In the coming years, China is expected to invest some $18 billion in an “economic corridor” crossing Pakistan to the Arabian Sea at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The latest installment is the development of the Pakistani port of Gwadar. The port scheme is a strategic move linked to the restoration of Gwadar’s oil refining capacity. The plan is that China’s purchases of crude from the Middle East will be refined there before flowing to China by pipeline.

China has been Pakistan’s close economic and military ally since soon after the 1962 Sino-Indian war. But Chinese influence in South Asia has been ideological as well.

Most famous is the story of Naxalbari, a small village in West Bengal that was the site of the 1967 peasant uprising supported by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Driven by Maoist fervor and the writings of communist leader Charu Majumdar (1918-1972), the peasants were joined by a number of urban intellectuals and their movement became popular among students in elite Kolkata colleges. In 1969, the CPI (M) split, with the departing members forming the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), which followed a still more radical, insurrectionary Maoist line. This Bengali history is commemorated in various ways in India to this day. What is seldom recalled is the parallel entanglement of Maoism in Pakistani political life.

The Communist Party of Pakistan was banned in 1954 and went underground. In 1958, Gen. Ayub Khan seized power, introducing martial law and further clamping down on oppositional political activity. Numerous leftists were arrested and harassed, though the regime did not succeed in suppressing all left-leaning dissent. An education ordinance passed in 1959 stirred up unrest among student groups. In February and March of 1961 large demonstrations took place in Karachi against the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese leader. And in September 1962, members of the left-leaning National Student Federation (NSF) stormed the stage of a pro-government Muslim League Convention in Karachi. The student leaders were banished from the city, sparking student demonstrations across the country. 

Then came the Sino-Soviet split in international communism, leading to a complete break between the two countries and their respective Communist Parties by 1963. Maoist China sharply criticized the Soviet Union for its “revisionist” position of socialist transformation by “national democratic revolution,” whereby revolutionaries could make alliances with the “progressive” or national bourgeoisie, as opposed to the compradors linked to the colonial powers. Mao adhered to a more aggressive stance of revolution through armed struggle, which the Soviets labeled as adventurist. The name calling aside, the Soviet Union (along with Britain and the United States) supported India during the Sino-Indian war, sealing the fate of efforts at future cooperation with Maoist China.

In Pakistan, these international differences sometimes played out in terms of factional rivalries, but at other times they took the form of arguments about the nature of Ayub’s regime. The government’s relationship with China had improved in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war, as China reduced Pakistani feelings of vulnerability vis-à-vis India. Meanwhile, the pro-China left scaled back its critique of the government, arguing, for example, that Ayub’s system of “basic democracy” was similar to the soviets at the time of the 1917 Russian revolution. “Basic democracy” was an indirect system of elections, by which 80,000 electors or “basic democrats” were popularly elected at the local level to serve as an electoral college to choose a president. According to Jamal Naqvi, a scholar of Pakistani communism, the Chinese premier Chou En-Lai had said that “basic democracy” was close to the Chinese system. Some left formations, perhaps not fully aware at that time of the resonances with debates in international communism, held serious discussions as to whether the regime should be considered representative of the “progressive” bourgeoisie.

There were further disagreements within the Pakistani left over the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war. Some leftists were openly anti-India because China was supportive of Pakistan. These and many smaller disputes, some personal or factional in nature, fractured the Communist Party of Pakistan and spurred the proliferation of Maoist groups, first in Punjab (under the veteran trade unionist C. R. Aslam), later in Lahore (under what was called the Professor Group) and then in Karachi (under the trade union and communist leader Tufail Abbas). The party formally split in 1966 into pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions.

It was clear by the late 1960s that the Maoist groups, with their plainspoken anti-imperialist slogans, nationalist anti-India sentiments and calls for armed struggle, were more popular among students and youth. The Maoists lambasted the US in solidarity with the people of Vietnam. Tufail Abbas’ faction attracted some of the most dedicated cadres, including the larger portion of the NSF (which had also split) and student leaders such as Mairaj Mohammad Khan, Rashid Hasan Khan and Ali Yawar. The new strength allowed the Maoists to form a West Pakistan Committee and claim a semblance of a countrywide party (though they had few links in East Pakistan).

This movement was pivotal in the transition from military rule to democratic governance. The Maoists backed Zulfiqar Bhutto’s Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which came to power in 1971-1972 with the overwhelming support of the working class, students and the radical left. The association with Bhutto, however, translated into most Maoist groups’ support for or at least acquiescence in the military action in East Pakistan/Bangladesh during that country’s war of liberation from Pakistan.

In the late 1960s, a group of leftists formed the Maoist-leaning Worker-Peasant Party, or Mazdoor Kisan. It was the first socialist party in Pakistan that took the peasantry seriously, organizing peasants to fight for the eradication of feudal taxes and a fairer tenancy system. In 1970, Mazdoor Kisan was successful in launching a peasant movement in the North West Frontier Province. There were major peasant takeovers during the period 1970-1974 in Hashtnagar, Swat and adjacent Malakand — all northwestern areas where, ironically, Islamists have prevailed in the last three decades. At the height of the movement, smallholders, tenant farmers and laborers forced many large landowners (khans) to flee the villages to the cities and captured fallow land, distributing it among landless peasants. In Hashtnagar and Malakand, a number of tenants refused to give those khans who had left the area any share of the crop at all. Over the years the struggle turned violent, with significant loss of life and property, and thousands were arrested. 

In India, the Naxalite movement dissipated with Charu Majumdar’s arrest in 1972 and his death in custody soon after. It had already lost its force due to state repression and internal divisions (though it would be resurrected later). In Pakistan, too, the state curtailed popular struggles through manipulation of leftist politics and outright oppression. Ironically, it was the PPP that was instrumental in this persecution of the left, which was replete with torture. By the late 1970s, the somnolent pro-Moscow party had reawakened as a focal point for the Pakistani left. Mao had passed away, the Cultural Revolution was over and China had moved against the radicalism of the “Gang of Four.” Post-Mao China was less interested in insurgency and more in contracts to build infrastructure. The story is not over.

How to cite this article:

Kamran Asdar Ali "Mao in a Muslim Land," Middle East Report 270 (Spring 2014).

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