A Memoir of the 1950s Pakistan – V

Eric Rahim

Two major events formed the background to the 1954 arrests in Karachi and elsewhere and a formal ban on the Communist Party throughout Pakistan.

The central government had decided to hold elections in East Pakistan which were held in March 1954. Contrary to their expectations, the Muslim League, the ruling party (at least in name) was annihilated. The United Front, led by the staunchly (Bengali) nationalist Awami League, swept the polls. The United Front which demanded greater provincial autonomy, recognition of the Bengali language, with Urdu, as a national language, and a greater share in the running of the country, formed the government. Within a period of two months the provincial government that enjoyed almost universal support was dismissed by the central government on the pretext of threat to law and order. Iskandar Mirza, who had long been secretary of the Ministry of Defence and who had manoeuvred himself into the ruling junta, was sent as governor with complete power to rule the province. The widespread arrests (and ban on the party) immediately followed this event.

The second event that formed the background to the arrests was the formal decision by the government of Pakistan to enter into a military alliance with the United States. Right from the day that Pakistan came into existence its leadership had decided that given the hostility with India it needed an alliance with a powerful country to provide it with security against its more powerful neighbour. In May 1954, Pakistan and the United States signed the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement. By widespread arrests of communists and the ban on the Communist Party, the government established its anti-communist credentials with the United States.

Although by the middle of 1955 most of those arrested in 1954 had been released, the Karachi party did not achieve the kind of vitality it had enjoyed during 1953-54. (My memory fails me at this point for I cannot recall if by this time Hasan Nasir had also been released. He was in Lahore Fort, not in Karachi jail.) The generation of students who had played a leading role in the student movement completed their studies and left colleges and universities. (Many of them would go on to make significant contributions to social life in Pakistan, but not to politics.) Student activity therefore significantly declined. (On this, see my essay ‘Karachi communists in the 1950s’ referred to earlier.) The work of the Pakistan-Soviet Cultural Association and the Pakistan-China Friendship Society continued in a modest way (with increased CID harassment), as did trade union activity. But the tempo of the earlier period was gone.

This raises the issue regarding the failure of the party not just in Karachi but throughout West Pakistan to recover and develop. Why was police repression so successful? What were the subjective (leadership) and objective factors responsible for this lack of development? It is difficult to separate these two sets of factors, and I focus on the objective factor.

First, the territories that constituted West Pakistan (where political power lay) were largely tribal in character (Balochistan and parts of the NWFP) or feudal (large parts of Punjab and Sindh). I do not think that there were any parts of the sub-continent that were as feudal in character as these. Social power therefore in the countryside lay with the feudal and tribal leaders.

Second, these regions had experienced very modest degree of industrialisation. And much of the business life was dominated by the Hindus, who migrated to India at the time of Partition. So we had very little of the bourgeoisie and therefore very little of the industrial working class.

Third, the Muslim population of this region had had very little exposure to the independence movement (which was also a democratising process). The Muslim League, where it existed, had only a flimsy organisation. The feudal landowners were generally content with the Raj. In Punjab, politics was dominated by the Unionist Party (appealing mainly to the agricultural interest) which was staunchly pro-British. The big landowners fell into line with the demand for Pakistan only in 1946 when the realisation of Pakistan became a distinct possibility. The economic and social conditions in Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP were even more backward.

My conclusion is that the upsurge of the 1950s, where it occurred, failed to sustain itself in face of repression because the economic and social soil on which it operated was so infertile.

From what I have said it should be clear that when Pakistan came into existence there was no social class that had the capacity to run the state. There was a power vacuum that was naturally filled by bureaucrats such as Ghulam Mohammed, Chaudhry Mohammed Ali, Iskandar Mirza and others, and the army. 

I enjoyed my work for The Pakistan Times, reporting from the federal capital. A large part of the work centred on the proceedings of the constituent assembly. Looking back during this period two episodes (perhaps, one episode and one non-episode) come to mind.

First, I was able to interview Miss Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Mr Jinnah. I think this was the only time she agreed to be interviewed by a journalist. She was 17 years younger than Jinnah, and she was his constant companion.  (Jinnah’s wife died in 1929, and he never re-married.)  The understanding was that the interview would only be about her memories of her brother. She reminisced movingly about her childhood and her relationship with her brother. Then at one point I asked her what kind of books the Quaid-e-Azam (the great leader, as Jinnah was called in Pakistan) read. She replied that the only works he read were law books , what he needed for his legal work, and official reports. I was taken aback, and insisted. What books other than those pertaining to law did he have in his library? None, she replied. And seeing the expression on my face, she remarked (or something to the effect) that he thought reading books affected one’s original thinking. The article was published in The Pakistan Times.

The second episode (or non-episode) refers to scoop of the decade that never was. I have noted that in the 1954 election the ruling party in East Pakistan was annihilated. The provincial government (dismissed within two months) that was formed was headed by A.K. Fazlul Huq, 80-year old leader of the Krishak Sramik Party, a relatively small component of the United Front.

Fazlul Huq was not the right person for the job, he lacked judgment. He was given to making contradictory statements. I remember him once talking to a group of journalists when someone pointed to his proneness to making contradictory statements. He responded by saying that his followers did not read newspapers.

During the period of his chief ministership, on his way from Karachi (where he was on an official visit) to Dhaka he stopped in Calcutta and made certain statements which were interpreted by some (The New York Times) as demanding independence for East Pakistan, and by others as suggesting merger of the province with India. At this time there were also riots in certain jute mills in East Pakistan which resulted in large scale killing. The ruling circles were using all this material to construct a case against the United Front – a case based on the breakdown of law and order and a threat to the integrity of the Pakistani state. This was known to me, and many others.

To turn to the other side of the story: Through the Party’s work for the release of the conspiracy case prisoners I had come into contact with Naseem Akbar. We had a common cause though from different sides – we were interested in the release of our people, and she in the release of her husband. Through this activity I had established a friendly relationship with Naseem Akbar, and through her with her mother, Begum Shah Nawaz, a respected member of the Muslim League parliamentary party. 

One day I happened to be in their house in Bath Island when Begum Shah Nawaz returned from a meeting of a selected number of members of the Muslim League parliamentary party who, I had learned, were to be briefed on the East Pakistan political situation. Begum Shah Nawaz appeared very depressed. I asked her if she and others had been briefed on the situation in East Pakistan. She did not reply. When I asked her point blank if ‘they’ were going to dismiss the provincial government, without replying she walked out the room. I was convinced that that was what was going to happen. 

I went to my office and wrote a report predicting the dismissal of the East Pakistan government by the central government. The report included a detailed discussion of the possible consequences of this momentous decision. The editor got cold feet and decided not to publish it. (The decision to dismiss the United Front government would turn out to be an important milestone on the road to the break-up of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh in 1971.)

In 1956, I went to Dhaka to report for The Pakistan Times on the special session of the constituent assembly at which the new constitution would be adopted. The new assembly reflected the changed political situation in East Pakistan, and the ruling junta in West Pakistan had reached an accommodation with the Awami League (the United Front had by now split). HS Suhrawardy, the leader of the Awami League, was now prime minister. (Suhrawardy was staunchly right-wing and equally staunchly pro-West. But he was completely secular in his outlook.)

In West Pakistan, the ruling junta had broken with the Muslim League and had created a new party, the Republican Party. This it had done in order to completely abolish provincial autonomy in West Pakistan (to which some of the League leaders were strongly opposed), and create one administrative unit for the western wing of the country called One Unit. The idea underlying the new arrangement was to create a ‘balance’ with East Pakistan – West Pakistan would now confront East Pakistan as one united entity rather than as four separate units – Punjab, Sindh, the NWFP and Balochistan. There would be ‘parity’ of representation of the two units in parliament, an arrangement to which Awami League had agreed. (East Pakistan had a larger population than the West.)

I remember the speech Suhrawardy made on the adoption of the constitution, particularly the part dealing with the issue of separate/joint electorates. I thought at the time that it was the best speech (specially the part dealing with the issue of electorates) I had heard during my years attending the proceedings of the constituent assembly. He was defending the principle of joint, as opposed to separate, electorate. It was finally decided that the choice of the system of electorates would be left to each wing. East Pakistan chose joint electorate, West Pakistan, separate electorate.

A day or two after Suhrawardy’s speech I was having breakfast with Mian Mumtaz Daultana in Dhaks’s poshest hotel. (Mian Iftikharuddin had booked me there for me to be easily accessible to him.) Daultana, a graduate of Cambridge University, a big feudal landowner, was member of the constituent assembly and one time chief minister of Punjab. After a good, long discussion on the issue of separate/joint electorates, he said to me something like this: ‘Of course, you have two good reasons for supporting joint electorates.’ I knew exactly what he meant. First, I was a communist, second, I was a non-Muslim (Christian). On both counts I had no affinity with Pakistan’s (Muslim) ideology. It did not occur to him that East Pakistan had also rejected the system of separate electorates. Or, perhaps he did realise that they had also rejected what he thought was Pakistan’s Muslim ideology.

The origin of the separate electorates system goes back to the latter part of the 19th century when the British government had established a uniform system of administration throughout the sub-continent. In due course the issue of some form of Indian participation in the administration (at local level with a limited franchise) arose. Muslim leaders argued that as the Hindus were numerically a much larger community, Muslims would always be under- represented in elected institutions relatively to their number. The issue was important because, it was argued, that the Muslims were not only a minority community, but also they were in a weaker position in business and industry, professions and education. Therefore, in order to safeguard their interests (a) the number of seats in elected bodies be allocated to each community according to the numerical size of the community, and (b) that constituencies be determined on the basis of religion so that there would be Muslim constituencies in which only Muslims could vote, and similarly for the Hindus. This principle of separate electorates was accepted and then adopted as a general rule applicable to all religious communities. 

After the creation of Pakistan, Muslims were in overwhelming majority; in West Pakistan minority communities formed no more than two – if that – percent of the population. Muslims now needed no safeguards.

However, the principle of separate electorates was more than just about the safeguards. It was an institution signifying the separateness of the Muslim community from all other communities. It was an ideology. It was Islam that provided the bond of a shared national identity to diverse Muslim ethnic communities that now formed Pakistan. This is the standpoint that Daultana and other Muslim League leaders from West Pakistan espoused. As noted, the people of East Pakistan did not share this standpoint.

It was at this time in Dhaka that the decision to form the National Awami (People’s) Party (NAP) was taken. (Mian Iftikharuddin kept me informed of the progress of the discussions, and I reported on the final decision in The Pakistan Times.) The new party was to be formed through the merger of certain existing opposition parties and groups. Maulana Bhashani, a prominent leader of the Awami League (East Pakistan), an anti-imperialist and a staunch advocate of radical economic and social reforms had broken away from his party which was now part of the government led by Prime Minister Suhrawardy. He had a strong popular and religious appeal. (Mian Iftikharuddin once jokingly asked me if I thought Bhashani was such a man of God as he pretended to be and as his followers believed.) Equally radical was Mian Iftikharuddin’s Azad (free, independent)  Pakistan Party (APP), also staunchly anti-imperialist and advocating radical economic and social reforms. APP was largely operating in Punjab and Karachi, while, at this time, Bhashani’s following was confined to East Pakistan. These two were the genuinely Left groupings.

Then there were, what we may call, nationalist groupings. These were Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s Khudai Khidmatgars (God’s Servants) based entirely in the North West Frontier Province, Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai’s Wrore Pakhtun (Pakhtun Brotherhood) confined to Balochistan and closely aligned with Ghaffar Khan, and GM Syed’s Sindhi Mahaz (Front) based in Sindh. (GM Syed was president of the Pakistan-Soviet Cultural Association, and as secretary of the Association I came to know him on friendly terms.) The principal concern of these three parties was provincial autonomy; they wanted above all destruction of One Unit and a loose federal structure in which the provinces would enjoy large measure of autonomy. Their concern with economic and social reforms (e.g. radical land reforms) in their province was minimal. They could not by any measure be considered as parties of the Left.

The common ground between these nationalist parties on the one hand and Maulana Bhashani and Mian Iftikharuddin on the other consisted of secular politics (none of them subscribed to the kind of Islamic ideology to which the Muslim League adhered), a genuinely federal system, and their agreement on a non-aligned foreign policy, the kind India had adopted.

Because of their different perspectives on economic and social reforms and the narrow nationalism of the three nationalist parties, the newly formed party, the National Awami Party, was never able to achieve the kind of internal coherence that was needed for its development. With the martial law in 1958, like all other parties, it was banned. After the ban was lifted the party broke up in different factions. Even in East Pakistan the party was split into the Bhashani and anti-Bhashani factions.

While in Dhaka, I was able to see the leaders of the East Pakistan Communist Party (which despite the ban and repressive measures adopted against it had remained intact). Sardar Fazlul Karim, a communist member of the new constituent assembly, with whom I had become friendly, had arranged the meeting. I faced four leaders, as if I was being interviewed. They made me talk most of the time, asking questions about the situation of the party in West Pakistan, about the political situation generally, and about individual leaders of various parties in the western wing. I asked them about the Awami League as part of the central government. They did not think the ‘honeymoon’ with the ruling junta would last long. As it turned out, Suhrawardy was out in a year’s time.  After the meeting Sardar Fazlul Karim told me that all the four leaders I had met were members of the politburo. I felt greatly honoured.

Sometime in the beginning of 1957 I decided to move to Lahore. Party activity in Karachi, was at a low ebb. Also, I felt that I needed change in my professional work. The editor agreed to my transfer to Lahore.

The party activity in Punjab was even more depressing than what it was in Karachi. In fact, the party in Punjab had ceased to exist – there was hardly any   activity. The members of the old central committee (who were based in Lahore) were engaged in other activities. Eric Cyprian was teaching full time in a college. (He had a degree in English from Oxford University, and before becoming a whole-timer in 1945 or 1946 he was a lecturer in Forman Christian College.) Mohammed Afzal had departed for London where he was doing chartered accountancy. Sibte Hasan was working full time as editor of the newly-launched (by Progressive Papers Ltd.) Lail-o-Nihar. Aslam Chaudhri was in full time legal practice. Firozuddin Mansoor was in poor health. The only exception was Mirza Ibrahim. He continued his work in the railwaymen’s union which could function openly.

I had been transferred to Lahore but no decision had been taken as to the nature of my duties. On my own initiative I wrote some articles. (I remember writing one on the famous Lahore Museum and noting that in order not to offend the sensitivities of visitors, the director had covered the nudity of some the female exhibits with pieces of cloth.) I suggested to the editor that the newspaper create a new position for me, that of a roving correspondent. I  would visit neglected, relatively backward parts of Punjab (and eventually of the country as a whole) to highlight the economic and social problems facing the people in relatively deprived areas. To establish the feasibility of the idea I went to Shakargar, in Sialkot district, and wrote an article with the title ‘The God-Forsaken Shakargar’. (The place was suggested by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was born and brought up in that area. Although Faiz was the chief editor, he did not interfere in appointments, etc.) The editor did not like the idea of a roving correspondent; instead, he gave me the position of a senior sub-editor.

I was reasonably content in my new position for about ten months. But then I began to feel restless. I was now approaching the age of 30 years. Was I going to spend the rest of my life in the newsroom sub-editing? I decided to study economics in the hope that I would become a columnist specialising in economic issues. I discussed the idea with the editor who agreed, and suggested a leave of absence of three years.

I decided to go to London to study economics. I do not recall why I did not choose to do my studies in Punjab University (Lahore). An old friend, Dr. Abbas, was head of the economics department there. He had been a party member in Karachi, had gone to Holland and obtained a Ph.D. in economics. Perhaps I needed a complete change of scenery.

I wrote to a friend who was studying at the London School of Economics (LSE). As noted earlier, SM Naseem had been an activist in the student movement of 1953, and was the editor of the Students Herald. After doing his MA in economics from Karachi University he had gone to London to obtain a masters degree in statistics. He advised me to apply not only for admission to the London School of Economics but also to University College London, which also had an economics department. This turned out to be an excellent advice. I was not accepted at the LSE, but was offered a place in University College. This was for the session beginning in September 1958. All that I needed now was a passport.

 I made an application at the Lahore Passport Office. When after about a fortnight I returned to the office to collect my passport, I was told that I needed a ‘clearance’ from the Punjab C. I. D. (Criminal Investigation Department). I knew this was going to be a tricky business, there was no point my going to the CID office and requesting the ‘clearance’.

I spoke to an old friend from my college days who had joined the police force   and risen to the position of inspector. He had then resigned, studied law and had become a lawyer. He was still in contact with his former boss, a deputy inspector general, now retired. My friend explained the problem to his old boss, who was sympathetic. He gave my friend his visiting card and advised that I see the superintendent of CID and give him the card. That is what I did. The superintendent asked me about my relationship with the retired DIG, who had also been his boss. I told him the truth. He told me that I would get the ‘clearance’. It could take a couple of weeks.

I returned to the passport office after two weeks, and was told that I needed another ‘clearance’, this from the Central Intelligence Bureau, Pakistan’s FBI. This was going to be trickier than getting the clearance from Punjab.

And so I travelled to Karachi. I renewed contact with my old journalist colleagues, and sought someone who had access to Mian Anwar Ali, the director of the Intelligence Bureau (Pakistan’s Edgar J. Hoover). After much exploration someone suggested that as Nawab Qizilbash was a good friend of   Mian Anwar Ali he might be able to help. Qizilbash was a Punjabi grandee, a feudal lord, a former Punjab Minister and close to the ruling circles. (Although Qizilbash himself did not drink he had a well-stocked bar in his Lahore mansion for visitors.)

I knew Qizilbash as a journalist, but not too well. Fortunately, it turned out that a friend of mine happened to know him much better. Asrar Ahmed (one of the founders of the Karachi Union of Journalists) and I made an appointment with Qizilbash, and explained the reason for our visit. He was sympathetic and called Mian Anwar Ali on the phone. After some pleasantries he came to the point. Mian Anwar Ali was telling Qizilbash that Eric Rahim was a dangerous man, and Qizilbash was saying that it was all the more reason that he should be allowed to get out of the country, perhaps for good. Eventually, Mian Anwar Ali relented. I could collect my passport from the Foreign Office in about ten days. 

We were now into October (1958). The academic session in University College would already have started. It would take me at least another two weeks to get to London. I had missed the session. I sent a telegram to the admissions office of University College saying that because of the problems in obtaining the passport I would not be able to make it.

But I was going to collect my passport anyway. After about ten days of the meeting with Qizilbash I went to the Foreign Office. There I was told that my passport was ready for collection. It was a restricted passport, valid only for four countries and for three years, and that it could not be renewed without reference to the Foreign Office. It was also conditional on my making a signed declaration that while abroad I would not engage in any political activities. I refused to sign the declaration and returned to Lahore without the passport.

Back in Lahore I consulted my friend ex-Major Mohammed Ishaq, a former Rawalpindi  ‘conspirator’, now a communist and practising at the Lahore High Court. Would it be feasible to make an application to the Lahore  High Court asking whether the government had the right to deny me an unrestricted passport for the legitimate purpose of studying abroad, and to demand an undertaking that while abroad I should not participate in any legitimate political activity? 

We decided to meet in his chambers near the Mall Road to discuss this question. It was the 7th of October (1958). As I was getting ready to leave the house for my meeting with Major Ishaq my younger brother rushed in to inform me that he had heard it on the BBC that President Iskander Mirza had declared martial law in the country and that General Ayub Khan, commander-in-chief of the army, was to be the martial law administrator.

I saw Major Ishaq and we both agreed that the best thing I could do was to try to leave the country as soon as possible. (Major Ishaq was arrested soon afterwards.) I sent a telegram to University College informing them that I had succeeded in obtaining the passport and inquiring if there was still a place for me on the course. Within a day I received a telegram back with a positive response.

I travelled to my village to bid farewell to my parents, and then to Karachi. I went to the Foreign Office, signed the declaration they had demanded and received the passport. In the first week of November – I remember it was Guy Fawkes night –  I was in London. My friends SM Naseem and MA Shakoor were at Victoria Terminal to receive me. It was the beginning of a new life.


During my short stay in Karachi preparing to leave for London I was contacted by Abbas Khalili, secretary of the Ministry of Industries. I knew Khalili quite well in my capacity as a journalist. But more importantly, I knew him at a social level as a close friend of mine, Jaffer Naqvi, was engaged to be married to one of his nieces. He knew he could trust me. He gave me a letter for his wife who lived in London. At this time he did not wish to communicate with her through the normal channels.

The reason for this was that Iskander Mirza, who had as president of the country declared martial law and appointed Ayub Khan as the martial law administrator had been booted out by Ayub Khan. As Mirza belonged to the Shia sect of Islam there was a great deal of nervousness among the top bureaucrats who belonged to the same sect. Khalili was a Shia too.

Immediately after arriving in London I phoned Mrs Khalili to inform her that I had a letter for her from her husband and that I would come to her house to deliver it as soon as my registration at University College had been completed. I was already five weeks late. She was very anxious about her husband and she wanted the letter immediately. She would come and see me the same day to collect the letter. That is what she did, and invited me to her house in Putney.

On the appointed day I arrived at her house and was warmly welcomed. There were about four other guests. As I was chatting to one of them I noted a new arrival. Guess who? Iskandar Mirza. This man had been the joint defence secretary in the last days of British India, the first secretary of defence after the creation of Pakistan, a position in which he had wielded enormous power, he had been governor of East Pakistan, then governor general, and finally president of the country under the 1956 constitution which he had scrapped. Here he was at the beginning of his exile in London. He looked smaller than what I had thought. He looked at me and nodded in recognition – he knew me by face in my capacity as a journalist. I nodded back. I wondered if I should go and speak to him. But what could I say? ‘How are you Mr Mirza today?’ No, I did not speak to him. Later, as I was leaving I went up to him and said goodbye and shook his hand.  But I did not say ‘good luck, Mr Mirza’.

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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