Faryal Velmi visted Karachi, Pakistan in December 2008.
In the first of two articles about Pakistan’s politics and history she describes the events leading up to the change of government in Pakistan and her conversations with Pakistani socialists about the prospects for political change under the new Pakistan People’s Party government.
Driving from the airport through the streets of Karachi, the first thing that catches your eye are huge billboards depicting the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; a garish reminder of another bloody chapter in the country’s short history.
Bhutto’s return from self-imposed exile and her violent death in December 2007 unleashed a hurricane of protests and riots across the country. Subsequent elections in February 2008 saw the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Bhutto’s husband Asif Ali Zardari, sweep to power, finally dislodging General Pervez Musharraf from his 9-year dictatorship.
The roulette wheel of Pakistani politics had been spun again, yet another military dictatorship being replaced by a civilian government promising democratic change. Musharraf’s “bloodless coup”against the government of Nawaz Sharif in October 1999 saw him become Pakistan’s fourth self-appointed military ruler in the country’s 62 year history.
At first Musharaff claimed to be cut from a different khaki cloth to other military rulers. He talked about Pakistan practising an Islam of “enlightened moderation”. His televised speeches talked about ending the decades of governmenty corruption and nepotism of successive Pakistani governments. Asif Ali Zardari was kept in prison on corruption charges.
The leaders of the main political parties Benzir Bhutto (Pakistani Peoples Party), Nawaz Sharif (Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz) and Altaf Hussein (Muttahida Qaumi Movement) all sloped off to foreign exiles, to pull the strings of their party machines from London and Dubai.
Governmental control of the media relaxed and numerous independent TV channels sprung up — a new era of reporting, political debate and satire began. But Musharaff also wanted a means to secure his position at home and abroad. The invasion of Afghanistan by the US after 9/11 was a golden opportunity for that. What followed was to eventually lead to Musharraf’s demise.
Musharraf ordered the military and Pakistan’s extensive “intelligence” apparatus to conduct a spectacular u-turn. The Taliban and jihadist groups who had been supported and aided by Pakistan for decades were now declared the enemy.
Full support was given to the US. Pakistani nationals suspected by the CIA of supporting the Taliban were picked up by Pakistani authorities and made to disappear. In return Musharaff secured millions of dollars of aid from the US, some used to maintain the country’s nuclear arsenal. However elements within the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the military who had worked closely with the Taliban and their predecessors and shared their worldview could not stomach the about turn. Many have never forgiven Musharraf for this betrayal — as a number of “inside-job” attempted assassinations of Musharaff are evidence of.
Musharraf’s love of money and accumulation of wealth equalled and even surpassed that of Bhutto and Sharif.
The military, initially through foundations set up to provide welfare and perks to army personnel, created business empires with a huge industrial, commercial and real-estate portfolios amounting to almost £5 billion.
As the Commander in Chief Musharraf had almost direct control of these networks.
The Fauji Foundation, nominally an ex-service welfare organisation, is Pakistan’s largest capitalist operation, a huge sprawling empire involved in everything from shoes to the fertiliser industry.
While the khaki capitalists amassed wealth, workers’ rights were stamped on. Musharraf banned all trade unions and put heavy restrictions on the right to protest.
In 2007, sixty years after the creation of Pakistan, 75% (122 million) of the population lived on $2 a day, and 15% (30million) living on $1 a day. 40% of the population have no access to safe drinking water, and 50% no access to sanitation.
Unwilling to deal with the dire poverty and vicious inequality, and unable to live with the consequences, the General began to ditch his quasi–democrat stance. His popularity nose-dived and a number of events led to his eventual downfall.
One was the botched military operation in 2007 at the Red Mosque in the heart of the capital Islamabad.
The mosque had been taken over by a hardline Muslim cleric called Abdul Rashid Ghazi. Along with hundreds of men and women supporters they had turned it into a fortress. Burhka clad women brandishing sticks launched an aggressive campaign to impose Sharia law in the areas. They raided people’s homes and burned down video shops, eventually taking two Chinese women hostage and accusing them of being prostitutes. For months Musharaff and the police did nothing.
When they finally raided the mosque 100 people were killed.
The Taliban threatened revenge, and the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott hotel in September 2008 could well have been them taking revenge.
Musharraf’s continued support for the war on terror had resulted in US drones bombing the semi autonomous Waziristan region in the north — evoking the wrath of local tribal leaders. If the Taliban and their fellow travellers were hiding in the area they were now getting a huge recruitment drive.
A rushed privatisation of the Pakistani steel mill was also widely reviled. Estimated to be worth £5 billion, it was sold in an auction at a fraction of the value (about £370 million) to a shady consortium with links to Musharraf’s stooge Prime Minister Shakut Aziz. It is said the mill, with all of its materials and machinery, could have fetched more as scrap.
The Chief Justice, Iftikar Chaudhry, vehemently opposed the deal, increasingly became a thorn in the Musharaff regime’s side.
Without any sense of irony, Musharraf accused the Chief Justice of nepotism and ordered that he be removed from office in March 2007.
Musharaff could never have predicted the response.
Thousands of lawyers dressed in black and white took to the streets, shutting down courts and paralysing the country. Never before in the history of Pakistan had the judiciary and legal community broken ranks with the government or rulers of the day.
The sheer force of the movement was used by both the PPP and the Muslim League (Nawaz) for their own purposes. Bhutto and the PPP were forced to support the protestors and their demands. But Zardari — who spent nearly all of the Musharaff years in prison — was never inclined to re-instate the very same judiciary who kept him there.
The Muslim League and Nawaz Sharif have gained support by sticking to their guns and continuing to support the reinstatement of the Chief Justice and the other judges removed by Musharaff. But as a minority coalition partner in the current government they have little sway.
Pakistan’s main socialist group, the Labour Party Pakistan, participated at every level of the mass movement, agitating and organising and linking the demand for the re-instatement of the Chief Justice with passionate chants of “Go Musharraf Go”.
The General became desperate and turned to his old enemies, Bhutto and Zardari, even after spending millions of dollars pursuing corruption cases across the world against them.
A power sharing deal was signed with Bhutto and the PPP. A “National Reconciliation Ordinance” was signed and the slate was wiped clean. All court cases were stopped and an amnesty issued. Bhutto, whose diatribe against military dictators filled the airwaves of talk shows across the world, returned to Pakistan to become a “democratic fig leaf” Prime Minister.
But after Bhutto’s assassination Musharaff could not survive. The PPP leadership was. like a family heirloom, passed down to Bhutto’s son Bilwal Zardari. His father, the notorious “Mr 10%” became President, free now to add to the tens of millions of dollars he has already looted from the country.
It is hard to see how a socialist working-class alternative can take shape and grow, amidst the cabal of corrupt politicians, military dictators and Islamist extremists. But if there is to be any chance of building a working class alternative than the Labour Party of Pakistan will be at the heart of it.
Currently the largest socialist group in the country with thousands of members, it has taken sharp positions against both the corrupt bourgeois politicians, feudal landlords and the Islamists.
While in Pakistan I spoke to Farooq Tariq, the LPP’s secretary. I asked him about the Bhutto billboards — a feature in every major city in the country.
“The only thing the new government has done in eight months is congratulate themselves and loot with both hands”.
As Farooq explains this is at a time of a hike in the prices of basic food items and constant electricity blackouts.
The PPP government has raised the minimum wage to 6000 rupees a month (£55), but with no governmental enforcement this is an empty gesture.
All of Musharaff’s anti-trade union laws have been kept on the statute books. A rushed Industrial Relations Act (2008) also banned all public sector workers from joining a trade union. Individual contracts between employers and bosses are being introduced in some industries.
The LPP has spearheaded campaigns to fight attempts to privatise the small number of remaining utilities that Musharaff could not get his hands on. The privatisation of the Kaudarpur Gas field was stopped by a wave of impressive strikes and demonstrations by gas workers in late 2008.
The political network which backed Musharaff remains intact, especially in Karachi.
The lawyers’ movement had a violent detour when the deposed Chief Justice and his thousands of supporters attempted to march in Karachi last year. Musharaff-backing MQM assert huge control over the city, holding the position of City Mayor; they have a web of mafia style networks. The party leadership had stuck by Musharaff and been well rewarded for it. They could not allow an opposition march through what they see as their city.
When the movement arrived in the city the MQM and its armed supporters were given free reign by the police to disrupt and stop the march. Running gun battles took place with lawyers’ movement people and bystanders were shot at. Forty were killed in the violence and the MQM widely blamed.
While I am in Karachi more violence linked to the MQM occurs, and sectarian violence shuts down the city. MQM supporters have been accusing the thousands of Pashtuns who have arrived in the city looking for work of spreading “Talibanism” or worse still being the Taliban.
Examples are cited of girls not being allowed to attend schools in Pashtun majority parts of the city. The Pashtun community strenuously denies these accusations; they say that ethnic discrimination against them is rife.
Karachi is a sprawling metropolis of 16 million people and its population is growing. It is hard to see Karachiites with their love of American fast food, Bollywood films and late night amorous strolls on the “sea view” beach, could ever fall under the sway of the mullahs. But perhaps one could have said the same thing about Tehran and Kabul.
Nevertheless the frenzied murders, beatings and ransacking of Pashtun owned shops that left a dozen dead in three days of sectarian violence between Pashtuns and their Urdu-speaking Mujahir neighbours is sickening. And the MQM are accused of whipping up hysteria.
Farooq is scathing. “This is nothing but ethnic cleansing conducted by the MQM. If they were serious about fighting Talibanisation then they would nationalise the madrassas [religious schools where poverty stricken families deposit their sons for free food, shelter and indoctrination] and challenge discriminatory laws like the hudood ordinance [a sharia statute introduced by Islamising dictator Zia-ul-Haq in 1979, which among other things has led to many rape victims being punished for adultery, in some cases with death]. They have done nothing.”
I want to find out what other socialists think about the situation in Karachi and the country as a whole. So I visit the LPP’s Karachi office in the bustling Hassan Square district of the city.
There I meet with Zehra, Sherbaz, Azra and other comrades, and we speak for an hour about everything from the Mumbai terror attacks to the lawyers’ movement. Their thoughts are that the attacks will strengthen the right wing in both India and Pakistan.
We discuss the news that Zardari was apparently hoax-called by someone claiming to be the Indian foreign minster who told him that India was preparing an imminent military attack in retaliation for alleged Pakistani involvement in the attacks. He convened an emergency meeting at 2am only to be told from the Indian foreign ministry that no call had been made.
But when our conversation turns to the lawyers’ movement the LPP members’ eyes light up. These Karachi comrades have been heavily involved with the movement and they say it has had a profound effect on everyone that participated — showing them that a secular movement with progressive aims could attract mass support.
I also learn about a number of projects the LPP are leading on — work which is about sharpening the class-consciousness of working-class people and providing basic education and information. On International Women’s Day and May Day the LPP have organised marches of thousands of people. The Labour Education Foundation organises study circles, and the Women Workers’ Help Line provides women with access to legal information and helps resolve workplace issues.
We speak at length about the discrimination Pakistani women face at every level of society, the problem of loud and vociferous Islamists and their legions of supporters. Zehra says, “The Jamaat e-Islami [longstanding mainstream Islamists] barge into people’s houses and accuse them of being un-Islamic. The mullahs always start and end with women. They are obsessed with women!”
The situation has become grave in the Swat valley area of Pakistan. Once described as the Switzerland of Pakistan, it has been taken over by Taliban-supporting extremists under the leadership of Mulana Fazlullah. Women and young girls have been the main victims. Hundreds of girls’ schools have been burned down; women who are accused of breaking their misogynistic morality code are having their noses cut off.
The actions of the Pakistani military and the ISI in Afghanistan, sponsoring the Taliban, are coming back to haunt the country. Women’s rights in Pakistan are very fragile and easily trampled on.
The military are involved in a futile attempt to dislodge the Islamists but have failed. The Zardari government is unable and unwilling to tackle the situation. It lives too far away from the lives of ordinary people, in a wealthy air-conditioned existence.
All of this makes the work of the LPP and the initiatives like the Women Workers’ Help Line even more important. These young, bright and passionate comrades leave me with hope for Pakistan.
On my return journey back to the airport and the UK I spot another billboard. This one again depicts Bhutto. Her hands are turned towards the heavens in prayer and her famous quote, “Democracy is the best revenge” is emblazoned underneath.
Of course, she betrayed that promise. But for the LPP and other socialists, trade unionists and feminists struggling in Pakistan today, revenge will come in the form of genuine democracy, a mass movement for workers’ democracy that can offer an alternative for the future.