Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2016
’Surkh Salam’ is about communist politics and class activism in Pakistan between 1947 and 1972
KARACHI: The major failure of the communist movement in Pakistan was that Marxism was taken as an engineering manual by communist parties. Marxism is a science. It should be applied creatively to society, which was not done.
This was the point raised by Director of Pakistan Study Centre, the University of Karachi, Dr Syed Jaffer Ahmed while reacting to an argument put forth by a fellow panellist during a well-participated discussion at the launch of a book titled Surkh Salam authored by Kamran Asdar Ali at T2F on Friday evening.
Dr Asif Farrukhi, who moderated the event, introduced the theme of the book and Mr Ali to the audience that packed the T2F hall in no time. He said Surkh Salam was about communist politics and class activism in Pakistan between 1947 and 1972. The author, he said, was an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of South Asia Institute at the University of Texas, Austin. The first person that Dr Farrukhi invited to speak on the subject was journalist Imran Aslam.
Mr Aslam read out his impressions on the book and its writer. He congratulated Mr Ali for his effort saying “clues were scattered all over his work for future historians”. He said the author had a “nose for a good story”. He called the book a “remarkable achievement” for it rescued time from ravages of time. He likened the people in the book as characters in a drama giving the example of Tom Stoppard’s critically acclaimed play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet take centre stage.
Dr Ahmed spoke on the methodology and technique of the book. He said the history of the Left in Pakistan had not been documented the way it merited. Some did attempt to do so, but they captured certain phases of the Left in history, so there was a need for a comprehensive study on the topic.
He said the book discussed the 1948-54 period of the Communist Party of Pakistan; its second part dealt with Hasan Nasir, followed by the 1972 labour movement. He said three themes converged in Surkh Salam: partition of India, the Communist Party and the role of progressive literature. He was of the view that the forte of the book was the author’s training in anthropology.
Hoori Noorani went down memory lane. She said she grew up in a communist household where individuals like Hasan Nasir would often be talked about. It captured her childhood imagination, and it was an education in humanism that lasted to date. She termed the book an “important addition to the scarce literature available on the subject”, arguing that it touched upon a significant period (1972) which was “forgotten in the noise of Islamic radicalisation”.
She lauded the fact that the book discussed the “debates that took place with the Communist Party” giving an insight into “how the Communist Party was formed”. It also contained debates between conservatives like M. Hasan Askari and progressives like Sajjad Zaheer, she said, but mentioned that it did not include other conservatives such as Shorish Kashmiri and Mumtaz Shireen. When she rounded off her speech, Dr Farrukhi said he did not agree with her calling Mr Askari a conservative.
Piler’s Karamat Ali in his rather detailed talk on the theme of the book said it was important to know as to what lessons we had learned from the subject. He said communist and labour movements were two different movements. He said we needed to know what communism meant in our society and what the nature of the state we lived in was. He said the violence that took place during partition of India had a long-term impact, causing “communalisation of the mind”. He said internationalism was the working class base, but we should examine what communalisation did to internationalism. He said we also needed to analyse the leadership’s role in all such movements and inferred there was no role of leadership in them as they were started by the people themselves. He said the pro-Moscow and pro-China factions of communists used to oppose each other, and blamed the communist groups for harming the communist movement.
Imran Aslam, in response to a question, pointed out the absence of East Pakistan from Mr Ali’s work.
Dr Ahmed strongly countered the argument that the communists had failed themselves. He said there were factions everywhere and it was not specific to the communist movement. He stressed that the major failure in that context was the fact that Marxism was taken as an engineering manual by communist parties. He said Marxism was a science and should be applied creatively in society, which was not done. About the successes of the communist movement, he said it gave consciousness to society.