Thursday, February 14, 2008

Festival of the Oppressed

Umer Chaudhry

February 9th, 2007, was an important day for the lawyers' movementand for the people of Pakistan. It was that day when the lawyersshowed their resilience in the face of State repression on thestreets of Islamabad. It was that day when the lawyers showed to therest of the world that their movement will not fade away. It willstand to accomplish its objectives. It will stand for the rights ofthe people, for restoration of judiciary, for free and fairelections. The Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP) finds it totheir honor to stand by the lawyers in their struggle for democracyand justice.
It started with the usual chill of the winter morning when a carrally organized by the Concerned Citizens of Pakistan left from thegates of Aitzaz Ahsan's residence in Lahore. The organizers were kindenough to give space to some student-members of the CMKP for free.The long journey was made easy by discussions that ranged from anti-war movement in USA to political theories and the upcoming electionsin Pakistan. We made short stays at the Bar Associations on our wayas more lawyers and cars joined in. Ahmed Mukhtar, who is contestingelections from Pakistan People's Party against Pakistan Muslim League-Q's stalwart Shujat Hussain, hosted our lunch and briefed us abouthis preparations to tackle rigging of elections in his constituency.As we were getting late, we had to avoid more stops and rushedtowards Islamabad.
Still we were not on time to attend the Pakistan Bar Council'smeeting at Islamabad. We drove to the Aitzaz Ahsan's house where agroup of lawyers was waiting for us, ready to march on to theresidence of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. As thedemonstration started, members of CMKP from Rawalpindi/Islamabadarrived armed with large red flags marked with the hammer and sickleand a megaphone. Without wasting any moment, we ran towards the rallywaving our flags, caught our breath, and started raising our slogansagainst the military rule.
The path to the Chief Justice's house passes through an upward slopeand a large contingent of Police was deployed there behind abarricade. As we approached the cordon, the first splash of watercannon was thrown our way. At first, there was a slight panic. Thewater cannon were being used for the first time and some people whowere not expecting to face the strong pressure of water also fell onthe road. The Government of Pakistan was trying to find proper use offire brigade, which had failed miserably in dealing with a number offires in the past, to defeat the political protests. However, it onlydampened the protestors in the chilling cold – nothing more thanthat. Obviously, those who are willing to get their heads opened bystones in the course of struggle were not to be deterred by water.Soon there was a cry: "it's only water". Everyone moved forwardfacing the high pressure of water cannon. Some lawyers also startedpelting stones to respond to State's aggression. As I approached thebarricade, all wet and damp, I found fellow CMKP members standingright on the barricade. Comrade A was standing with open armschallenging the water cannon while his back was being supported byComrade F. The pressure of water was so high that even Comrade Fslipped a few inches back to hold up Comrade A from falling back whenfaced with splashes.
The fire brigade failed miserably – again. They must have run out ofwater. The first shell of tear-gas was launched at the agitators. Itwas dreadful. I have been facing tear-gas since March last year andnot that I can resist tear-gas (one of my friends who has beenswimming since childhood can), I could see that this was not theordinary one that we have been inhaling in Lahore. Old ladies, theircommitment must be appreciated, who could not run fell down in themidst of the tear-gas attack and were helped out by young students.It was unbearable. As I ran back, my face and eyes were burning withstinging pain and there was a strong urge to vomit. With eyes half-closed and face coved by the wet flag, I ran back to the point whereI could feel comfortable. It was quite a run.
Anyhow, I recovered in around five minutes and rushed to the frontwhere an active fight was taking place between lawyers and Police. Iimmediately started looking for a stone and was lucky to have onedelivered by the Police just few feet away from me. I happilyreturned it.
The lawyers were fighting with great energy and enthusiasm. They werechanting slogans against the Police and standing valiantly in theline of stone-fire. More tear-gas shells were fired, which werereturned back by angry agitators who were wearing gloves to savetheir hands as they hold hot shells. Such daring was appreciated byloud cheers from the rest and boosted our spirits. Young girls wereswearing at the dictator and throwing rocks at the Police. That was aplace to be - all that I could have wished for. Now, I wish for more.But, I was joyful. Revolution is, after all, a festival of theoppressed.
In a middle of all this, a well-known senior lawyer positionedhimself at higher spot, wanting to engage the crowd with his coldspeech. That gentleman was keener to deliver a speech to the lawyersrather than leading them like other gallant senior lawyers, some ofwhom was arrested by the Police. People were not interested in words.They wanted action from their leaders. A young female lawyer askedthe orator to step down (in no kind words) and to go where action is.That "leader" had to step down, but was nowhere to be seen at thefront.
Another interesting bit was interaction with the management ofMarriott Hotel that was on the street where the whole event wastaking place. Some lawyers asked the Hotel management to provide themwith water so that they can treat their burning eyes. The managementplainly denied. The furious lawyers started throwing the tear-gasshells that could not be returned to the Police at Marriott. When thePolice misfired a tear-gas shell into the Marriott, it was cheered bythe protestors. Such was the anger against the apathetic managementof the Hotel that found it better to serve their rich clients ratherthan those fighting for democracy in the streets. Such was the angeragainst the symbols of class oppression.
In the meanwhile, the protestors had divided in four groups: one inthe middle, one on the right, and the third on the left. The fourthwas at the back. The middle one was the bait for the Police. Attackswere launched from the left and the right. The group at the back onlymoved further back.
The Police, hitting their shields with their batons, moved further inoffensive and the lawyers had the retreat. Some lawyers tried to makelast attempts at attacking a police. A small group chanting Allah hosmashed themselves into the Policemen. All were arrested. It wasinteresting how the rich sufi tradition of the South Asia founditself in the movement for democracy and justice. The flank on theleft was routed by Police into a street. One of my friends who werewith that group evaded arrest by excusing that he was only there topick up his sister from the protest. Many people from that factionwere arrested by the Police.
Finally, the lawyers had to retreat into the Super Market with thechants of Allah ho. It was a good day. The lawyers engaged the Policefor three hours in a fierce street battle and showed superb patienceand valiance. The movement was shown to be alive and kicking.
Before I part with this report, there is a questions that eruptedafter the protest that I want to deal here. A good fellow questionedthe utility of going these protests. His argument was that we shouldfocus our energy in raising awareness elsewhere rather than attendingpublic demonstrations. While I whole-heartedly agree with the ideathat we must go to schools and colleges or, for that matter,everywhere we find a crowd to raise consciousness, we should notunderestimate the potential of protests. People don't learn merelythrough words. Had that been the case, the revolution would haveoccurred many years ago. People also learn from practical examples.We must show them and motivate them with our struggle in the streetprotests against the Military Dictatorship. As the Salvador Allende,the Marxist President of Chile, said in his last address to hispeople moments before he was murdered when fighting against militarygenerals those who instigated a coup against him: "I am sure mysacrifice will not be in vain; I am sure that it will at least be amoral lesson which will punish felony, cowardice and, treason." Whenwe attend the protest, we challenge apathy and cowardice. Not only weset an example for others, we educate ourselves with the lessons thatcan only be experienced from the streets and not the books.

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