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.