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From Maoist to Mujahid

Capture 4

By Nadeem F. Paracha

From the 1990s onwards, quite a few analysts began to explain the Islamic extremist outfits operating out of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province and the tribal areas that border it, as a post-Cold-War expression of Pashtun nationalism. Even though religion has always played an important role in the make-up of Pashtun identity, Pashtun nationalism was always a more secular phenomenon.


station was molded by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (aka Bacha Khan) and then expressed through outfits such as the Khudai Khidmatgars, the National Awami Party (NAP), the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP) and most recently, by the Awami National Party (ANP).

However, ever since the 1980s, Pashtun identity (at least in popular imagination) has been gradually mutating to mean something that is fanatical. Detractors of this image point out three factors which have transformed the notion of Pashtun nationalism. Sana Haroon in Afghanistan’s Islam wrote that during the Khilafat Movement in India (1919-1924), a group of clerics and ulema engaged Pashtun tribes and preached them armed jihad against the British. They were told by the clerics that the Pashtuns’s ‘legendary bravery’ and passionate love for Islam alone could topple the ‘infidel’ British.

Pashtun tribes were once again in the picture when they made up the bulk of Pakistan’s ‘irregular forces’ which participated in the first Pakistan-India war in 1948. In his October 23, 2014 essay on the subject, K. Barmazid writes that the tribesmen were gathered by one Khan Khushdil Khan, a local leader from the Mardan area. He asked the tribesmen to prepare themselves for ‘jihad.’

When Pakistan became an active participant in the United States’ proxy war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship — to whip up support for the Afghan Mujahideen — used state media and anti-Soviet intelligentsia to proliferate the idea that historically the Pashtuns were an unbeatable ‘race’ that had defeated all the ;infidel’ forces who had attempted to conquer them.

In the last decade or so – especially ever since extremist violence gripped Pakistan, and with KP and the tribal areas becoming the epicenters of this violence – various Pashtun parties, groups and individuals have been aggressively using political, social and cultural platforms to challenge the perception that religious extremism found in certain Pashtun-dominated militant outfits has anything to do with Pashtun culture or nationalism.

But how many of us know that most of the rugged areas which, before the military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb (2014-2017), had become bases of extremist outfits in KP and its surrounding areas, were once bastions of militant Maoist groups?

NAP described itself as a socialist-democratic party working towards achieving democratic reforms and greater autonomy for the country’s non-Punjabi populations and provinces. When the 1956 Constitution promised to hold Pakistan’s first ever direct election based on adult franchise, NAP was poised to bag the most seats in West Pakistan as well as in the Bengali-majority East Pakistan.

However, the promised elections never took place. Field Marshal Ayub Khan imposed Martial Law through a military coup in 1958 and banned all political parties. NAP leaders were released from jail when in 1962 Ayub lifted the ban on political parties and authored a new constitution. But during the 1965 Presidential election, cracks began to appear in NAP.

Due to the growing hostility between the time’s two communist powers, Soviet Union and China, various leftist parties of the world began experiencing splits. When the Ayub regime’s foreign policy began to tilt a bit towards communist China, NAP leader Maulana Bhashani, a pro-China figurehead, insisted that NAP support Ayub.

On the surface NAP remained to be a united front. But beneath the veneer its leaders had begun to disagree among themselves on the question of supporting Ayub. When Ayub set out to compete with Fatima Jinnah in the 1965 Presidential election, the Bhasahni lobby of NAP supported him whereas the Wali Khan faction opposed him.

In 1966, when the 1965 Pakistan-India war ended in a stalemate, Ayub’s young Foreign Minister, Z A. Bhutto (the initial architect of Pak-China relations), resigned, accusing Ayub of ‘losing the war on the negotiating table.’

According to Philip E. Jones in Pakistan People’s Party: Rise to Power, Bhutto tried finding a position for himself in NAP. But since NAP was packed with veteran leftist and ethno-nationalist figureheads, Bhutto decided to form his own socialist party, the PPP. By then the split in NAP had become apparent.

The pro-Soviet faction (led by Bacha Khan’s son, Wali Khan) suggested working to put Pakistan on a democratic path and then achieve the party’s goals of provincial autonomy and socialist economy. The pro-China faction led by Bhashani disagreed and rejected democracy. Bhashani instead advocated that the party work with peasant groups to initiate revolutionary land reforms. The pro-Soviet NAP became NAP-Wali while the pro-China faction became NAP-Bhashani.

It was NAP-Wali that became the bigger faction because whereas the pro-Soviet student and trade unions attached themselves to the Wali faction, most Maoist groups – instead of backing the Bhashani faction – decided to attach themselves to Bhutto’s PPP. But soon a third faction in NAP appeared. A more radical faction from within NAP-Wali broke away in 1968 and decided to adopt the Maoist strategy of achieving a socialist revolution through an armed struggle carried out by peasant militias.

Thus was born the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) that held its first convention in Peshawar in 1968. MKP refused to take part in the 1970 election. Inspired by the Maoist ‘Naxalite’ guerrilla movement in India and Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China, MKP activists, led by former NAP leader and Pashtun Maoist, Afzal Bangash, travelled to Hashtnagar in KP’s Charsadah District and began to arm and organize the peasants against the local landlords.

As the area of influence of MKP’s struggle grew, another communist, Major (Rtd.) Ishaq Mohammad, joined MKP with his men. Unlike Bangash and most MKP cadres, Ishaq and his men were not from the KP. They were from the Punjab. Both men led MKP to spread its influence across various rural and semi-rural areas of KP and gained the support of the area’s peasants as well as some tribal elders.

In a 2009 essay in the Sarhad Journal, Niaz Muhammad and A Askar wrote that MKP’s guerrilla activities continued to grow and gather support. MKP managed to ‘liberate’ some lands by ousting the landlords. The outfit with its force of Pashtun peasants were rapidly gaining ground when, after a Civil War in East Pakistan, the region broke away and became Bangladesh in 1971.

Bhutto and his PPP came to power whereas NAP-Wali came to head coalition provincial governments in KP and Balochistan. Relations between the pro-Soviet Pashtun nationalist and chief of NAP-Wali, Wali Khan, and the pro-China Bhutto, were anything but cordial. Historian Ishtiaq Ahmed suggests that in a secret meeting between the MKP leadership and Bhutto, the latter assured that his government would not take action against MKP guerrillas in KP that was now under the rule of the NAP-Wali coalition government (The Friday Times, October, 2015).

MKP increased its attacks on landlords and the police in rural and semi-rural areas of KP. MKP then dispatched Major Ishaq to generate a similar movement and struggle in the poverty-stricken rural areas of South Punjab. But since the Punjab in those days was the electoral bastion of the PPP, the Bhutto regime came down hard on the MKP.

With Bhutto distracted by the police action against MKP in South Punjab; labour unrest in Karachi; and intelligence reports that the NAP-Wali government in Balochistan was helping arm Baloch nationalists, the NAP-JUI coalition government in KP unleashed a brutal crackdown against the MKP in KP.

Heavy fighting between mercenary militias formed by landlords (and backed by the police) and MKP guerrillas erupted in Charsadah and surrounding areas, as the KP government attempted to retake the land that the MKP fighters and the Pashtun peasants had brought under their control. About 200 sq. miles of land was under MKP’s control when the KPK government began to send waves of armed policemen against the guerrillas.

MKP accused NAP-Wali of using Pashtun nationalism and the JUI of exploiting Islam to protect the economic interests of the landlords. NAP-Wali and JUI accused MKP of becoming a tool in the hands of the Bhutto regime to stir up trouble in KP. The MKP movement was finally crushed in 1974, not by the NAP-JUI government as such, but by the Bhutto regime.

In 1973 Bhutto had dismissed the Balochistan government, accusing it of fostering separatist Baloch tendencies. The KP government resigned in protest, giving Bhutto the opportunity to install his own men in the two provinces. He then moved in against MKP in KP. This triggered an intense debate within the MKP. One section urged that since MKP had gathered the support of Pashtun peasantry, it should join electoral politics. Those opposing the idea suggested that there was no room for ‘bourgeois democracy’ in Maoism.

Major Ishaq, however, had already begun to see MKP as a militant expression of Pashtun nationalism. In 1976 he broke away from the party, returned to Punjab and formed his own faction of the MKP. The Bhutto regime arrested and jailed NAP-Wali’s Pashtun and Baloch leadership. He then influenced the courts to ban NAP.

By the time the Bhutto regime was toppled in a right-wing military coup by General Zia-ul-Haq (July 1977), MKP’s influence in the KP was already receding. As Zia ended the military operation in Balochistan and allowed the Baloch insurgency’s main components to leave the country, he then moved to neutralize Pashtun nationalism.

Taking advantage of NAP’s withering status and the banned party’s anti-Bhutto sentiments, and also of MKP’s factionaisation, Zia used the opportunity of using Saudi and US funds (that began to pour in after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979), to set-up recruitment and indoctrination centres and madrassas in KP to prepare fighters for the ‘anti-Soviet Afghan jihad.’

Afghan jihadists (Mujahideen) were given aid and space in the KP. A lesser known fact is that some of the first Pakistani fighters who were inducted into the ‘jihad’ where those tribal Pashtuns who were radicalised by the MKP through Maoist literature and lectures the early 1970s. In 1979, their radicalism was reoriented by the Pakistani state to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Trained by the MKP and bred on the sayings of Mao and Marx, these fighters were promised American Dollars and Saudi Riyals, and then indoctrinated in the ways of jihad. Over the years, these early Pakistani Pashtun fighters who fought in Afghanistan would take the memories of their Maoist past with them, and would eventually be replaced by Pashtuns with little or no memory of such a past at all.