Book Review: Surkh Salam by Kamran Asdar Ali
Review by Dr S. Akhtar Ehtisham

The book narrates the story of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), how it was, one could say, ordained by the Communist Party of India (CPI). It has been written by Kamran Asdar Ali, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin

CPI was founded in 1917 in Calcutta (Kolkata now) and curiously enough, Maulana Hasarat Mohani, a practicing Muslim, later elected to the Indian parliament and acknowledged a great Urdu poet.

CPI was supportive of Hitler after Stalin made a deal with the Nazi dictator. Other Indian parties, especially the mainstream Indian National Congress and the Muslim League opposed Hitler. CPI changed its stance after Germany attacked the Soviet Union and lost a considerable degree of credibility.

CPI opposed the religion based idea of Pakistan on ideological grounds of class struggle, but when Stalin ordained 'autonomy of nationalities' in the Soviet Union and ordered CPI to do the same, the latter meekly gave in, thus losing more face.

Most of the members of CPI in the provinces that became Pakistan (except for East Pakistan) were non-Muslim (as were teachers, administrators, industrialists and traders; they were replaced by immigrants from India, causing a lot of resentment among the 'sons of the soil'). All non-Muslim communist leaders except for Sobho Gian Ramchandani and Pahumal Gian Ramchandani, who were in nearly unscathed Sind province, had to leave for India. 

But there were several Muslim comrades of significant stature in Pakistani Punjab and Bengal. In West Pakistan, the party had Major Ishaq, C.R. Aslam, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Afzal Bangash, Dada Amir Haider, among several others

After partition, a separate Communist party had to be created in Pakistan. Senior party members were either evasive or shied away, when asked why one of them was not elected as Secretary General of CPP, instead of 'exporting' Sajjad Zaheer, who except for literary circles - he was the main Founder of Progressive Writers Association of India - had no base in Pakistan. A few opined that Sajjad Zaheer's stature ensured the unity of cadre. One offered the opinion that CPI was suspicious of their allegiance to the Muslim League and following the British pattern, sent a 'viceroy' to keep order.

An arrest warrant was already on the books before Sajjad Zaheer arrived in Pakistan. He had to be 'underground' most of the time. There was resentment among a few 'native' party activists against what they regarded as imposition. That was aggravated by his 'arrogant; upper class attitude. The Lahore Railway Workers Union took the step of defying him when directed that he should not launch a strike as the union was not strong enough. The government easily crushed the strike.

In spite of all the handicaps, Sajjad Zaheer was able to organize the party in an effective way.

A few senior armed forces officers, 'disgruntled' by PM Liaquat Ali Khan's 'indecisive' behavior on the Kashmir dispute, decided to conspire against the government. They sought the help of CPI, which agreed to support them, against the advice of the Secretary General.

It was a half-baked move and in their 'cups' they divulged the secret to an informer.

Liaquat triumphantly announced the exposure and the involved army, navy and air force officers along with leaders of the communist party were tried and jailed.

Surkh Salam deals with all the above in a scholarly fashion.

Going over a few reviews, one objected to the absence of a reference to the party in East Pakistan. But Sajjad Zaheer himself had ordained it as a separate party after partition.

Even though the writer hinted that he was not going to deal with the Student Wing of the party, I find it leaves a rather large gap in the story.

In spite of the chaotic conditions in the Punjab, Abid Minto, then of Rawalpindi and Z. Naqvi, an immigrant from Lucknow, did launch the Democratic Students Federation (DSF). But they found few supporters.

DSF moved to Dow Medical College, Karachi. It was led by Sarwar, Hashmi, Haroon of Dow and Kazim, Adeeb Rizvi,Iqbal Naqvi from other colleges. Sibghat Kadri, Shafi, Barkat Alam, Hamza Khatoon and Zarina were in the High School wing of DSF.

It soon gained a large following and was able to get the government to accept many student demands.

Encouraged by the success, DSF gave a call for an All Pakistan Organization. Students in all provinces responded to the call with great zeal and exhilaration.   

A conference was organized in Karachi. Delegates came from all over and one Alia Imam came from India.

Though the conference was to be addressed by Law Minister A.K. Brohi, yet the Chief Commissioner of Karachi sent a leading gangster Mukhtar Rana to disrupt the proceedings.

The whole leadership of students was put in prison. DSF was banned in 1954.

In 1955, the freed DSF leaders decided to take over National Students Federation (NSF), hitherto a middle of the road ineffective group. Among the new leaders to emerge was Sher Afzal Malik, a native of the Punjab, who had been brought up in NWFP and had joined Dow Medical College in Karachi. He was a man of great talent, could talk to intellectuals, workers and students with equal facility in all the prevalent languages including Gujrati. 

Sher Afzal was promoted over the head of senior students by Hasan Nasir, the Secretary General of CPP. The move was resented by student leaders, but they could not defy Hasan Nasir.

Ayub Khan took over in 1958. Hasan Nasir went underground and was betrayed in captivity by, reportedly a disgruntled party member, whom Hasan Nasir had superseded.

Hasan Nasir was tortured to death in Lahore Fort in 1961.

They went after Sher Afzal with a vengeance.

In spite of all the intrigues, Sher Afzal led the students of Karachi in a huge demonstration against the invasion of the Suez Canal by Britain, France and Israel, demonstration against Eisenhower's visit to and Lumumba's assassination.

He dominated the student movement till 1965, when the party higher ups used the second layer leadership to appeal to Sher Afzal to retire from the student front.

Disgusted, he returned to Peshawar and joined the ANP.

There was a revival of student movement in 1968, largely in Lahore.

Bhutto befriended students in his campaign against Ayub, but after taking over post-Bangladesh liberation, he destroyed the movement along with the trade union and other working class movements.

Vestiges of student bodies were further repressed by Zia, who banned student unions as well.

Post-Zia, there was the musical chairs between Benazir and Nawaz Sharif on a band played by the army. Musharraf got rid of Nawaz, when he tried to get the army under his control.

There was a pseudo left movement by Aitzaz Ahsan but Aitzaz chickened out when the masses wanted to 'gherao' the parliament house.

Currently, there are 'left' parties led by Abid Minto and a few others, but they are essentially arm chair bodies.

(Dr Ehtisham attended the University of Karachi 1954-57, and the Dow Medical College 1957-62. He has written many articles on sociopolitical and economic topics and published two books:"A Medical Doctor Examines Life on Three Continents," and ,"God, Government and Globalization."



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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