MemoirsPolitical History

A Memoir of the 1950s – Part-IV

Author shares memoirs of his life as a student, a journalist and an active member of the communist party from the late 1930s to the 1950s

The Muslim League, where it existed, had only a flimsy organization. The feudal landowners were generally content with the Raj.

Eric Rahim

(Excerpts from an article which shares brief glimpses of the political landscape of the subcontinent, with emphasis on Pakistan, from the viewpoint of the author – as a student, a journalist and an active member of the communist party from the late 1930s to the 1950s)

Although by the middle of 1955 most of those arrested in 1954 had been released, the Karachi party did not achieve the kind of vitality it had enjoyed during 1953-54. (My memory fails me at this point for I cannot recall if by this time Hassan Nasir had also been released. He was in Lahore Fort, not in Karachi jail.) The generation of students who had played a leading role in the student movement completed their studies and left for colleges and universities. Many of them would go on to make significant contributions to social life in Pakistan, but not to politics. Student activity therefore significantly declined (On this, see my essay ‘Karachi communists in the 1950s’ referred to earlier). The work of the Pakistan-Soviet Cultural Association and the Pakistan-China Friendship Society continued in a modest way (with increased CID harassment), as did trade union activity. But the tempo of the earlier period was gone.

This raises the issue regarding the failure of the party not just in Karachi but throughout West Pakistan to recover and develop. Why was police repression so successful? What were the subjective (leadership) and objective factors responsible for this lack of development? It is difficult to separate these two sets of factors, and I focus on the objective factor.

Although by the middle of 1955 most of those arrested in 1954 had been released, the Karachi party (Communist Party) did not achieve the kind of vitality it had enjoyed during 1953-54.

First, the territories that constituted West Pakistan (where political power lay) were largely tribal in character (Balochistan and parts of the NWFP) or feudal (large parts of Punjab and Sindh). I do not think that there were any parts of the sub-continent that were as feudal in character as these. Social power therefore in the countryside lay with the feudal and tribal leaders.

Second, these regions had experienced very modest degree of industrialization. And much of the business life was dominated by the Hindus, who migrated to India at the time of Partition. So we had very little of the bourgeoisie and therefore very little of the industrial working class.

Third, the Muslim population of this region had had very little exposure to the independence movement (which was also a democratizing process). The Muslim League, where it existed, had only a flimsy organization. The feudal landowners were generally content with the Raj. In Punjab, politics was dominated by the Unionist Party (appealing mainly to the agricultural interest) which was staunchly pro-British. The big landowners fell into line with the demand for Pakistan only in 1946 when the realization of Pakistan became a distinct possibility. The economic and social conditions in Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP were even more backward.

My conclusion is that the upsurge of the 1950s, where it occurred, failed to sustain itself in face of repression because the economic and social soil on which it operated was so infertile.

From what I have said it should be clear that when Pakistan came into existence there was no social class that had the capacity to run the state. There was a power vacuum that was naturally filled by bureaucrats such as Ghulam Mohammed, Chaudhry Mohammed Ali, Iskandar Mirza and others, and the army.

I was able to interview Miss Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Mr. Jinnah. I think this was the only time she agreed to be interviewed by a journalist.

I enjoyed my work for The Pakistan Times, reporting from the federal capital. A large part of the work centered on the proceedings of the constituent assembly. Looking back during this period two episodes (perhaps, one episode and one non-episode) come to mind.

First, I was able to interview Miss Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Mr. Jinnah. I think this was the only time she agreed to be interviewed by a journalist. She was 17 years younger than Jinnah, and she was his constant companion. (Jinnah’s wife died in 1929, and he never re-married.) The understanding was that the interview would only be about her memories of her brother. She reminisced movingly about her childhood and her relationship with her brother. Then at one point I asked her what kind of books the Quaid-e-Azam (the great leader, as he was called in Pakistan) read. She replied that the only works he read were law books , what he needed for his legal work, and official reports. I was taken aback, and insisted. What books other than those pertaining to law did he have in his library? None, she replied. And seeing the expression on my face, she remarked (or something to the effect) that he thought reading books affected one’s original thinking. The article was published in The Pakistan Times.

The second episode (or non-episode) refers to the scoop of the decade that never was. I have noted that in the 1954 election the ruling party was annihilated. The provincial government (dismissed within two months) that was formed was headed by A.K. Fazlul Huq, 80-year old leader of the Krishak Sramik Party, a relatively small component of the United Front.

Fazlul Huq was not the right person for the job, he lacked judgment. He was given to making contradictory statements. I remember him once talking to a group of journalists when someone pointed to his proneness to making contradictory statements. He responded by saying that his followers did not read newspapers.

During the period of his chief ministership, on his way from Karachi (where he was on an official visit) to Dhaka he stopped in Calcutta and made certain statements which were interpreted by some (The New York Times) as demanding independence for East Pakistan and by others as suggesting merger of the province with India. At this time there were also riots in certain jute mills in East Pakistan which resulted in large scale killing. The ruling circles were using all this material to construct a case against the United Front – a case based on the breakdown of law and order and a threat to the integrity of the Pakistani state. This was known to me, and many others.

To turn to the other side of the story: Through the Party’s work for the release of the conspiracy case prisoners I had come into contact with Naseem Akbar. We had a common cause though from different sides – we were interested in the release of our people, and she in the release of her husband. Through this activity I had established a friendly relationship with Naseem Akbar, and through her with her mother, Begum Shah Nawaz, a respected member of the Muslim League parliamentary party. She had become a good source.

One day I happened to be in their house in Bath Island when Begum Shah Nawaz returned from a meeting of a selected number of members of the Muslim League parliamentary party who, I had learned, were to be briefed on the East Pakistan political situation. Begum Shah Nawaz appeared very depressed. I asked her if she and others had been briefed on the situation in East Pakistan. She did not reply. When I asked her point blank if ‘they’ were going to dismiss the provincial government, without replying she walked out the room. I was convinced that that was what was going to happen.

I went to my office and wrote a report predicting the dismissal of the East Pakistan government by the central government. The report included a detailed discussion of the possible consequences of this momentous decision. The editor got cold feet and decided not to publish it. The decision to dismiss the United Front government would turn out to be an important milestone on the road to the break-up of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.

In West Pakistan, the ruling junta had broken with the Muslim League and had created a new party, the Republican Party. This it had done in order to completely abolish provincial autonomy in West Pakistan (to which some of the League leaders were strongly opposed), and create one administrative unit for the western wing of the country called One Unit.

In 1956, I went to Dhaka to report for The Pakistan Times on the special session of the constituent assembly at which the new constitution would be adopted. The new assembly reflected the changed political situation in East Pakistan, and the ruling junta in West Pakistan had reached an accommodation with the Awami League (the United Front had by now split). HS Suhrawardy, the leader of the Awami League, was now prime minister. Suhrawardy was staunchly right-wing and equally staunchly pro-West. But he was completely secular in his outlook.

In West Pakistan, the ruling junta had broken with the Muslim League and had created a new party, the Republican Party. This it had done in order to completely abolish provincial autonomy in West Pakistan (to which some of the League leaders were strongly opposed), and create one administrative unit for the western wing of the country called One Unit. The idea underlying the new arrangement was to create a ‘balance’ with East Pakistan – West Pakistan would now confront East Pakistan as one united entity rather than as four separate units: Punjab, Sindh, the NWFP and Balochistan. There would be ‘parity’ of representation of the two units in parliament, an arrangement to which Awami League had agreed. (East Pakistan had a larger population than the West.)

I remember the speech Suhrawardy made on the adoption of the constitution, particularly the part dealing with the issue of separate/joint electorates. I thought at the time that it was the best speech (specially the part dealing with the issue of electorates) I had heard during my years attending the proceedings of the constituent assembly. He was defending the principle of joint, as opposed to separate electorate. It was finally decided that the choice of the system of electorates would be left to each wing. East Pakistan chose joint electorate, West Pakistan, separate electorate.

A day or two after Suhrawardy’s speech I was having breakfast with Mian Mumtaz Daultana in Dhaka’s poshest hotel. (Mian Iftikharuddin had booked me there for me to be easily accessible to him). Daultana, a graduate of Cambridge University, a big feudal landowner, was member of the constituent assembly and one time chief minister of Punjab. After a good, long discussion on the issue of separate/joint electorates, he said to me something like this: ‘Of course, you have two good reasons for supporting joint electorates.’ I knew exactly what he meant. First, I was a communist, second, I was a non-Muslim (Christian). On both counts I had no affinity with Pakistan’s (Muslim) ideology. It did not occur to him that East Pakistan had also rejected the system of separate electorates. Or, perhaps he did realize that they had also rejected what he thought was Pakistan’s Muslim ideology. (Continues)

____________________

Eric Rahim, Glasgow, 14 October 2018.

Courtesy: Criterion Quarterly (Published on March 31, 2019)

Click here for Part-I Part-II , Part-III 

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