Pakistan: Workers and peasants resist fundamentalists and elite

May 9, 2009

On May 6 and 7, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zadari was in Washington to exchange platitudes with US President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Back home, a humanitarian catastrophe was unfolding in the Malakand Division of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), as the Pakistani military clashed with the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban forces they previously nurtured.

A February 16 peace agreement had allowed the Taliban to consolidate its control of Swat Valley district and have its brutal and misogynist interpretation of Sharia law implemented throughout Malakand Division.

Nonetheless, fighting broke out on April 26 after Taliban infiltration of Lower Dir and Buner districts brought it within 60 kilometres of the national capital, Islamabad.

On May 7, Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said the military would attack Swat Valley to "eliminate" the Taliban.

A May 4 McClatchy Newspapers report said villagers in Buner complained that the military offensive was killing civilians rather than Taliban fighters.

"We didn't see any Taliban; they are up in the mountains, yet the army flattens our villages"', Zaroon Mohammad told McClatchy.

Another villager, Saed Afsar Khan, said: "They shouldn't use the army in this (indiscriminate) way. They should be targeted at the Taliban.

"I don't think they've killed even one Taliban. Only ordinary people."

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have already fled the fighting in Lower Dir and Buner. A greater civilian exodus is expected as troops enter Swat Valley.

The May 6 Sydney Morning Herald said: "Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the information minister for the North West Frontier Province, said up to 500,000 people were expected to flee the valley."

The BBC said on May 7 that the capital of Swat, Mingora, was without water and electricity, with residents' attempts to flee being complicated by Taliban roadblocks.

The BBC quoted a local saying the military and Taliban were "hand in glove", with both killing civilians.

"Political Islam" has been a factor in Pakistan since its creation in 1948, when the departing British partitioned the Indian sub-continent along religious lines. This led to massacres that killed more than a million people and to the biggest refugee movement in history.

However, the stranglehold of Islamic fundamentalism on Pakistani politics began during the 1977-1988 US-backed dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq. The NWFP and Federally Administered Tribal Areas became the base area for CIA-backed Islamic fundamentalist insurgents fighting the Soviet Union and its local, secular allies in the Afghanistan government.

A less-known aspect of this process was the use of Islamic fundamentalist gangs to help suppress domestic dissent.

The "Islamicisation" of Pakistan's legal system by the Zia regime has not been reversed by any subsequent government, civilian or military.

Between 1988 and 1999, Pakistan was under civilian rule. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) alternated in power.

In 1999, the military took power again under General Pervez Musharraf.

All these governments continued to use fundamentalist gangs both against domestic opposition and for foreign policy objectives (such as the coming to power of the Pakistani-created Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996).

However, the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan created a contradiction. The US was Pakistan's major foreign sponsor, while the Taliban was a Pakistani proxy.

The Afghan war increasingly spilled over into Pakistani territory and the response of the military and political establishment was to attempt to ignore the violence of both sides.

The half-million displaced people already in Swat Valley before the latest fighting are refugees from both Taliban brutality and US pilotless drone attacks in other areas of Pakistan.

Unrestrained and growing fundamentalist terrorism throughout Pakistan and mounting US pressure made the current clash between the Pakistani military and the fundamentalists inevitable.

While the mainstream media focuses on the contradictory battle between the Pakistani government and Islamic fundamentalists, there is an another, unreported, force in Pakistan. An alternative to the barbarism of both sides in the "war on terror" is offered by the struggles of ordinary people for democracy and social justice.

A mass democratic movement, spearheaded by lawyers, brought down the Musharraf regime and returned the country to civilian rule in 2008.

While the socialist Labour Party Pakistan (LPP) played an important role in this movement, it involved a broad coalition including the PPP, the PML-N, former international cricketer Imran Khan's Justice Party, religious parties and civil society organisations.

The issue that sparked this movement was Musharraf's sacking of the independent-minded chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

However, the PPP-led civilian government that replaced Musharraf's regime initially resisted reinstating Chaudhry. A revival of the lawyers' movement forced a back-down on March 16.

The LPP worked along side PML-N activists in the revived lawyers' movement. However, the LPP also simultaneously led a strike at the Hamza Board Gojra factory — owned by PML-N leader Sharif's family.

Despite the sacking of unionists, arrests of workers and abduction of their relatives, on April 20 the strike won an 82.5% wage increase, permanent status for "temporary" workers and the reinstatement of the sacked unionists.

The LPP's May Day statement said: "The answer of Pakistani state is repression of the whole population living in the areas dominated by religious fanatics or making deals with fanatics. American imperialism wants a military solution and is bombing these areas.

"We condemn both. We must build a peoples movement against religious fundamentalism and imperialism."

There are many struggles in Pakistan of workers and peasants against the ruling feudal and capitalist elite. The military, corrupt civilian politicians and the fundamentalist leaders all represent this elite — even though the fundamentalists gain support from sections of ordinary people looking for an alternative to the misery caused by neoliberalism.

One such struggle is that of tenant farmers in Punjab for land rights, led by the peasant union Anjaman Mozareen Punjab and the LPP. The current landowners are military-linked companies.

More than 30,000 people have mobilised so far this year, despite intense repression including the killing of three peasants and the injuring of 27 others on April 6.

After speaking at a 20,000 strong rally at the Okara Military Farms on April 17, LPP spokesperson Farooq Tariq described the social transformations resulting from the struggle: "Nobody was wearing any burqa, hijab or niqab. They [men and women] were all sitting together and no so-called religious restrictions were accepted by them.

"Religious harmony was reflected by the fact that Muslim and Christian were attending and organising the event together."

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