The 1917 Russian revolution had a great impact on South Asian political movements and leaders. DW talks to renowned Pakistani social activist and author Harris Khalique about its relevance today.
DW: What impact did the Russian Revolution have on anti-colonial movements in British India?
Harris Khalique: I find it interesting that while Karl Marx looked at British colonialism in India during the 19th century with a different lens and saw it as an agent for bringing modernity to a decadent and feudal country, the Marxist-Leninist Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was looked at most favorably in British, French and other colonies.
In British India, the 1917 revolution not only inspired and influenced secular movements, it had a similar impact on faith-based movements and political organizations. Even before the Communist Party of India (CPI) could formally take roots, there were religious scholars like Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi publicly owing allegiance to the international socialist movement.
They emphasized the inherent nature of deep connections between nationalism, freedom and class struggle. Over the next few decades - between 1925 and 1947 - from CPI to Progressive Writers Association to Indian Peoples Theater Association to the trade union federations, a solid left-wing anti-colonial movement was galvanized.
Khalique: 'In British India, the 1917 revolution not only inspired and influenced secular movements, it had a similar impact on faith-based movements and political organizations'
Why did the communist parties fare well in post-partition India and not in Pakistan?
One obvious reason is the near-absence of any modern industry in Pakistan at the time of the country's creation and the other reason is the Pakistani government's decision not to dismantle the traditional feudal structure for agricultural production, unlike what the Indian government did soon after independence.
Besides, the Communist Party and its organs were proscribed by the Pakistani state very soon after independence. This was followed by the imposition of martial law, which was supported by the US. Not only that Pakistan mostly remained aligned with the US and the West during the Cold War, it was hardly a democracy where all political voices are allowed a space. Communists were seen as pro-Soviet and persecuted.
In later years, as Pakistan drew closer to communist China, some pro-Chinese parties and peasant movements were allowed to operate. Consequently, these initiatives led to the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party around 1970.
The Pashtun areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan had a strong communist movement. How did that happen in such conservative places? And why did Pakistan consider them a threat?
It certainly was a strong progressive and liberal movement with Pakhtun nationalist imperatives which was pro-Soviet. It was not a communist movement, strictly speaking. For instance, Bacha Khan, the great Pakhtun leader and reformer, was a Gandhian and not a communist. But he remained pro-Soviet and saw the support of the USSR crucial in realizing the rights of Pakhtuns.
Please also note that Pakhtun areas are tribal and consequently more egalitarian in nature than some other parts of Pakistan like Punjab and Sindh which remained thoroughly feudal and classist. Even the middle classes here represented conservative thought and, in fact, still do. It was natural for the Pakistani state to see any pro-Soviet linguistic or nationalist movements as a threat to a pro-US unitary state.
'As Pakistan drew closer to communist China, some pro-Chinese parties and peasant movements were allowed to operate, leading to the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party around 1970'
Do you see any relevance for socialist movements inspired by the Russian Revolution in India and Pakistan now?
What we witness now is the fall of the communist parties in India and a complete shift toward rightist politics in both India and Pakistan. On the other hand, Russia itself is a capitalist economy today, competing with the US and China for more market access and political influence in the world but they play by the same rules of the game.
There is no other ideology involved. However, for us here in India and Pakistan, there is a need for dynamic left-wing political and social movements than ever before to prevent us from completely slipping into fascism and totalitarianism. Marxists believe that history does not repeat itself. There may well be a desire to have replay of socialist revolutions that we saw in the 20th century but that will not happen.
Current structures work differently and a new kind of practice is required to first challenge and then overthrow right-wing politics - both in terms of economic oppression and religious fundamentalism.
Apart from Russia's Bolsheviks, China's Maoist influence was quite palpable on the sub-continent's socialist politics. How did those differences play out in Indian-Pakistani politics?
The split emerged clearly after 1962. CPI was factionalized and Pakistan saw student and labor movements splitting between pro-Soviet and pro-China camps. If you ask me, it further weakened the movement. Most time was spent on infighting rather than challenging the monopolistic capitalism taking roots in both India and Pakistan in tandem with feudal strongholds in Pakistan sustaining and strengthening.
'There is a section among the social theorists and political activists in South Asia that clearly states that Islamic extremism is the Siamese twin of the neo-liberal global economic order'
That also reflects that the leftist leadership, particularly in Pakistan, was disingenuous and could not create an indigenous narrative.
Is it right to say that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, socialist movements in Pakistan lost their relevance?
In practical terms, they were not as impactful as they were in India even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But of course, it was seen as a setback by left-wing political workers, writers and trade unionists.
Do socialists in South Asia have a counter-narrative to Islamic extremism and militancy in the region?
Most voices that you hear challenging extremism and militancy which international media regards today as liberal voices come from people who have left or centre-left background. However, there is a section among the social theorists and political activists in South Asia that clearly states that Islamic extremism is the Siamese twin of the neo-liberal global economic order. Because of that split in opinion, the counter-narrative is not articulated as clearly as it should be.
Harris Khalique, a poet and essayist, is the author of ‘Crimson Papers: Reflections on Struggle, Suffering, and Creativity in Pakistan'. He has remained associated with labour, minority and women rights movements.
The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.