Afzal Bangash: the Marxist maverick
By Dr Mohammad Taqi
“I count myself in nothing else so happy,
As in a soul remembering my good friends” — Shakespeare in Richard II
Reminiscing about some of the stars of the secular galaxy of Pakistan and especially Pakhtunkhwa is needed not just due to a family association or personal, feel-good nostalgia. It is a must because the current generations – being fed a steady diet of Wahabiism – ought to get acquainted with the history of this land.
Where first the state-controlled, and now the state-indoctrinated media persons have systematically relegated both our saints and secularists to oblivion while projecting larger-than-life images of the obscurantist characters from Pakistan Studies and Islamic Studies textbooks, such recollections become an obligation. One such distinguished progressive was the leader of the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP), Muhammad Afzal Bangash who died on this day (October 28) in 1986.
In mid-1986, Bangash sahib had returned from exile and was residing at the Kohat Road, Peshawar. The word spread and I got to tag along with friends and family who called upon him. Somehow the conversation started in Urdu. But then Bangash sahib asked “Tussi saray Hindko samajhdeyo na?” (All of you understand Hindko?). Some nodded, others said yes. He then quipped: “Bohat achha aye, kyoonkeh mein Urdu bolna waaN tey inj lagda aye jhoot bol riya waaN” (Great then, because if I speak in Urdu it feels like I am lying).
In one sweep he had thus made a case for the mother tongue; Bangash sahib was not known for subtleties. Twenty-four years later a study by the British Council Pakistan recommended last month that the mother tongue be the medium of instruction in elementary schools.
Afzal Bangash was above any chauvinism or parochialism though. He spoke and wrote in Urdu, Pashto and English and had great command of the Peshawari and Kohati Hindko. He remained part of the Ulasi Adabi Jirgah (People’s Literary Guild) along with the Urdu poets Farigh Bokhari and Raza Hamdani, progressive Pashto poets like Ajmal Khattak and Qalandar Momand and the religio-romantic nationalist masters like Amir Hamza Shinwari and Dost Muhammad Kamil. The guild was founded by his mentor Kaka-ji Sanober Hussain Momand, a revolutionary leader of the Indian freedom movement, after whom Bangash sahib later named the MKP weekly Sanober that also carried Kaka-ji’s verse on its cover.
In fact Bangash sahib detested labels and branding. While many characterised him as a Maoist, he took umbrage at the tag for he was the Marxist maverick who recorded his opposition to the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in the MKP’s journal Circular and parted ways with his colleagues who endorsed the invasion. After the Afghan revolution Hafizullah Amin wanted Bangash sahib to form a Pakistani party allied with his Khalq faction. Not only did he snub Amin but further admonished him for their transgressions and advised them to take the local culture and norms into serious consideration.
A son of the soil, Bangash sahib was not fond of importing or exporting revolutions and believed in an indigenous struggle. He was of the opinion that only the local circumstances can dictate the means to revolutionary ends. To him the most essential tool was revolutionary self-reliance, meaning a combination of the mass mobilisation of the oppressed people through an astute leadership, culminating in the directly concerned people waging the struggle. In an agrarian society this meant that the peasantry was to be the vanguard of such a movement.
But having served as Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah’s provincial campaign manager in her bid against Ayub Khan, in an election rigged by the general, Bangash sahib was acutely aware of the deck stacked against the masses. He had been a member of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) since 1948 and had seen the Quaid-e-Azam watch helplessly as the West Punjab Assembly flouted the recommendations of its own land reform sub-committee within six months of independence. Whether it was fixing the tenant’s share in the crop, the abolition of begaar (unpaid forced labour), making cheap credit available to the tenant or preventing their forced evictions, legislative help was not on the horizon.
Having been elected as the first General Secretary of the National Awami Party (NAP) in 1957, Afzal Bangash was intimately familiar with the workings of such multi-class leftist fronts, where in many instances the feudal nationalist elements held sway over party decisions. One such decision by the NAP leadership barring Bangash sahib and others from working in the peasant committees led to his parting ways with NAP and founding on May 1, 1968, the MKP – perhaps the largest revolutionary leftist party in Pakistan’s history that openly eschewed electoral politics.
The MKP’s red flag with a white star became a symbol of resistance to the feudal lords in Hashtnagar (Charsadda), Peshawar, Mardan and Swat/Malakand. It drew support from not only the tenants and agri-labourers but also from white-collar communities like the lawyers. In fact, Wali Khan’s nephew Faridoon Khan hoisted the MKP flag at his father Ghani Khan’s house and ‘de-classed’ himself to join the peasant uprising. After a tenant, Sardar Shah raised the MKP flag as a challenge against his landlord Usman Ali “Wawa” Khan’s eviction order, the scene was set for a mass uprising in northern Hashtnagar and an armed struggle ensued. The peasant uprising lasted through three successive governments including that of the NAP. Along with its contemporary Naxalite struggle and the Peruvian and Nepalese peasant movements that followed it, the Hashtnagar peasant struggle provides a unique case study in an era when urban fascists pretend to be anti-feudal!
Well-versed in Marxist theory as many of his speeches and writings reflect, Afzal Bangash however, was not a dogmatist. He did develop a methodology of modifying both theory and practice to adjust the ideological framework and the means to achieve political goals. He was proud of his comrades like Major Ishaq Muhammad, Professor Eric Cyprian, Imtiaz Alam and Sher Ali Baacha who contributed immensely to both theory and the practical struggle. During the recent judiciary movement some of his former associates like Latif Afridi and Justice Shahjahan Yousafzai demonstrated, from the bar and the bench respectively, the acumen and resolve of the seasoned campaigners that Bangash sahib had trained by the dozens.
Afzal Bangash did gradually move towards mainstream politics starting with the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), of which the MKP was a founding and highly functional component. He had a great working relationship with Shaheed Benazir Bhutto during that era. In 1985 he, along with Ataullah Mengal, Mumtaz Bhutto and Hafiz Pirzada, formed the Sindhi Baloch Pashtun Front, proposing a confederal state to counter the Punjabi establishment’s hegemony.
Upon returning to Pakistan, he remained involved with the merger of the left-oriented parties and closed the door on a generation-long rift with Wali Khan. The MKP, a faction of the PNP, Rasool Paleejo’s Awami Tehrik and the NDP thus came together to form the Awami National Party (ANP). Wali Khan became its first president while MKP’s Sardar Shaukat Ali was elected as its General Secretary.
Bangash sahib’s legacy is that of a secular, selfless devotion to the deliverance of the wretched of the earth from oppression and exploitation, if needed, by challenging through all means available, the Weberian concept of the ‘legitimate monopoly on violence’ as well as the hegemony of the forces of tradition. Having declined high office and judgeships many times, Bangash sahib remained wedded till his last breath to the cause he championed. He was originally buried in his ancestral graveyard in Shadi Khel village, Kohat, but later on his mortal remains were transferred to Hashtnagar where he rests in peace along with his comrades and cadres.
One column cannot do justice to a political life spanning more than four decades but I will say to my younger friends in the words of Iqbal and Hafiz:
“I scatter the petals of tulips upon the dust of martyrs;
For their blood profits the sapling of the community;
Come so that we may strew roses and pour wine into the cup;
Let us tear open the roof of Heaven and think upon new ways.”