From communism to democracy and civil space

August 13, 2017

On the political journey and legacy of Syed Jamaluddin Naqvi, a pivotal leader of Pakistan’s leftist politics, who passed away last week

From communism to democracy and civil space

Syed Jamaluddin Naqvi remained a nonconformist till his death last week. Till the 1990s, he was not only raising some basic questions regarding Marxism but had also advised his comrades to strive for civil space in Pakistan.

He must have read the saying "If you are not a communist in your 20s, you have no heart but if you remain a communist in your 30s then you have no brain"; only in his case, he stayed a communist till the age of 58 in 1990.

In 2007, Jamal Naqvi was in Lahore where he explained his thoughts and change of heart to comrades openly. It was a time when the Lawyer’s Movement was at its peak and some left-wing intellectuals had declared it a 1968-like situation. Jamal did not agree with this analysis and told us that we had to concentrate on seeking democratic options as well as strengthening of civil space in Pakistan.

It reminded me of the famous Hala Conference (1970) in which many revolutionaries including Mairaj Muhammad Khan had pressurised Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to boycott the elections but the smart ZAB did not listen. Had leftists and nationalists, in and outside the PPP, supported the ZAB government with the goal of strengthening civil space in the 1970s, things would be much different. This was the first democratically-elected government and should have been analysed and interpreted as the first experience in democracy rather than a perfect government.

Since 2008, Pakistan has been confronted with various questions associated with civil space and supremacy of the civilian government among other things. More recently, during the Panama Case, some of our senior leftist friends found some love even for the Joint Investigation Team (JIT). We can check the money trail of politicians only but no one dares talk about the money trail of non-elected elite.

Jamaluddin Naqvi was born in 1932. In his early 20s, he joined communist groups, and formed his own faction (Communist Party of Pakistan) in the first half of 1960s along with Imam Ali Nazish -- remaining with it till 1990. According to his fellow comrades, he was the ‘sole dictator’ in the party till late 1970s after which he was imprisoned by General Zia. Along with Nazeer Abbasi, he was arrested on July30, 1980 from Karachi. Only ten days after the arrest, Abbasi was killed in custody on August10. Jamal, however, was released in the mid-1980s.

But the nonconformist Jamal did not limit his options. I too, have many reservations regarding his ideas and politics. I met him many times and talked about my reservations but one thing that I can credit Jamal with is his ability not to remain silent when it came to his politics.

In the late 1970s, Jamal started losing the grip over his party, partly due to "young Turks" and also due to the influence of Afghan politics. This revolt within his party may have compelled Jamal to revisit his politics and ideology. So after spending 38 years with communist politics, in 1990 in a party congress, along with comrade Ramzan, he proposed open politics and rejected underground politics. He was defeated not only by his comrades but also by his time-tested friend Imam Ali Nazish. But he did not falter from this position at all.

From 1990 onwards till his death, he developed alternative thoughts and solutions, recorded interviews and wrote books. Like senior comrade C.R. Aslam, he openly supported globalisation. His book Leaving the Left Behind that was published in 2014 was discussed a lot among the progressive circles.

According to him, "both Russia and China had changed their old ideological positions: the USSR accepted this openly but the Chinese did it without announcing it. They even called it socialist capitalism. In fact, both Russians and Chinese used state capitalism and successfully transformed their societies.

"After the end of the Cold War, separatist movements had no scope at all. Classes are there and so is class struggle; yet in the last 100 years many new classes have emerged and we have to acknowledge it. In the past, due to our overemphasis on labourers and peasants we had ignored lowest classes like dalits, musalihs etc, it was a big mistake.

"Imperialism and colonialism were a part and parcel of world politics but due to the Cold War, we failed to understand it. In the post-Cold War era, we cannot rely on an old definition of imperialism.

"Labour is among the various factors in value-addition so it is essential to reconsider the theory of surplus value.

"Democracy is the only solution we have. There is no alternative to it. It does not mean that I am rejecting class struggle. We have to raise the issues of lower classes, but without strengthening the civil space in Pakistan we cannot help lower classes at all. Participation of citizens in decision-making processes will strengthen the lower classes’ role and leftists can play their role as a catalyst.

"Strengthening of the prime minister’s office will increase civil space in Pakistan.

"Big and small provinces and nationalities is a hard fact. We can neither expand Balochistan population nor reduce that of the Punjab. Artificial solutions like parity proved fatal in the past so federating units should resolve the disparities with consensus. But if we have a strong civil space than we can resolve it too.

"Civil space will increase in Pakistan gradually and every new PM will demand more. It is the prime contradiction in Pakistan.

"We should not oppose US and the West in a way to strengthen religious fundamentalists."

Jamal recorded these thoughts in 2007 and remained loyal to these ideas. Unlike his comrades, he raised some fundamental questions regarding Marxism that turned many of his friends against him. A baseless campaign was launched against him by his fellow comrades. But having spent 38 years with the movement, he had every right to follow his intellectual pursuits.

As part of the campaign, books were written just to accuse him of betraying the party during the Zia era. His commitment was challenged by those who were his blind followers in the past and had never questioned his authoritarianism in party for once. Had he kept himself from challenging the basic principles of Marxism like many of his contemporaries and remained silent on the past politics, he would not have faced such a reaction. I can give many examples of many progressive people who did group politics for many years and left due to various political and personal reasons but neither did they register their grievances nor they put these in writing. Some of them joined NGOs, others went into journalism; yet they did not pen what they had experienced in the leftist politics.

But the nonconformist Jamal did not limit his options. I too, have many reservations regarding his ideas and politics. I met him many times and talked about my reservations but one thing that I can credit Jamal with is his ability not to remain silent when it came to his politics.

In a meeting in Lahore a few years back, he advised his comrades either to join the PPP or PML-N. All remained silent except his daughter who said, "Baba, aap satheyaa gaye hain kya?" (Father, have you lost your mind?). He smiled his trademark smile and said, "I said what I think is right."

Well-played, Jamaluddin Naqvi!

(He passed away on August 3, 2017)

From communism to democracy and civil space