Pakistan: Musharraf hangs on while poverty and oppression multiplies

Ruling elite divided with no immediate alternative

Thousands of police and military throughout Pakistan were mobilised during March and April to brutally repress and beat lawyers and judges who had taken to the streets to protest against the suspension of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary, chief justice of the Supreme Court. The main reason for his suspension was that he was presiding over the cases of those Pakistanis who have "disappeared" under the Musharraf dictatorship.

This clash, between two sections of Pakistan’s ruling elite, revealed the widening splits and divisions which are opening up in the regime. Musharraf’s regime has been plunged into its deepest crisis since coming to power. This development has caused great anxiety for Bush and US imperialism which has rested on Musharraf in its so-called "war on terrorism".

By a thread

Musharraf’s regime hangs by a thread and is clinging on owing to the lack of any alternative for the ruling class and the Pakistani working class and peasantry. The main opposition Pakistani Peoples’ Party (PPP) is collaborating with Musharraf and preparing to join him a future coalition. The one thing that unites the plethora of political parties and groups in Pakistan is their fear of the masses and a desire to keep them off the streets and out of politics. The ruling classes and elite, made up of the military and feudals, hang suspended in mid-air with no real social base of support.

The influence of the military has dramatically increased in Pakistan in the last decade. Consuming an estimated 50% of the economy the military is increasingly becoming the ruling class. Its business interests range from fertilizer, texitiles, banking, cereal products, property development, petrol distribution and hotels. This militarisation of the ruling class illustrates how rotten capitalism and fuedalism are in Pakistan. They are a parasite riding on the backs of millions of workers and poor peasants."

The economic "boom" which government representatives constantly talk about, has not improved the lives of millions in the cities and rural areas who survive amidst grinding poverty and social degradation. All of the main parties are perceived as being a part of the ruling elite that have nothing in common with the lives of the mass of population. Even the fundamentalist parties, with approximately 10% support are lumped together with the rest. Parties like Jamati Islami, where 90% of its Central Committee members are millionaires, are a world apart from the grinding poverty of the masses and real lives of the workers and peasants.

The social conditions are all present in Pakistan for a massive explosion of discontent. A gaping vacuum exists. There is a crying need for a mass workers’ and peasants’ party that will challenge the ruling elite. It is the absence of such a party and the need for the mass of workers and peasants to regain confidence that is allowing the Musharraf regime and the ruling elite to hang onto power by its finger nails.

It was against this background that the Pakistani section of the CWI, the Socialist Movement Pakistan, held its most recent congress in Lahore. The congress was attended by over 100 delegates, including workers, peasants and young people from all over Pakistan. Many of those there were trade union and community leaders in their areas and some of them are national leaders. SMP members attending this important congress debated the tasks of revolutionary socialists and the masses in the struggle to build a mass alternative to capitalism and feudalism in Pakistan and the Asian sub-continent.

In the congress and during the subsequent tour of some of the main areas of Pakistan accounts of the heroic struggles by CWI members, workers and peasants, against unimaginable odds were recounted again and again. The struggle to build the trade unions (only a small percentage of Pakistani workers or organised in unions), the struggles against feudal lords and gangs and the incredibly moving accounts of the aspirations of women and young people who yearn to be free from the oppression and constrictions suffered under the ‘Islamic Republic’ dominated all meetings and discussions.

Walking through the streets of Lahore, Karachi and towns in interior Sindh one cannot help but be struck by two things.

Firstly, there is the murderous pollution. It is killing thousands through respiratory illnesses especially in Lahore and areas of Karachi. The thick fog of petrol fumes hangs in the city invading the slum houses of the workers’ districts. At night there is no respite as fleets of lorries, like military convoys, are loaded with goods to be transported all over the country, which rev-up their engines outside the houses of leading SMP members and others in working class areas. The pollution clouds which hang over Latin American cities like Santiago, Lima or Sao Paulo are a minor irritant compared to the black air breathed in every hour of every day by the masses in Lahore.

Secondly, and most significantly, in the working class areas one is struck by the absence of women wearing the veil. After two weeks travelling in Pakistan it is no exaggeration to say that more women wearing the veil are seen on the streets of London than in Pakistan.

In fact, teachers are not supposed to wear the full veil in Pakistan when taking lessons. Those that do are overwhelmingly from the middle class and its upper layers driving around in the latest 4×4 cars. In the poorest areas in the big cities the Mosques are half empty. SMP members recount scandals involving Mullahs in the religious schools accused of child molesting reminiscent of those that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, Spain and other countries in Europe.

Talking to groups of women in the kitchens of houses, where nobody wore a veil, one could not help but sense that a social explosion is being prepared amongst this section of Pakistani society. Asked in these discussion circles what was their greatest hope or aspiration the reply was the same: "Liberty" and "Freedom". When asked to explain what they meant by this all responded, "Freedom to go out and meet when and who we choose", "not to be chained to cooking and domestic jobs".

There is intense interest in how women live in the West. Incredibly in one such discussion in the feudal interior of Sindh – where women are still "bought" for marriage – one asked, "is it true women can marry another women in Britain?" These discussions, although brief, ranged over many questions of struggle including how the suffragettes fought for women’s rights in Britain and many other issues. The real Pakistan is a world away from the picture painted in the capitalist press and media and by some on the left in Europe, who ignore the struggles of these women to break down the prejudice and vicious discrimination that is a crushing weight on their daily existence.

Rebuild the trade unions

One of the most important issues and struggles taken up by the SMP has been to begin to rebuild the trade unions. Through a combination of Musharraf’s repression against trade union activists and the discrediting of the official trade union federations there is a very low level of unionisation. Through the Trade Union Rights Campaign Pakistan(TURCP) the SMP has begun to draw together important sections of organised workers and to organise the unorganised. Ninety trade unions – forty national and fifty regional or local – are currently grouped together under the umbrella of the TURCP. These include the national unions in the railway workshops, the post office, and telecommunications. Each of these unions has between 50-60,000 members. In Karachi, The TURCP includes the steel workers and in the Sindh, a teachers’ union.

New unions are also being formed and have been built. For example, new unions are being developed amongst the ‘hawkers’ (newspaper sellers) and, in interior Sindh, even the donkey-cart drivers in one city. Many of the leaders of these unions were present at the SMP congress and other meetings that were organised like the 120-strong meeting which took place in Islamabad. In the railways, post office and telecommunications it is the unions affiliated to the TURCP which have fought and won battles for union recognition. The struggle to organise effective fighting unions has been undertaken in a vicious struggle against both the employers, the government, the right-wing and in some cases reactionary Islamic fundamentalist forces.

"Not fighting for our rights but for our lives" in the Sindh.

At the SMP congress the comrades from the Sindh, one of the poorest areas of Pakistan, movingly spoke of the grotesque poverty and struggles against unbelievable odds being waged in their region. Hameed Chenah, CWI member and leading community activist summed up the desperation of the masses fighting the feudals and bandits in the region far more than any dry list of statistics could reveal. "The masses are not fighting for their rights. They are fighting for their lives. In five years nothing will be left".

Stepping back

Yet no speech or discussion can prepare any stranger for a visit to the Sindh. It means stepping back hundreds of years in time to an almost feudal-type society: women are sold for marriage, and feudal lords control local armies. Political "leaders" are simply the nominees of the local feudal families. In one case the local Mayor was only 17 years old when he was "elected" because his father and grandfather had to go on to higher office. Roaming gangs of bandits control the main highways at night, armed with rocket launchers and machine guns. Here the centralised state does not rule. The massive trucks, painted like works of art, carrying goods to and from the port of Karachi can only travel at night in convoy with an armed police escort.

Through the eyes of a European, the eight hour drive from Karachi was progressively a journey back in time where the outside temperature would soar up to 42 centigrade. The journey itself was one of dicing with death as drivers duck in and out of the spaces between gigantic painted lorries, whose drivers take drugs to remain awake, at breakneck speed dodging craters and potholes in the road.

Slum housing near Rawalpindi

Between the towns one enters a world of mud huts built by the poor peasants. A stop at a restaurant, where the middle class will eat because local peasants and workers cannot afford such a luxury, finds a wooden partition inside. Women with the families sit on one side and men on the other. Yet the contradictions between modern capitalism and feudal backwardness are found even here. Mobile phones here can receive a call direct from London while the car drives through a herd of buffaloes and camels. Despite the modern technology that does exist, it is in a sea of poverty and tremendous need: the car we are in passes thousands who have no access to clean water.

It is in the town of Tharri Mohabat where the SMP and TURCP are fully active and leading mass campaigns in a life and death struggle with the feudals and local bandits. A Civil Committee which has 50-60 representatives unites all the local unions, traders, and community groups which calls general assemblies and co-ordinates local struggles.

Hameed Chenah, SMP activist facing death threats from criminal gangs paid by feudal landlords

Hameed is secretary of this and seen as the local community leader. He is again under death threats from the bandits who work in collusion with the feudals. Recently he opened his door to find a group of armed thugs waiting outside for him. On other occasions, fully armed bandits have marched into his house and just removed everything from it. This is daily life to be involved in the class struggle in the Sindh.

Socialist Movement Pakistan motorbike convoy

Nearly 100 motor bikes of TURCP activists all with red flags form a reception escort into the town. Rather bizarrely a policeman jumped to attention and salutes as we passed by. This courtesy not one extended to the local population which the police offer no protection or support. There has, according to many activists, never been a white in this town since 1947 and independence from Britain. Over 400 attended the rally organised by the Civic Committee and 100 attended the public meeting organised in the evening.

Although different in character, the struggles of workers and peasants in the Sindh is echoed, although in a different way, in the massive urban metropolis of Karachi. This is the largest city in Pakistan with an official population of twenty million. In fact the population is much larger and is a show case of the nightmare of capitalism and feudalism in Pakistan. Nearly half the city frequently gets no electricity for half the day such is the weakness of the infrastructure. With desperate grinding poverty in the workers’ districts, like all cities in Pakistan, the rich elite live an opulent life style. Yet Karachi is almost a completely armed city, with violence and poverty going side by side.


Unlike other cities in Pakistan, the majority of Karachi’s population is made up of refugees fleeing from war, poverty and starvation who have settled there at different times over the last fifty years. Huge influxes of many ethnic and tribal groupings across Pakistan (and also from other countries in the Asian sub-continent) means that its original Sindhi population is now a minority.

One of the important groups to migrate to Karachi after the partition of British ruled India was the Mohajir Urdu speaking Muslims who settled in Karachi. Many Mohajir’s formed part of the administrative elite in Britain’s Indian colonies but did not continue to have the same privileged position in Pakistan. Reactionary groups, encouraged by the groups within the brutal and manipulative Zia ul-Haq military dictatorship, fomented friction and division amongst Karachi’s poverty-stricken, multi-ethnic population. This exploded into a bloody and barbaric civil war in the 1980s which left thousands dead. One of the groups blamed for much of this violence in the western press was the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM), which was based in the Mohajir community. However, Islamic fundamentalist groups and other reactionary forces were also active in this violence, which also targeted lefts, intellectuals and trade union activists.

Karachi’s present struggle between the socialist left and these reactionary forces and in particular the fundamentalist groups, is illustrated at Karachi university. Previously a strong base of the left, the fundamentalists have targeted it and carried out a political purge. In some faculties left-wing professors have been purged and replaced with fundamentalists. Although relatively weak in numbers, because of the lack of any alternative, these forces have exercised a disproportionate influence here and in many universities. On occasions these groups have marched into lectures and beaten up the left-wing professors when they would not accept the dictates of these groups.

On other occasions male students have been dragged from the lectures and ruthlessly beaten simply because they were sitting next to a female student. Others, including SMP members have been dragged from the campus and beaten only for the victim to return the next day to continue with political activity in an act of defiance against these reactionary groups. As one socialist professor recounted, the fundamentalists do not always get it their own way. He related how when he was once attacked a section of the students followed his example and retaliated driving these thugs from his class.

The MQM which has been renamed by its leadership to appeal to broader sections of Pakistanis is renowned for opportunism in order to build support. A couple of weeks ago it called a demonstration against the most extreme fundamentalist Sunni Mullahs in Karachi. There was a truly massive turnout with over 100 000 attending, many of them young people and women who were not MQM activists or supporters. All of them were united in the mood of having had enough of the oppression and backwardness preached by corrupt and hypocritical Mullahs. Despite the reactionary nature of the MQM leadership, this demonstration shows the reality of what working class and young people in Pakistan think about the ‘Islam’ of the Mullahs.

Pakistan is crying out for a mass socialist alternative. On the basis of capitalism and feudalism the masses have no future. The need for a mass workers’ and peasants party with a revolutionary socialist programme is the only road to survival for millions. The struggle for a socialist Pakistan as part of a democratic socialist federation of SE Asia is the decisive struggle that the PSM in Pakistan and activists are committed to fight for."

Speaker at recent SMP congress

Delegates at recent SMP congress

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