A Memoir of the 1950s Pakistan – IV

Eric Rahim

Sometime during 1949, while I was on day shift in Dawn, a member of the staff informed me that someone outside wished to see me. I went out and saw a young man in shalwar/kameez with a bicycle. He introduced himself and said that he had been designated by the central committee of the Communist Party to organise the Karachi unit, and that he wanted me to join the party. This was Hasan Nasir, working underground, with the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) after him, who was inviting someone, apparently a complete stranger, to join him in organising the Karachi unit of the Party.

To begin at the beginning. The Indian Communist Party held its second congress in Calcutta in February-March 1948. There were three delegates from West Pakistan: Eric Cyprian from Punjab, Jalaluddin Bokhari from Sindh, and Mohammed Husain Ata from the NWFP. There was a much larger delegation from East Pakistan. It was decided at the congress that Pakistan should have its own communist party. With the exodus of the Hindu comrades from West Pakistan, and with the number of Muslim communists very small, the Party in West Pakistan was in a very weak and disorganised situation. (There was no such problem in East Pakistan.) It was therefore agreed that some experienced Muslim comrades should, on a voluntary basis, migrate to West Pakistan.

Sajjad Zaheer, a distinguished literary figure, leader of the all-India Progressive Writers Association and member of the Central committee of the Indian party, accompanied by Sibte Hasan, an experienced journalist who had worked on the party’s journals and Mirza Ashfaq Beg, arrived in West Pakistan soon after the Calcutta congress. Sajjad Zaheer became the general secretary of the  Pakistan Communist (effectively, of the West Pakistan) Party and set about organising the various groups around the country into a coherent organisation.

Hasan Nasir, who in 1948 was only twenty years old, had been a member of the party in Bombay and was known to Sajjad Zaheer. But he migrated to Karachi on his own initiative. This was around the same time when Sajjad Zaheer arrived in Lahore (where the office of the central committee was located.)

In Sindh (including Karachi) only two Hindu party members stayed on in Pakistan – Sobho Gianchandani and Pohu Mal. With the separation of Karachi from the Sindh province, Sobho confined his attention exclusively to Sindh. After a short period, Pohu Mal retired from political activity. As there was hardly any Sindhi Muslim party member in Karachi the unit had to be created from scratch.  It became Hasan Nasir’s responsibility to create this unit. 

I have already mentioned that I arrived in Karachi in December 1947 or January 1948. Sometime in 1948, as I was walking along Bunder Road I saw the party’s red flag hanging out of the window of a first floor flat. I went up to the party’s office and introduced myself to a comrade by the name of Hangal who   seemed to be in charge of the office. I asked if I could do some work for the party. He gave me the task of taking clippings from various English language newspapers and pasting them on various folders according to the subject matter of the reports. I performed that task for a couple of months.

Now, Hangal (a Hindu comrade) migrated to India. And Sobho Gianchandani, a member of the Sindh provincial committee, who used to visit the office now and then, disappeared. He was either in the ‘interior’ of Sindh or in jail. In the same way, Sharaf Ali, who had recently migrated from India and who used to visit the office, disappeared. He was probably in jail. The office was now deserted except for a ‘Malabari’ comrade, a ‘bidi’ (a hand-made cigarette made from the leaf of a plant) worker who acted as a kind of caretaker. I visited him frequently.

That was the extent of my contact with the party when Hasan Nasir visited me. He must have thought that I was completely safe. Within a couple of months I was member of the Karachi district committee. 

The membership of the Karachi unit was drawn almost entirely from members of the muhajir (Urdu –speaking migrants from India) community who had been exposed to the independence movement and, more importantly, to Left politics before Partition. This is what distinguished the Karachi unit from all the other communist party units in West Pakistan. (I am drawing here on an essay I wrote on the occasion of the celebration of the life of Mohammed Sarwar, a prominent student leader in the early 1950s in Karachi during 2009. The essay was entitled ‘Karachi communists in the 1950s – a contribution to the Sarwar Reference’. It is available on  

https://www.scribd.com/document/366152662/Was-Marx-a-100-Materialist-and-Other-Essays-From-a-Marxian-Perspective-By-Eric-Rahim.

It is also available on my website ericrahim.co.uk )

The Karachi party’s main work was focused on the student front. This was primarily the case because the bulk of the party membership came from the student community.  As member of the Karachi district committee I was ‘in charge’ of this front, and was the communication channel between the student cells and the district committee. 

The student movement was initiated in the Dow Medical College. There was a ‘mature’ political group of students there including  Mohammed Sarwar, Mir Ali Ahmed Hashemi, Mohammed Ghalib Lodhi, Ayub  Mirza and Yusaf Ali. The Democratic Student Federation was formed there, and it was then extended to other educational institutions such as SM College and Urdu College. The names of SM Naseem and Jamal Naqvi immediately come to mind. A student journal, the Students Herald was launched, edited by SM Naseem. A school students wing of DSF was launched. The school students who played a leading part in the formation of this wing included Mohammed Shafi, Saghir Ahmed and Barkat Alam. 

During this period (1949/50), the party also promoted the formation of the Pakistan-Soviet Cultural Association (I was its secretary and the link with the Soviet embassy), and a little later, the Pakistan-China Friendship Society. Also established was a Film Society whose aim was to show films from socialist countries. The aim of all these activities – lectures, exhibitions and film shows – was to bring to the attention of the Karachi public the economic and cultural progress that was being made in the socialist countries. Party members were also active in the Progressive Writers Association. And party members and sympathisers gave what support they could in the formation of the Karachi Union of Journalists and the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. These were established on the initiative of independent-minded journalists, MA Shakoor, an assistant editor of Dawn, and Asrar Ahmed, correspondent of the American news agency Associated Press. (I was elected assistant general secretary of the Federal Union. The editor of Dawn considered the setting up of these unions a subversive act. Shakoor, and Mohammed Akhtar, the sports editor, were among those arrested in the swoop of 1954. By this time I had left Dawn.)

The party’s main shortcoming lay in its ability to establish roots in the working class. Before Partition, Karachi had very little modern industry, though being a port city it had a significant degree of commercial activity. There was a flourishing Karachi Port workers union, there was a significant amount of work among the railway and tram workers, and so on. Some of the contacts with these workers were lost with the departure of Hindu party members and workers. The party was able to establish a strong union among the employees of the newly formed Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) which was led by party members Tufail Abbas and Iqbal Alavi. Party members were also active in the textile mills that were being established during the 1950s. Many of the workers in these mills were coming from the tribal areas of the North West of Pakistan.  (I remember Hasan Nasir once telling me with some amusement that these tribal workers took the view that a union should be established to deal with a specific problem, and once the problem was solved it should be disbanded. At least initially, these tribal ‘free spirits’ did not like the notion of a permanent organisation.)

 The student movement flourished in the period 1949-54. During 1953, the DSF presented certain demands to the educational authorities. Some of these demands could have been met easily while others would have required longer term solutions. The authorities mishandled the situation completely. They refused to meet a DSF delegation, and treated the demands with contempt. (The Karachi University vice-Chancellor, in fact, tried to set up a parallel, stooge student body.) The students took out a procession. Even though the demonstration was completely peaceful, the police lathi (baton)-charged the students. The following day there were further demonstrations. Members of the public joined in. And then the goonda (hooligan) elements joined the fray. Shops were looted, liquor stores being the first victims. The federal minister of the interior, Gurmani, who happened to be driving in the area (Saddar) had his car stopped and torched by the goonda elements. (As a bystander, I witnessed the scene.) The police fired and several people were killed. Things got completely out of the control of the students, and any further demonstrations had to be cancelled. Naturally, this was big news in the country. Questions were asked in the constituent assembly (which was also the parliament). After these events a delegation of DSF toured the country and the All Pakistan Student Organisation (APSO) was formed. This was the high point of the student movement, and also of the Karachi district party.

The first major assault on the party came in 1951. This was related to the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case. Led by Major General Akbar Khan, a number of army officers discussed the possibility of a coup and the overthrow of the government of Liaquat Ali Khan. Sometime in 1950 or early 1951, some of these officers approached the Communist Party and suggested that the party support the coup. I think the consensus among the party leaders was to advise against the coup, but Sjjad Zaheer, the general secretary, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the chief editor of The Pakistan Times and Imroze (who was formally never a party member) and Mohammed Husain Ata, a member of the central committee, attended a meeting of the army officers in Rawalpindi (the army HQ) towards the end of February or early March (1951). News of the meeting was leaked to the intelligence services. All those who attended the meeting were arrested, as were a number of party leaders and activists. The structure of the party was seriously damaged. (A special tribunal was set up to try the conspirators and the verdict was delivered in January 1953. All except Naseem Akbar, the wife of General Akbar (described by The Times of India as the Lady Macbeth of the conspiracy case) who was present at the crucial meeting, were sentenced to various prison terms. Sajjad Zaheer was released in 1955 and went back to India by an arrangement between the governments of Pakistan and India. The Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru personally intervened to restore  Sajjad Zaheer Indian citizenship. (This is confirmed by Noor Zaheer, Sajjad Zaheer’s daughter, an Indian national, with whom I am in contact.)  Firozuddin Mansoor became the party’s general secretary. 

Hassan Nasir (secretary of the Karachi district committee) was arrested in 1952 (this is the year he mentions in his letter dated 14 October 1960 to his mother from the Lahore Fort, a prison where dangerous prisoners were kept for ‘intensive’ interrogation. (According to my recollection he was arrested sometime in 1953; I think he was a free man at the time of the students movement of 1953.) Until then he had been able to evade the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) for they had no idea what he looked like. He had been underground since his arrival in Karachi. Nasir’s arrest was a big blow to the Karachi unit.

In early June 1954, most of the members of the Karachi unit were arrested, myself included. (Some of the arrested were quite innocent of any party or even political affiliation.). The arrests were made under the colonial ‘safety laws’ which gave government powers to keep anyone in indefinite ‘preventive’ detention. Those arrested included students (most of the leading figures in the 1953 student movement), writers, journalists, and trade unionists. They were given charge sheets with ridiculous charges, such as espionage for India and the Soviet Union. One was accused of being a ‘Fabian communist’. I was accused of spying for India and the Soviet Union.

Life in Karachi jail was not unduly unpleasant. We were treated as ‘political prisoners’, kept together in barrack-like accommodation, separate from the ‘ordinary criminals’. Food rations were adequate, though it was widely believed that the prison officials were taking their cut. We were allowed to cook our own food, with the help of an ‘ordinary criminal’ who was assigned to us as an assistant. Newspapers, including one from India (The Times of India) were allowed in. Friends and relatives outside kept up a regular supply of books – books that were available to them. A particular mention should be made of Sarwar and Akhtar’s father who was indefatigable in this respect. There was of course a degree of censorship on the material that was allowed in. Books with names of Marx, Engels, Lenin, etc., and with references   to Marxism, communism, or published in Moscow were disallowed. Books with titles such as ‘introduction to dialectical materialism’ and published in London were considered harmless. (Naturally, we read what was available to us. Among other works I read were all the volumes of Winston Churchill’s war memoirs and Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina.) 

In due course, friendly lawyers started making habeas corpus petitions on behalf of individuals, and individuals started to be released on the orders of the Sind High Court. The release process took time. I was released after eleven months of incarceration.

Eric Rahim is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at Strathclyde University, UK. Before he left Pakistan in 1958, he used to work as a journalist at Dawn, Karachi and later at Pakistan Times, Lahore. He has also been instrumental in setting up Democratic Students Federation in Karachi in the 50s. He is the author of A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview (Folio Books, 2020)

This memoir was published in Criterion Quarterly, January-March 2019, vol. 14, no.1.


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