A five-act play on the story of the left in South Asia – I
By Malik Moin Abbas
In an era where the discourse around a global rightward tilt of democracies is done to death, the Left has made some admirable comebacks from South America to Western Europe. Yet the South Asian left has been conspicuously absent when it comes to any sign of a revival on a political front. The absence is felt more deeply in times of economic distress, social rupture and climate catastrophe. Why is leftist politics, with a rich legacy stretching back to colonial times, devoid of a substantive presence in this region? It is a long story and an interesting one at that. To our benefit, it plays out in five acts. Whether it ends in tears of joy or sorrow is yet to be seen.
The story of the left in South Asia is one of undiluted idealism and an unrepentant struggle for the underprivileged. It is also the story of undiluted dogma and unrepentant bloodshed by the same people. It galvanised the dispossessed and made sure that those formerly ignored voices rang loud and clear in the corridors of power. At the same time, it brooked no dissent as the ruination inflicted on the lives of “class traitors” was also exemplary. The Red in the Leftist flags of this region represents the blood shed by the oppressed as much as it represents the bloodshed of the oppressed. It is the story of unrelenting self-critics who cross-examined every facet of the material conditions of their nations. Yet, the same people failed to grasp the most important social realities of their nations which led to their withering away. It is a Greek tragedy with South Asian characteristics.
And yet the story needs to be resurrected. In an era where most of the public life has been depoliticised, and the creation of utopias left to the right-wing revisionists, the leftist story needs to be told again. The chief reason is that it is a story of unrelenting idealists who never lost hope in the most adverse of conditions. It is a tale of internationalists who relentlessly questioned a cynical acceptance of the status quo, conceived a better future and worked towards it. It is a romantic story of romantics. Being faced with environmental armageddon, rising multidimensional deprivation and commercialised hate, the Leftist story seems to be a perfect antidote.
Yet, Leftist politics is at its weakest point ever since its inception. Quite interestingly, its story plays out like a five-act play. Some acts of this story have been conclusively played out yet the resolution is still in the air. A passionate retelling of this story, followed by a cold-hearted analysis, can expose the elements which are responsible for the current state of the Left. Recognising these elements just might help us envision and work towards a better final act.
THE EXPOSITION: Introduce the main characters and provide a backstory. The first act also presents (or at least hints at) the central conflict through an “exciting force” or “inciting incident.”
The 1920s to the 1940s
Nearly a century has passed since the first Communist party was established within the subcontinent in 1925. The creation of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Kanpur that year marked the commencement of formal leftist politics in the region. The resistance that the British Raj had been facing since the late 19th Century found the vocabulary, zeal and manpower necessary to cultivate and utilise class-consciousness among the various marginalised groups. The struggles of the marginalised within the region would be connected to an international coalition, went the belief. Anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism formed the bedrock of this movement. Leftist politics channelised via a modern articulation of the societal grievances of the oppressed, be it in the form of social reformism or armed revolution.
By the 1930s, leftist ideology had taken root in the industrial workers, landless peasants and a small section of the urban middle class. Nowhere was this more reflective than in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) where leftist mobilisation of landless labourers was already taking place. Large swathes of the depressed classes found a platform and a voice via the leftist political organisations. In British India, these movements were especially powerful in the princely states. Kingdoms as distant and distinct as Jammu and Kashmir, Hyderabad and Manipur witnessed an upsurge in leftist political activity. These mobilisations successfully reflected the demographic diversity of South Asia, gaining support from identities beyond caste, language and religion. Class was being embedded as the unifying reality within the region and eventually, without it. A strong case could be made that the politics of Congress and Muslim league would have been severely curtailed if the Communist parties had a larger presence in the 40s, especially in the British-controlled provinces.
RISING ACTION: The conflict begins to increase as the characters try to achieve their goals and the narrative builds toward the climax
The 1940s to the 1960s
The 40s disrupted this seemingly smooth dialectic of South Asian history. The dissociation of CPI from the last phases of the Independence movement alongside the fissures called by identity politics of competing Hindu and Muslim nationalism severely dented the leftist upsurge.
Additionally, the integration of princely states into larger polities of India and Pakistan led to the direct clash of the communist uprisings with the new overlords.
Unsurprisingly, they lost. Yet the communists adapted to the newer realities rather quickly. The Communist Party of India acclimatised itself to parliamentary politics, winning substantial seats in the 1952 general elections in India, bettered its performance in the 1957 elections and went on to form a state government in Kerala as well. The hostility and suspicion of the Indian state towards the communist movements were not unknown and this could have crystallised into violent confrontation. However, growing Soviet-Indian Bonhomie probably prevented such an outcome.
Similarly in Sri Lanka, the leftist parties like Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) utilised parliamentary forums and extra-parliamentary actions like strikes to carve a political space for the marginalized groups. Most importantly, the Left always opposed the downward slide of the Sri Lankan elite towards Sinhalese Chauvinism. For its part, the Sri Lankan state displayed no tolerance for the leftist groups. State-led disenfranchisement of their social base–largely Indian-origin Tamils–shattered the parliamentary power of LSSP. Yet these parties preserved their pro-labour agenda, and succeeded in getting pro-poor concessions from the conservative establishment. The 50s and 60s in Sri Lankan Politics were the heydays of the left, and had this success been consolidated, the future trajectory of Sri Lanka might have been different.
Its counterpart in Pakistan fared rather badly as avenues for expansion–in the form of an industrial worker base and a sympathetic bourgeois–were minimal in the 50s. Additionally, the conservative Muslim League and an overbearing army was in no mood for a leftist upswing. The Pakistani state’s inclination towards the western bloc entailed a hostile attitude towards any communist sympathisers within the country. The Rawalpindi Conspiracy case of 1951 initiated a series of bans and curtailments on the political left in Pakistan in the 50s. The National Awami Party (NAP), founded by Maulana Bashani in 1957, carried the mantle of leftist politics for much of the period till the late 60s. True to its ideology, the party was composed of activists from all ethnicities in Pakistan, as the Pashtun Khudai Khidmatgars of Badshah Khan allied with the Sindhi nationalists under G.M Syed. The workers of the banned CPP (Communist Party of Pakistan) worked in tandem with the NAP against the military rule of Ayub Khan. In the eastern wing, the Awami league and NAP channelised the popular grievances of the Bengalis in leftist terms.
Afghanistan and Nepal followed rather similar trajectories when it came to the establishment and popularisation of leftist–and primarily communist–politics. Both nations were the frontiers of the once-mighty Raj, serving as buffers against Russian and Chinese empires. This geopolitically-induced neutrality nurtured isolationism in these countries and hence, their body politik ossified. The winds of change from beyond their borders–from both the subcontinent and the communist regimes in Russia and China–brought a political consciousness that penetrated into a miniscule yet politically active educated class in these nations. Communist politics took roots in the 40s and full-fledged communist parties had been established by the 50s.
The first 15 years of the post-colonial era (1947-early 60s) witnessed a gradual participation of the Indian and Sri Lankan left in the parliamentary system and the constant suppression of the Pakistani left in its relatively undemocratic political structure. Monarchies like Nepal and Afghanistan witnessed a gradual push towards socio-political reform. Leftist politics was engaging with the establishments of the nations; often contentiously but engaging nonetheless. Events soon reached a violent crescendo in the late 60s and 70s.
CLIMAX: The moment where the tension reaches its peak in a major scene. The turning point rather than the culmination of action—the story’s midpoint where things begin to change and usher in the “counterplay.”
The 1960s and the 1970s
Well, violence, for a start. But more importantly, these movements were the hail-mary attempts by disgruntled leftists to overthrow their respective states via an armed revolution. These young idealists, mostly of extreme-leftist orientation, considered the parliamentary left to be impotent in creating better conditions for the working class. The leadership of these movements largely drew from well-educated urban classes and disillusionment with the status quo was a common theme. These uprisings were the first of their kind in their respective nations and were seen to seriously threaten the state structures. However, another commonality exists: they all failed to overthrow the state.
The disillusionment of these militants was partly borne out of the failure of their respective states to accommodate their grievances. Charismatic populists like Indira Gandhi, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rehman rode to power on the back of leftist populism. Yet these supposed messiahs of the left soon turned into authoritarians, shelving the radical proposals for socio-economic transformation. This didn’t get them far as, by the end of the 70s, Bhutto and Mujib were killed while Indira and Bandaranaike had been unseated. Afghanistan’s story was even worse. While the communists did capture the state, they lost hold over the country rather swiftly, as infighting and unpopular attempts at social transformation led to a revolt in the countryside. Taraki’s dream of a modern Afghanistan ended with him being literally smothered by his deputy Amin. No idealist can survive this shock and the communist movement in Afghanistan never recovered from it.
“When you lose the dream, what remains is a nightmare”
About the Author
Malik Moin Abbas is a Master’s in Liberal Studies (IR) student at Ashoka University.