised an important point – this is THE point. My contribution to the ‘Sarwar Reference’ was in fact raising this issue and attempting to start a discussion. The Communist groups operating in various parts of the country, and Left and progressive individuals, could never produce a document (manifesto or report) that considered the conditions in which they were operating and determine the short term and long terms objectives of the movement. The ‘Sarwar Reference’ (I am using this term as a short hand for all the debates, reflections and recollection regarding the student movement of the time and more generally of the progressive movement that have been generated after Sarwar’s death) provides an opportunity to achieve some clarification on the important question you raise. To do this it would require a great deal of effort and thought. Let us not look to some ‘leaders’ to provide short, quick answers. Perhaps a start could be made by assessing the current position of the progressive forces – I mean groups, etc – in the country, the nature of their activities and the problems they face.

      The important thing is that we look back to understand the present and look forward.

      Eric Rahim

  3. I respect the views expressed in that interview by all the veteran student leaders. Also I am totally agreed that in the leadership of DSF not all were Communist Party members at it was a student body not a communist party itself.
    During the period of my student activism I met lots of veterans including Zain ud Din Khan Lodhi Sahib,Dr Rasheed Hassan Khan and Abid Hassan Minto, they also confirmed the DSF association with CPP.

    Eric Raheem Sahib has also covered this aspect as he mentioned:
    ‘The Party’s main work was focused on the student ‘front’. This was the case because there were already a number of students who were, as I have indicated, left-leaning and ready for joining the party or be sympathetic to its way of thinking. And it was these students (from whom the bulk of party membership or sympathisers came at this time) who were to organise the Democratic Students Federation, and later the students ‘movement’ which made headlines all over Pakistan, and, in fact, beyond.’


    Dr M. Ayub Mirza has also expressed the similar views in his tribute to Dr Sarwar Sahib as he wrote:
    ‘Within a few days, five other students had joined us, and gradually, we grew. Unfortunately, previously, all the students had had to commit themselves, in writing, to not forming a political entity on the premises of the college. We got round this by forming the Students’ Organisation, in a restaurant on the nearby Bandar Road and holding meetings there! We did not talk politics in the student hostel, because we didn’t trust the staff. We would write and rehearse speeches together. We were communists. Eventually, the majority of the students came to support us.’

  4. I think Beena Sarwar is right to suggest that this question (raised by Asim Ali Shah) should be sorted out, if only to avoid spending time on issues that really are not relevant to the tasks today facing progressive forces in Pakistan. The best way to ‘moderate’ on the question, let me quote your (Beena’s) own statement that caused Asim Shah to raise it. You wrote:

    ‘The historical fact is that DSF was not assciated with the Communist Pary, even though many (DSF) members were (Party) members, and if not then certainly most (but not all) were sympathisers. The DSF office bearers in fact studiously kept party politics of the campuses and out of DSF matters.’

    You added that this view had been confirmed by some of the leading activists in the student movement at the time.

    Asim Shah quotes the following passage from my contribution to the ‘Sarwar Reference’ (on the Sarwar blog):

    ‘The Party’s main work was focused on the student ‘front’. This was the case because there were already a number of sudents who were, as I have indicated, left-leaning and ready for joining the party or be sympathetic to its way of thinking. And it was these students (from whom the bulk of Party membership or sympathisers came at this time) who were to organise the Democratic Students Federation, and later the students ‘movement’ which made headlines all over Pakistan, and, in fact, beyond.’

    Now, I find nothing contradictory in these two statements. Of course, the DSF (as an oraganisation) was not associated with the Party, and DSF office bearers studiously kept party politics out of student matters – how else could they have functioned effectively? At the same time, CP members and sympathisers were active in the movement and some of them undoubtedly played a leading role in the movement – something that no one has denied. The Party was, in this way (through its members and sympathisers), making a contribution to a progressive cause, and by doing so gaining in strength and influence. That is how the party worked.

    I hope this will satisfy Asim Shah and set the matter at rest.

    Eric Rahim
    20 November 2009.

  5. I fail to understand why this debate has been launched at all, what are the motives, why it has been felt that the students movement has to be washed well, dry cleaned thoroughly, of any blemishes that its association with the Communists may have left upon it.
    Why it has suddenly become fashionable to disassociate with the leftist ideals, was this movement idealogued by the religious parties,or the nationalist parties, were the slogans and aims of the movement any less progressive than what we assume as being communist in thinking,
    Did the actual pioneers and participants of the said movement joined the opposite ranks later in their lives, did anyone of them, who was active still later in life need to start clarifying their positions,and orientations? Every movement which is launched for the common people and their rights cant be from the oppressors or their stooges, it is always an anti-establishment struggle, it is always a struggle to change the status quo, it is always revolutionary, and if it is not,it dies.
    I being not a direct witness to the aspirations of the 1953 movement, can only speculate, based upon the aims and slogans of the movement, the individuals themself aren’t important or relevant, and they will cease to be mentioned once the furor created settles down. What is not going to diminsh or disappear is the still prevailing same circumstances which harnessed the political sense of participation amongst the people who raised their voices then.
    Focus should remain upon learning from the lessons obtained in 1953, and applying them to launch such an awareness today and for the coming days, all the rest of the discourse isn’t going to contribute positively, it will just slow down the process of acquisition from the past, and that is one mistake which we as humans have been doing in our history of evolution-distraction-confusion-aimlessness.
    Anybody compunding upon this isn’t serving the people`s interests.

  6. Dr Farrukh: No one is ‘disassociating’ from leftist ideals or trying to whitewash anything.

    However, it is important to set the record straight, and to remember that while many of the DSF activists were leftists or members of the CPP, they kept the student organisation non-aligned and independent of party politics (of any party).

    That is a valuable lesson that today’s student bodies could benefit from.

  7. There are some good comments here about, learning from history. I would say that not only from history but also learning spirit of the lessons one might have learned from history. My questions and thoughts are about relevance of classical Marxist postulates and theories because sometimes I feel our friends are still stuck with Rosa Luxemburg and 1917 (similar to our religious brother who are stuck to their pivots in history). There was a time when certain class in society was not supposed to lose anything but chains, however I see that in last hundred or so years, during the fight between capitalism and left movements those classes have changed, industrial labor in advanced capitalist society is not the same, then we have new knowledge worker as well. Unless we just turn it into rich against poor class war (I do not believe Marxist ideology is just rich vs poor philosophy) we may have to seriously analyze what is the class structure of societies at regional and world level today. This analysis might surface whole new ball game with its new terminology, strategy and tactical fights. There is question of integrity as well, people do not forget what happened in soviet union or china, they have questions sometimes big ones. It is amazing that Stalin is still hero for some even after laying the foundation stone of demise of soviet experiment, it was prophetic how Trotsky predicted this.

    Mazhar Memon

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