Three socialist activists interviewed about their lives of struggle and facing oppression
Below are three interviews with three important activists in the workers and peasants’ movement in Pakistan.
They spoke to Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party, who has already written a general article on his visit to the country in March 2005 (see Musharraf rule shaky as poverty rockets, 31 March 2005). socialistworld.net
Pages from a diary
Azad (a telecommunications worker) is a Kashmiri active in the struggle for the national rights of the Kashmiri people, particularly in the 1980s and also in the big clashes on this issue in the early 1990s.
PT: What is your experience in the Kashmiri struggle?
A: I became involved in the student Kashmiri organisation, Jammu-Kashmir Student Liberation Front (JKSLF) in 1988. At the first convention of this body in 1992, 600 students were present and were responsible for calling for a mass mobilisation in February of that year of the young people of Kashmir. The purpose of the demonstration was to denounce and challenge the ‘Line of Control’ which has arbitrarily separated the Kashmiri people between Pakistan and India since the time of partition. Our demonstration was to coincide with a similar movement on the Indian side organised by the students in collaboration with us. The plan was for both sides to mass at the border and cancel out this division of our country. The demonstration started on 11 February with 50,000 people marching for 60 kilometres to Chakothi – near the border and the same place through which the new bus route between the Pakistani side and the Indian side passes. The demonstrators were hungry, there was nothing to eat, there was very little transport but nevertheless I have never seen such enthusiasm by a mass of people as on that occasion. The demonstrators smashed the vehicles of the ministers of Kashmir and tried to march on the border and the Line of Control.
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PT: What happened in that confrontation?
A: The police mobilised their forces, hurling 10,000 rounds of tear gas at us. The crowd was incensed and marched against the police who were on the top of the mountain firing at us. We captured some police, declaring, "You are under people’s arrest," and even some of the police, angered by the tactics of their commanders, joined in the demonstration. Having captured the mountains, we turned the police tactics against them, raining missiles down on them, marching for four kilometres in this way, and being constantly attacked by the police. We nevertheless reached the Line of Control at 4pm
PT: What was the reaction of the Pakistani armed forces and the Indian armed forces to this threat to cross the Line of Control?
A: We, on our part, thought that the “Pakistani armed forces and police wouldn’t attack us”, although the Indian side might. But, without any warning, the Pakistani military which was mobilised, together with paramilitary police from Kashmir, opened fire. Seven people were killed and more than 100 injured, many of them becoming permanently disabled. The army fired at us from above, in the mountains, and from below. I was next to my friend who was hit by a bullet and many people were running away but the army continued to fire. The young people and workers were so incensed that they stormed a police bunker and threatened to kill the police but the leadership of the demonstration stepped in and stopped this. These brutal actions sickened the demonstrators and were an eye-opener for us about the real nature of the Pakistani military. One comrade who was dying said, “Bury me on the Indian side, I don’t want to die here.” Even the soldiers were affected, with some refusing to open fire. After this experience, no young Kashmiri was prepared to join the military.
PT: What was your reaction in general to this outrage?
A: We were angry, we wanted to fight and we were determined to oppose both the Pakistani ruling class and the Indian occupation of Kashmir. We were for an independent Kashmir and we came increasingly into conflict with the authorities. In 1993, Maqbul Bhut, a radical figure who was for an independent Kashmir, was arrested in Belgium with the connivance of the Pakistani authorities. A huge demonstration of 10,000 in protest at this took place in Islamabad, when police vehicles were burned down and the police ran away, which led to us taking control over the movement. We were in telephone contact with our leaders in Kashmir and asked, “What do we do next?” they replied, “Do you want people to die? Collect money, we have achieved our ends, now wrap up the demonstration.” In other words, they had no clear plan as to how to take the movement forward.
PT: What was your thinking after this?
A: I gradually moved towards a more radical, class position, which was reinforced with my job. I became a supervisor in the telecommunications industry but became aware that “lower staff” – at least this is how they were considered by management – were not receiving money for moving furniture. I asked, why are you allowing this to take place without financial recompense? As a result of this, they received the money that was due to them. On the issue of Kashmir, by 1998 I had realised that the Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) did not have a clear solution, programme or methods. The approach of the nationalists at this stage was to oppose the government with organisational things like a human chain. This did not satisfy me so I turned to more determined, class-struggle policies. Through these experiences, I met the comrades who are now in the SMP, and moved to a more rounded-out Marxist position.
PT: What is your present position on the national question?
A: The SMP stands for the right of self-determination for the Kashmiri people obviously but the difference between us and even some Marxist groups is that we believe this should be concretised in the slogan, “For an Independent Socialist Kashmir” linked to the idea of a socialist confederation of India, Pakistan and South Asia. One of the reasons why it is necessary to situate the independence of Kashmir in a socialist context is that the present, Pakistani-dominated capitalist Kashmir is, if anything, worse than in Pakistan as a whole. Even the minimal labour laws in Pakistan do not apply in Kashmir, and this, by the way, is not challenged by Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party Pakistan (PPP). We demand not just the national rights of the Kashmiris but their social demands too: for trade union rights, for a living wage and all the basic rights of the working class and poor of Kashmir. The new steps towards opening up a bus route between Pakistan and India will not solve the national question. But it gives an opportunity to link the struggles of the Indian masses with the Kashmiri and Pakistani workers and peasants.
Ashiq Zafar Bhatti
Doctor Ashiq Zafar Bhatti is a leader of the struggle of the Seraiki people for national recognition and champion of the peasants in this region.
PT: Could you tell us something about the Seraiki people and their position in Pakistan?
AZB: The Seraikis are the ‘fifth’, the forgotten, nation in Pakistan, after the peoples of the Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The Seraiki people had their own state up to 1827. That year, Rudyan Singh defeated the Emir (Emperor) at Multan and the Seraiki region was occupied. Rudyan Singh demolished the state. However, with the foundation of the Pakistani state in 1947, the Seraiki area was an independent state (from 1947 to 1958). In 1958, there was a conditional merger with Pakistan, which was facilitated by a promise by the Pakistani state that the Seraiki people would occupy a separate province, but that is not the situation now. Eighty per cent of the population of this region are Seraiki, with a definite history and culture.
PT: Is discrimination practised against the Seraikis in Pakistan, both in the past and now?
AZB: Yes, definitely. For instance, there are no schoolbooks in the Seraiki language. The region is very poor and 70 per cent of the population are peasants, while the rest are labourers, shopkeepers, etc.
PT: Are there any capitalist organisations claiming to represent the Seraikis?
AZB: Yes, there are capitalist organisations, which draw their support from the two per cent of the population who are feudal landlords and “own” 80 per cent of the land. Some of their estates are huge, often comprising 1,200 hectares, while the average peasant farm is three to four hectares.
PT: What does this mean for the peasants?
AZB: Well, the peasants and the poor are forced to scratch out an existence – you can hardly call it living – and there is a lot of discontent. Our main demands are for substantial reforms, with at least 12 to 14 hectares each as a minimum given to the peasants in order to live. The other issue is one of water. The area is served by the River Shenab, coming from the Indus. However, the landlords, through the use of canals, siphon off most of the benefits of this water for themselves. We demand water for the land of the peasants. Another issue is the question of the heavy loans which the peasants are forced to take out. Our demand is for cheap loans to lighten the heavy burden of the peasants.
PT: Are the poverty-stricken conditions in Seraiki linked to the demand for a separate province?
AZB: Yes, unquestionably. The region has very few jobs and is not given a fair share of the use of national resources. There is discrimination by the Punjabi state. For instance, Seraikis are not given a fair share of jobs in the public sector. There are no industrial units in the region to speak of, and the area is arbitrarily designated as rural by the landlords and the capitalists and is used mainly for producing cotton.
PT: Do the peasants campaign against these conditions?
AZB: Yes but they come up against the combined power of the feudals who use the state forces, the police in particular. Moreover, the land “adjudicators”, who are supposed to settle disputes “fairly”, are in the pockets of the rich. We attempt to inform the peasants, help them with legal challenges and generally mobilise them against these conditions.
PT: What is your relationship to the Socialist Movement Pakistan?
AZB: We have joined up with this movement because we recognise that landlordism and capitalism cannot satisfy the progressive demands of the peasants and the poor, nor can it meet the national demands of the Seraiki people. We are proud to be part of the Socialist Movement Pakistan, which is part of an international movement against the rich and in favour of the working people and the poor throughout the world.
PT: Could you tell our readers something about your history in the struggles of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi working classes?
ZR: I was born in Bangladesh and I was active in the student movement. I was also the organising secretary of the students union. Before independence, I was a member of the All-Pakistan Communist Party and after independence in 1971 I was a member of the East Pakistan Communist Party in Bangladesh.
PT: What did you do when the Pakistani army invaded East Pakistan, now Bangladesh?
ZR: The Pakistani army was killing people, murdering members of the Mukhti Bahini which was the liberation movement in East Pakistan. At the time I was a member of the united struggle committee involving different sections of the population. I was involved with the students but it involved workers, military training and so on. It was a kind of embryonic soviet.
PT: Tell us a little about what happened in the course of the struggle.
ZR: I was involved in the freedom fight. I fought for eight months against the Pakistani army.
PT: What happened in general during the eight months and what was your personal experience?
ZR: I was arrested three times by the Pakistani army. I was tortured; on one occasion, the Pakistani soldiers arrested me and told me to remain in a position in a room while they went to get the key. It was obvious that they were probably going to eliminate me but I seized the opportunity of their absence to escape.
PT: What happened subsequently?
ZR: The Pakistani army was defeated by India; actually more by the Bangladeshi liberation forces than by the Indian army.
PT: What was the position then in East Pakistan?
ZR: After independence, the leaders of the Awami League turned on the Mukhti Bahini and the left. There were two ethnic groups in Bangladesh then: one came from Bihar and the other was Bengali-speaking. The Awami League based themselves upon the Bengali speakers and attacked the Biharis. Although I spoke Urdu, I was included in the Bihari group and therefore I was imprisoned. The Communist Party, of which I was then a member, saved so many Biharis from persecution and imprisonment at that time. At the same time, during the war, the Communist Party had also saved so many Bengali-speaking people from the West Pakistan army, which of course was predominantly Urdu-speaking. At the end of 1971, I left Bangladesh and moved to what was then West Pakistan. I moved to Karachi.
PT: Zubair, give us an idea of what the position was in Karachi in 1971 and what activity were you involved in?
ZR: The Communist Party of Bangladesh said I should get in touch with the Communist Party in West Pakistan, particularly in the important city of Karachi where I went. I commenced work within the Communist Party after meeting the leaders in Karachi. At that stage, the Communist Party was working within the National Awami Party (NAP). After a few years, I became the secretary of the Karachi Committee. My responsibility was to co-ordinate the activities of the front organisations of the communist party amongst intellectuals, the students, the workers, women and so on. I was working in the political front inside the National Awami Party. I was working in the NAP but when the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) banned the NAP, I was arrested and spent seven months in detention. The pretext for my arrest was the assassination of a leader of the PPP by a bomb in Peshawar.
PT: What happened to you in detention – were you tortured, were you attacked?
ZR: There was no physical torture unlike what happened to me previously by the West Pakistani army. But severe mental torture was inflicted on me because the jailers put me in a death cell after the head of the jail wrote on my report that I was a very dangerous prisoner, with the obvious threat that I was to be executed if I showed any real intention to oppose them or take flight. I went on hunger strike and after four days I was freed from the death cell, although I still remained in prison.
PT: What happened to you when you came out of prison?
ZR: I was transferred from one jail to another and the police beat me severely with sticks. My injuries were quite severe.
PT: When you were released from jail, what did you do?
ZR: Afterwards I remained working in the NAP but when it was banned I organised further activity under the direction of the Communist Party. When General Zia al-Haq, leader of the Pakistani army, (who had been appointed by Bhutto) came to power in a coup in 1977, I was arrested. In fact, I was arrested on six occasions during the rule of Zia. On two occasions it was because of my membership of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD – the broad front which the Communist Party and the left were organised in). I was arrested again in 1980 for carrying copies of the Communist Party’s newspaper, The Red Flag, and particularly after it carried a statement welcoming the election of Francois Mitterand as President of France in the elections of 1980. I was taken to a torture cell for over a month.
PT: What kind of torture was inflicted on you?
ZR: Various tortures were inflicted on me such as putting a rope between my legs and my arms were attached and I was hung up, which produced excruciating pain; beating on the soles of my feet; on two other occasions they hung me by my arms and I was suspended from the ceiling for two hours with a break of half an hour and then it commenced again, and so on. This torture took place in the Pakistani CIA (Pakistan Government Investigation Department) centre in Karachi. I was then transferred to a torture chamber in the north near the Afghanistan border, which involved other forms of torture including sleep deprivation. When I came out, I recommenced my political activity. This was under the direction of the Communist Party, whose tactics were to work within bourgeois-nationalist parties including the Pakistan National Party (PNP).
PT: What were your feelings about this kind of work in the PNP?
ZR: The result of our work was that the Communist Party militants were responsible for winning a majority for the PNP in Karachi but, unfortunately, the leadership of this party was in the hands of national bourgeois politicians and they got the credit for our work. After a few years the PNP split and the Communist Party came out of the PNP.
PT: Did you then work independently?
ZR: The Communist Party was still banned, therefore we formed another party, which, unfortunately, repeated the previous mistakes of the Communist Party leaders because this was a bourgeois party, staffed by workers, influenced by the Communist Party, but again did not make a clear appeal to the working class. After a few years, we re-formed the National Awami Party. The Communist Party leaders still had not learned from their previous mistakes. Then after a few years, in 1989 the union leaders split from the Communist Party.
PT: What did you do in the 1990s?
ZR: I was still in the Communist party at this stage but it then had the position that Nawaz Sharif’s right-wing PNP government, which had replaced Benazir Bhutto’s PPP government, was now anti-imperialist. We objected to this and therefore formed a group called the Anti-Imperialist Front, together with workers who had been in the Communist Party.
PT: What do you think of the Socialist Movement?
ZR: I think this is the best hope I have seen yet for the Pakistani working class. There are significant forces behind it but we don’t exaggerate. I now firmly believe, as I always have done, in the idea of the world socialist revolution and particularly here in Pakistan, in which the conditions of the masses are deteriorating under capitalism. I therefore think we need to build a party capable of leading the working class. The Socialist Movement is best placed to assist in that process. Before we joined the Socialist Movement, we were very impressed with the publications of the CWI and particularly Socialism Today, which we read over a period of six years. We did attempt to make contact but, for one reason or another, it didn’t happen. We met representatives from the CWI who criticised other organisations and convinced us, in fact we were in agreement with the CWI’s ideas and, as a result, we are confident of building a socialist and revolutionary alternative around the Socialist Movement.