Pakistan: 'The spirit of March 15' — pro-democracy movement wins:

Friday, March 20, 2009 - 11:00

The "long march" of lawyers and pro-democracy activists, who faced-down state repression including hundreds of arrests, won its key demand on March 16 when the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) backed down in the face of huge resistance and, following five days of mass protests, restored the chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry and other sacked judges to their positions.

The judges had been sacked for defying the dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf and the new PPP government had refused to restore them.

The article below is abridged from < http://www.asia-pacific-A HREF="mailto:action.org"><action.org>. It is an eyewitness report from Ammar Jan Ali, a participant in the pro-democracy street battles in Lahore. Youth secretary of the Labour Party Pakistan, Jan Ali will be an international guest speaker at the World at a Crossroads conference in Sydney from April 10-12. For more information, or to register, visit <http://www.worldatacrossroads.org>.

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We are all ecstatic about what happened in Lahore on the March 15. This day will be remembered as one where the power of the state seemed helpless in front of the power of the street.

The most crucial moment during the day was the battle at the GPO chowk that galvanized the entire city into action.

The scene of almost 150 people battling a repressive police and forcing it to retreat will remain in the collective memory of our nation for a very long time to come.

I happened to be part of that "GPO 150" when the police started using tear gas. Here is a short description of how we managed to reach the spot and how we were able to inflict defeat on the state apparatus.

Beating the checkpoints

Lahore had the look of a deserted ghost town in the morning, with the Mall road completely blocked. I was with the Labour Party Pakistan, the Student Action Committee and other civil society members.

We decided to walk our way towards the High Court in pairs so that the police would fail to notice us.

Some of us succeeded while others were arrested at the checkpoints.

I have been to many protests in the past but I have never seen anything like the passion visible in front of the High Court. There was a consensus that if the Lahore High Court falls, the movement will fizzle out.

Everyone knew that the police would use the most brutal measures to suppress the will of the people and were mentally prepared for an epic battle.

As the police started shelling tear gas indiscriminately, many activists started falling unconscious. All of us panicked and started fleeing the scene to evade arrest.

A man, who must have been in his 70s, started yelling to the fleeing crowd (which included me, as I could no longer breathe) that this was not a time to run but to fight.

Eventually, he fainted as well, but he encouraged all of us to come back and continue the fight.

Two-hour battle

We resisted the police for over two hours, pushing them back many times. Express News reported that 250 to 300 shells had been fired at the protesters.

Many were vomiting because of chemicals in the tear gas, worse than anything I have witnessed. However, this brought the best out of the Pakistani nation. Some people were carrying salt and water for those injured in the fighting.

Others helped carry people to the diagnostic centre in the High Court or to ambulances. I was about to faint a couple of times and was almost blinded by the gas, before some people gave me enough water and salt.

My friend Murtaza Khwaja (who was taking part in a violent protest for the first time) showed immense courage and we stayed on the front line throughout this epic battle.

The protesters were fighting with a spontaneous strategy that proved effective. We had split into three groups. One on the Mall road, one towards the left of the GPO, while one group stayed inside the High Court building.

When the police charged protesters on one side, they would be pelted by stones from the other side. This was the key to the street battle, as the police were being hit by stones from three sides. This is why they could not takeover the High Court.

It didn't matter which political party or group one belonged to. Everyone was looking out for each other, and we all wanted to win.

By this time, a lot of lawyers, political activists and civil society members had gathered at the gates and those of us who had been there since noon decided to leave, as we felt dehydrated and could not breathe properly.

When we arrived in the courtyard where all the activists had gathered, we had no idea what this battle at the GPO really meant. We were just looking for water and a place to sit.

In fact, I was a little disappointed that the numbers in front of the GPO had not been big and that the long march could prove a failure.
It is here that we received the news that this battle had gripped the entire country's imagination.

The news channels were constantly talking about the police high-handedness and the resistance by many activists. I even received a call from a friend in Karachi who said that he had read about the crazy fighting at the Lahore High Court.

The tide was definitely turning.

People control the city

After this, the people were in complete control of the city.

Thousands joined opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N leader Nawaz Sharif's caravan as he defied detention orders to lead the procession from his house in Model Town.

The courtyard went ecstatic when we heard the news of the resignations of the deputy attorney general and a number of other officials. Crowds cheered wildly as some of them joined us at the High Court.

The most memorable part of the evening for me was when Aitzaz Ahsan, a Supreme Court justice arrested by Musharraf and a key leader of the lawyer's movement, defiantly entered the High Court building despite orders for his house arrest and the police officers stood in line to salute him.

This represented a complete victory for the movement. From then on, it was just a matter of time before the government would be forced to accept our demands.

I feel that the way the police were defeated at the GPO showed the weakness of this state apparatus. It represented the best of Pakistan.

On one side, it represented despair, state brutality and police repression. On the other, it reflected hope, resistance, the passions and dreams of many Pakistanis.

We had won, not because of the generosity of the country's leadership, but because of the countless sacrifices of lawyers and activists for the past two years — with March 15 the grand finale in Lahore.

Here, I want to thank those comrades who stood their ground at the GPO chowk and showed Pakistan why we should be fighting this system. I will remember their support and courage for the rest of my life.

This is the courage, confidence and spirit of sacrifice that we need if we want to continue our fight against the capitalist system. This has given us new confidence in our own ability to fight — and in the revolutionary potential of our nation.

Despite this success, our post-colonial state is still full of problems and oppression and there will inevitably be more resistance.

In all of the future struggles, we shall remember and take with us the spirit of March 15.

From GLW issue 788