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Pakistani Voices of Resistance

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
Date Published: 
August 01, 2005
    Unlike many parts of the world in recent years, the left in Pakistan has not reemerged as a mass political force representing the widespread dissent that working people are voicing against neo-liberalism.

Unfortunately in Pakistan the most visible political force opposing imperialist expansion (at least on the surface) is the religious-right. The depravity and hollow sloganeering of the parties of the right is exposed by the fact that they have been as complicit in welcoming the penetration of multinational capital into the economy as any mainstream bourgeois party. Meanwhile the left has remained on the political margins. The politics of NGOs – an influential part of mass movements in Europe and parts of Latin America – has been suspect. Many NGOs have openly supported the military government and have been anything but critical of multilateral and bilateral donors and their use of strategic aid to meet geo-political objectives. Overall the state has systematically weakened organic political and social formations in Pakistan over a period of three decades, while also sponsoring parochial organizations of the right. This policy was a direct outcome of the Afghan War in which Empire fully supported the then ‘heroic’ mujahideen – who in Ronald Reagan’s words were the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers. Through the 1990s the religious right was patronized further, both by the CIA and Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agencies. The combination of this extended policy of patronage of the right by state and imperialism, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting decline of the left, has transformed the political and social environment in the country. The dismal state of politics has further degenerated following the military coup of October 1999. Despite this depressing state of affairs, pockets of resistance to neo-liberal expansion have emerged in recent years, giving hope to a fractured left that a mass democratic movement can be rebuilt in the country. The present resistance is also very important symbolically because it has challenged the widespread feeling of disempowerment felt by many working people and, arguably more importantly, has directly challenged the military which remains the most powerful institution in the country and the flagbearer of the existing status quo. Landless struggle A couple of these struggles merit mention here. First and most compelling is the struggle of landless farmer tenants in Punjab province who have been facing eviction since the year 2000 from the state lands that they have tilled for almost a century. These tenants have heroically resisted the state, and in particular the military that lays claim to a large portion of these state lands in complete contravention of due process. The tenants have engaged in a campaign of complete civil disobedience, refusing to pay any form of tribute to the state, which they had been doing for almost a century. They have also demanded that ownership rights of the land be transferred to them instead. The state has victimized the tenants for their stand, killing at least 6, imprisoning many more, lodging hundreds of anti-terrorist and anti-state cases against them and subjecting tenant villages to sieges, and severing supplies of basic amenities such as water and electricity. Yet the tenants have stood firm, and continue to occupy almost 70,000 acres of disputed land across the province till this day. On the southern coastline of the country, indigenous fishing communities have been victimized for decades by border troops who force them to sub-contract their fish at below-subsistence rates. This oppression has been exacerbated by the state’s issuance of licenses to foreign deep-sea trawlers to fish in Pakistan’s territorial waters which has destroyed marine ecology, depleted 95% of the country’s fish stock and completely compromised the livelihood needs of local communities. In a manner similar to that of the tenants, fishing communities have engaged in a mass civil disobedience campaign, refusing to surrender their catch to border troops whilst also engaging in ingenious strikes to dispute the trawling policy. Today, the government has been forced to withdraw the contract system. These struggles have been widely supported by many political and social elements in the country, including bourgeois parties seeking to secure political mileage, professional groups, intellectuals and, of course, the left. These struggles have been the lightning rod for much of the popular discontent that many working class Pakistanis feel at the political role of the army, its subservience to imperialism, and oppressive and worsening social and economic conditions. They have also embarrassed the government internationally, even if such embarrassment hardly equates to genuine political pressure for change. Internal colonialism Meanwhile other conflicts have emerged that reflect the imperatives of multinational capitalist expansion and the necessary response that this entails. In particular, the western border province of Balochistan has witnessed a massive build up of the army under the pretext of protecting national installations including a new port in the south-western town of Gwadar. All of this is taking place in preparation for the extraction of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea, which remains the world’s largest untapped source of black gold. This landlocked region is linked to the sea only through Balochistan (via Afghanistan of course) and therefore the US, China and many others are involved in a titanic geo-strategic struggle to establish control over the area. The deployment of the army into the province has precipitated mass dissent and accusations that internal colonialism is being perpetrated against the Baloch people, who remain the country’s most oppressed nationality in spite of providing the rest of the country with the majority of its natural gas. While resistance to the army has taken on a clearly nationalist idiom, there is no doubt that progressive forces have supported this resistance and that it holds the promise for a much more expansive movement in the future. The struggles discussed here have a long way to go before they transform into a genuine political movement against dictatorship or the forces of global capitalism at large. But there can be no doubt that the relative political inertia of the 1990s has been transcended and the glaring structural and ideological contradictions of neo-liberalism are inducing responses. The sentiment against imperialism remains strong. Professional groups such as lawyers and journalists have also been vocal against military rule. Meanwhile as prices and unemployment rise, popular upheaval may erupt, as has been the case in Argentina, Bolivia, Indonesia, and many other periperhal countries. Left groups that have tried to move beyond the fractures and ideological myopia of the past and regenerate left politics on the basis of new emergent working-class struggles presently survive with sparse financial and more importantly human resources. However, these fledgling groups have had some success in linking pockets of resistance together and politicizing them to some extent beyond their immediate objectives. While there is till now no similar wave of young people dissenting against neo-liberalism in Pakistan as there is in many other parts of the world, there are distinct indicators that such a counter-hegemonic wave may emerge sooner rather than later. Even the most ardent of neo-liberals know that the rollercoaster ride will soon be over.