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Left Politics In Pakistan Is Electorally Insignificant But Remains Relevant

The Deputy Commissioner Lahore issued arrest orders for activist Ammar Ali Jan as he led the annual Students Solidarity March on 29 November 2020. Civil society members saved Ammar from arrest and their lawyers have successfully challenged the detention orders in the Lahore High Court. The case is going to proceed in the days to come. Ammar is already booked in a sedition case since last year’s Students Solidarity March.

Ammar is one of many leftists who are persecuted in Pakistan. Baba Jan in Gilgit has just been released after 9 years in prison. The Okara Farms’ peasants have been dealing with the state high-handedness and innumerable court cases, many fictitious. The ethno-linguistic movements in smaller provinces have been suppressed through most of Pakistan’s history and are still being crushed.

The fundamental question is why does the Pakistani state persecute the leftwing politics and ethno-national movements so harshly and sponsor, support the right-wing politics so brazenly? Bulk of the answer lies in Pakistan’s strategic collaboration with the US and the West. As Anushay Malik says that it is not a coincidence that Pakistan entered in military pacts with the US in 1954 and Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) was banned the same year. Throughout Pakistan’s history, the US and the West have directly sponsored the strategic relations with Pakistan and it has more often translated into supporting the right-wing forces in Pakistan at the cost of progressive politics. In this article today, we are referring to Anushay Malik’s chapter on the Leftist Parties in Pakistan in Mufti, Shafqat, and Siddiqui edited book “Pakistan’s Political Parties: Surviving between Dictatorship and Democracy” (2020)

The leftwing movement against Ayub dictatorship in the late 1960s is considered “a victory for the Left in Pakistan” and it was quoted as “the most successful of all the revolts in that momentous year”. However, looking back it was the only moment in Pakistan when the leftwing won. Otherwise the leftist politics has been suppressed since the inception of the country.

The regionalism and left politics got entwined from the beginning. Sindh Awami Mahaz by G. M. Syed and Khudai Khidmatgar by Bacha Khan privileged regional autonomy over other ideological causes. There was severe crackdown against the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). Still, the party branched its network to include journalists, labour unions, intellectuals and others. Yet, groups loosely affiliated with CPP faced the brunt of state and others not affiliated benefitted from state patronage.

In 1957, National Awami Party (NAP) was formed by merging two existing leftist parties of the West and East Pakistan. It was a “loose conglomeration” of left-wing stalwarts like Mian Iftikharuddin, Afzal Bangash, Mahmud Ali Kasuri; it had regional autonomy-based leaders like G.M. Syed from Sindh, Khair Bukhsh Marri, Mir Ghaus Bukhsh Bizenjo, Abdul Samad Achakzai from Balochistan and Bacha Khan from the then NWFP. They were all united in their commitment to dissolving the One Unit, promoting autonomy of regions, pushing for nonaligned foreign policy and pursuing economic reforms. Had elections been held in 1959 as planned under the 1956 Constitution, NAP would have won. However, it did not happen and there was a dictatorship in 1958. NAP was persecuted. Its leaders were harassed, detained and tortured.

Malik is also not complimentary of the role played by the PPP either. In its formation, PPP played politics on the existing leftwing movement of the workers, students and other progressive groups. Malik says, “the PPP taking up of the mantle of socialism in fact sidelined other smaller left-wing parties and ultimately proved to be a disservice to the leftist cause”. Bhutto after coming to power not only sidelined most of the ideological stalwarts of PPP, suppressed workers, but also dissolved the coalition government of NAP in the then NWFP and launched an operation against the Balochis. After the breakup of East Pakistan, the leftist politics really suffered. Left-wing regional parties were attacked and their politics was suspected of secessionist tendencies.

Zia-ul-Haq’s “coup of the ultra-right” unleashed a new reign of terror against the leftist politics leading to intimidation, detentions, torture and public floggings by the dictatorial regime. The only resistance came from the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD). Of course, women activists also resisted the dictatorship from the platform of Women Action Forum and others, a point missed by Malik. Afghan Jihad meant bolstering the rightwing at the cost of any progressive mobilization.

Centre of left parties ANP and PPP ruled in the KP and centre respectively from 2008-2013. ANP and PPP also bore the brunt of violence unleashed by Taliban before the 2008 elections. However, more radical leftist parties have done poorly in the elections till now. Awami Workers Party (AWP) fielded some candidates in 2018 elections but they could not win seats. Pakistan has overall moved to “labor-flexible regimes” and spread of NGOs has meant that radicals did not join political parties and instead became part of the NGOs.

Malik ends on the optimistic note that overall the Left politics has created space for the labour, women, minorities and ethnic regional groups to demand their rights. Writings of individual leftists like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sibte Hasan have inspired many generations. The Left politics has helped to check the onslaught of narrative of religious right and politics revolving around dictatorships. Therefore, “while left-wing political parties may not be poised for electoral victory, their role as resistance movements in support of the disenfranchised continues to ensure their relevance within the Pakistani polity”.

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