Pakistan’s new Left

January 16, 2022

In his new book, Ammar Ali Jan brings us news of a new Left made up of ordinary people of all kinds who dare to imagine a different future

Pakistan’s new Left

The Algerian Revolution against French colonisation started in 1954 and ended in 1962 with Algeria winning independence. Frantz Fanon, the writer and freedom fighter, published his book, A Dying Colonialism, in 1959 – an account of the first five years of the revolution. In the book, Fanon claimed that he had witnessed the birth of new humans. The Algerian people were no longer ‘natives’ – colonised, oppressed, passive victims of French history. No, these people were free and powerful; they were agents of their own history.

For Fanon, history is written in a double temporality. It is both the past – the events and ideas that have shaped the present – as well as the history of a future, a history written from an imagined time in the future, a future anterior tense. In this sense, history is not simply the record of the past, it is also the hopeful awareness that if people have made the world how it is today, then people can also make it differently for the future. If France rules today, Algeria will rule tomorrow. History for Fanon – unlike for liberal apologists like Francis Fukuyama – never ends. Whatever exists today can be destroyed and built differently. All that is needed is that we imagine a different future and struggle for it.

Ammar Ali Jan’s book, Rule by Fear: Eight Theses on Authoritarianism in Pakistan, is written with a keen sense of this Fanonian double temporality. Jan explains the historical and political forces that have brought us to our present state, but he doesn’t stop there. Writing against the backdrop of emerging social movements that are changing radical politics in Pakistan, Jan brings us news of a new Left, a coalition of ordinary people of all kinds (women, workers, farmers, ethnic and religious and sexual minorities) who reject the present and dare to imagine a future where they will make their own history – not passively live the imperialist, capitalist and patriarchal history made by corporations, military agencies, the IMF, corrupt politicians, American diplomats and economic technocrats. In other words, Jan writes with one step in the past and one in the future: “…we are on the verge of unprecedented transformations.”

The book serves as a witness to many social movements that have gained momentum in Pakistan in recent years: the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, the Students Solidarity March, the Aurat March, the Peoples Climate March, the Gwadar Ko Huqooq Doe Tehreek and many others. Why are these movements so important? Jan argues that the strength of these movements lies in the fact that they are not simply trying to get a portion of power within the current political structure, but are demanding a fundamentally different political structure.

Jan shows with compelling arguments that the current political structure is an improvised extension of colonialism. Only the faces have changed – we have swapped white faces for brown faces – but otherwise it’s the same oppressive and elitist structure. The rampant militarisation, the empowerment of feudal and bourgeois classes, the moral panic over women in public spaces, the emphasis on cultural and religious purity, the economic dependency on Western financial institutions, and most importantly, a deep distrust of people and their political power that is countered by unchecked violence to instil fear among them – all these are our colonial inheritances. Instead of challenging and resisting them, we have embraced them, excelling in them at every turn.

The sedition laws that are currently being used to suppress political dissent are a perfect example of this homology between the colonial and postcolonial state. Enacted by the British Raj to imprison leaders of the freedom movement like Bhagat Singh, Mohandas Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Johar, they are being used today to harass students, farmers, journalists, activists, teachers, and other participants and supporters of emerging social movements. Jan himself has been charged with sedition.

Colonialism, in other words, never ended. It is a recurring event. Every time a military general abuses his power, the spirit of General Dyer is reinvigorated. The tragedy is that our current rulers are not even strong enough to gain power for themselves; they are happy to play the middleman for foreign armies and investors, only too happy to sell their people for a handful of middling pizza franchises. As Jan writes: “The colonial state that introduced this language of sedition was representative of foreign domination, while the postcolonial state remains a rentier state for foreign powers.”

The new Left – still in its formative stages – has the potential to challenge colonial precepts and envision a different future. Instead of obediently playing their part in a history scripted elsewhere – in the GHQs and IMFs and CIAs of the world – these social movements aim to change our relationship to the colonial past by building towards an anticolonial future. They do not simply demand more representation in parliament, more inclusion in media, and a larger share of development and aid. Instead, they are challenging the very foundations of a parliament that is selected before a single vote is cast, a media that is allowed to criticise politicians but never the military, and development budgets that accelerate growth for the rich rather than welfare for the poor. Unlike mainstream political actors that simply want to reshuffle the cards, hoping to get a favourable hand, these social movements demand a new, different deck of cards altogether.

In the process, they have also changed the very meaning of leftist politics in Pakistan. Unlike the older, more traditional Left, these social movements refuse to privilege the urban proletariat as the primary subject of revolution, looking, instead, to bring together a wide array of seditious elements including women, peasants, students, Khwaja Sira, ethnic and religious minorities as well as workers. Jan argues that they have also changed the issues determining the struggle – feminism, environmentalism and nationalism are key components of the new Left. There is an urgent need, according to Jan, to build “a political platform that can bring together disparate forces of resistance into a radical and coherent political alternative” if we are to succeed in building “a new conception of life premised upon the dignity of the people.” In fact, it is this very ability to create “a broad alliance that can mobilise different sections of society” and address contemporary issues like climate change and enforced disappearances that will determine the success of the new Left.

By way of these solidarities, the new Left joins peoples, places and ideas that our current political system works to divide and rule. It enables students in the Punjab to join forces with fishermen in Gwadar, and transgender women in Sindh to fight for the recovery of missing persons in Pakhtunkhwa. The new Left gives us hope that “radical transformation,” a new way of doing politics, is possible. The success of such politics might seem impossible today, but we must believe that the present is not definitive and that the future is unpredictable. History hasn’t ended: if France rules today, Algeria will rule tomorrow.

Rule by Fear: Eight Theses on Authoritarianism in Pakistan

Author: Ammar Ali Jan

Publisher: Folio Books, Lahore, 2021

Price: Rs 750

The reviewer is pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at UCLA. He is the translator of Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs and a member of the Progressive Academics’ Collective

Pakistan’s new Left