A brief history of Kisan Tehreek

Factionalism among Kisan leadership prevented it from achieving the goal of peasant autonomy

What food is to body, ideology is to social movement? An ideology mobilises masses for certain beliefs and goals on the one hand and articulates and identifies them on the other hand. In other words, any collective action without a defined ideological orientation would appear disorganised and disappear ultimately. This is what recently happened with the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

Similarly, ideological differences and factionalism among peasant leadership of Punjab Kisan Tehreek (a peasant movement in the West Punjab/Pakistani Punjab) is considered one of the most important reasons for its failure to achieve its goal of peasant autonomy. Punjab Kisan Tehreek (PKT) was started by Punjab Kisan Sabha in 1937 under the auspices of All-India Kisan Sabha. It was greatly impacted by the partition of the Punjab in 1947 as a large number of non-Muslims — including peasant activists and leaders — migrated to India. This loss of leadership crippled the peasant movement, which had to be started anew by peasants in the south Punjab at the end of 1947.

By taking advantage of the mobilisation and resistance of the peasantry in south Punjab in general and in Multan and Montgomery (later Sahiwal) districts in particular, a group of the Punjab Kisan Committee members based in Toba Tek Singh, led by Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad and Maj Muhammad Ishaque, and associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), joined hands with the peasants. The leaders of this group, since beginning, had claimed to be the practitioners of revolutionary rather than reformist ideology. This also reflected in their involvement in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy of 1951 — when a group of communists including civilians and army-men planned a military coup in order to bring about a class-revolution.

Another group of peasants, the Punjab Kisan Committee (PKC), was active under the leadership of Sheikh Muhammad Rashid. However, their activities were limited to Lahore and its surrounding areas. This group, unlike the Toba Tek Singh-based group, followed a reformist, rather than revolutionary, approach.

The Toba Tek Singh-based group was subsequently divided into two: a Toba Tek Singh-based group led by Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad, CR Aslam, Rao Mehroz Akhtar Khan and Qaswar Gardezi; and a Lyallpur- (later Faisalabad) based group led by Maj Muhammad Ishaque, Mubarak Haider and Ghulam Nabi Kalloo. Why did the group split into two when its members were working for the same cause i.e. autonomy for the peasants?

After the Political Parties Act of 1962 and subsequent lifting of the ban on political activities, the peasantry of Multan and its surrounding areas attempted a revival of the PKT. In this connection, a meeting of the delegates of the Kisan Committee was organised in Khanewal on April 27 and 28, 1963. Representatives of the Kisan Committees of Sindh, the Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa participated. The meeting was presided over by CR Aslam. On the agenda was the revival and re-organisation of the Kisan Committee in West Pakistan.

In line with this, conveners were appointed for organising committees in various provinces. These were: Shaheen Shah for Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, Nazir Hussain Jatoi for Sindh and Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad for the Punjab. For consultation and assistance in organising, a committee at the West Pakistan level was constituted, with Maj Muhammad Ishaque appointed to lead it. The PKC was largely successful in its effort. By 1965, there were Kisan Committees in every district of the province, barring Campbellpur (later Attock). On July 1-2, 1967, a Kisan Conference in Multan was attended by delegates from all districts of the Punjab. However, Maj Muhammad Ishaque and his associates were not invited for certain reasons.

Signs of this fissure, and others besides, were perceptible for years afterwards. Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad holds, for instance, that when Maj Muhammad Ishaque was elected as joint secretary of the National Awami Party (NAP) during its central executive committee’s meeting in Dhaka in 1965, he promised to resign as convener of the West Pakistan Kisan Committee. He traces a growing disinterest in Ishaque’s attitude for the work of the Kisan Committee to this fact.

Meanwhile, as a result of conflicts developing between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and People’s Republic of China (PRC), the communists in the Punjab — as elsewhere — were divided into pro-Russia and pro-China factions. This division was reflected in the leadership of the NAP in the 1966 elections whereby the party was divided into the Wali Khan group and the Bhashani group. The West Pakistan NAP was then further divided.

This factionalism inevitably affected the Kisan Committee. Ishaque, for instance, was excluded from the Punjab Kisan Committee delegates’ conference in Multan in July 1967, and Rao Mehroz Akhtar Khan took over the role of convener. Consequently, two Punjab Kisan Committees were formed in parallel — the Lyallpur group led by Maj Muhammad Ishaque and the Toba Tek Singh group led by Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad.

Mubarak Haider, a friend and colleague of Maj Muhammad Ishaque, disagrees with Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad’s account. He reports that preparations for the Multan conference of 1967 fell under the supervision of the West Pakistan Kisan Committee, whose convener was Maj Muhammad Ishaque. The exclusion of the convener, therefore, was unwarranted and a violation of the constitution of the Kisan Committee. The constitution stated that only the convener could call a meeting of delegates of the Kisan Committee. The fact that the committee had side-stepped this communication of the convener, and directly announced a Kisan Conference was, therefore, a contravention of the rules.

In addition, there was a democratic procedure for the elections of delegates but, for this conference, a non-democratic district quota for delegates was declared. Delegates were selected by the committee without obtaining approval from the members in the concerned districts. Moreover, the arrangement and management of the conference was handed over to landlords, creating an ironic situation where the peasantry was looking to landlords for leadership on peasant rights.

Haider also argues that the location of the conference in an urban area rather than a rural area contradicted its stated aim. Security arrangements for the conference were likewise against the principles of the Kisan Committee.

In this way, the selection of place, the handing over of leadership to the landlords and the taking over of security from the district administration signalled a reformist (rather than revolutionary) approach.

Haider uses this to make his larger argument — that Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad and his colleagues, who pretended to be the leaders of the peasantry, were, in reality, a part of the landed elite. He adds that they were successful in securing landed estates by spying for the police and by manipulating agrarian units with the help of revenue officials and the bureaucracy. Instead of strengthening the revolutionary forces in the Punjab, they supported the landed elite to avoid the revolution. Even when they entered politics, and secured votes of the peasantry in the name of change, they were — Haider alleges — agents and sympathisers of the landed elite.

These developments created rifts between the two groups (that of CR Aslam, Qaswar Gardezi, Sardar Shaukat Hayat Khan and Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad and that of Maj Muhammad Ishaque, Mubarak Haider and Ghulam Nabi Kalloo). The former was termed reformist while the latter was termed revolutionary.

Ishaque and his group believed that these decades — 1960s and 1970 — were decades of revolutions and changes, and they should focus on bringing about a revolution rather than adopting a reformist approach. They believed that conservative powers were being defeated by the revolutionary powers around the globe and that stage was set in the Punjab for a revolution.

Due to this factionalism among the Leftist leadership and their isolation from the grassroots — the peasantry and industrial class — leadership gaps in the movement to provoke radical action were created. These gaps were filled either by local leadership or by parties to the right. Later on, this local leadership was replaced by Bhutto through his radical rhetoric for socialism. PKC’s power was dulled. And even though large numbers of workers and peasants were mobilised and played an active role in the downfall of Gen Muhammad Ayub and the rise of Bhutto, the politics of the Left, and the movement of the working class and peasantry, declined in the 1970s.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at   [email protected] He tweets at @MazharGondal87

A brief history of Kisan Tehreek