Mazdoor Kissan Party Circular
Mazdoor Kissan Party Circular
Archival SourceSouth Asian Resource and Research Archives
This tool is intermittently updated to integrate new information sent to the authors.
21 October 2021
This teaching tool provides insight into the cultural politics of the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) in Punjab, Pakistan. A brief introduction to the party’s formation, trajectory, historical context, and key intellectuals like, Ali Arshad Mir, Ishaque Muhammad and Sibtul Hassan Zaigham will be provided. However, the focus is on the party’s synthesis of regional histories of resistance with the praxis of global Maoism, anti-imperialism, and Marxist internationalism. In particular, an excerpted preface by Malik Agha Sahotra to the founding document of the Dehaat Mazdoor Tanzeem (Agricultural Workers’ Movement/Unit) is presented to analyse how the exclusions of caste and indigeneity were articulated within a section of the Pakistani Left. The preface was printed in the party’s organ, the Mazdoor Kissan Party Circular.
The following text is a translated excerpt from the Mazdoor Kissan Party Circular
On 13 November 1974, the constitution of the Dehati Mazdoor Tanzeem was passed in a general session. The Preface to this constitution has been reprinted below (Information Committee)
Four thousand years is a very long time. Many a people have been born, and erased.
Many countries came into being, and were destroyed.
Many empires rose and fell.
Many creeds surfaced, and were buried.
Human history has passed through many epochs. The ages of tribalism, slavery, feudalism; the age of capitalism, i.e. of globalised production, and of socialism, which is the age of government by factory workers… Today, humanity is living in the age of ‘modern tribalism’, i.e. on the path to a system in which the power, control, oppression, and exploitation of one man by another, of one country by another, will come to an end…
We are lucky to be alive in this day and age. This is the age of the worker, the age of the poor farmer and the landless worker, the age of all poor peoples everywhere. Their oppression at the hands of capitalists, landlords, and the bureaucracy is coming to an end, like the shrivelled, yellowing leaves of fall.
The Long Night of Trials
These four thousand years, which our people have spent in great suffering, have seen big historical developments. Our history was snatched from us in this time.
- We were cast out from the fold of humanity.
- We were barred from entering human settlements.
- We were denied sustenance.
- Our pots and plates were separated. We were forced into impure tasks.
- We were declared impure, polluted, cursed.
- Even our shadow was declared impure, polluted, cursed.
- We were subjected to caste discrimination.
- We were denied even the smallest portion of the land.
- We have been homeless since four thousand years. Since much longer than the displacement of the Jewish people, fifteen times longer than the dispossession of the Palestinians.
In this time, waves of immigrants came to our beautiful land, and became settlers. Aryans. Iranians. Greeks. Saka Huns. Mongols. Tatars. Arabs. Afghans. Britons. Countless nations came, barebacked and hungry, and this land, built from our very hands, gave them immeasurable wealth. Yet we remained bareback and hungry, penniless as always. We watched it all happen and could not utter a word of protest. After Pakistan was made, ten million immigrants/ refugees came and settled. But we, the historical owners of the land are living as immigrants on our own lands to this day.
For four thousand years, our hands have been bruised and calloused with hard labour. The soles of our feet, with no shoes to cover them, are cracked. For four thousand years, we have burned in the fires of hunger, poverty, ignorance, and disease in our very own country…
Connecting Oppression: Anti-colonial Solidarity and Internationalism
The structure of caste exploitation is often seen as particular and unique to Hindu society. However, by bringing the history of Dalit oppression into a comparative framework with the displacement and dispossession of Jewish communities and the Palestinian people, Sahotra inserts anti-caste struggle into the wider politics of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. He deprovincializes the question of caste, invoking solidarity between marginalised populations across the globe to connect his politics around caste with the lineages of Left-wing, Marxist, and anti-colonial critique.
Mazdoor Kissan Party Circular
The Circular was the official organ of the party. Published on cyclostyled sheets, and distributed by hand, it was meant to be circulated only among party members. In total, at least a hundred issues were produced during the party’s heyday in the 1970s. Despite a decline in the party’s organising and eventual splits, the Circular continued to run well into the 1980s and ‘90s, undergoing changes in its name, from the Mazdoor Kissan Party Circular, to Proletari, and finally, Bulletin.
A sketch from the Circular that reads, “Freedom: Those Who Till, Shall Eat Their Fill”. This slogan is traced back to seventeenth century revolutionary, Shah Inayat Shaheed, who led a peasant movement to liberate land in Sindh and found a rural commune. The movement was eventually crushed by an alliance of regional lords and the Mughal state. The slogan has since found echo in rural movements in North India, invoked during Left-wing agrarian struggles in the 1960s and ‘70s in Pakistan as well.
Sibtul Hassan Zaigham
Sibtul Hassan Zaigham was a Mazdoor Kissan Party member and organiser, and close associate of Ishaque Muhammad. His analyses of key texts from the Punjabi oral tradition crucially informed the cultural work of the party in Punjab. In particular, he focused his attention on a progressive interpretation of the works of Waris Shah, eighteenth century bard and author of the extremely popular folk narrative, Heer Ranjha, or Heer Waris Shah. Zaigham started the “Majlis Waris Shah”, a dedicated space for reading and discussing Waris Shah in Gujranwala, Punjab. He also published an edited manuscript of nineteenth century Punjabi poet Mian Muhammad Buksh’s iconic epic, Saif ul Mulook. Zaigham went on to found the Punjabi Adabi Board (Board of Punjabi Literature) and served as its first secretary.
His person and work embodied the synthesis between the MKP’s Maoist focus on organising in the countryside with a Marxist-inspired language politics that emphasised the importance of regional cultures of resistance.
Caste, Class, and Indigeneity
Agha Sahotra uses the word “abaadkar/ آبادکار” in Urdu, which translates directly as ‘settler’. In this paragraph, he articulates a subjectivity and history of ‘indigeneity’ that has often gone missing in the revolutionary programs of the Pakistani Left. In Pakistan, unlike in India, indigeneity has no constitutional recognition, and Adivasi and Dalit politics has not been consolidated in the same way. This manifesto offers a rare view into Dalit and Adivasi perspectives in Pakistan, and attempts by the Left to address caste and indigeneity in its cultural and political work.
Sahotra presents a dynamic conceptualisation of indigeneity, one that centres the right to the land, and the historical exploitation of labour. The peasant, the indigenous, and the Dalit denizen are collapsed to together constitute the revolutionary subject for the MKP’s Dehaat Mazdoor Unit.
Ali Arshad Mir
Ali Arshad Mir (1951-2008) was a Leftist Punjabi poet and an MKP activist. Mir worked as a college professor, after completing his MA in Punjabi. His poetry regularly featured in the MKP Circular and other Leftist publications during the 1970s, and was compiled posthumously in book form as Ik Katha Di War (Lahore: Saanjh Publications, 2009).
MKP, Punjabi writing, and revolutionary culture
The MKP and its associated intellectuals were crucial in shaping the Left-wing literary and cultural scene in 1970s West Punjab. Driven by a Maoist emphasis on the countryside, the MKP milieu directed their creative energies towards marginalised cultural forms, popular tradition, and regional languages.
The poetry, cultural theory, and theatre produced by the MKP and sympathetic intellectuals constituted an oppositional current within the sub-continental tradition of progressive writing. The All India Progressive Writers’ Association (AIPWA) was founded in 1935, in London, by anti-colonial Indian writers with close links to the Communist Party of India. The AIPWA set the tone for the literature of liberation in the Indian fight against colonialism, consolidating a modern, progressive, anti-imperialist and nationalist aesthetics in their work. After the 1947 Partition, the AIPWA was split into Pakistani and Indian units.
For Punjabi writers and poets who broadly identified with AIPWA’s ideology, Partition, formal decolonisation, and the conditions of post-coloniality demanded a shift in its praxis. For one, AIPWA’s emphasis on Urdu/ Hindi as the ‘national languages’ of choice, compatible with ‘modernity’ and ‘development’, was rejected. Instead, Leftist Punjabi intellectuals advocated a turn to writing in the regional vernacular, using literary forms from popular and oral traditions. Spotlighting languages and genres relegated by European colonialism and dominant nationalism alike, the poetry and cultural analysis featured in the MKP Circular centred the margins of caste and class for articulating a revolutionary program and subject.
For more on the AIPWA, see Gopal, Priyamvada. 2005. Literary Radicalism In India: Gender, Nation, And The Transition To Independence. Routledge.
For more on the MKP’s cultural politics, see Butt, Waqas & V. Kalra. 2013. “‘In One Hand A Pen, In The Other A Gun’: Punjabi Language Radicalism In Punjab, Pakistan”. South Asian History and Culture. 4:4, 538-553.
Dravidianism & Progressive Culture
The exact figure of ‘four thousand years’ points towards Dravidianist theories of regional history prevalent among progressive Punjabi intellectuals in post-colonial Pakistan. For Sahotra, centring the Indus Valley civilisation was crucial to his anti-colonial Dalit Marxism. The Preface is informed by Dravidianist theories of Dalit origin, according to which Dalit communities were the original inhabitants of North Indian lands, dispossessed and declared ‘Untouchable’ by Aryan invaders who arrived circa 2000 BCE.
In the early decades following Independence, dominant nationalism increasingly defined ‘Pakistan’ through the prism of a state-sanctioned Sunni Islam, and a standardised, Persianised Urdu. Nevertheless, well into the 1970s, progressive intellectuals continued to lay claim to ‘Pakistan’ as an ideological site where alternative anti-colonial and emancipatory futures could be imagined. In this Preface, Sahotra’s ‘Dalit manifesto’ of sorts boldly rejects the temporality of the nation. He begins his account four thousand years in the past, with the Indus Valley Civilisation.
As the state sought to emphasise Pakistan’s connections with historical Islam via the Arabs and the Persians, the Indus Valley remains became symbolic of alternative histories of the region. Cultural workers on the Left wrote poetry celebrating the egalitarian, ‘classless’ cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, and linguistic studies were undertaken to link Punjabi with the proto-Dravidian language of the Indus Civilisation.
Narrating Popular Resistance
The MKP’s Maoist ideology had a galvanizing influence on progressive Punjabi writing. In comparison to the Progressive Writers’ Association Urdu milieu, literary production in the regional languages had closer affinities with oral tradition and popular/folk cultures. This was in part due to the particular colonial history of Urdu in Punjab. Thus, a focus on narrating ‘history from below’, and centring perspectives from the margins, rooted in local histories of dissent and resistance, became an important preoccupation for MKP intellectuals in Punjab. Sahotra’s manifesto echoes this urge, emphasizing the ‘stolen’ history of caste labour, and identifying the political task of reclaiming and incorporating them into revolutionary culture and identity in the present. Similar work was undertaken by Najm Hosain Syed and Ishaque Muhammad, both of whom wrote plays on sixteenth century peasant rebel and social bandit, Dulla Bhatti. Ishaque’s Kuknus dramatises the rural rebellion of a sixteenth century folk hero, Dulla Bhatti. The play connects popular memory and oral narrations around Dulla Bhatti’s figure with peasant movements in the contemporary. On the other hand, Syed’s play Takht Lahore deploys a fascinating technique, expunging Dulla Bhatti from the cast of characters altogether, to deconstruct his heroic centrality, and instead focus attention on the agency of marginalised figures, women, mendicants, and Dalits.
For more on Urdu in Punjab, see Mir, Farina. 2010. The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Ishaque Muhammad was among the founding members of the Mazdoor Kissan Party. His analyses on culture, language, politics, and peasant struggle frequently appeared in the Circular. Ishaque also wrote two plays, Kuknus and Mussalli. Mussalli centres rural Dalit subjectivity as the source of revolutionary consciousness in post-colonial Pakistan, pushing against the orthodox Marxist focus on the urban proletariat.
The cover of Major Ishaque’s book on Hassan Nasir (1928-1960), titled Hassan Nasir Ki Shahadat (The Martydom of Hassan Nasir). Nasir was an anti-colonial leader and Communist organiser. He fought in the peasant struggle in Telangana, Hyderabad, in present-day India, migrating to Pakistan in 1947 to escape the Indian Army’s brutal crackdown on the movement. He served as General Secretary of the proscribed Communist Party of Pakistan. Nasir was eventually arrested and imprisoned in 1960. Reports of torture leading to his death sparked protests across the country.
Agha Sahotra’s Anti-colonialism
Sahotra’s emphasis on the long history of empire and land settlement aptly represents the total historical reconstruction demanded by the intellectual work of decolonisation. The long list of foreign invaders drawn from vast geographies culminates in the English, stressing their structural connection. Thus, Sahotra’s anti-imperialism diverges from the nationalist focus on European colonialism. Decolonisation is not a ‘transfer of power’, a limited political process that takes place in a defined period of time – rather, it is an opening to interrogate the ‘pre-colonial’ past and of course, transform the post-colonial future. It is not limited to expunging the vestiges of European power. This post-colonial critique is cemented a few sentences on, as post-Independence Pakistan is added to the list – and we learn how the plight of the dispossessed and the exploited remains unchanged, four thousand years on.
Mazdoor Kissan Party
The Mazdoor Kissan (Workers and Peasants) Party (MKP) emerged from a split along the lines of the Sino-Soviet rift within the National Awami Party in 1968. As a Maoist outlet, the MKP championed a program of “people’s revolution” that trained its energies on the countryside, propagating armed struggle against the postcolonial state in Pakistan. Its biggest success came in Hashtnagar in 1970, where party cadres joined a peasant movement to liberate 200 hectares of land in Pakistan’s northern Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa region. The movement inspired similar struggles all over Pakistan, and the Punjab MKP initiated similar kissan movements in their region. The party did not attain successes like the Hashtnagar uprising in Punjab, however, its politics and ideology have left an indelible mark on cultural politics in the region.
For a detailed study of the party’s history in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, see Ali, Noaman. 2019. The Hashtnagar Peasant Movement: Agrarian Class Struggle, Hegemony and State Formation in Northwestern Pakistan, 1947-1986. Unpublished thesis. University of Toronto.
‘Musalli’ is a term for a Dalit Muslim. It has its origins in the Arabic word ‘musalla’, which refers to the open space outside a mosque for offering prayers. Thus, literally, a musalli is one who prays. Some Dalit Muslims see the term as derogatory, and prefer the descriptor ‘Muslim Sheikh’. The Arabic-origin word ‘haq’ refers to ‘truth’, and also ‘rights’. Thus, the title can be translated variously as, “The Musalli’s Truth”, “The Rights of Musallis”, or “A Musalli Manifesto”, keeping in mind the vast significations that attach to ‘haq/ حق’ in progressive imaginaries.
Although dominant Islam in South Asia claims to be ‘caste free’, describing untouchability and caste as practices that adhere to Hinduism, the category of ‘musalli’ clearly points to another reality. The same is true for Sikhism – Dalit Sikhs are referred to as ‘Mazhabi Sikhs’. Sahotra’s choice of the term ‘musalli’ over other common terms that mark Untouchability points to his critique of state-sanctioned, dominant Sunni Islam in Pakistan. The title highlights how dominant religion in South Asian is rooted in caste oppression – be it Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, or Christianity.
In its style and structure, the Preface invokes Marx and Engels – in particular, their tone in the Communist Manifesto – through its detailing of the stages of historical development, and its heralding of socialist society. Each successive section unfolds a new chapter in the history of class struggle, and the Paris Commune is spotlighted as an important turning point. Entwined with this structure, the specificity of caste oppression is spelled out with searing clarity and detail, as seen in the section, “The Long Night of Trials”.
The juxtaposition of a Dalit/ Dravidianist historiography with a Marxist historical materialism captures the crux of Sahotra’s method, which sought to situate and embed regional vocabularies of critique within the global context of anti-imperialist and Left-wing struggles.
Dehati Mazdoor Tanzeem
The Dehati Mazdoor Tanzeem: Organising Dalit Labour was the MKP’s unit for organising landless workers in the Punjabi countryside. As Sahotra details in his preface, the Dehati Mazdoor Tanzeem (Agrarian Workers’ Movement, DMT) was an attempt to organise the peasantry in response to the shifts in agrarian relations, political economy, and patterns of land ownership wrought by the Green Revolution. In the name of ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’, the Green Revolution in Punjab introduced displaced share-croppers and reduced the availability of work.
While the DMT was constituted in the immediate context of the ravages of the Green Revolution, it had its origins in Dalit organising in colonial Punjab. Agha Sahotra details how an organisation for Dalit Muslims, the Muslim Sheikh Federation, was founded in the early 1940s to fight caste oppression. Invisibilised in nationalist historiography, the Muslim Sheikh Federation contributed an anti-caste lens to the ongoing battle against colonial rule, labour exploitation, and social injustice. In the late 1960s, the organisation merged with the MKP, in lieu of the shifting nexus between caste, class, and agrarian labour. As Sahotra notes:
The Punjab MKP splintered during the 1980s, and the DMT eventually merged with the Bhatta Mazdoor Mahaz (Brick Kiln Workers’ Collective) to form the Bonded Labour Liberation Front (BLLF) during the 1980s. ‘Bonded labour’ refers to workers trapped in debt bondage, across the industries of brick-making, carpet manufacturing, agriculture, and construction, among others. Individuals from marginal castes are over-represented in cases of bonded labour across Pakistan.
Tracing the development of the Muslim Sheikh Federation into the DMT and eventually the BLLF reveals a legacy of political organising that combines questions of caste oppression and class exploitation that remains marginal to histories of the Pakistani Left.
Malik Agha Sahotra
Malik Agha Khan Sahotra was a leader in the Punjab MKP. He was a close associate of the party’s chairman in Punjab, Ishaque Muhammad. Sahotra became politically active during the late colonial period in Punjab with the Muslim Sheikh Federation, a Dalit organization founded in 1942. In 1968, when the MKP was formed, Sahotra joined as one of its founding members. A seasoned revolutionary who focused his energies on organizing among marginal castes and landless labour in the rural areas of central Punjab, Sahotra also played a crucial role in formulating the MKP’s cultural program. He organized and trained the party’s first theatre troupe, which performed Ishaque Muhammad’s iconic plays Kuknus and Mussali. Although not as well-known and widely celebrated as other MKP leaders like Ishaque Muhammad, Afzal Bangash, Afzal Khamosh and Left-wing Punjabi writers like Najm Hosain Syed and Shafqat Tanveer Mirza, Agha Sahotra was a skilled poet and writer, and as this Teaching Tool demonstrates, a party intellectual who took upon himself the neglected task of theorizing the relationship between caste, class, and revolutionary subjectivity in post-colonial Pakistan. After the eventual decline of the MKP in Punjab during the 1980s, Agha Sahotra continued to organize in central Punjab, directing attention towards workers trapped in debt-bondage by founding the Bonded Labour Liberation Front.
Caste and Marxist Analysis in Punjab, Pakistan
The section goes on to detail the specificity of caste oppression, listing the social, cultural, religious, and economic exclusions that constitute everyday experience for Dalits. The list references the spatial regulation of caste boundaries by relegating Dalits within “settlements”, and calls out Brahminical norms around ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ that consigned Dalits to occupations considered “impure tasks”, and prohibited social mingling by proscribing the sharing of food (“Our pots and plates were separated”). Sahotra’s report of sorts on the practice of caste discrimination captures both the social stigma and the material exploitation of Dalits, as he also cites the abject ‘denial of sustenance’ faced by marginal castes who were denied “even the smallest portion of land”.
Sahotra presented this stark portrayal of Dalit experience to push for inserting caste into Left-wing political practice in Pakistan. Much like its Indian counterpart, the Pakistani Left has historically struggled to contend with the specific ways in which caste and class co-constitute economic relations and power. In their search for the revolutionary subject, the privilege accorded to the industrial working class has threatened to obscure view of alternative sites of resistance. This manifesto represents a marginal, but compelling stream within Leftist debates around culture, revolutionary subjectivity, and relations of production, one that centres Dalit labour in its revolutionary program.