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Jul 10, 2014

The early years of the progressives

Copied from The Dawn
The early years of the progressivesby Kamran Asdar Ali
From February 28 to March 6 of 1948, 632 delegates assembled in Calcutta for the second congress of the Communist Party of India (CPI). The most important task performed during the meetings was the shift toward a more radical political line by the party that followed a critique of the reformist politics of its leadership during most of the 1940s.
The delegates also took some time to divide the party into two constitutive parts: the CPI would confine its working to the boundaries of the Indian Union while the post-August 1947 separated territories of Pakistan would be free to form a different communist party.
The CPI’s radical position followed the Soviet post-Second-World-War political line that was articulated forcefully by Andrei Zhdanov, one of the three secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in his speech at the inaugural Cominform Conference in Poland in September of 1947. As the earlier alliance of the three superpowers — the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union — on the basis of defeating fascism was no longer viable in the changed political climate, the Soviet Union argued for a mass resistance against the Anglo-American line of imperialist expansion. In India, this was translated by B.T. Ranadive (the new CPI secretary general) and his group as a call for more radical confrontational politics of struggle and political strikes, a general uprising which had little to do with the level of preparedness of the public as well as the rank and file of the party itself. Some of this confrontational politics was accepted by the newly formed Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) as well.
It is evident to most who know the history of the period that culture and intellectual creativity was of immense importance to the CPP and to its new secretary general, Sajjad Zaheer. Zaheer, an accomplished short-story writer and literary critic, did not produce much literary work during these early years in Pakistan, yet he was constantly writing for the party newspapers and sending long letters to different party committees. He also found time to read what was being written in various literary journals and newspapers and would send individual comments and criticism to foes and friends alike. The militancy in his letters to party comrades was represented often in dictatorial language, giving much importance to the dissemination of party literature, opposition to Muslim League leaders and the building of an open political front linked to other progressive forces in the country. One of these fronts was the re-establishment and the re-organisation of the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA). The PWA was one of the most influential literary movements in the decade preceding the partition of British India. It was initially formed by a group of Indian students like Mulk Raj Anand, Sajjad Zaheer and Ahmed Ali who were living in England during the 1930s. With annual gatherings, regional meetings and affiliated literary journals, the movement attracted writers and intellectuals from almost all Indian languages. However its strength lay among the Urdu-Hindi writers of the era.
From its very inception, the PWA was influenced by socialist and Marxist tendencies and soon after his return from Britain in 1935-36, Sajjad Zaheer joined the CPI. Hence, although the PWA was open to all those who broadly agreed with its manifesto — that called for a new literature that addressed progressive ideals and focused on the issue of poverty, deprivation and servitude of the Indian masses — it soon became closely aligned with the CPI.
Carlo Coppola, who has written a history of the PWA, argues that young Zaheer and others were influenced by Marxist writings while studying at Oxford and the person who encouraged them to establish a formal organisation was the leftist writer Ralph Fox (Fox later died in the Spanish Civil War). However, what is missing in Coppola’s account (and also from Roshnai, the biographical account of the PWA that Sajjad Zaheer wrote later) is any discussion of how the manifesto borrowed heavily from the reports and speeches of the first Soviet Writers Congress in 1934, especially if we see the speeches by Zhdanov and Maxim Gorky. There is much thematic similarity between Zhdanov’s position and that of the emerging manifesto of the young Indian students in Britain. This influence remains a story still untold.
The All Pakistan Progressive Writers Association (APPWA) was a continuation of the All India Progressive Writers Association (AIPWA) and similarly closely affiliated with the newly formed CPP. For example, in 1948, the various CPP district organising committees supervised the formation of local APPWA chapters. Zaheer himself, as a founding member and past president, was keen on pushing the role of intelligentsia in society. In his communiqués he asserted the need for writers to have a thorough mastery of Marxist ideology and insisted on study circles so that intellectuals and creative people, especially those linked to the CPP, could study the works of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, as well as literature coming from the Soviet Union and progressive literature from Europe and Britain. Writers were also encouraged to write essays, articles and literary criticism for popular consumption to counter bourgeois and “reactionary” ideologies that were being propagated by, according to him, state and class enemies. Within this context, by the late 1940s the CPP, in control of APPWA and influenced by the CPI’s radical line, had started to purge from its ranks those that did not completely toe the new party line. This became more evident after the introduction of the new manifesto which targeted “non-progressive” writers during the first APPWA conference held in Lahore in November 1949.
During this conference, “non-progressive” intellectuals were severely criticised for their perceived political failings, alliances with state machinery, sexual perversions and lack of social consciousness. The manifesto for this meeting clearly divided the Pakistani cultural scene into many factions and spoke positively of those intellectuals who raised their voices against the ruling class and who struggled against oppression and for independence, peace and socialism (the new manifesto was published in the literary magazine Savera in 1950). Their writings, the manifesto proclaimed, were full of optimism, progressive ideals and a willingness to move the working class toward action.
In opposition to these intellectuals were the groups that were undemocratic, supported the status quo and through their writings, created confusion in peoples’ minds. The manifesto, in strong and uncompromising language, established three groups of reactionary intellectuals. The first were the writers who proclaimed the ideology of art for art’s sake. The text criticised these writers as denying class struggle and hence colluding with the ruling classes. The second group was designated as those that claimed to write Pakistani literature. They too were condemned as people who favour the capitalist and feudal classes of the new country and who, in their communalist hatred toward India, could not differentiate between Nehru’s fascist government and the Indian working classes. The third group was labelled as Islamic writers who seeked to establish Islamic law in the country. The manifesto lumped all of these writers — the Islamists, nationalists and liberals (art for art’s sake) — together and painted them as reactionaries.
The manifesto then turned toward those writers who used bourgeois psychology and Freudian parameters to understand society. These authors were labelled obscene, perverse, pornographic and decadent for their depiction of life through the lens of sexuality. They not only distorted peoples’ experience, the manifesto asserted, but also disrespected love as a pure form of desire. Hence the manifesto portrayed these writers as anti-humanists who could only make fun of the peoples’ creative faculty and were insensitive to the struggle for human existence. The protagonists of their works were killers, thieves, prostitutes, and those elements of society that do not contribute in the productive process; they wrote pessimistic stories that sang of darkness and of death (this is a clear reference to Saadat Hasan Manto’s work).
During the late 1940s, the progressives were dominant on the literary scene and their insistence on creative activity that focused on a clear ideological position was the legacy of their anti-colonial and class-based politics. They argued that reactionary authors did not understand or write about the social and political aspect of Partition violence and merely presented psychological and sexual renditions of the events. In an essay, the progressive poet Ali Sardar Jafri (Taraqi Pasand Adab, 1957) asserted that the progressives deeply analysed the situation from social and political angles and found the light of humanity even in this darkest hour of the nation’s history. Echoing progressive stalwarts like Ali Sardar Jafri, even Sajjad Zaheer argued that free thinkers and liberal artists possessed a sick mentality that made them avoid peoples’ problems. Hence in Pakistan’s early years there was much anxiety among progressive writers to create a distance from those who were perceived by them as the standard bearers of middle-class values and perverted literature. For example, Jafri attacked poets like N. M. Rashid by arguing that he and others like him were perpetrators of the death wish, escapists, obsessed with sexual themes and condemned him and Manto for raising such topics to the level of religious belief.
Writing during the late 1940s, Aziz Ahmed, another progressive intellectual, in his book on the subject, said that people like Manto were so obsessed with sexuality that he wondered whether they were mentally stable. He goes on to say that this perversion had entered Urdu literature due to the influence of D.H. Lawrence who, according to Ahmed, did not hold the respect of British literary circles any more. Within this context, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi (who was then the secretary general of the APPWA), in an important defence of progressive literature, proclaimed that the progressives had learnt from their mistakes and cleansed their house of impure infections brought in by perverted artists whose pornographic work and psychological analysis was influenced by the decadent intellectual Sigmund Freud (‘Kuch to Kahiye’ Nuqush 9, 1949). Ironic as it may seem, calling works of literature obscene meant taking them out of public circulation, a framing that seemed akin to the censorship that the progressives themselves at times suffered from under the moral surveillance by the community and the state (colonial or post-colonial).
What I have recounted about the new manifesto is fairly common knowledge among the literary circles in Pakistan. What is not so well known is that the language of the manifesto may have been influenced by, as did the first manifesto in 1935, the Congress of Soviet Writers, the renewed Soviet criticism of writers and intellectuals who were not following the state sponsored ideological line. One example of this form of attack was by the same Andrei Zhdanov in 1946 on the journals Zvezda and Leningrad for publishing the works of Mikhail Zoshchenko (1895-1958) and Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). This became the basis for what was later to be called the Zhdanov Doctrine in cultural debates within global socialist circles. The journals were reprimanded for giving space to Zoshchenko’s short stories. They were deemed commonplace, rubbish, devoid of ideas and apolitical literature that aimed at disorienting the youth and poisoning their minds. He is called a vulgar lampoonist for the satirical short stories he published during the war.
Similarly, the poet Akhamotova, who has now become the icon of modern Russian poetry, was condemned for ideologically empty poetry of pessimism reflective of a spirit of decline. She was accused of bourgeois aristocratic aestheticism, of “art for art’s sake,” which does not follow in the footsteps of the people. She is portrayed as a poet of the elite that mixes fornication and prayer, of a kind of religious eroticism (we see the echo in how N.M. Rashid, Manto, Meeraji and others were condemned during the period of the new manifesto). As was the case with the APPWA manifesto of 1949, so was the ideas put forward in Zhdanov’s argument that literature should become party-oriented in order to counteract the bourgeois individualistic moral code and literary forms (Zhdanov’s speech was published in Pravda, September 21, 1946).
It is obvious to a lay reader that there are connections between the Soviet positions on culture and literature and the PWA during the late colonial and the early post-colonial period in South Asia. These literary linkages need to be elaborated and discussed for us to understand the literary debates in Pakistan’s early years.
This said, there was of course opposition from various quarters to the understanding of culture and literary undertaking by the progressives. But other groups were not as organised and consisted of a range of free thinkers, modernist poets and independent-minded intellectuals along with those who sought to link the question of Pakistan with Islamic morals and values. The latter group was intellectually eclectic and divided (Hasan Askari wrote a scathing critique of M.D. Taseer during the late 1940s in his discussions of Pakistani culture) and many had also previously been close to the progressives. However, it is also clear that intellectuals like Mohammad Hasan Askari and others continued to question and accuse the progressives for negating the completeness of the independence project and denying Partition as the logical end-point of the struggle, which for them was the emancipation of the masses through a proletarian revolution (a clear attack on Faiz’ poem ‘Subh e Azadi’). To take an example, Mohammad Din Taseer, an eminent man of letters who was also one of the founders of the PWA in the 1930s, had by the late 1940s become one of its major opponents. In a trenchant piece published in 1949, Taseer clearly states that although all progressives are not socialists, and all progressives are not traitors, all socialists are traitors to the cause of Pakistan. This is so, Taseer explains, because their loyalties are with Soviet Union or with India and they seek the destruction of the new nation. Such proclamations aided the ruling elite in the first years of Pakistan’s existence in becoming suspicious of any communist challenge to its authority.
Hence, in Pakistan’s early years, groups of intellectuals debated the future course of the country after the catastrophe of Partition. Whether the answer was in class solidarity (as the communists believed) or in the moral community of South Asian Muslims (as the Pakistani state desired) was a continuing discussion. Further, irrespective of the CPP’s desire to open up a discursive space to convince people of its political agenda, the government of the time was adamant to put important members of the CPP’s central committee and its workers periodically in jail and ban or confiscate communist publications. Further, the state also started using Islam as a political weapon to counteract various the communists and other democratic forces. Islamic doctrine was employed in the media to persuade people against the anti-religious (meaning anti-Islam) and, linked to it, the perceived “anti-Pakistan” political stance of the communists. The party was under perpetual government surveillance and attack. During the early 1950s, Zaheer spent several years in jail and soon after his release in 1955 he went back to India. The CPP was officially banned as a political organisation a year earlier in 1954.
Postscript: Under Sajjad Zaheer’s leadership, the progressives in Pakistan, at least in this era (perhaps as a reaction to their own suppression), sought to tame the conditions of the debates according to their own vision of a more egalitarian future. They used the trope of sexual deviancy, ideological purity and social commitment to curb the chaos that they thought would ensue from “non-progressive” literature. In this world of order and truth they sought no contingency and no ambivalence. In later years however, Syed Sajjad Zaheer went through a transformation of sorts. In a recent key note address at the Jamia Milia University in Delhi on Zaheer’s 100th birthday, writer and critic Intizar Husain related the following: Zoe Ansari, a critic and literary figure in India had written a critique of the great Persian poet Hafiz and called him an escapist poet whose work was perverse. In responding to him, Zaheer admonished Ansari for throwing the priceless gem of Muslim cultural history in the proverbial dustbin of history. He argued that we cannot read Hafiz in terms of some mechanical relationship between social practice and artistic expression. Husain suggests that this was a provocative response, but a bit late. Zaheer should have proclaimed such ideas in the 1940s, in the early days of the progressive movement. But perhaps he could not as the “tides were riding high with revolutionary fervor and some young radical would have announced that now even Banne Bhai (meaning Sajjad Zaheer) has also become reactionary” (Dunyazad #17, 2006).

Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin

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