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.

Protest rallies and the right to freedom of expression

Nauman Qaiser- Advocate

In true democracies, peaceful protests are deemed a medium through which ordinary people can voice their concerns about the government polices. These protests are, thus, an embodiment of the power of the rank and file and a beacon of freedom of expression, for which these democracies have fought long-drawn battles. Besides, they provide the necessary feedback to the government, which can rectify its public policies in the light of these concerns. That is why these peaceful rallies are not suppressed viciously the way they are in “fake” democracies like Pakistan.

Saturday’s protest rally in Islamabad by the lawyers and the members of the civil society including students was nothing more than a peaceful and innocent effort to record their resentment at the misguided policies of the Musharraf regime. But the way this rally was stifled smacks of intolerance and lack of awareness of the boons of these rallies on part of the present government. It also shows the double standards of the government, which claims to believe in democracy, but does not allow the peaceful citizens to express their sentiments; instead tear gas, rubber bullets and stones are used by the law enforcement agencies to “greet” the protesters, whose fault is that they desire a genuine democracy with free and independent judiciary in their country.

On top of it all, Mr. Musharraf has the audacity to say in front of the western media that true democracy does not suit Pakistan and its culture; therefore, he proposes, that his brand of controlled democracy should be supported, in which media could be curbed; judges could be deposed, that too in dozens; lawyers and students could be brutally beaten up and arrested; the powerful could disobey the law with impunity; daily food items like flour and sugar could go beyond the reach of the rank and file – all on the pretext of “national interest” and the mantra of “Pakistan comes first”.

A western reader would be bemused to read about this brand of democracy, which has all the requisites of a brutal dictatorship. General (r) Musharraf should, therefore realize that he cannot befoul us by claiming to be a democratically elected president of Pakistan. The rubber stump parliament, pliant beauracracy and the involvement of military in politics does not even give a semblance of a democratic dispensation in the country. In this gloomy scenario, it was the judiciary lead by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mr. Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary, which showed us that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. But, unfortunately, this pillar of the state too was “murdered” brutally.

So what is the future of Pakistan now? Do we really see light at the end of the tunnel? The answer fortunately is “Yes” with a capital Y. But the path to democracy is long and filled with thorns. We need to create awareness among the masses, especially the poor class of the society, of their rights, so they do not sit at homes and curse their destiny for the wronged policies of the government. The middle class, which has been the backbone of the worldwide movements, also needs to realize that without its active participation, we cannot even think of the bringing true democracy in the country. The political parties should also shun the politics of expediency and instead focus on the well being of their voters.

Unfortunately, besides the poor lawyers, who have sacrificed even their bread and butter for the sake of their principles, no section of the society is willing to come on the roads in large numbers to give impetus to the current movement. Until and unless the civil society and the political parties realize their potential to bring true democracy in Pakistan, the lawyers’ effort alone may not bring the desired fruits.