Pakistan: Free Baba Jan and the Hunza 12

Baba Jan 5

By Amjad Ayub Mirza

Thousands of residents of the Hunza Valley, Northern Pakistan descended on Nasirabad on 12 June 2016 in a remarkable show of class solidarity with a village that has given birth to a great revolutionary of our time, the Awami Workers’ Party Gilgit Baltistan leader, Baba Jan.

Baba Jan, along with eleven of his companions, is serving a 40 year sentence after being accused of rioting and inciting the public to violence and damaging public and private property in 2011 having been tried under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997.

Read more ...

Pakistan: new left party formed

In March 2013, the coalition headed by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will become the first democratically elected government in Pakistan’s history to complete a full term in office. Having come to power following a popular movement that ousted the regime of General Pervez Musharraf in 2008, the PPP’s ascent to power brought with it the hope of a successful transition. However, it is a tragic comment on the state of affairs in Pakistan that the ability of a democratic government to not be ousted by the military is seen as an historic achievement. After all, there is little else to celebrate about the last five years in Pakistan’s history.

Read more ...

Pakistan: a precarious balance / 228 Aug/Sep 2012

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism 228 August/September 2012

The decision to re-open the NATO supply routes through Pakistan to Afghanistan was not unexpected. Historically, Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, wielding tremendous influence even during periods of ‘democratic’ rule, has been a willing partner of US imperialism, and the current war in Afghanistan is no exception. For all the sound and fury that accompanied the suspension of NATO’s supply routes after a US?attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November, it was neither a principled stance against US aggression nor a response to domestic opposition to drone strikes and the Afghan war. It represented an attempt by Pakistan’s military establishment to reinforce its bargaining position in the context of a likely US withdrawal from or reduction of forces in Afghanistan.

If ten years of war in Afghanistan have made one thing clear, it is that the most powerful military the world has ever seen has failed in its attempts to conquer the country. While it is certain that the US will attempt to maintain a presence in Afghanistan to safeguard its interests, either through the establishment of permanent military bases or the manipulation of puppet governments, it is also clear that it will be unable to sustain its current level of military involvement in the country. The question of what will fill the space left by the withdrawal of the US lies at the heart of the decision to close, and re-open, the NATO supply routes.

Since independence in 1947, the Pakistani military establishment has been paranoid regarding the security threat posed by India. Fuelled by the on-going conflict in Kashmir, the spectre of Indian aggression has been used by the Pakistani military to justify both its disproportionate share of the national budget and its continuing role in politics. The Pakistani military has, since the 1980s, looked to Afghanistan as a source of ‘strategic depth’, providing territory, resources, and support in the event of any war with India. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, (Pakistan having provided the Afghan mujahideen with training and funding), the Pakistani military used its extensive links to different mujahideen groups in order to ensure that political outcomes in Kabul matched their strategic objectives. For this reason Pakistan supported the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s.

When the Taliban government was dislodged by the US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan, the Pakistani military was faced with a dilemma; it could either continue supporting its proxies in Kabul and thus run the risk of incurring US wrath, or abandon its carefully cultivated assets and support NATO instead. It has become clear that the Pakistani military chose to pursue both options. On the one hand, it has provided the US with supplies, military bases and intelligence. On the other hand, it maintained links to groups like the Haqqani network, recently blamed for a string of high-profile terror attacks in Kabul. Even as the Pakistani military undertakes brutal military operations against Islamic militants in the north-west of Pakistan, it continues providing safe havens and support to similar groups operating in Afghanistan.

This position of both supporting and undermining the US war effort in Afghanistan appears contradictory. It makes sense in the context of the Pakistani military’s strategic vision. Officially, the Pakistani military disavows any connection to militant groups in Afghanistan, claiming that their presence in Pakistan is a result of an inability to control the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that border Afghanistan, and which have historically existed beyond the writ of the government. In reality the Pakistani military establishment, which has relied on Islamic political parties and militant groups to support its political aspirations, is hedging its bets.

The US has little choice but to continue working with Pakistan, given its proximity to Afghanistan and involvement in its domestic affairs. By using aid to gain collaboration, and threatening withdrawal of this same aid, the US has made effective use of Pakistan’s dire financial situation to ensure its compliance. Where this has failed, drone strikes in the FATA, combined with covert operations such as the one that killed Osama Bin Laden, are used to achieve the US’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan.

The relationship between Pakistan and the US is based on a precarious balance, with both pursuing divergent paths in Afghanistan, while simultaneously being constrained by the need to co-operate with each other. In this context, the suspension of the NATO supply routes was just another round in a strategic game wherein Pakistan and the US attempt to extract further concessions from each other regarding the post-invasion political shape of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, thousands of people in Pakistan and Afghanistan pay the price in blood for these imperialist machinations.

Hassan Javid

Pakistan: fighting religious extremism / FRFI 219 Feb/Mar 2011

FRFI 219 February / March 2011

On 4 January Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, was assassinated by Mumtaz Qadri, one of his own bodyguards. In the months prior to the assassination, Taseer had spoken publicly in favour of amending Pakistan’s controversial anti-blasphemy law, and this provided the pretext for his assassination.

The scope of the law against blasphemy, introduced in the colonial era, was widened in 1985 by the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq who made blasphemy against Islam punishable by death. Between 1925 and 1985, fewer than two dozen people were ever tried for blasphemy. But since 1985, more than 4,000 people have been taken to court for alleged blasphemy, while thousands more await trial. Having someone imprisoned for blasphemy is ridiculously easy, and is often used to settle petty scores. While many of the accused are eventually acquitted, they may spend years in jail. Convictions are often based on the flimsiest of evidence. While higher courts have always commuted the sentences imposed by lower courts in these cases, ensuring that no one has yet been executed under this law, life imprisonment is guaranteed for convicted ‘blasphemers’. Furthermore, many of those convicted, and even some who are acquitted, are killed anyway, targeted by the police, fellow prisoners and, sometimes, mobs in the grip of religious frenzy.

The blasphemy law has been used to target Pakistan’s most vulnerable sections: the poor, women and religious minorities. Governor Taseer’s public opposition to the law was triggered by the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman from a Punjabi village who was last year convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death by stoning. Taseer campaigned for a presidential pardon, arguing that procedural loopholes in the law had allowed her conviction in the absence of any real evidence. He also highlighted the endemic abuse of the law and made an unprecedented call for its amendment.

Since 1947, Islam has been used as a legitimising ideology by Pakistan’s military and ruling classes. In the 1980s Zia-ul-Haq’s military government initiated a policy of Islamisation to bolster his regime; this also created conditions to help fight the US war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Passing laws that discriminated against women and minorities in the name of Islam was inextricably linked to arming the mujahideen, with the former helping to create the ideological environment that made the latter possible.

Religious organisations were given complete freedom to shape the public discourse on religion, while progressive parties, trade unions, and students fell victim to state repression. Free to spread their virulent, parochial worldview, it was from the ranks of these religious parties and groups that the Taliban and other Islamist militant groups would emerge in the 1990s.

All this means that questioning Islamic laws in Pakistan is taboo. Any attempt to do so is guaranteed to unify the otherwise fractious elements of the religious right, who have proved more than willing to deploy their formidable street power in Pakistan’s cities. Following Taseer’s assassination, it has become depressingly clear that Zia’s ideological project has borne fruit: hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis across the country supported the assassin. Even religious scholars representing the moderate Barelvi Islamic tradition, to which the majority of Pakistanis belong, immediately declared that he was right. Thousands of ‘fans’ appeared on Facebook within minutes of the event. When Qadri was produced before a court, 200 of the lawyers who had campaigned against Musharraf’s military regime showered him with rose petals and vowed to defend him. Across the country’s media, the lone voices that unequivocally condemned the assassination were drowned out by pundits and commentators who, while decrying the loss of life, nonetheless reaffirmed the need to protect Islam in Pakistan. In the days that followed, members of the government rushed to prove their Islamic credentials, guaranteeing that the blasphemy law would not be touched.

Pakistan continues to reel from crisis to crisis: suicide bombings rock Pakistan’s towns and cities; religious militancy in the country’s North-West continues unabated; drone strikes by the US continue. Still recovering from the impact of last year’s flooding, Pakistan is facing a deficit of approximately $13 billion and will have to either take on more debt from the IMF or print more money to meet it. Either way, painful times lie ahead for the millions already mired in poverty. The country remains wracked by shortages of electricity and gas, and inflation continues to climb. Meanwhile, the PPP government remains unable to govern effectively, its weakness further exposed by the departure of some of its coalition partners earlier in the year.

In a context where mainstream politics has failed to improve the lives of the Pakistani working class, and progressive organisations have been systematically undermined, religion and its extremist representatives will continue to gain support. The use of these forces by the military and ruling elite to legitimise their own continued plunder and control has unleashed a hydra of bigotry and hatred in Pakistan which will be increasingly difficult to contain. It is undeniable that dispossession and destitution are what have allowed this pernicious ideology to flourish.

Nonetheless, isolated and numerically weak though they may be, some secular and progressive elements in Pakistan have courageously continued to question the role of Islam in Pakistan’s public sphere. Thousands of people attended Taseer’s funeral, despite a boycott by the religious establishment, and hundreds also attended vigils in his memory despite the very real threat of violence. While the ruling elite dithered in its response to the assassination, Citizens for Democracy, a broad coalition of workers’ and peasants’ organisations, intellectuals, and other groups, issued a statement against the killing, and organised a protest to counter the one called by the religious right in support of the assassin. While those who showed up to protest against Taseer’s murder were dwarfed by the 50,000 who gathered in the streets of Karachi to call for the assassin’s acquittal, it was nonetheless a reminder that the fight against religious extremism in Pakistan is intrinsically connected to the fight for social justice.

Hassan Javid

Pakistan: floods exacerbate suffering / FRFI 217 Oct/Nov 2010

FRFI 217 October/November 2010

Thousands of people have been killed, millions have been displaced, and billions of dollars have been wiped off the economy as a result of the most catastrophic flooding in Pakistan’s history, described by the UN as a disaster greater in scale than the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The flooding has led the government to appeal for huge amounts of foreign aid and assistance, arguing that its already beleaguered state machinery is overstretched and incapable of responding effectively to what has become an increasingly dire humanitarian crisis. Indeed, even though the floodwaters have begun to recede in most of the worst-affected areas, the real challenge will be to rebuild and regenerate all that has been destroyed by the floods. Given the Pakistani government’s track record in such matters, there is not much cause for optimism.

As was the case in 2005, when an earthquake in northern Pakistan killed 79,000 people and flattened the city of Balakot, those affected most by the disaster were the poor. Lacking access to adequate housing and shelter, and bereft of the resources needed to support themselves in moments of crisis, millions of poverty-stricken Pakistanis are currently living in makeshift relief camps, facing an uncertain future in which the strains of economic hardship are unlikely to be eased by timely and effective interventions by the state in the areas of reconstruction and rehabilitation.  For many of the people in these camps, however, life after the floods is unlikely to be very different from that which they experienced in the past. While the floods may have left in their wake a huge swathe of destruction across the length of Pakistan, they are hardly responsible for creating the poverty that is endemic to the regions that they devastated.

In the face of the government’s incapacity to tackle the flooding, opportunities have been created for NGOs and international organisations to fill the void left by the state. Inevitably, as the aid millions start to roll in, much of the money will be absorbed by the hundreds of ‘experts’ and development sector bureaucrats employed in projects aimed at providing flood relief. Undoubtedly, much of the money will also simply disappear into the pockets of state functionaries and their partners in the non-governmental sector. Most significantly of all, however, will be the reinforcement within Pakistan of neo-liberal dogma advocating the roll-back of the state. As the state continues to be maligned, with the political elite themselves using the argument of state inefficiency to absolve themselves of all responsibility, it is likely that post-flood Pakistan will once again be subjected to the dictates of the IMF and World Bank, introducing programmes of economic ‘reform’ that will worsen the plight of the poor, while simultaneously devolving responsibility for governance to NGOs and private organisations. Given that Pakistan pays almost $3bn a year in debt servicing to the same organisations that are clamouring to provide the government with even more aid, it would be quite possible for the state to mount a more effective relief effort if it simply reneged on its commitment to pay back its debt. This, however, would be a solution that would not be in the interests of international capitalism or its local agents in Pakistan. For them, dismantling the state even further and subjecting the country to even more debt are far more attractive propositions. Disaster management is, after all, big business.

The irony of the situation is that, if anything, Pakistan requires more state intervention, not less. To the extent that relief efforts have been successful in Pakistan, it is due to the presence of state machinery that, while inefficient and corrupt, nonetheless remains the only set of institutions possessing the resources and reach necessary to respond to a disaster like the floods. The solution to Pakistan’s problems lies not in leaving its people to the dubious mercies of the market, but in strengthening state institutions and making them more responsive to the needs of the people. This, in turn, is something that can only be achieved by a sustained political project aimed at fundamentally transforming the relationship between state and citizen in Pakistan. Time and time again, Pakistan’s political elite have shown themselves to be incapable of addressing the needs of the poor. Indeed, while President Zardari was rightly criticised for embarking on a European Tour at the time when the flooding was at its worst, the vitriol directed at the polarising figure of the President deflected attention from the real problem: the fact that the Pakistani state, as a whole, exists only to further the interests of the rich and powerful propertied classes. Until this changes through a radical political process that empowers the poor and dispossessed, it will be business as usual in Pakistan.

Predictably enough, some sections of the international media have suggested that the real fallout from the floods in Pakistan will be increased recruitment for the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups, as thousands of disaffected people affected by the flood flock to their banners in an attempt to give voice to their rage. This is failing to see the wood for the trees. As has always been the case, the limited support that does exist for Islamist militancy in Pakistan can be attributed to state sponsorship for such groups, the lack of a credible political alternative in the absence of popular political participation and, most importantly, deprivation. The devastation wrought by the flooding pales in comparison to the systemic, everyday violence that the people of Pakistan are subjected to as a result of poverty, oppression and exploitation. These are problems that cannot be solved by replacing the state with the market or, as is being whispered within Pakistan itself, by removing a flawed democracy and ushering in yet another round of military dictatorship. It is only through a progressive political struggle that this system can be transformed.

Hassan Javid