Popular movement in Pakistan?

Since March 9 when Pakistan’s military ruler General Pervez Musharraf fired the Chief Justice, a popular movement has been in the making. Ostensibly the Chief Justice was surplus to the general’s requirements because he had made one objectionable decision too many, most notably the issuing of orders to the omnipotent intelligence agencies to produce dozens of ‘disappeared persons’, the vast majority of whom have been victims of the anti-terrorist legislation enacted in the aftermath of September 11. Importantly the Chief Justice took oath under the provisional constitutional order (PCO) that Musharraf introduced after taking power and suspending the constitution. Thus the CJ can hardly be considered a principled flagbearer of democracy. Nonetheless, in a little less than three months, he has become the symbol of a growing movement against dictatorship.

The movement has been spearheaded by the legal fraternity, which had protested the Musharraf regime at various points over the past 8 years. Lawyers enthusiastically opposed the Musharraf regime soon after the coup and retreated only when the alliance of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) signed a constitutional amendments package in December 2003 that accorded the regime a semblance of formal legitimacy. This time however, there is no constitutional tinkering that is likely to placate the protests. Indeed the demands for the Chief Justice’s reinstatement are slowly but surely evolving into a wider movement seeking an end to the military’s intervention in the political sphere.

The two mainstream secular opposition parties, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), have been frozen out of power for the almost 8 years that Musharraf has been in power, and have accordingly been prominent supporters of the lawyers movement. They have not necessarily been willing or able to expand the movement to other segments of society, but have taken on a progressively more radical stance as it has become clear that a wide cross-section of society is increasingly angry about the military’s dominance of the country’s politics and economics. 

The MMA has clearly suffered for its complicity with the Musharraf regime, and while some of its component parties have attempted to project themselves as part of the wider movement, the party that holds the most seats in the provincial and national assembles, the Jamia’t-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), has been conspicuously absent during most of the protests. In general both the religious and secular mainstream parties suffer from a deficit of credibility amongst the general public, at least partially because they have acquiesced to a military-dominated political system in the past. It is also important however to bear in mind that over Pakistan’s 60 year history, the military has systematically defamed politicians and indeed politics itself, the imprint of which is very clear on even the present movement which has yet to draw ordinary people out in very large numbers.

The lack of credibility of the mainstream parties has meant that ordinary people have rallied around the Chief Justice rather than putting their lot in with the opposition parties. Indeed the outburst of popular support for the CJ has been nothing short of incredible – most notably his motorcade from Islamabad to Lahore (a distance of 280 kms) on May 5th reached its destination in 26 hours, mobbed by lawyers, rank and file political activists and ordinary people at every small hamlet along the way.

As implied above, increasingly radical slogans are extending beyond calls for an end to the Musharraf dictatorship. There is a growing recognition within the general public that for 60 years Pakistan has been subject to the whims of the military-bureaucratic state apparatus, whether it has directly run the government or pulled the strings from behind the scene. In addition, the military has created a vast economic empire through its control over state institutions, expanding its stakes in a plethora of industries while also continuing to acquire rich residential and agricultural land along the pattern of the British Raj, which literally bought the loyalty of its military men through the issuing of land grants.

Alongside the emphasis on the political role of the military, the protests have also focused on the need for an independent judiciary. Indeed the superior judiciary has condoned successive periods of military rule by invoking the doctrine of necessity, one after the other pliant judge having acted in accordance with the needs of the military-bureaucratic apparatus. The legal fraternity, empowered by a dissenting CJ joining its ranks, has called into question the credibility of the superior judiciary in no uncertain terms, thereby making it clear that it will not tolerate anything less than a complete reconfiguration of the power sharing arrangement between the judicial, executive and legislative branches of the state.

The present movement then is chartering new territory on Pakistan’s chequered political landscape insofar as a 60 year legacy of oligarchic rule is being called into question. It is important however, to keep things in perspective. As suggested above, this is by no means a mass movement yet. The protests have been centred around the movements of the CJ. Public rallies have been organized on a fairly regular basis, and the media has aggressively followed the story. However, dissent remains fairly fragmented, and political parties have yet to bring together all of the disparate groups that are, in their own right, making their voices heard at some level or the other. While the protests are still causing the regime heartache in no uncertain terms, if the lawyers decide to call it quits at any time, there is little to fall back on.

There is also the question of what will transpire if and when the present government goes, which looks increasingly likely. Ostensibly elections will be held by any interim government that is put in place, and if the present wave of politicization is anything to go by, the elections will be relatively transparent. However, the fact remains that the existing mainstream parties leave a lot to be desired in terms of their organic links to the people (or lack thereof), and as importantly, their penetration by the state. The religious parties in particular, still riding the wave of their unprecedented showing at the polls in 2002, remain the major supporters of the national security paradigm that has provided the military-bureaucratic apparatus with a mandate to rule since the country’s creation. In the four years that the MMA has been in power in the NWFP province, it has made no break with the neo-liberal policies of the centre, nor has it made any attempt to undermine the incumbent structures of power that exist in the province. The MMA is also in power in Balochistan where the federal government has launched a military operation against ethno-nationalist forces that claim rights to the province’s resources and demand autonomy guaranteed under the constitution.

Meanwhile the PPP and PML-N have had their organizational backbone snapped by the state and have yet to rebuild any popular constituency. They are prone to deal-making with the military, having done so repeatedly throughout the 1990s, and could do so again. Nonetheless, it is also true that these parties have been chastened by their experience during the 1990s and have accordingly agreed upon a Charter of Democracy in which they have openly apologized for their past invocations to the military and vowed to struggle together for a permanent end to the military’s political role. It is quite possible that under the weight of public expectation, these parties will avoid staining their credibility any further by doing yet another deal with the military.

However, it would be unwise to rely too much on parties that are still dominated by the propertied classes, and in the case of the PPP, have long reneged on any ideological commitment to a vague model of social democracy. Left parties remain weak, split up into small groups because of mutual mistrust. The present movement has created a space for the left to at least assert its existence, which it has done to a certain extent. Meanwhile other progressive pockets of resistance to state and corporate power continue to emerge as a necessary consequence of neo-liberal radicalism and the state’s own unashamed capture of natural resources. However, progressive alternatives to the mainstream parties are still weak; while benefiting from the current space available to them, it will be some while before they offer a coherent political option to working people.

In any case, if and when elections take place, the operative principle will remain patronage, and this is precisely the type of politics that has permitted the military-bureaucratic apparatus to keep hold of power for as long as it has. Like most post-colonial countries, in Pakistan too a peculiar combination of cultural dispositions, a huge shadow economy and a state that continues to be the repository of power in society has ensured that politics remains extremely personalized. This effectively means that political struggle is a race to gain access to the state so as to be able to distribute patronage. 

Finally there is the huge shadow of the empire lurking over Pakistani politics. From 1954 onwards, the US has actively patronized the Pakistani military, and has thereby directly undermined the fledgling political process. Time and again Pakistan has been made frontline state to meet American imperial needs, and successive periods of American-supported military rule have exacerbated an already dire situation. The almost blind faith that the Bush administration has shown in the Musharraf junta since September 11, 2001 has reinforced this unfortunate pattern.

Any immediate change in Pakistan will therefore necessarily be subject to American sanction, that is of course, if that change is conceived in the corridors of power rather than on the streets. All of the powers-that-be are likely expecting the current wave of activism to fizzle out sooner or later, and plot a new power-sharing arrangement once they are capable of manipulating without fear of inciting revolt. However, there is no saying if and when things will calm down, and if anything, the situation is becoming more and more charged with each passing day.

At least part of the reason for this has to do with the government’s own reactions. On more than one occasion, the response to the protests has been repression, with the most disgraceful such episode taking place in Karachi on May 12th when close to 50 people were shot in cold blood. Following this the government is said to be contemplating a ban on what TV channels can and should be allowed to broadcast live, while it has also started to publicly warn that criticism of the military is an act of high treason. All of these actions reflect weakness rather than strength. Contrary to what the regime’s political strategists clearly believe, resentment is becoming more acute by the day.

What is happening in Pakistan is by no means comparable to the popular uprisings taking place in Latin America, or even closer to home in Nepal. However, the significance of the current wave of protests should not be understated in any way. Given the configuration of power that has persisted throughout Pakistan’s history, and the importance of the Pakistani military to American imperial designs in central and west Asia, the emergence of a movement with a one-point agenda to end military intervention and redress the institutional imbalance within the state is a boost for anti-imperialist forces everywhere. 

International coverage of the protests should also demonstrate that the corporate media’s depictions of Pakistan in the aftermath of September 11 have been distorted, because this movement, clearly the biggest challenge that the Musharraf junta has faced, is broad-based, and the religious parties are actually struggling to keep pace with the increasingly radical demands of the lawyers, the rank and file of political parties, and the ordinary populace. Pakistan is anything but a society in which hyper-religious sensibilities prevail, even though the state and imperialism have done their best to create and sustain pockets of militancy in certain areas of the country.

In the coming weeks and months, if popular pressure is maintained, Pakistani politics could reach something of an historical crossroads. All forces that remain committed to an oligarchic system of rule will stand on one side of the fence and all those that want people’s rule will stand on the other. In any case, given the deep resentment that exists across a wide cross-section of society, unchallenged military-bureaucratic domination will surely soon be condemned to the dustbin of history. 

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