THE STRANGE ASSOCIATION OF “PASHTUN NATIONALISM” AND PAKISTAN’S LEFT
(ARIF HASAN AKHUNDZADA)
Although Pakistan has a complex set of justifications for its creation, “nationalism” in Pakistan is ethnic and detached from the state, and was not considered to be a unitary influence in the classical sense and has been in the leftist domain. I was watching a video clip currently circulating on WhatsApp, and it set off recollections about the subject of the so-called “Pashtun Left” followed by nationalism, with which I had a seven-year association, which had started in the winter of 1985 when I was a 17-year-old first year student at Edwardes College Peshawar. At the same time that I came across this video, a student convention in Lahore was agitating for the lifting of the 36-year ban on student unions in Pakistan – by resorting to Marxist allusions and symbology for the first time in 30 years…
In the video in question, ANP dynasty “heir” Aimal Wali Khan declares somewhat confusedly that Imran Khan Niazi is “not a Pashtun, and Pashtuns are always Afghans” … If the Hindko speaking Bilours and others from Peshawar City are regarded by the “nationalists” as representing “Pashtuns” – then Imran Khan is no doubt an ethnic Pashtun of the Niazi tribe as far as textbook definitions go, because his antecedents are clear to all.
It is interesting to note, that the Pishori Hindko speakers joined ANP only because of Ghaffar Khan and his rural Khudai Khidmatgar Tehrik (KKT)’s alliance with the Indian National Congress, as they were members of the latter before partition. The KKT joined Congress not for any concern of the latter about Pashtun culture – but because the Congress was the sole broad based pro-independence popular political platform in British India. When Congress had to leave the newly created Pakistani arena in 1947, the KKT being a deficient political force – being faced with its existential issue of survival confronted a similar “piggyback” dilemma which had made it join Congress in the first place. So it sought external patronage from the neighbouring Kabul, and within Pakistan it eventually joined a loose coalition called the “National Awami Party”. NAP was created jointly in 1957 by Marxists and other leftists, and groups claiming to represent the smaller ethnic nationalities in Pakistan – claiming to oppose the “repressive” mainstream Pakistani Establishment of feudals, industrialists, army and bureaucracy, which was perceived as being from the well-entrenched and developed Punjabi ethnicity which was also the most populous, and which was supported by the Anglo-imperialist bloc. NAP was a motley coalition, a shield put together and operated by the Communists elements behind which to work, because of their unpopularity in this society’s religious culture and also because they were officially banned from open activity. Although Ghaffar Khan and his son Wali Khan were prominent public leaders in it, NAP was by no means a Pashtun nationalist party then as is now thought.
In NAP, Ghaffar Khan’s KKT was merged and joined by a handful of Pashtun “intellectuals” who styled themselves as communists of the Marxist-Leninist school. They termed themselves the “Malgari” (or “Comrades”). They included people such as the supposed first Pashtun communist, “Kakaji” (Uncle) Sanober Hussian, an old village school teacher who died in 1962 – and Sahibzada Habibur Rahman (pen name Qalandar Momand, 1930-2003). Both belonged to the southern rural suburbs of Peshawar, and typified a genre of “progressive literati” who were known mostly for their varied petty writing and journalistic activities, which were dominated by Pashto poetry compositions more than by anything else.
NAP was operating according to the “National Democratic Revolutionary” principle as enunciated by Comintern in the post-WW2 era in which a direct path to socialism was not considered possible and had to be preceded by an intermediate stage in which the nationalists of undeveloped societies would struggle against Western imperialism together under discreet direction from low profile and secretive Marxist-Leninist elements. Such stealthiness appealed a great deal to the conspiratorial Pashtun nature. So NAP was a political “front” behind which leftists would organize and further their influence and infiltrate it into ethnic politics. It therefore claimed to represent the interests of all the “exploited” minor nationalities in Pakistan, from a leftist standpoint. Originally, these included the Bengalis, Sindhi, Balochi, Pashtuns and Seraiki ethnicities. But nobody hears of the impoverished Dardic mountain men of Pakistan’s “Northern Areas” among these “oppressed peoples”. These ethnic components in turn were united with both pro-Moscow Marxist-Leninist and pro-Peking (Beijing) Maoist communists – represented respectively by the mutually antagonistic Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) – or “Worker and Peasant Party” which espoused Maoist thought.
After the first Pakistani elections in 1970, NAP got the chance to form two provincial coalition governments in Balochistan and NWFP (now KP). NAP was dissolved and banned by Z.A. Bhutto after the famous Hyderabad Conspiracy Case in 1974 and the Baloch insurgency a year earlier. Its dissolution led to the separation of Sindhi nationalists, giving way to a few other groupings representing Baloch and the main of Pakistani Pashtun “nationalism”. The NDP (“National Democratic Party”) was the fief of Ghaffar Khan and his son – a party that actually represented the image and interests of the Eastern Sarabani Khan lobby dominating the northern Peshawar Valley; the “Pashtunkhwa NAP” (later renamed as PMAP in 1983) which represented the major traditional southern Durrani faction of “Loi Kandahar” led by the son of another former Congressite Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai; and the “Pakistan National Party” (PNP) which claimed to represent leftist Baloch and Pashtun nationalist and the Maoist Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP). The leader of the latter in the NWFP was a local lawyer Afzal Bangash, who had instigated the Hashtnagar peasant revolt or “Kissani” movement in the northern parts of the Peshawar Valley in the early 1970s. He fled to self-exile in England in 1974, returning to Pakistan in the spring of 1986 where he died later the same year.
Although Bhutto with his own “Islamic” leftist pretensions had been replaced by an American supported Islamist military dictator, the events of 1978 in Afghanistan would give a new impetus this coterie of Marxists and minor ethnic nationalists, with the emphasis on the Pashtun element.
Eight years later in 1986 four of these – the NDP, PNP, MKP and a Sindhi leftist nationalist group Awami Tehrik (AT) led by Rasul Bakhsh Palijo – resolved to unite to form the ANP or Awami National Party which was just the name NAP rearranged. It was decided to follow a pro-Kabul policy, since that was the closest Cold War outpost. But soon after, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan commenced, and the death of Ziaul Haq, with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc followed by that of the USSR and Kabul regime itself quickly put paid to any such declared intentions.
A year after this in 1987, Pakistan’s official Marxist-Leninist claimant, the Communist Party (CPP) suffered a split, when its Pashtun members (who were said to dominate the Central Committee) decided to oppose the idea of Pakistan in favour of “Greater Afghanistan” and also the current trend of openly declaring themselves communist. The “Comrades” also decided to prioritise primarily nationalist objectives over their previous long term Marxist and social reform goals. Two years later in 1989 this new Pashtun communist grouping would be renamed “Qaumi Inqilabi Party” (QIP) or National Revolutionary Party. However, in the year after the 1987 split, Afghanistan’s communist PDPA would similarly undergo a nationalist transformation into the Hizbe Watan. In 1991 as the global Marxist-Leninist order tottered on its last legs, the QIP became the PQP or “Pakhtunkhwa Qaumi Party”. It would exist for another five or six years, before it too split into two, with members of one group returning to the ANP in 1997, and the other one joining the group of another opportunistic nationalist pretender Aftab Sherpao – called the Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) or “National Nation Party”. This man was the younger brother of Hayat Sherpao, another self-professed peasant emancipator and leftist, and a colleague of Bhutto who it is believed had him murdered in 1975. Such nonsensical and meaningless names as that of the QWP show the extent to which the purposes of politics fell after the Cold War victory of 1992 becoming a base and sinister vehicle to grab power; always a sham in Pakistan, the coating of ideological pretenses fell away freely after that.
It should be added here, that in 1989 the ranks of the “Comrades” had been rejoined by a batch of returning Pashtun leftist and nationalist exiles from Kabul. They had fled there in 1974 after Bhutto cracked down on the NAP – and included old nationalist poet Ajmal Khattak and communist student leaders Afrasiab Khattak and Juma Khan Sufi.
As for the ANP itself, it lived on after the debacle of 1991. But the redundancy of Marxist politics from that year onwards saw the “socialist” aspects and mission of the ANP crumble away silently…. Palijo’s AT and the MKP evaporated from it, and vanished. The ANP’s propaganda, which hitherto always made a fuss of formalism and procedural pretenses – never formally restructured its programme or policy priorities as would normally have been expected. That goes to say a lot about local character. Because it was dominated by the Ghaffar Khan dynasty, the ANP “unofficially” assumed the status of a group which bluntly looked after the interests of a certain lobby of Peshawar Valley Khans according to a vaguely defined “nationalism” on the new Pakistani “democratic” political scene. Their support base exists mainly in Districts Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi, Peshawar City and a few other places.
The main group of “leftist” Pashtun nationalists and so-called communist “Comrades” represented originally in the ANP by the PNP component – and leaders such as Latif Afridi and Afrasiab Khattak, kept popping back in and out of the ANP ad nauseum, forming short lived groups such as the QIP and PQP etc., etc., etc. There were no serious or “ideological” compulsions behind any of this activity and neither did they have any influence – except for clamour and attention seeking.
But the ANP or these other parties are not where all these “progressive Pashtuns” have gone. Many of them have renounced their Pashtun separatism, and have hopped into other Pakistani communist groupings -- some are Trotskyites; other PNP veterans have formed similar obscure Pakistan level groups like the “National Party of Pakistan (NPP)” …
In the new post-Cold War “democratic” environment of Pakistan, these leftists created organisations among labourers, students, lawyers and doctors – which gave rise to a system of rival mafias which paralleled the already corrupt Pakistani state establishment in a free-for-all situation.
For these people on average, “progressive” seems to imply a cynical and shallow rationalism and atheism…as opposed to their traditional overly subjective outlooks. However if the influence of Islam has been thus dented, that lack is compensated for in full by their adherence to Pashtunwali, which forms the cornerstone of their nationalism. This is a major contradiction, that never bothered such “revolutionaries” or even concerned their old mentors in Comintern…there was never really much in the way of philosophy or philosophical clarity behind the motives of the “Comrades”, their façade being mostly a fashion and a style…
Despite their pretended concern for furthering the causes of their ethnicity — as well as their affectation of the “scientific method” of the Marxist technique they said they professed — the clique styling itself as progressive Pashtun nationalist was and still is all at sea regarding having a standardized definition or set of conceptions about their history or ethnography. Their main preoccupation with regard to literary and cultural aspects seems limited only to endless poetry recitals and music concerts.
However, not all were like this. Quite a few knew their political subject matter well enough to hold worthwhile discussions. And there were people like Naseer Khayyam (1955–1988) — a senior and greatly respected Pashtun member of the CPP and a distant cousin of this author, who died in a mysterious road accident. He was literally a “man made of gold” from among them. Even so, such plus points were not enough to redeem the general inferiority quality of this brand of politics or its direction.
It should be added that the “convictions” of such people tended to naked atheism rather than any philosophical consideration of issues; here, “communism” is widely misconstrued for being a “non-believer”. Such atheism in turn liberated them, allowing them to indulge freely and without compunction in proclivities such as those for alcohol and the Pashtun perversion for young boys…the segregation of the sexes being otherwise maintained by them as stridently as by the society that they claimed they wanted to reform. Their “socialist” pretensions had given way to a vague and crude form of Afghan irredentism combined with corruption of the most shameless kinds.
The southern PMAP had seemingly better defined objectives. It was not avowedly leftist, but modelled itself on Afghan politics and affectations, including those of Daud and the PDPA. But despite much talk about “likeminded” objectives and characteristics, it never effected a merger with the ANP.
These elements use the bogey of anti-Pakistan Pashtun nationalism based on Afghan irredentism as their label – although they freely participate in Pakistani political processes and their “ideology” is confined mostly to Facebook outbursts. Although America was responsible for the collapse and overthrow of the communist government in Kabul, after 9/11/2001 these so-called leftist nationalists have supported the American puppet regime in Kabul, and employ a variety of other political means and devices such as their creation of the Pakhtunkhwa Ulasi Tehrik (2006) and the hijacking of incidents as in the creation of the PTM (2018) — as vehicles to channel a meaningless and vulgarly defined separatism. They appeal to the unsure and raw youth, because of their preponderance on the internet and in the immigrant communities that have sprung up in the West after 1990. The mainstream ANP which looks after the electoral interests of the Khan lobby in Peshawar Valley is usually more cautious and unconcerned with such matters – although it may pander to them when it suits them. On the other hand, Ghaffar Khan (as well as others) is one of the main icons of these “leftists”. These leftists are no longer really leftists in the understood term having morphed into agitators for an ill-defined Afghan irredentism. But today’s Pashtun nationalism “post-9/11” as we know it in the age of the internet, is invariably tinged with the leftist detritus of the Cold War era.