The impact of the Bolshevik revolution on South Asian politics | Asia | An in-depth look at current events from across the continent | DW
DW: What impact did the Russian Revolution have on anti-colonial movements in British India?
Harris Khalique: I find it interesting that while Karl Marx looked at British colonialism in India in the 19th century from a different perspective and saw it as an agent of modernity in a decadent and feudal country, the Marxist-Leninist Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was viewed most favorably in the British, French and other colonies.
In British India, the revolution of 1917 not only inspired and influenced secular movements, it had a similar impact on faith-based movements and political organizations. Even before the Communist Party of India (ICC) could officially take root, there were religious scholars like Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi who publicly owed allegiance to the international socialist movement.
They emphasized the inherent nature of the deep links between nationalism, freedom and class struggle. Over the following decades – between 1925 and 1947 – from the CPI to the Progressive Writers Association, the Indian Peoples Theater Association and the labor federations, a strong left anti-colonial movement was galvanized.
Khalique: “In British India, the revolution of 1917 not only inspired and influenced secular movements, it had a similar impact on faith-based movements and political organizations”
Why did the Communist Parties behave well in post-partition India and not in Pakistan?
One obvious reason is the virtual absence of any modern industry in Pakistan when the country was established and the other reason is the decision of the Pakistani government not to dismantle the traditional feudal structure of agricultural production, contrary to what the Indian government did so soon after independence. .
In addition, the Communist Party and its organs were banned by the Pakistani state very soon after independence. This was followed by the imposition of martial law, which was supported by the United States. Not only did Pakistan remain primarily aligned with the United States and the West during the Cold War, it was hardly a democracy where all political voices have space. The Communists were seen as pro-Soviet and persecuted.
Years later, as Pakistan moved closer to Communist China, some pro-Chinese parties and peasant movements were allowed to operate. Therefore, these initiatives led to the rise of the Pakistani People’s Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto around 1970.
The Pashtun regions in Afghanistan and Pakistan had a strong communist movement. How did it happen in such conservative places? And why did Pakistan see them as a threat?
It was certainly a strong progressive and liberal movement with Pakistani nationalist imperatives that was pro-Soviet. Strictly speaking, it was not a communist movement. For example, Bacha Khan, the great Pakhtun leader and reformer, was a Gandhian and not a Communist. But he remained pro-Soviet and saw USSR support crucial in realizing the rights of the Pakhtuns.
Please also note that the Pakhtun regions are tribal in nature and therefore more egalitarian than some other parts of Pakistan like Punjab and Sindh which have remained deeply feudal and classist. Even the middle classes here represented conservative thinking and, in fact, still do. It was natural for the Pakistani state to view any pro-Soviet linguistic or nationalist movement as a threat to a pro-American unitary state.
“As Pakistan moved closer to Communist China, some pro-Chinese peasant parties and movements were allowed to operate, which led to the rise of the Pakistani People’s Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto around 1970”
Do you see any relevance for the socialist movements inspired by the Russian revolution in India and Pakistan now?
What we are seeing now is the fall of the Communist Parties in India and a complete shift to right-wing politics in India and Pakistan. On the other hand, Russia itself today is a capitalist economy, competing with the United States and China for more market access and political influence in the world, but they play depending on the same rules of the game.
There is no other ideology involved. However, for us here in India and Pakistan, there is more than ever a need for dynamic left-wing political and social movements to prevent us from descending completely into fascism and totalitarianism. Marxists believe that history does not repeat itself. There may well be a desire to replay the socialist revolutions we saw in the 20th century, but that will not happen.
Current structures work differently, and a new kind of practice is needed to first challenge and then overthrow right-wing politics – both in terms of economic oppression and religious fundamentalism.
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Aside from the Russian Bolsheviks, China’s Maoist influence was quite palpable in socialist politics on the subcontinent. How did these differences play out in Indo-Pakistani politics?
The split became clear after 1962. The CPI was split into factions and Pakistan saw student and labor movements split between pro-Soviet and pro-China camps. If you ask me, this has weakened the movement further. Much of the time has been spent on internal struggles rather than challenging monopoly capitalism taking root in both India and Pakistan in tandem with the maintenance and strengthening of feudal strongholds in Pakistan.
“There is a section among social theorists and political activists in South Asia that clearly states that Islamic extremism is the Siamese twin of the neoliberal world economic order”
It also reflects the fact that leftist leaders, especially in Pakistan, were dishonest and could not create an indigenous narrative.
Is it fair to say that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the socialist movements in Pakistan lost their relevance?
Concretely, they had not had as much impact as in India, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. But of course, this was seen as a setback by political workers, writers, and left-wing unionists.
Do South Asian Socialists have a counter-narrative to Islamic extremism and militancy in the region?
Most of the voices you hear challenge extremism and activism that the international media today regard as liberal voices come from people on the left or on the center-left. However, there is a section among social theorists and political activists in South Asia that clearly states that Islamic extremism is the Siamese twin of the neoliberal world economic order. Because of this split of opinion, the counter-narrative is not articulated as clearly as it should be.
Harris Khalique, poet and essayist, is the author of “Crimson Papers: Reflections on Struggle, Suffering, and Creativity in Pakistan”. He remained associated with the movements of workers, minorities and women’s rights.
The interview was conducted by Shamil Shams.