Theorizing Pakistan in Diaspora: The Pakistan Forum
An interview with Mohammad Qadeer, former Associate Editor of Pakistan Forum (1970-73)
The Pakistan Forum journal was founded in the United States in 1970 by Feroz Ahmed, then a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and later a respected scholar and author of Ethnicity and Politics in Pakistan. The journal emerged in a context of upheaval in Pakistan: the military dictator Ayub Khan had just been toppled by a popular uprising of students and workers and the country was to hold its first democratic elections that year. Launched on this footing, the journal sought to push the country further to the Left.
Soon, other Pakistani scholars and activists – many of whom would become quite influential in their own right – joined the journal’s editorial ranks. Among them, political scientist and anti-war activist Eqbal Ahmad, anthropologist of rural Pakistan Saghir Ahmad, and Marxist philosopher and literary theorist Aijaz Ahmad. The journal also had a heavy roster of contributors, including the Islamic philosopher Fazlur Rahman, journalist and editor of the Pakistan Times Mazhar Ali Khan, and sociologists Hassan Gardezi and Jamil Rashid (who together would edit Pakistan: The Unstable State, a foundational text on the political economy of Pakistan). The Forum did however remain a largely male enterprise, with next to no contributions from women.
In its brief stint of three years, the journal published 24 issues covering an impressive range of topics, from an analysis of Pakistan’s global strategic relationships (with the US, the Soviet Union, China and Saudi Arabia), to the dynamics of capitalist development within Pakistan, nationalist and separatist movements in the country (especially in East Pakistan, Sindh, Balochistan and the NWFP), and the relationship between Islam and progressive politics. The journal also included in-depth special issues, such as one on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s 1972 land reforms, as well as intricate, on-the-ground reportage in Pakistan. One report investigated the political economy of Pasni, a fishing village in Baluchistan. Another detailed the communist-led peasant uprising in Hashtnagar (NWFP) in the 1970s, with interviews with the conflict’s key players, including the Mazdoor-Kisan Party’s (MKP) Major Ishaque and National Awami Party’s (NAP) Wali Khan.
Yet the Forum was far from provincial. Beyond Pakistan, it offered commentary on global events, including the Vietnam War, the Palestinian liberation movement, the revolution in South Yemen, and Indian Naxalism. Arguably, the most significant component of the journal was its editorial section, which advanced positions quite unpopular at the time, but have in hindsight proved quite prescient. In one, Pakistan’s military atrocities of 1970-71 in East Pakistan were condemned in no uncertain terms and unequivocal support was lent to the nationalist aspirations of Bengalis. In another, honest criticisms of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) agenda were advanced at a time when large sections of the Left were enchanted by it.
What were the goals and motivations behind the founding of this landmark journal, and how did these concerned scholars and activists in the diaspora understand their role in progressive movements, both in Pakistan and North America? What was the impact of the journal on communities within Pakistan and in the diaspora? And despite the involvement of such formidable scholars and activists, what ultimately led to its demise?
Jamhoor editor Shozab Raza sat down with Mohammad Qadeer, among the few surviving editors of the Pakistan Forum, for his recollections. Mohammad Qadeer is also a Professor Emeritus at Queen’s University and author of Pakistan: Social and Cultural Transformations in a Muslim Nation.
Shozab Raza (SR): The first issue of the Pakistan Forum, which came out in 1970, emerged in quite a dynamic context. In Pakistan, General Ayub Khan had just been deposed by a popular movement and the country was headed towards elections — with talk of socialism, land reform, and anti-imperialism in the air. In America, these were heady days in their own right following the Vietnam war protests. Pakistani students in the US were also challenging the government-patronized PSAA (Pakistan Students Association of America) and its journal, the Pakistan Student, for being a mouth piece of the Pakistani embassy. Can you tell us more about how these twin-contexts, in Pakistan and in diaspora, informed the creation of the Pakistan Forum?
Mohammad Qadeer (MQ): Let me tell you a story. The PSAA – which I don’t think exists anymore – had chapters on various campuses in North America (America and Canada, but mostly in America) with a national association under the patronage of the Pakistani embassy in the US. But it also had a measure of independence.
Normally, the PSAA was used by office-bearers to make contacts and get good jobs back in Pakistan. If you became the president of PSAA, then when the President of Pakistan visited the US, you had a chance to meet them etc. In 1968, Shahzad Sadiq was the President of PSAA for North America. He was a sort of a middle-of-the-roader. He would go on to become a UN official. He was an intelligent man, but was all into that elite networking. He was a good friend, so I don’t mean to say this pejoratively.
Things started to change when Feroz Ahmed got involved that year. Feroz was doing a PhD in demography at Johns Hopkins University. From his student days in Karachi, he had been very active and left-inclined. He decided to keep that activity going in the US by becoming Editor of the PSAA journal, the Pakistan Student. Before Feroz took over, the journal came out bland and very irregularly. It was just an announcement of annual meetings, with very little substantial content. Feroz turned Pakistan Student into a much more political organ.
Feroz also started writing for the journal. One regular column he wrote – “Sheikhi Khan Speaks” or something like that [laughs] – was a humorous one which poked fun at some of the conservative Pakistani students in North America. This was also a time when Pakistani politics began to boil. There were anti-Ayub demonstrations across the country. Politics couldn’t be avoided any longer. Feroz wrote about that movement as well.
Some of Feroz’s friends joined him as contributors to the Pakistan Student. I was one of them. I was doing a PhD at Columbia University at the time. And slowly, even Eqbal Ahmad and Aijaz Ahmad became active in the journal. Eqbal Ahmad was quite active. There was another friend of mine as well, Ahmed Iqbal Bukhari, who also got involved.
And then around 1970, the PSAA held its national convention at the College Park campus of the University of Maryland. At the convention, elections were to take place for seats on the PSAA executive. Feroz, Eqbal, a few others and I formed a slate. I was running for a joint-secretary position, I think. Our thoughts were that Eqbal Ahmad would come and give a rabble-rousing speech. Students would be moved and our slate would easily get selected.
But when we went there and after speeches were held, we were completely outvoted. The whole slate was rejected. What had happened was the Muslim Students Association (MSA) in America had got involved. They were connected the religious and right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in Pakistan and its student wing, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT). I believe these entities sent a signal to the MSA to intervene in the elections. They were probably concerned that a Pakistani student organization in America was being taken over by leftist students, who may influence other Pakistani students. The MSA organized a massive campaign of bussing students in to vote. Later, when I was teaching at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, I met someone who was a PhD Student in electrical engineering — a Bangladeshi. He told me that in 1969, the MSA arranged a bus to pick up people from Kingston, Toronto, and Ottawa to take them to the national convention. So I have independent evidence about MSA influence. And they were successful. Conservative students took over the PSAA.
That is when Feroz and others left. Feroz was in fact ousted from his editorship of the Pakistan Student. And that’s when we decided to form the Pakistan Forum — first in the United States and then we branched out into Canada. Feroz collected some money and started it as an independent organ – independent of the PSAA. From the outset, the journal was left-leaning. It was also pro-Bhutto – to some extent, at least in the beginning. I remember we used to work very hard for the journal. We would distribute the journal on various campuses, even with limited resources.
SR: In its founding statement, the Forum declared an aim to re-shape public opinion and policy debate in Pakistan which, up until then, had been under the influence of elites (or so the Forum claimed). It seemed to see itself primarily as an intellectual enterprise, to fulfill the “intellectual responsibilities” of Pakistanis abroad and in Pakistan. The Forum briefly alludes to the limits imposed on this aim by its location “in a foreign land”. How did the Forum try to overcome or navigate these limits posed by geographic (and social) distance?
MQ: When Feroz started the Forum, I think his idea was it would be distributed to most students of Pakistani origin in America. Here, in America, was a small diaspora. The idea was that, if you influence them, you are planting seeds of progressive thought in the emerging elite of Pakistan. That was the thinking. They would then go back with more progressive ideas and do more progressive things. And in those days, people used to go back. That’s, of course, no longer the case. The Canadian government especially is doing all it can to encourage foreign students to stay. They take their money, get them graduated and then give them immigration papers.
SR: So would you say you were trying to confront one elite – say, the old, bureaucratic, “feudal” elite – with another elite that was (or could become) more progressive?
MQ: The elites we were trying to influence were mostly professionals. In those days, there were quite a few USAID programs. USAID was connected to quite a few universities in Pakistan. They were taking fresh graduates – people who had first or second positions in the MSc or MBBS and so on – and bringing them to sister universities in America. But in practical fields mostly: engineering, agriculture and the like. Relatively few in the social sciences. I don’t remember many coming for history or political science.
SR: In the April-May 1971 Issue, the Forum’s editorial essentially lent support to the Bangladesh liberation struggle. The Forum also published a series of articles and news reports on the crisis in East Bengal and the Pakistani military’s atrocities there. What were the risks involved in taking this position? What was the response?
MQ: Yes, shortly after the Forum started, 1971 happened: the army crackdown in East Pakistan. And the Pakistan Forum – particularly Feroz – took a very anti-army, anti-West Pakistan position. We even compiled a special publication, titled East Bengal: Roots of the Genocide, which documented the atrocities afflicted by the Pakistani army against Bengalis. Feroz also published a letter in the New York Times supporting the right of Bengalis in East Pakistan to self-determination. Feroz was a bit of a Sindhi nationalist also – and so had an inclination to be sympathetic to nationalist movements across Pakistan.
Our editorial position in support of Bangladesh made the Forum very unpopular. Feroz especially became essentially a persona non grata – among Pakistani students in America. Before, they used to invite him to give talks on campuses. But now he was seen as very unpatriotic. In fact, I remember people — other students — were ready to beat up Feroz, right here in New York.
You can’t imagine how, once the Pakistan army started their crackdown in East Pakistan, other liberal Pakistanis all of a sudden became very jingoistic. They would say stuff like “Bengalis are rabbles. They want to break up Pakistan. They must be tortured”. Stuff like that.
SR: Yes, the Letter to the Editors section had several strongly-worded letters by Pakistani readers opposing the Forum’s support for Bengali self-determination. People were also cancelling their subscriptions. So financially as well, it seems, there were consequences
MQ: Financially, it was always hard. A lot of the journal’s operation depended on personal contributions.
SR: The Forum also publicized demonstrations in North America calling for an end to the 1971 atrocities, and even formed a committee called “West Pakistanis in Solidarity with Bengal” in North America (echoing the UK committee formed by the likes of Hamza Alavi, Tariq Ali etc). So you seemed to have attempted to organize people around this issue as well?
MQ: Yes. I don’t know how much it achieved – but we did have some support.
Our committee even formed a delegation to go and meet Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when he came to address the UN Security Council in 1971 – that famous meeting where he ripped up his notes. I remember Feroz, Bukhari, a few others and myself decided to meet Bhutto. We went to this hotel where Bhutto was staying – I forget the name, but I believe it was on 5th avenue and 59th street. We wanted to tell him that, since he’s at the UN, he should do something about Bangladesh. He should accept their demands. But he was too busy to meet any one of us. He didn’t come down from his hotel room. Instead, he sent Mr. Agha Hilaly, the ambassador to the US at the time, to talk to us. Mr. Hilaly said to us “don’t worry, everything will be settled. Yes we are going to make peace with the Bengalis and so on and so forth”.
SR: So you didn’t end up meeting Bhutto?
MQ: That delegation didn’t. Feroz might’ve later met him independently. Feroz was a Sindhi Ismaili and connected to the PPP through the Sindhi link. He was also well connected to J.A. Rahim [founding member of the PPP]. Feroz had his own sort of links with Bhutto as well. In fact, later on, when Bhutto had been executed and Zia had come to power, Benazir Bhutto even visited Feroz’s home in the US. She was in exile then. Feroz invited me to that meeting. His wife cooked haleem, I remember. And we all sat together. And we listened to her. But Feroz was a very bold person. He also confronted Benazir, asking her what she’s doing and challenging her. You couldn’t repress Feroz.
SR: I wanted to ask you a bit more about the relationship of the Forum with the PPP. On the one hand, you’re saying Feroz Ahmed was sympathetic towards Bhutto. But then there’s an editorial in the Feb-March 1971 issue, titled The Harvest of Hope, which is very critical of the PPP – saying Bhutto’s party is led by landlords and that his nationalization and land reform polices could actually favor certain landlords, especially those Sindhi waderas tied to the party. Nationalization of big, monopoly capital will create space for these waderas to capture certain industries – and they’ll get the capital to do so from the nationalized banks (who’ll lend to them on favorable terms) and from the compensation they’ll get from land reforms.
MQ: Feroz had an ambivalent relationship to the PPP. He was even associated with the MKP for a bit – but he could be critical of anybody. He had his own ideas and ideals. And if a party he was supporting didn’t measure up, he wouldn’t support it any longer. He could get into an argument with you on anything. He would not suffer fools easily. He started becoming disenchanted with Bhutto. He left Bhutto and moved towards the MKP. For a while, he was very excited about the MKP and built connections with Major Ishaque. But his loyalty always remained to the ideology rather than to any particular person or party.
SR: The Forum also did a series called "P.F. Investigative Reports”. These were brilliant, on-the-ground and intimate reporting in Pakistan. Who did these? What was the rationale behind them? Was the intention that we shouldn’t simply read Pakistan from a pre-determined theoretical lens, but that our theory should develop in relation to ongoing empirical changes?
MQ: I believe Feroz himself did some of those. He used to visit Pakistan – go back and forth between Pakistan and the US. But he also, I believe, got people from the MKP or Karachi to do these reports. Feroz, after all, was active in the student politics of Karachi University as a student there. So he still had old colleagues and comrades in Pakistan.
SR: You mention Feroz’s relationship to the MKP. I want to ask more about this. The Pakistan Forum, Feroz Ahmed himself in fact, once interviewed Major Ishaque. The Forum also published a speech by Afzal Bangash, MKP leader in the Hashtnagar movement, delivered at the party’s Punjab convention in 1972. Feroz also interviewed Wali Khan, whose NAP government in NWFP was clamping down on the peasant movement. Where did the Forum position itself in that conflict?
MQ: Mostly, the Forum was on Bangash’s side. And Wali Khan was very angry with the Forum – and with Feroz in particular. It was Feroz in fact who introduced Aijaz and Eqbal Ahmed to the MKP — to Major Ishaque, Afzal Bangash and so on. Aijaz Ahmad even went and spent two months with Bangash in Hasthnagar and came back all fired up. He had done his experience with the proletariat [laughs].
SR: In the editorial line or position of the Forum, who held more influence – Feroz Ahmed, Aijaz Ahmad, Eqbal Ahmad, or someone else?
MQ: Feroz, certainly. Eqbal never dirtied his hand. Eqbal presented himself as a guru. He would come and give a rousing speech and walk away. You know, there’s a lot of nitty-gritty involved in running a publication: you’ve got to take it to the printers, put the prints in your car, in your trunk [laughs]. You’ve got to distribute them. Eqbal Ahmad wouldn’t do any of that. That was too below him. Neither would Aijaz Ahmad. These were – and I’m not saying it pejoratively – lofty people.
After the Pakistan Forum folded, I remember Aijaz brought out a magazine called Progressive Pakistani for about a year. That was, you could say, a second generation child of the Pakistan Forum. It was organized by a small group based in New York, centered on Aijaz Ahmad. A dear friend of mine, Suhail Rizvi, was involved in that. Aijaz used to write and edit it a bit. But the leg-work was done by Suhail and others.
SR: Saghir Ahmed, Eqbal Ahmed’s younger brother and an anthropologist of rural Pakistan, was also involved in the Forum at some point?
MQ: Yes. I knew Saghir from Pakistan. He was a year ahead of me. When he was a sociology student in Pakistan, he was just a playboy. But with his brother’s influence and after coming to America, he became more political. That is a very interesting thing. In those days, we used to comment that if you want to be a socialist, you come to America. It’s the American freedom, the American campuses and their critical spirit that made socialists. You don’t become socialists in Pakistani universities [laughs].
Anyway, Saghir did his PhD and his fieldwork on that village in Sargodha. Out of that fieldwork came his book, Class and Power in a Punjabi Village, which was published after his untimely death. But I remember a controversy erupting between Saghir and Feroz over the question: is ethnicity more important or class? People sort of lined up on different sides. These are issues that still linger on, to some extent.
Feroz leaned more towards ethnicity. The rights of ethnic minorities were very much close to Feroz’s heart. He expounded these ideas in his book, Ethnicity and Politics in Pakistan. Feroz was of course aware that Punjabi landlords exploited Punjabi peasants. But Punjabis as a whole, he believed, dominated and exploited other nationalities as a whole – perhaps, he thought, to a far greater degree.
SR: From the Bengalis in East Pakistan, to the Baluchistan insurgency, Pashtun nationalism and the Sindhi language controversy, the Forum gave quite extensive coverage to various “national questions”. Did Feroz Ahmed’s own politics inform all this?
MQ: Oh yes, certainly.
SR: How far did he extend this ethnic politics? Did he believe in decentralization to the point that each province should become an independent state?
MQ: No, not that far. But he did want them to have a lot of autonomy. And broader recognition that there are indeed national differences within Pakistan. And that these nationalities have their separate languages and cultures that need to be recognized as well.
SR: It seems this view of national oppression also informs another position of the Forum. In its founding statement, the Forum broadly characterized its project in terms of decolonization — specifically decolonization of the mind. Based in North America, how did the Forum relate to anti-colonial projects of other racialized groups here – say, the indigenous movements, the Black Panther Party, or the Latino-led Young Lords, all active in that period?
MQ: And of course, the Vietnam movement. We were all fellow travellers. The Forum was sympathetic. We would go to their meetings. Not many came to ours though! [laughs]. Pakistan at the time was very low on the global agenda. Pakistan’s attack on Bangladesh, of course, evoked quite a bit of sympathy. The anti-war movement in the US, which Eqbal Ahmad was very connected to, was mobilized to oppose Pakistan’s intervention in East Bengal.
SR: I’m interested in finding out more about the Forum’s relationship to the politics of its birthplace: North America. In November 1971, the Forum published a letter by Ellen Haq from Canada, who says her husband, a Pakistani, is being denied employment here. He’s a professional but not getting the jobs he’s qualified for (something that is still all too common today). She asks the Forum to facilitate her connection with other Pakistanis in Canada who’ve faced similar discrimination so that she can form a group to organize around this issue. The Forum was explicitly oriented, as we’ve discussed, towards Pakistan proper. It appears less concerned with what’s happening to Pakistanis in North America – around, say, racial and class discrimination in housing or employment. Is that fair to say?
MQ: Yes. What the Forum was attempting to do was educate Pakistanis in America and get them ready to go back. We also didn’t have the resources or the organization to think about problems in North America. It was essentially one man’s (Feroz’s) effort – with some friends.
SR: I bring this up because Pakistanis in the UK took their political activity in a different direction. For instance, when the sociologist Hamza Alavi was working in the UK, his intellectual work focused on Pakistan proper, but his political work addressed issues directly affecting South Asians in the UK. With leaders of other racialized groups, he founded the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD). I’m curious why some diasporic Pakistanis (such as those in the US orbiting around the Forum) decided to do political work oriented towards Pakistan, while others decided to do politics in their country of settlement?
MQ: Feroz’s personal objective was always to go back to Pakistan. It was always about Pakistan. In fact, the Pakistan Forum folded up when it did because shortly after, around 1975, Feroz left for Pakistan. He had done a post-doctorate in demography at Harvard and then moved to Algoma University in Canada around 1971. Hassan Gardezi was there at the time. From Canada, Feroz went back to Pakistan. Zulfikar Bhutto had just been elected Prime Minister. Feroz was a bit optimistic that the environment was now conducive for doing progressive politics – especially progressive Sindhi politics, as we had a Sindhi in power.
In Pakistan, Feroz got a job as a professor of sociology at Sindh University in Jamshoro, and then a teaching job at the University of Karachi. In Karachi, he started an Urdu version of the Pakistan Forum. The first issue of the Urdu Forum came out in 1977. And he brought this Urdu Forum out very regularly for 3 to 5 years. And it circulated widely. It used to be on newsstands – particularly those newsstands which were more sympathetic to the left.
This Urdu version of the Pakistan Forum became something else. He used to say that the role of this Urdu Forum was to give “a line” to the workers.
SR: There seems to be a shift in the Forum, between its North American and Pakistani iterations, and in Feroz Ahmed himself.
MQ: Yes. The Pakistan Forum in America wasn’t about giving “a line”. It was about creating a forum for free speech in which all different lines could be debated – with an inclination towards the Left. And it was really about convincing certain Pakistani elites in the diaspora.
I think Feroz then got fed up with convincing Pakistani elites in diaspora – and wanted to engage with workers more directly. Hence, the Forum in Pakistan was in Urdu. And in the Urdu version, he tried to make the Forum an organ – maybe of the MKP. He would also hold study circles with students and workers in Karachi.
But slowly, he got disenchanted. First with the Bhutto government. Then MKP started splitting in the 1970s between Major Ishaque, Afzal Bangash and Imtiaz Alam. If I remember correctly, Feroz was more inclined towards Bangash.
SR: Did he have a falling out with others in the MKP?
MQ: I don’t know. But there was a general romance with the MKP that afflicted many on the Left – including Feroz. That romance quickly dissipated once the MKP split.
Then Zia toppled Bhutto’s regime. Feroz became very apprehensive. Basically what is today’s ISI started targeting various people. Mazhar Ali Khan, who was editing the progressive magazine Viewpoint around that time, was arrested. Feroz would tell me that the intelligence agencies were after him as well. He even thought – and maybe it was his paranoia getting to him – some of his domestic servants were reporting on him to the police. Stuff like that.
Eventually – this must been around 1978 or 79 – Feroz literally escaped from Pakistan. He was getting hints that he would otherwise be arrested. He left Pakistan, went to Afghanistan and then flew back to America.
Actually, to return to one of your earlier questions, it was when Feroz got back to US for the second time that he became more interested in diaspora politics. This was because, unlike his first time in the US, he now saw his future in diaspora.
In the US, he needed to earn a living. Politics wasn’t going to earn him that living. So he went back to his field, demography. He got a job at Howard University, the black university in Washington D.C. He was a very good demographer. He took over their centre devoted to the study of the Black population. He did a very big study on the reasons for high infant mortality among the Black population in Washington D.C. He got engaged in those issues. He was always committed to the underdog – and now that he was settled in the US, he connected with Black folks.
SR: So he really does shift his interests and focus onto the US? Did he do anything else?
MQ: Yes, he used to write for Pakistanis newspapers. He also organized a support group in the US for the anti-Zia Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD).
He kept up with Benazir Bhutto, with the PPP or any other left-wing parties. But then again, left politics is also not very cohesive. All sorts of disagreements develop. I remember there was some sort of disagreement that developed between Feroz and Hamza Alavi – over theoretical questions. But there were also personality clashes. You know, whenever there is a theoretical disagreement, there is also a personality clash.
Anyway, Feroz remained a life-long friend. I had moved to Canada and was teaching city planning, but I met Feroz frequently. My daughter Nadra, in fact, is named after Feroz’s wife. His wife also gathered all of Feroz’s writings, in Urdu and English. A compilation of these writings was published in Urdu in 2009, titled Dr. Feroz Ahmed ke Mazamin.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Jamhoor has republished Pakistan Forum’s founding statement here.