By Shahzad Arshad, Revolutionary Socialist Movement, Pakistan
A NEW mass movement is developing in Pakistan. On April 8, tens of thousands of supporters of the “Pashtun Protection Movement” gathered in Peshawar, the centre of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, KPK.
Some estimates put the total attendance at more than 100,000. The meeting was the latest highpoint of a mass movement against the national and racial oppression of the Pashtun people, which has begun to spread across the whole country.
Oppression of the Pashtun, and other minorities like the Baloch or Sindhi, as well as religious minorities such as the Hazara, has a long history in the country. Clearly, the Islamist, US-sponsored dictatorships of Zia and Musharaf, the neo-liberalisation of recent decades and the so-called “war on terror” waged by the US and the Pakistani military have heightened the oppression, misery and displacement of millions of the Pashtun people.
Like other national minorities, they face the chauvinism and oppression of a ruling class dominated by Punjabi capitalists and landlords. The recent turn of the country towards Chinese, rather than US, imperialism, may change the form of this oppression, but it will only reinforce it in a different manner.
KPK has been subject to more than a decade of military operations. All Pakistani governments have claimed that they are waging a war against the Taliban and “fundamentalism”. In reality, their war has always been against the masses, against workers, peasants and the poor, and it has made millions refugees in their own country. There is no family in KPK that has not lost somebody in the course of the operations since 2001.
Worse still, Pashtun are also branded as “fundamentalists” or “Taliban” in other parts of the country and, like other minorities, are subjected to racism, state repression, abductions and attacks by sectarian religious mobs.
However, in recent months, this has been challenged by the emergence of a new mass movement. Campaigns against the murder of Naqeab Masood and “Release Arif Wazir” found a mass following amongst the community and people began to speak out openly against the abductions of “missing persons”. In February, the movement reached its first highpoint with thousands gathering at a sit-in in Islamabad, forcing the government to make some concessions.
The meeting of the Pashtun Protection Movement on April 8, however, multiplied the numbers being mobilised. The state forces clearly tried to stop people from attending. Curfews were declared in a number of Agencies around Peshawar, but the masses defied them.
The meeting itself brought together tens of thousands from all parts of KPK, old and young, workers, peasants, poor and sections of the “middle classes”. But, maybe most striking, was the visible presence of many women at the protest and women speaking from the platform, a clear sign that the Pashtun movement has a progressive character, which can also challenge the deep rooted patriarchal structures in society.
The day was a day when the victims, the oppressed, could raise their voices openly and clearly. It gave a taste of the freedom, of the democratic rights, which can be achieved through struggle. Speaker after speaker, and many of the conversations in the crowd, expressed their emotions and their pain, but also their anger. They pointed out that their sons or fathers were “missing” for years, they denounced the victimisation of Pashtun people by the media and the country’s elite. But they also stressed the social and political space the movement had opened. “This movement is a rebellious movement, it opens a space for women and for minorities to express themselves openly”, said one woman from the platform. A Shia muslim explained that it was only within such a movement that he could speak out openly and in public without fear. In short, it was a festival of the oppressed.
A festival that the Pakistani state did not only try to prevent via curfews in different areas in nearby districts. There was also a total news blackout on the mobilisation. The bourgeois media did not report it. The government blocked or jammed mobile phones and internet links. Given their own internal disputes and crises, the authorities and the ruling class are in too weak a position to try to directly crush the movement, so they focus on “softer” means of repression and blockage. But there is reason in their hostility; clearly the dynamic of the movement and its potential to spread and link up with other democratic and social struggles is a threat to them.
Firstly, the movement not only has a mass base amongst the Pashtun people. At present it has the character of a progressive movement against the military operations, the war on terror, against attacks and repression by the state and the Islamists and for democratic rights. In time, however, the ferment it is creating within society could lead to the creation of a unified, Pakistan-wide movement against all forms of oppression, which would also link it to working class issues and the land question.
Within the Pashtun movement, the traditional leaderships; the Awami National Party, ANP, and the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, PkMAP, have supported the war. The PkMAP, after some hesitation, has supported the Pashtun Protection Movement in order to try to regain lost support. ANP speakers faced mass discontent at the meeting in Peshawar because their party has remained silent on the military operations in KPK for years, effectively backing the military and the national governments. Clearly, their loss of credibility could open the space that the working class needs to become hegemonic in the struggle against national oppression and for democratic rights.
Secondly, the possibility of linking up with other oppressed nationalities and religious minorities is already more than just an abstract potential. The movement has already started to do this and gives a platform to representatives of the oppressed and the Left. Now, a number of further meetings are being planned, not only in Pashtun majority areas such as the Swat Valley but also in major cities like Lahore and Karachi.
In Lahore, there will be a mass meeting on April 22, which will aim to rally thousands to welcome the Pashtun movement. It will be organised by the “Lahore Left Front” a united front for democratic rights, in solidarity with the oppressed nations and the Pashtun movement and with workers’ and trade union struggles.
This united front, currently includes the following organisations: Awami Workers’ Party, Class Struggle, Workers’ and Peasants’ Party, Revolutionary Socialist Movement, Pakistan Trade Unions Defence Campaign, Communist Party Pakistan, Anjman Mozareen Punjab, Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, Revolutionary Students Front, Progressive Students Collective, People’s Solidarity Forum, Feminist Collective, Punjab Union of Journalists, Railway Mehnat Kash Union and Progressive Labour Federation. In addition, it is also supported by a number of NGOs and human rights campaigns.
Thirdly, we in the RSM argue that the campaign should be developed into a mobilising united front of action and that similar initiatives need to be set up throughout the country and to be unified nationally. The movement also raises the question of political direction, not just of the Pashtun struggle, but of the Left, working class and the oppressed in the whole country.
The rise of Left wing leaders amongst the oppressed, and their gaining a mass hearing, shows that there is the potential for the creation of a working class party. Such an organisation could unite and give leadership to the struggles against all forms of exploitation and oppression and link them to uprooting the source of all these evils, capitalism, by a socialist revolution in Pakistan.