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Progressive politics in Pakistan: Q+A with Atiya Khan

Atiya Khan, SAI’s Aman Fellow for the 2014 fall semester, is a historian of Modern South Asia and through her research, aims to recover the untold story of progressive politics in Pakistan.

Khan will lead a seminar at Harvard on Friday, Nov. 7, titled ‘Dictatorship and Development: The Dilemma of the Left in Pakistan, 1950s-1960s.’

SAI recently talked to Khan about her research on Pakistan’s Leftist movement, how the Left has failed internationally, and why Pakistan seems to “always be in some kind of crisis.”

SAI: What compelled you to study Pakistani politics from a historical perspective?

Atiya Khan:  Growing up in Pakistan, it was frustrating that basic civil liberties were curtailed. As a young adult, I often wondered: Why was Pakistan always in some kind of crisis? How could one account for the difficulties of democracy in Pakistan? How might we ground our understanding of these difficulties through an investigation of the past?

These were the questions that compelled me to study Pakistan. While historians and political scientists have provided accounts for the crisis of democracy in Pakistan, they tend to emphasize the role of the military-bureaucracy nexus that was inherited by the British and how this inheritance impeded the growth of democratic institutions. I adopted a different approach by examining the failure of democracy in Pakistan from the standpoint of the failure of the Left.

It was the Left, after all, that took upon itself the task of vitalizing democracy in Pakistan. Various left-wing figures and organizations staked a claim to that political responsibility. In a certain sense, taking their claim seriously is the point of departure for my interpretation of Pakistan’s history.

In my work, I trace the failure of the democratic Left since the inception of Pakistan in 1947 through the collapse of leftist politics in the wake of the Bangladesh War of 1971. What this history uncovers is the way in which the Left student and labor movements in Pakistan balked at forming a democratic government when the opportunity presented itself. Instead, various leftist groups lent organizational support to their opponents and helped them attain political objectives that were opposed to their own.  The disorientation and unwitting self-betrayals of the Left during this period complicate the question of what “the Left” actually is, and what it stood for, in the first place.

SAI: Why do you think it is that the Leftists failed in Pakistan?

AK: The history of the Left is perplexing in that, in retrospect, it appears to be a history of failure. Before elaborating on the failure of the Left in Pakistan, it is important to understand the failure of the international Left, which has ensued since the collapse of the Russian Revolution culminating in the rise of Stalinized communism. This meant that the Left abdicated from advancing the project of international socialism and came to bind itself, however unwittingly, to a politics narrowly focused on national demands. The Left in Pakistan was constituted in the context of this historical shift and was unable to chart an independent course of political leadership, even though it had a great deal of popular support.

There are several reasons as to why the Left failed to assert itself. The explanation many offered at the time, and some still do today, is that the Left was simply overwhelmed by the repressive measures of the government, and this made it very difficult for its organizations to operate. That may be, and I am not dismissing the fact that the Left had to operate in adverse conditions, but this does not explain how or why the Left seemed to disintegrate during, or just following, those potentially opportune moments in which the government was in crisis and thus relatively weak.

In my view, the Left ultimately failed because, at critical moments, it proved unable to distinguish itself from other political tendencies, and thereby incorporated its own political vision to the initiatives of Islamic groups and conservative nationalist parties.

SAI: What is the status of the Left in Pakistan now?

AK: In contemporary Pakistan the Left does not exist in a meaningful way. Although there has been a resurgence of leftist parties and groups, what does it even mean to call oneself leftist when internationally the Left has long been in disarray, if not decay? What does it mean to be on the Left today when, with the exception of occasional and short-lived outbursts, progressive movements have been in retreat since the 1970s globally? The Left internationally is in crisis and Pakistan expresses this predicament acutely.

SAI: What is the significance of the rise of Islamic militancy in Pakistan?

AK: One may argue that Pakistan was never really free of the shadow cast by Islam on politics. Conservatives and leftists alike flirted with the strategy of politicizing Islam; many attempted to blend the precepts of Islam with socialism and democracy. But the rise of Islamic militancy is specific to the context of the 1980s when, under General Zia ul Haq’s project of Islamization, Pakistan became involved in the proxy war in Afghanistan. This was an outcome of the earlier political defeats of the Left that created space for a militant Islamic populism, which thwarted the already frail prospects for meaningful democracy in Pakistan.

SAI: Why is it important for you to take a historical view of Pakistan, rather than a political science approach?

AK: The problem of freedom in history makes history a worthwhile subject. Whereas the discipline of political science is more oriented toward a quantitative framework, history allows us to make sense of the present in relation to the past. Although the discipline of history is driven by empiricism, history more directly poses the problem of freedom in terms of the necessity, and perhaps non-necessity, of the present.

In the case of Pakistan, one wonders about the diminished possibilities of restoring democracy. We can account for that by understanding the failure of the progressive energies in an earlier era, the 1960s. If the dialectical force of history is kept in tension, it can allow us to transcend the realm of “what is,” and push us to contend with the question, “what could be.”

SAI: Are there any other Leftist movements that inform your understanding of Pakistan?

AK: My interest and understanding of the Left in Pakistan stemmed from my interest in Marx and the history of international Marxism. The twentieth century is both fascinating and tragic: fascinating because it witnessed the rise of the vibrant Left internationally, and tragic because it is clearly marked by the defeats of the Left. The Left in Pakistan was not immune from the setbacks experienced by the international Left, and so the decline of progressive politics in Pakistan becomes clearer when we consider the state of the Left globally.

SAI: Can you talk more about your next project?

AK: I am moving toward a comparative research project that will examine the decline of progressive politics in places where it was once vital, such as the Middle East. The idea is to undertake a comparative analysis between Pakistan or South Asia at large and the Middle East, countries such as Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Syria. These are areas in which the socialist left once had a strong presence, but today are in the grip of extreme Islamist forces. The comparative dimension of my project is an attempt to construct a more adequately transnational history of the democratic left, which shared a specific understanding of democracy and social transformation.

SAI: Does the Left have any success stories?

AK: This is an interesting question. At face value, it may appear that the Left met with success in some countries such as Cuba, China, or even in India, where it had maintained a parliamentary presence. However, from the standpoint of socialism, which was after all the banner under which the revolutions in Cuba and China materialized, can we interpret this as success?

This question, in a sense, goes back to the issue of historical shifts in the international Left, whereby it became bound up with the demands of nationalist politics rather than pushing its politics beyond the national framework and striving to overcome its present context. The Left has to learn to advance on the basis of its failures. This is, of course, difficult to think about because the means and resources are so scarce for meaningful political struggle undertaken by revolutionaries with emancipatory intent.

But even the current inopportune situation might offer the occasion to reflect on the mistakes made as well as to think about politics in its various aspects. How does one deal with failure? There aren’t going to be immediate successes. That is why the notion of defeat has, in fact, always been central to the history of the Left.

 Khan will lead a SAI seminar at Harvard on Nov. 7, titled ‘Dictatorship and Development: The Dilemma of the Left in Pakistan, 1950s-1960s.’

 

-Meghan Smith

 

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