Alternative Politics and Dominant Narratives: Communists and the Pakistani State in the Early 1950s

Anushay Malik. South Asian History & Culture. Volume 4, Issue 4. 2013.

This article analyzes the role played by the Communist Party in Pakistani politics before it was banned in 1954, a time when it was the centre of a motley variety of progressive movements that expressed regionally variant, alternative visions of politics. It is an attempt to draw out the relationship between the state, and groups who referred to themselves varyingly as ‘communists’, ‘leftists’ and ‘progressives’ within the city of Lahore. This localized analysis of these different yet overlapping groups illustrates how they were all linked within official state narratives to the Communist Party, which was, in turn, constructed as the centre for godless, anti-national sentiment, thereby justifying the repression of all those who were seen to be associated with it. This allowed for the construction of a historical narrative where the role of the Communist Party as political opposition, presenting an alternative in its own right, became subsumed within the wider narrative of the nation state and its friends and foes.


With political geography cutting against the grain of the ideological protestations of the Islamic state, it has required an improbable array of conjuring tricks, and some somersaults on the tightrope of historical memory as well, to try and nationalize a past contested by enemies within and without. Ayesha Jalal, ‘Conjuring Pakistan’

The composition of nationalist history often involves a re-telling of events that subsumes or just skims over ostensibly contradictory moments, so that instead of revealing alternative political trajectories, they become stepping stones: all leading towards the full realization of the nation state. As has been pointed out by Kamran Asdar Ali, the history of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) is one of many such histories that needs to be reclaimed out of the enforced inclusion of disparate groups under one national narrative. Its history is part of the larger story of how the state dealt with opposition and alternatives. In the 1950s, much of what was written on the CPP mentioned the Party and the Left in Pakistan as a footnote to the tale of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States in the context of the war against communism. The brief rise of radical politics in Pakistan in the 1960s and the early 1970s saw a smattering of writings that considered the CPP and the Left not as a central focus, but in relation to the rise in radical politics in the country in this period, particularly emphasizing politics in what is now Bangladesh and, to a lesser extent, Karachi.

Recent work has significantly deepened our understanding, showing how the cultural politics of the CPP contested nationalist historiography. Kamran Asdar Ali’s brilliant account provides an insight into the various historical trajectories that could have developed in Pakistan, by looking at how intellectual debates from within the CPP, and the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in particular, engaged with the state’s ideological consensus. Saadia Toor has a more macro-perspective that shows how the CPP and the Left in Pakistan presented an alternative articulation of politics in comparison to that based on religion; hence, the suppression of these groups then represented the marginalization of ‘progressive models for the Pakistani nation-state project.’ Similarly, Talat Ahmed discusses the interplay of history and memory in the nationalist project, by recovering the narrative of the role played by the CPP and specifically the PWA in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951, where members of the Party were accused of colluding with army officers to mastermind a coup.

This article attempts to contribute to these debates in two ways: first by providing a local case study, centred on the city of Lahore, and second by focusing on state repression. The fact that different regions in Pakistan had variant manifestations of politics underscores the need for a localized study to trace the mechanics, in particular the construction of the CPP as ‘troublemakers’ and anti-national ‘traitors’, by which state oppression operated. Lahore in the 1950s is a particularly interesting case because of the changes wrought by the city’s insertion into what was then the ‘new’ Pakistani state.

The analysis in this article begins with a brief overview of the activities of the CPP and the Left in this ‘new’ space of an older city. It then goes on to critically assess categories used to describe and restrict the CPP, in three sections. The first of these traces the description of communists as ‘godless’ versus ‘troublemakers’; it studies the method by which the communists, as political troublemakers for the state, were equated with the problem of them being antithetical to Pakistan’s Islamic orientations. The second category is the CPP as political opposition; the focus of this section is on the Punjab Legislative Assembly elections of 1951 to highlight how the communists in opposition were actually part of a political alternative in that their constituency was situated amongst groups of the working poor. By constructing them as troublemakers, the response of the state to the presence of such an opposition was to use a combination of pre-emptive arrests and election fraud to ensure that these groups did not find representation in the assembly. The third section focuses on the title of ‘traitors’ by looking at the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, the discovery of which overlapped with the 1951 elections. It argues that the Conspiracy was part of the same process in that it was used by the state as an excuse to begin a more systematic crackdown on the Left in Pakistan. As it was a conspiracy that was directed against the state, the involvement of communist groups within it meant they could now be deemed traitors against the state itself.

Two main sources have been used in this article. One is the Pakistan Times, a newspaper that has been referred to as the ‘unofficial organ of the Communist Party’ and in the words of Tariq Ali, ‘the newspaper was the Left in Pakistan.’ Its coverage of the activities of radical movements and Communist politics makes it perhaps one of the only sources where an almost daily account of their activities can be studied. The other source was acquired from Ahmad Salim’s private archives, the South Asian Research and Resource Centre. This is a two-volume report published by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Punjab. It contains correspondence between CPP members, details of their activities, organizations and affiliations. Other sources used more intermittently include judgements of the Lahore High Court and Cabinet proceedings. Interviews of CPP members and of a student activist at that time have been used (with permission) to supplement this. These allow for the inclusion of anecdotes and personal experiences that contain rich detail about actual political practice that cannot be conveyed through official reports.

Lahore and the Left

The Communist Party of Pakistan was faced with the daunting task of having to establish itself within a ‘new’ country struggling to rebuild itself in the aftermath of Partition. Specifically, the city of Lahore found that its status had changed because of its proximity to the border. Before Partition, it was in Lahore that there had flourished the ‘coffee house culture’ that KK Aziz, a well-known Pakistani historian, fondly wrote about, a time when groups such as writers, poets and students would come together for political and literary discussions that lasted for hours. The last remnants of this culture were to fade away slowly as Lahore became a border city. Partially, this was because of the widespread destruction of the urban fabric that attended Partition. The historic walled city for instance, with its small-scale industry and working class neighbourhoods, was almost completely burnt to the ground. Against this background, it is not surprising then, that when the CPP was formulating plans for the now border city, they expressly stated in their correspondence that in Lahore, they should ‘not attempt anything big’. Nonetheless, the Punjab saw various types of popular cultural movements that challenged the national culture and the ruling elite. Lahore’s position as the town of traders in the prosperous and politically dominant Punjab as well as its continued administrative importance aided in its recovery in the post-Partition state to a greater extent than cities like Karachi. However, the economic prominence of the province did not mean that the benefits of this were divided equally amongst all classes and regions within the Punjab. The demographic majority of the agricultural areas and the power wielded by the landed classes effectively meant that formal political contests were biased in their favour. Similarly, even while Lahore was the dominant city in the dominant state of Punjab, the city did hold specific spaces that presented a potential for radical mobilization. For instance, the railways and the Mughalpura workshops in the north of the city were the central base for the CPP labour leader Mirza Muhammad Ibrahim and the North Western Railway (NWR) Union that he was the president of. CPP members were also active amongst the workers of the Bata Mazdoor League (BML) in Batapur on the outskirts of what was then Lahore city.

It is important to note that within these spaces, the CPP was allied to, but not coequal with, the Left more broadly. The narrative of the CPP in the early 1950s is intrinsically connected to the more fluid politics of the time. There were groups that were affiliated to the CPP and those that, although not being formally associated with it, were sympathetic of its aims. Examples of the former include the Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF), whose president was Mirza Ibrahim, whereas the general secretary was the national poet and PWA member, Faiz Ahmed Faiz; and the Democratic Students Federation (DSF), which, at the time, was more active in Karachi. Although these have been referred to as ‘fronts’ of the CPP, not all their members were communist. The organizations themselves were formed with the aid of the Party but the affiliated unions of the PTUF and the students who mobilized under the DSF were not all of the same ideology. The latter group of ‘progressives’ were sympathetic to the CPP but not directly linked to it. One of the prominent organizations that can be classified under this category was the Azad Pakistan Party (APP) of Mian Iftikharuddin.

All these groups were involved in the articulation of an alternative practice of politics. For example, in 1953 Mirza Ibrahim linked the problems faced by NWR workers to Pakistan’s foreign policy. Much later, in 1957, while helping the striking workers of the Batala Engineering Company Workers he included ‘nationalization’ among their minimum demands. As such, the existence of this alternative within the society allowed for the broadening and politicization of issues.

Through these organizations, important links and resources could be extended to agitations, which then impacted the chances of a successful movement. This can be seen in the case of the Batapur strikes that took place around the Bata factory in the early 1950s. A deputation of the Bata Mazdoor League linked itself with the Pakistan Trade Union Federation (PTUF) by approaching Faiz Ahmed Faiz and asking for his help in addressing their grievances. As part of the Progressive Writers Association, Faiz had been involved in pre-Partition discussions that emphasized the need to have a better understanding of the conditions workers had to face. It is then not surprising that Faiz Ahmed Faiz, although never being a formal member of the CPP, was one of the vice presidents of the PTUF in 1951 and an active member campaigning for worker rights. Presumably, his position as an editor of the Pakistan Times, in its early years, must have contributed to the intensive coverage the newspaper gave to workers’ strikes in the country.

Shortly after this deputation approached Faiz, Mirza Ibrahim began to support the Bata worker strikes openly. Similarly, members of the CPP in their individual capacities were also involved in helping the Bata workers. Tahira Mazhar Ali, one of the founder members of the Democratic Women’s Association (connected to the CPP) and an active CPP member herself, went to these strikes to encourage and aid the women who were striking. Indeed the women took part alongside the men in the strikes, often cooking food for them and washing clothes in order to keep the strike going. In addition to their role in the strikes themselves, over 50 women from the workers’ colony, clad in burqas, staged a demonstration in front of the offices of the Punjab Muslim League. Although the CPP cannot be given sole credit for the sustained strike actions of the Bata Mazdoor League, their involvement both directly and indirectly, as well as their role in publicizing the demands of the League in papers like the Pakistan Times and Imroze, played an important role in pressurizing the state to take action and make negotiations possible. Indeed, in January 1951, the appointment of an adjudicator was deemed to be ‘ … the beginning of a new phase in the history of labour disputes in the Punjab because it is for the first time … that an adjudicator had been appointed and recourse taken to the Industrial Disputes Act.’

The CPP should then be viewed not as an organizationally strong party but one that helped provide links between individuals and rather diverse groups that broadly referred to themselves as progressive. As the political space in this period allowed for fluidity, many of these groups could (and did) establish linkages to one another that were both political and personal. In some cases, these even included familial inter-organizational links. For example, Mian Iftikharuddin’s son, Arif Iftikharuddin, was a prominent member of the DSF. Also in the DSF was Naeem Ashraf Malik who was the younger brother of Shamim Ashraf Malik who was in the CPP District Organising Committee in Lahore and worked with Mirza Ibrahim as the General Secretary of the NWR Workers Union. It was these links that came to the fore when the DSF was involved in the mobilization of students to launch a movement in 1953 against rising university fees and deplorable conditions in the universities. Although this student movement began in Karachi, the repression it received from the state sparked off wider shows of support amongst students in Lahore.

The CPP may have aided the formation of some alliances, but many of the groups in these organizations did not consider themselves as communist at all and were not even directly connected to the CPP’s structure. Nonetheless, they were all repressed in the name of curtailing communism. A student leader arrested after the CPP was banned in 1954 spent 7 months in jail and said that while his cellmates included activists, students and journalists who had worked with the CPP, a minority considered themselves as communist. What this serves to illustrate is that there was a porous dividing line between ‘communist’ and ‘the rest’ in the everyday politics of Lahore. Thus, the publicly (and loudly) voiced divide based on atheistic communism and Pakistan’s religious polity did not necessarily come to the forefront in actual practice; however, at particular junctures this difference was emphasized by the state to serve its own agenda.

Defining Enemies: ‘Godless’ Communists or ‘Defiant Troublemakers’?

In 1954, Mohammad Ali Bogra announced at a public forum that international powers did not have to be worried about communism spreading in Pakistan because being Muslim automatically protected them from the evils of communism. One also has to keep in mind the audience Bogra was talking to. He was assuring the international arena that while they chased this spectre down in the rest of the world, here, in Pakistan, all was well because communism simply could not compete with the Islamic ideology that was prevalent. In later years, similar assertions stating that ‘secularism represents a complete antithesis to Islam’ would be made in different contexts. What these statements had in common was a lack of discernment about what precisely this Islam was.

At the time, the state itself could not have provided a coherent answer to this. Indeed, certain views expressed within the upper echelons of the Pakistani state in the early 1950s suggest wariness about the use of an Islamic idiom in politics. The state’s secret internal documents from the early 1950s show an aversion to the ‘parrot like repetition’ that equates Pakistan with an Islamic state without giving any idea of what that entails. This same Ministry of Interior document then goes on to express the fear of intellectuals perceiving the government as ‘pandering to orthodoxy’ where Islam is concerned, while stressing that the Pakistani state should advocate some strain of ‘Islamic democracy and socialism of a modern variety’. On its own, this statement is interesting because it shows that the combination of Islam and some ‘modern variety’ of socialism was not viewed as fundamentally incompatible. Although the amalgamation of socialist ideas and Islam is potentially acceptable, a communist polity (also never clearly defined) and orthodox Islam are seen as threatening because one leads to the other:

… if the accent on unrestrained religiosity continues to be maintained as at present, there is bound to be a violent reaction and Pakistan would then be, heading straight for communism.

In actual practice as well, the absolute truth of this polarity between religion and the Left was allowed to slide when it suited the ruling elite to do so. The Muslim League was not above the inclusion of particular Leftists within its ranks nor was it against the socialist bent given to its manifesto by Daniyal Latifi in the run up to the 1946 elections.

The issue of defiance and sedition was more important in defining the position of communism in Pakistan’s national imagery than its irreligious basis was. In the wake of political unrest in Dacca, the Pakistani Interior Ministry in 1951 discussed the disturbing possibility of the riots spreading to West Pakistan. To prove the imminent possibility of this threat, the report for the cabinet pointed as evidence towards ‘incidents involving clear defiance of authority’ in Lahore and Peshawar. According to the report, the two evils responsible for this volatile state of affairs were provincialism and communism. Even though the threat of the latter was perceived as being the greatest in East Pakistan, in the rest of the country the threat was real, but invisible:

The [Communist] Party is biding its time and waiting for an opportunity to reassemble its forces.

This overreaction by the state denotes the level of insecurity that pervaded the Pakistani establishment. Whereas the politics of provincialism and communism represent different demands, made by groups and individuals who were not entirely overlapping, they were seen by the state as being part of the same sort of threat to its authority. The common link between the two was the fact that both were problems seen as provoking political instability, not religious amorality.

That politicians and state officials articulated different opinions on this issue is quite clear. However, this variation also extended to the judiciary. In 1953, Mazhar Ali Khan, who was a CPP member, editor for both Pakistan Times and Imroze and Tahira Mazhar Ali’s husband, was accused of trying to cause disaffection against the government through an article he had written. Although fully aware of Mazhar Ali’s political background, the dissenting judgement states that:

… knowing the ‘iconoclast’ and his political associations, the government could … have relied on the good taste of its people

In this case, a common elite background sufficed to elide punishment. In contrast, the judicial reaction to an article published in Lyallpur in 1950, which accused the government of creating ‘an atmosphere of irreligiousness’ thus allowing for the ‘flood of communism’ and the ‘fostering of Qadyaniat’, was seen as clearly ‘seditious’. What these two examples, persecuted under the same law, highlight is that in some cases, communist affiliations could be regarded as harmless to the national government whereas accusations regarding the lack of religion in the state could be seen as seditious. The point being forwarded here is not that Communism and the Islam of the state had a natural affinity but that their clash, as epitomized by the banning of the CPP in 1954, cannot be seen as being based on a primordial ideological dichotomy, but rather on political contingency.

This observation is borne out even on the level of the individual beliefs and strategies of those who associated with the Communist Party in Lahore. For instance, Abdullah Malik, one of the CPP members who joined the Muslim League in the late 1940s, had previously flirted with the politics of the Ahrar Party. He later became an active and committed member of the CPP and in the later years of his life, prayed and studied the Quran closely. Similarly, Hameed Akhtar, before joining active politics and becoming a member of both the CPP and the PWA, had learnt the Quran by heart as a boy. Even in discussions within the CPP, some members were keen to link communist regimes with Islam. A fascinating example is that of a CPP member who travelled to Communist China in the early 1950s. On his return, while extolling the virtues of Mao, in addition to commenting on his simple lifestyle, he stated that Mao was, in fact, a Muslim. Even on a more formal, organizational level the fluidity of political practice is borne out by the alliances (albeit sporadic) that the CPP formed with religious groups and vice versa. Clearly then, the divide between Islam and communism was in no way as clearly defined in actual practice as it was in the public statements made by state officials and politicians.

The eventual ban of the CPP was precipitated by international pressure. Discussing the issue of whether the United States could have trusted Pakistan to maintain a distance from communist countries on the international plane, Werner Levi focuses on the apparent conflict between the avowedly secular politics of the Left and of the Islam of the state. He analyzes the foreign policy of Pakistan to come to this same conclusion—that the decisions taken by the Pakistani state show not so much an adherence to a particular type of ideology as they do to what was favourable to them at the time. Thus, the conflict between the Left and the state in the early years was not only about ideological nuances or about the incompatibility of communism and Islam, it was also about the need of the state to survive and for the status quo to remain untrammelled. It is no surprise then that the crackdown and arrests on communists and labour in Pakistan tended to increase when the state perceived itself to be under threat, even though this perception was not always reflected in ground realities.

Indeed, the reaction of the state was usually out of proportion to the magnitude of the threat. Although in places like East Pakistan the CPP was very strong, in the city of Lahore it was not a very organized party. Its strength lay more in its support of the working poor in the absence of other political groups who did so, as well as its presence as an oppositional political current in the city of Lahore. The construction of the CPP as political ‘troublemakers’ adversely affected the advantages that could accrue to labour through involvement with these groups.

In the case of the Bata workers, their association with the PTUF meant that they were labelled as communists by the Management and one of the first issues raised in the court case in their defence was how ‘ … it was wrong and quite improper on the part of the Management to dub all respondents as Communists, whereas, in fact, they were plain and honest workers.’ The opinion that is being expressed here is quite different from the views given earlier stating that communism is problematic because of its un-Islamic character. It is clearly because of the political activities of the party, and not just its ideological implications, that the term is being used to describe workers who are the antithesis of ‘plain and honest’. The term communist perhaps belies what the implications of the term were in this context. It was the overlap in meaning between ‘communist’ and ‘troublemaker’ that was of import. Even though the striking workers were not all communist, the Management could emphasize the link between them and the PTUF to term them as such and thus associate their strikes, which were for wages and against victimization, with the wider aims and perceptions associated with the CPP in order to detract the possibility of a sympathetic response from the wider public or from the government.

The Left as Political Opposition: The Punjab Elections of 1951

One key technique deployed by the Pakistani state to subsume the political alternatives presented by the Left involved highlighting conclusions as opposed to the process by which an endpoint was reached. For instance, the Punjab legislative assembly elections of 1951 in nationalist historiography concluded with a resounding electoral win for the Muslim League. Viewing this from a macro-level the undiscriminating observer could conclude that the Muslim League in post-Partition Pakistan remained a popular party with a mass base—a conclusion that misses both the process by which the opposition was marginalized and the advantages offered to the League by its class basis. A breakdown of this electoral victory reveals that 80% of those elected in the Punjab were landlords commanding tenant votes and that no CPP member was ever elected to the West Pakistan legislature, which was taken as an indication of the lack of appeal of the ‘cult of communism’. Whereas in Lahore, individual CPP members were elected but were either arrested or made to give up their seat, in direct contradiction to the nationalist narratives of the time.

In the lead up to the elections, it was announced, by the Punjab Provincial Committee of the CPP, that Mirza Ibrahim would be contesting the election for constituency number 5 of the Lahore City Corporation. Although worker demands and strategies were not enforced or formulated by the CPP alone, its support for people like Mirza Ibrahim was an important part of helping certain individuals emerge as important leaders. Abdul Rauf Malik, who knew Mirza Ibrahim and had spent time with him in prison, said that the CPP saw a lot of potential in Mirza Ibrahim because he was already an important worker leader. Although he was not formally educated, he apparently had an impressive grasp of the economic problems of workers and could list off, by rote, the number of workers in each department and their income. Thus, the CPP did indeed aid particular individuals in terms of providing them with resources and assistance, but it did not solely create movements or leaders.

While the greater politicization of workers in this period paints a picture of Lahore being a cradle for heightened political awareness amongst the working poor and a centre for the activities of the Left, this heightened activity was actually concentrated in certain pockets of the city. The elections of 1951, for instance, registered a very low voter turnout in most places, averaging at about 30%. In stark contrast, constituency number five, from where Mirza Ibrahim was standing, registered a voter turnout of about 50%, which was the highest registered in any constituency in Lahore. He won the seat at 7030 votes with the Muslim League candidate, Ahmed Saeed Kirmani, following with 4847 votes. This announcement was followed by a procession taken out by the workers of the locality to celebrate his victory. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this election result was that throughout the run-up to the elections, Mirza Ibrahim was in jail.

It was found in court that he had been arrested because his speeches were deemed objectionable. However, nothing could be revealed in court about the exact nature of the objection to the speeches because the orders for the arrest were declared official documents. Revealing their contents was seen as potentially having ‘a detrimental effect on law and order.’ The basis for the appeal against this decision was that Mirza Ibrahim had been detained to restrict his union-related activities and to prevent him from contesting the elections for the Punjab Assembly. The court had, by this time, already stated that it was ‘helpless’ to defend Mirza Ibrahim, given that his detention had been ordered under the Punjab Public Safety Act, which prevented the court from investigating the reasons for an arrest made by the executive. Therefore, it was entirely unsurprising that the petition was finally dismissed.

A clearer picture of the context within which arrests were made at this time emerges when it is noted that Mirza Ibrahim was not the only one who had been arrested under this charge. Chaudhry Ataullah Jehanian and Dada Amir Haider were also prominent Leftists who had been detained at the time and all of them had their petitions rejected. It would be stretching coincidence to a breaking point to suggest that these arrests had no connection at all with the fact that both Mirza Ibrahim and Ataullah Jehanian had just previously been announced as Left-wing candidates contesting the elections. In Mirza’s case however, his election and subsequent arrest were not enough to quell the matter. Workers, Leftists and CPP members campaigned for the election on behalf of Mirza Ibrahim. Hameed Akhtar, who was a member of both the PWA and the CPP at the time, did not actively take part in worker politics but was involved in this particular election campaign. He and his comrades printed out posters of Mirza Ibrahim in handcuffs, and held meetings and processions to campaign for his election. However, in the case of Mirza Ibrahim’s electoral victory, the eventual end point was not a victorious one for the Left in Lahore. It was decided that there was an error in the way the votes had been counted, a ‘certain’ number of votes were declared bogus and Mr Ahmed Saeed Kirmani was elected to the Assembly whereas Mirza Ibrahim continued his time in the torture chambers beneath the Lahore Fort.

Commenting on this retrospectively, Craig Baxter writing to the US government from Lahore stated that Kirmani’s electoral victory probably involved some ‘juggling’ of the result.’ This is highly possible given that within the Punjab complaints of election malpractices abounded. Although the actual electoral success of candidates from the Left was limited, the fact that they could stand at all was made possible through links that existed between these different associations. Although Mirza Ibrahim was a railway worker, he contested and won the seat from constituency number five on behalf of the Communist Party seat. Similarly, Kaniz Fatima, a member of the DWA, contested and won the seat in Outer Lahore constituency number two, for women from the Azad Pakistan Party (APP). The climate was sufficiently open that candidates from the Kisan Committee in the Punjab could also announce their decision to stand for elections as members of the APP.

Thus, the fluidity of politics and connections between these groups could be utilized during elections. The very existence of these groups in the electoral process represents a political opposition that was not overtly Islamist, regionalist or nationalist. The presence of such an opposition is an important part in politicizing the working poor and, at the very least, connecting them to some extent to the politics practiced at the level of the state. However, as the rest of this article will argue, the Pakistani state’s policies subsequently defined, in increasingly narrow terms, what type of politics was acceptable and steadily attempted to obliterate both the diversity of political practices and the older networks that existed.

From ‘Troublemakers’ to ‘Traitors’: The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case

The events around the Rawalpindi conspiracy case, to this day, are not known in their entirety. What is known is that through informal links, a number of army officers made contact with members of the CPP and then met to discuss the possibility of a coup. However, an attempt at moving the coup out of the meetings and into the realm of actual implementation was never made. This may be because the authorities found out about it beforehand. It is equally possible, as some have stated, that talk of the coup had already been shelved at the time the arrests were made and that these detentions were actually part of the same imperative to quell opposition in the elections. What is relevant for this article, however, are the repercussions of the case for the Left and the CPP. In connection with the case itself, important individuals like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sajjad Zaheer and Muhammad Hussain Ata were arrested. After these arrests, which were more directly connected to the Conspiracy, the state began a systematic campaign of apprehending members of the Left from all over the country. Although the implications of the case itself had echoes on the national level, there was also a specific crackdown on Leftists in the city of Lahore.

A widespread state of panic was induced by Liaquat Ali Khan’s announcement of the unearthing of a plot that was aimed at creating a ‘violent commotion’, announced in the paper on the same day that polling in the Punjab began. The news of the conspiracy elicited an immediate response from the public. Condolences and messages of support to the government poured in. Even the Pakistan Times editorials at this point, although critical of the government employing ‘guesswork’ about the extent of the plot, nonetheless state that it would be wrong for anyone ‘ … to doubt the bona fides of government action’. Discussing public opinion regarding the Conspiracy, Hasan Zaheer asserts that in the minds of most of those who heard of it at the time, the case was seen as ‘treason’.

Although involvement in the Rawalpindi conspiracy has been described as a grievous error made by the upper echelons of the CPP, not all CPP members were in favour of this involvement. In addition, it seems that discussions of the case tend to forget that its discovery coincided almost exactly with the 1951 elections in the Punjab. At the time of his arrest, Faiz himself thought that he was being arrested so that he could be kept quiet until after the election. Seen from this angle, the announcement of the coup and the association of all Leftists with treason were also part of the process by which the political elite maintained its control over politics in the Punjab. In addition, the repression of all Leftists in the aftermath of the conspiracy, especially given that individuals like Mirza Ibrahim and Jehanian had been arrested earlier, suggests that the conspiracy became a reason to crack down on a group that had been, increasingly, making the state uneasy.

The initial impetus for the supposed attempted coup that formed the basis of the case came from the government’s decision to cease hostilities in Kashmir, a decision that was not welcomed by certain groups within the army who disagreed with the civilian administration’s judgement. To carry out such a plan the officers approached Faiz Ahmed Faiz in search of political support. Faiz agreed to arrange a meeting for them with Sajjad Zaheer and an informal meeting was accordingly arranged. While Talat Ahmed points out that the coup itself was ‘not a fabrication’ and that several CPP members, including Sajjad Zaheer, did agree to the coup, whether it would have actually been carried out is by no means clear. Evidence of meetings where agreements were reached is offset by testimonies stating that the plot did not evolve beyond the initial phase of discussion and it was later shelved. This is supported by the investigation of the tribunal that could not definitively prove the charges against them even though the ‘conspirators’ were not allowed a defence counsel or witnesses.

Another confusing fact about the timing at which the case emerges is the depth of intelligence available to the Punjab police about ‘subversive’ activities, particularly with regard to the Communist Party. This is both indicated by Ahmed and visible in the two-volume work on the activities of the Communist Party in West Pakistan published by the Central Investigation Department in 1952. As part of his plea to the CPP to not take part in the coup, Ishaqe Mohammad also pointed out that given the level of monitoring they were subject to, the plans for this coup were definitely not a secret from the authorities. Given this sort of surveillance, it does seem improbable that the state only found out about this attempted plot during the elections in March when it was initially supposed to be carried out in February 1951. While the fact that there was some substance to the conspiracy cannot be denied, these ‘grey’ areas suggest that the decision of the state to conduct these arrests and widen the purview of whom they arrested was based on more than just security concerns. This approach becomes more convincing when given the background of the elections and the large number of arrests of Leftists that followed.

Even before the official trial into the conspiracy case began, a number of arrests were carried out, with the assurance being given in newspaper headlines that the ‘arrests are not connected with the Pindi conspiracy’. There was a total of about 20 arrests made in this first round-up in the Punjab. Those arrested in Lahore included Firozuddin Mansur, the secretary of the Punjab Kisan Committee and a veteran CPP member, Mohammad Afzal, the general secretary of the PTUF, Shamim Ashraf Malik and Hameed Akhtar. Hameed Akhtar’s book Kal Kothri on his prison experiences begins from this exact point. He describes how he heard a loud and persistent banging on his door in the early hours of the morning and saw police standing outside. In an account that is both harrowing and yet tongue-in-cheek, he describes how the police came in a tonga—a horse-drawn carriage—because the large number of arrests that had been made meant that all police cars were busy. Although these arrests were new in their intensity as they took place in such a short period of time, the book also reveals how arrests of communist leaders were by no means an infrequent occurrence. While some of his friends in prison were nervous about their plight as they had been roused before dawn and some had just been brought to prison as they were, the veteran communist leader Firozuddin Mansur walked in with all necessities carefully packed, fully prepared and composed because he had been to prison so many times that he knew exactly what to expect.

Even within prison, the ‘viral’ or polluting threat presented by radicalism was still a consideration. This was reflected in the fact that those arrested were kept in separate compartments from the rest of the prisoners. This is part of the reason why Hameed Akhtar spent several months in solitary confinement whilst in prison in the early 1950s as the police were afraid that he and his comrades would rouse the sentiments of the prisoners around them. Similar to the case with Mirza Ibrahim and the rest of the group arrested immediately preceding the election, even the basis of the arrest was precautionary:

I still remember the beginning of my warrant, my name, my father’s name, ‘whereas the governor of Punjab is satisfied that you are going to act upon in a manner which is prejudicial to the public law and order, the governor is pleased to detain you for six months’

In a scathing criticism of the arrests of Leftists outside of those accused in the case, an article in the Pakistan Times stated that ‘ … it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Muslim League governments have misused their special powers in order to weaken their political opponents.’ This repression weakened not only opponents but also those whom they worked with. Even though members of the PTUF at the time were active and protesting these arrests under the ‘hated’ safety act, in the aftermath of this atmosphere worker and peasant unions that had been affiliated with the CPP became fragmented.

On one level, official narratives hide the reality of diverse and often opposing realities. On another level, they can also put a different spin on these same realities. The Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case gave substance to a narrative in which the CPP specifically and the Left more broadly were seen as having betrayed Pakistan. In the conclusion of this case, the CPP’s role was viewed as one where it had conspired ‘to undermine the existence of Pakistan and to establish an atheist state in Pakistan’. The army officials, by contrast, were absolved of responsibility and considered as passive recipients. This sentiment is quite clearly articulated in the discussion of the conspiracy case in the Constituent Assembly:

The authors of the present conspiracy had selfish ends to serve; they wanted to grab the reins of Government … I can never believe that the Pakistan Forces, of whom we are so proud, could have played into their hands.

The new narrative now played with historic memory, selectively erasing things like the fact that, once upon a time, the CPP and Muslim League had been allied and of course denying the realities that would later pave the way for Pakistan’s multiple military coups. What the Rawalpindi conspiracy case thus actually represents is, to use Jalal’s terminology, the manufacturing of ‘enemies within’.

Concluding Remarks

In 1920, after Turkey was defeated in the First World War, a group of refugees left India as a protest against the British bringing to an end the Khilafat. These religious and anti-imperialist protestors would go on to become some of the most prominent communists in the early days of Pakistan and particularly the Punjab. Amongst their ranks were names like Fazal Elahi Qurban and Ferozuddin Mansoor. Given this background, the nationalist, religious and communist aspects of their identity overlapped in a way that allowed them to be all these things and yet come to Pakistan. For the Pakistani state however, when Ferozuddin Mansur was arrested in Lahore in 1951 under the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, it was because he was a communist. His initial motivations revolving around the Khilafat were not of any import—he was arrested as a troublemaker, an atheistic communist and, therefore, a paradox in Pakistan’s Islam-oriented nation-hood. The multiple realities of individuals who were communist at one point were thus subsumed under the reality of what the Pakistani state said communism was. As this article has shown and this example illustrates, this reality did not, however, necessarily conform to varying local strands of communist politics.

The political curtailment of the activities of the Left described above were part of a wider process by which the state restricted political alternatives and defined, increasingly narrowly, what type of political identities were acceptable in the Pakistani state. The ban on the CPP was not lifted till as late as in 1986 and the creation of a category of ‘enemy of the state’, in this sense, was a political act aimed at not only eliminating political opposition but also narrowly defining the type of politics that could be practiced within the ambit of the Pakistani state. In the case of the CPP, their role within the elections of 1951 is an all but forgotten aspect of Pakistani history, partially because of its distance from what is possible in the contemporary context, as Hameed Akhtar observed: ‘At that time the CPP was the only voice challenging the status quo … today, could any communist be elected in Lahore?’ The combined result of state repression and the conspiracy case was that groups that had connected themselves to other political associations and linked themselves to the articulation of class politics broke off these ties. An example of this was the PWA, which officially separated itself from association with politics and political parties. This signalled the beginning of the process of de-politicization of such organizations in the Pakistani context.

While the cultural politics of the CPP can be viewed as problematic in the emphasis given to Urdu as a national language, their persistence in pursuing an agenda of linking literary activities to the politics of progress and development meant that individuals like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Hameed Akhtar played an important role in linking these intellectual circles to the politics of labour in Lahore. These specific political linkages were now to become a thing of the past. Indeed, this phase in Pakistani history also represents the change of an era. While Partition had drawn a geographical boundary line, these events indicate the changes that took place at the interface between an older social and political order and the new imperatives of the nascent state. The culture that allowed the Left to flourish is best represented by the ‘coffee house culture’ of Lahore. The India Coffee house was one of a number of small establishments that were regularly frequented by individuals like Habib Jalib, (the revolutionary poet who himself was a worker in Lyallpur at one point) and Ferozuddin Mansur. Khursheed Aziz’s memoirs, ‘The Coffee House of Lahore’, provide a loving and witty portrait of the individuals who visited the Coffee House (as it became known after Partition) between the late 1940s and the early 1950s. This memoir is replete with nostalgia for an age in which Lahore was a cosmopolitan centre of ideas and debates. However, Aziz’s memoirs, describing individuals between the late 1940s and the early 1950s, completely skip the break represented by Partition and the effect it had on the public arena within which politics was practiced in Lahore. Indeed, all of the public spaces for meetings, debate and mushairas were negatively impacted by Partition. Bemoaning this same change, an article in the Pakistan Times from 1956 discussed the shift in the nature of Lahore from a centre of stormy political and cultural activities to one that was simply attempting to grapple with the consequences of Partition. Now, the article continued, the halls that were so essential to making Lahore so vibrant were either being used to provide shelters or being used as ‘godowns’ for storing grain. The limited space for the old type of politics in Lahore would go on shrinking in later years as symbolized by the disappearance of the few halls of this sort that were left in the post-Partition city. Abdul Rauf Malik, the head of the People’s Publishing House in the 1950s, observed that there were no halls left in the city—the Lajpat Rai hall, the Barkat Ali Muhammadean Hall and the YMCA were all out of use. He bemoaned the fact that now, there are huge five- and three-star hotels where meetings are held with tea, which is expensive and restrictive. Indeed, the decline of the political culture of the city of Lahore paralleled the demise of the Left.

The relationship between the politics of the Left and the mechanics of state repression existed in a very specific context and in a very different kind of public space that existed in Lahore in the early 1950s. Nonetheless, the way that the narrative unfolds provides important insights into the way politics was practiced below the level of the nation state and the manner in which the enemies of the state were identified and marginalized—a process that has been applied time and again to different groups in various periods of Pakistani history. When talking about the popularity of his book Kal Kothri, Hameed Akhtar remarked that the book has been published in eight different editions since its original publication in 1953 and is still in demand today because what it describes are the specific arrests that took place in the early 1950s and hence it touches on political circumstances that have been repeatedly created whenever the state has attempted to suppress political opposition. While this has happened all too often in the Pakistani context, if Faiz could retain some tendrils of hope when writing from jail while arrested under the conspiracy case, perhaps it is possible to do the same in contemporary observations of the political future of Pakistan:

Today men of heart go to test their spirits and their faith;
let them bring an army of enemies, we will meet them tomorrow
let them come to the execution yard, we will join the spectacle tomorrow.
No matter how heavy this last hour may seem, my friend:
we will see the light hidden tonight shine brightly tomorrow;
we will see the morning-star sparkle as today edges into tomorrow.