by Daphne Liddle
HUNDREDS of thousands of Pakistanis: workers, peasants, lawyers, trade unionists, communists, socialists and all manner of progressives have been marching in the last two months. And they have already achieved one big goal – the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry, the country’s Chief of Justice and the rule of law.
This may go a long way to achieving the full restoration and implementation of the country’s 1973 constitution – in line with the United Nations Human Rights Charter – which demands an end to bonded labour and wide-ranging land reforms that would give liberated bonded labourers their own land to support themselves.
The military feudal clique that has ruled Pakistan since 1947 – set in place by the departing British colonial regime – is now beginning to crumble and mass demands for civil rights are surging forward.
All existing and former heads of state in Pakistan have been drawn from that military feudal clique and the marchers want them all out, including existing Prime Minister Zardari (husband of assassinated Benazir Bhutto) and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
Sharif two weeks ago decided to lend his support to the ‘long march’ organised by lawyers and other civil rights activists demanding the full restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry as Chief of Justice, along with all the other judges and lawyers who were summarily and illegally removed from office two years ago by the American-backed military dictator Pervez Musharraf.
At the time General Musharraf had been trying to regularise his position by preparing a presidential election in which he would be returned as a “democratically elected” leader. Traditionally Pakistani presidents are elected from within the parliament. To achieve his end he would have to breach all manner of constitutional laws and Chaudhry was not prepared to stand aside and let him get away with this, so Chaudhry had to go.
In the autumn of 2007 Musharraf engineered his “election” as president but it was a short lived victory. It provoked mass protests and he declared martial law. Popular outrage grew and he was forced to concede new parliamentary elections early in 2008 – and to allow former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto – candidate for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – to return from exile and begin election campaigning.
Nawaz Sharif, the former president kicked out by Musharraf, was living in forced exile in Saudi Arabia. But he slipped back into the country to join the campaign for free elections.
In the final days of 2007 Bhutto was assassinated while campaigning and the whole country was convinced that Musharraf’s intelligence thugs were either behind it or had deliberately allowed it to happen.
Popular anger rose to a crescendo; Sharif temporarily allied himself to the PPP in a joint effort aimed at getting rid of Musharraf. The delayed elections went ahead and Bhutto’s widowed husband, Ali Asif Zardari, won a landslide. Shortly after Musharraf was forced to stand down and the whole country celebrated.
But Zardari failed to fulfil the PPP promise to reinstate Chaudhry and the rule of law. He himself had old corruption charges hanging over him. All the leaders: Musharraf, Bhutto Sharif and Zardari were from the rich landowner class and all had “legal irregularities” and reason to fear the full implementation of the law. They had all failed to implement the 1973 constitution.
Furthermore they had all acted as willing tools of United States imperialism in the area, allowing Pakistan to be used as a base for Muslim fundamentalist terrorists undermining People’s Afghanistan in the 1980s and as a base to invade Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 2001. Musharraf also supplied Pakistani troops to back the US invasion of Somalia in the 1990s. Nevertheless Sharif continued to call for the restoration of Chaudhry; it was a very popular demand and he knew that Zardari’s rule was becoming less and less popular. The people would soon be looking for a new leader.
When Sharif declared his support for the lawyers’ civil rights long march and urged the protesters to occupy the area around the parliament building, Zardari had him put under house arrest. But he defied this to join the demonstrators.
Officials from his Muslim League (PML-N) party said that Sharif had been detained in his home town of Lahore. Hundreds of police surrounded his residence before dawn and detained him along with scores of his supporters.
Speaking to Al Jazeera before he was allowed by the police to head for the protest rally, Sharif said: “The police and the administration have sealed this house totally and there are a lot of very heavy police contingents standing outside my house.
“They say that I am under house arrest, but so far I haven’t been served any arrest warrant.” Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, who is a senior member of the Muslim League, was also thought to have been placed under house arrest.
Scuffles broke out in Lahore shortly after Sharif’s detention was declared, with riot police firing tear gas at stone-throwing demonstrators.
Lawyers and opposition party supporters had planned to gather near Lahore’s main court complex before heading toward Islamabad to stage a mass sit-in front of parliament, in defiance of a government ban.
Sharif’s supporters denied he was a destabilising influence and insisted that all Zardari had to do was to reinstate Chaudhry and “he can enjoy uninterrupted government for four years,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We are not demanding an overthrow of the government, nor are we asking for mid-term elections. All we are asking is for Mr Zardari to fulfil the promises he made to restore the judges.”
Sharif was claiming to speak on behalf of the protesters, but he did not organise or lead the demonstration and most of the protesters wanted a lot more.
Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor of international relations at Islamabad’s Qaid-e-Azam university, said that Zardari was resisting reinstating the judges for fear they might revoke his protection from corruption charges.
“The return of Benazir Bhutto and Zardari to Pakistan took place under a deal with Musharraf in 2007. As part of the deal all the corruption charges, through a special presidential ordinance called NRO [National Reconciliation Ordinance], were removed, against Zardari especially.
“The NRO remains, but the fear of the Zardari-led regime is, if they restore chief justice Chaudhry – given his assertive background – the NRO might be revoked and then obviously all those charges will come back to haunt Zardari and other party leaders.” Zardari relented and reinstated Chaudhry and the rest of the judges – and the mass sit-in in parliament square was averted.
It was greeted as a major step forward by the vast majority of people: trade unionists peasants, civil rights activists and many more. In London veteran civil rights activist Mukhtar Rana told the New Worker: “This has been a big demand of the people of Pakistan; it’s a return to the rule of law. The reinstatement of Chaudhry and all the judges and lawyers is a big achievement of the people of Pakistan.
“Lawyers in Britain and the US supported their cause.”
In Pakistan Baz Mohammed Kakar, a leader of the lawyers’ movement said: “This is a victory for the people of this country. Chaudhry is the first chief justice in the history of Pakistan who has proved himself to be a judge for the people, as a chief justice for the people.”
For now, calm has settled after the big demonstration. The army is supporting the chief justice and say they will obey him.
The People’s Party is opposing Nawaz Sharif for his record of bad government and violating constitution by declaring martial law.
Trade unions are growing in strength and confidence and many new civil rights and progressive groups are growing up.
Another giant protest long march has happened just a few weeks before, in the Sindh province, demanding the implementation of land reforms. It was mainly a march of the haris – landless peasants and recently liberated bonded labourers, demanding land to grow food to support themselves.
Article 38(a) of the Constitution of Pakistan says: “The State shall secure the well-being of the people... by preventing the concentration of wealth and means of production and distribution in the hands of a few to the detriment of general interest and by ensuring equitable adjustment of rights between employers and employees, and landlords and tenants.”
United Nations declarations specifically acknowledge this need. The Declaration on Social Progress, adopted by the General Assembly back in 1969, recognises the social function of property, including land, and calls for forms of land ownership that ensure equal rights to property for all..
Syed Mohammed Ali, writing in the Pakistani Daily Times, says: “Despite international conventions and our own constitutional imperatives, not much has been done to address the profound violations facing a multitude of small landless farmers across our country. A highly skewed distribution of land in our country continues to prevail, although there is growing evidence pointing to the need for security of land tenure to promote more investment in land to ensure higher yields.
“When agricultural land is owned in smaller parcels, production practices are also seen to become less extractive.
Nonetheless, landed politicians continue to deny the poorer rural workforce access to not only land, but also other productive resources, such as seeds, fertilisers and water.
“According to the International Labour Organisation’s World Labour Report, there are approximately 1.7 million bonded labourers in Pakistan, and a majority of them are in the agricultural sector.
“The introduction of canal-irrigated agriculture by the British and the migrations associated with the development of the so-called canal colonies’ created serious rural disparities in our part of the world, which enabled an increasingly incontestable dominance of the landed elite on sharecroppers/tenant farmers and landless agricultural labourers.
“Even after Partition, the lack of effective land reforms and the continuation of archaic laws meant to regulate the legal relationship between landowners and tenant farmers who occupy rural land in major agricultural areas in Punjab and Sindh have severely undermined the interests of the rural poor.”
Landlord and tenant farmer relations are guided by the Sindh Tenancy Act of 1950, which is said to be a result of the long struggle by the peasant organisations of the 1940s.
This Act articulated the rights, obligations and remedies available to the haris (tenant farmers/land-tillers) as well as to the Zamindars (landlords). The law recommended that borrowing and lending related be regulated strictly to avoid exploitation on either side. The law thus fixed a time limit of such lending or borrowing and further required written documents as proof for financial transactions. And a court was supposed to be formed to settle disputes between haris and the zamindars.
In practice, however, proper land records are not being maintained under the Sindh Tenancy Act. Despite trying to regulate loaning arrangement, landlords still apportion a large quantity of harvests, claiming these to be repayments of interest on loans given to their haris. The ease with which landlords circumvent the existing provisions of the law has impelled calls for a complete overhaul of this legislation.
There was even a Sindh High Court’s Hyderabad branch decision to amend the Sindh Tenancy Act according to needs of the peasants back in 2002. In 2007, the speaker of the Sindh Assembly finally formed a committee to amend the Sindh Tenancy Act. But, the prevalent political party lent its support to the landed politicians in order to remain in power, and once again not much was done to address the on-ground exploitation of the rural masses.
Furthermore the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 has never been properly implemented. Although the Asian Development Bank also provided a loan to the Sindh government aiming to end bonded labour, seven years after getting this loan, little groundwork has been done to achieve this objective.
In mid-February thousands of haris and their supporters set off on a two-week march to demand amendments to the Sindh Land and Tenancy Act, which will be tabled at the next Sindh Assembly session, according to deputy speaker Shehla Raza. The march was organised by South Asia Partnership, Pakistan (SAP-Pakistan), Sindh Haari Porhiat Council (SHPC) and Bhandar Hari Sangat (BHS).
On the last day of the march, the procession of the peasants from Sindh and the leadership of SAP-Pakistan, SHPC and BHS, were joined by thousands of peasants from Punjab, Balochistan and NWFP, as well as members of organisations working for the rights of peasants, workers and women.
The march was delayed as some groups were by police and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz workers.
Regardless, when the rally did start off, all one could see was a mass of people interspersed with thousands of flags, including those of the SHPC, Awami Party, and the historic Haider Bux Jatoi’s Sindh Haari Committee.
Various slogans reverberated through the air as the sea of people wove their way along main roads, by-lanes and footpaths. Several volunteers kept order, and many shopkeepers, residents and passers-by came up to the marchers with encouragement.
Many even joined the procession, or at least responded to slogans while flashing victory signs.
The rally, which had covered almost all of M A Jinnah Road, finally reached the Sindh Assembly around 6:30pm, where it was surrounded by massive trucks and hordes of police.
The leadership of the movement went into the Sindh Assembly building to speak with the ministers. After a while, Deputy Speaker Shehla Raza came out and addressed the rally. She said she was proud of the fact that the peasants and workers of the country were now aware of their rights and were also aware of how to get them.
She also promised that the amendments in the Sindh Land and Tenancy Act would be tabled at the next Sindh Assembly session.
“If these promises are not fulfilled, we will march again on 15th August and stage another sit-in here. That sit-in will be an absolute re-enactment of the peasants’ sit-in led by Haider Bux Jatoi more than 50 years ago. It had resulted in the passing of the Sindh Land and Tenancy Act,” SAP-Pakistan provincial coordinator Syed Zulfiqar Shah said in his speech.
He made the participants promise not to give up the fight, and to continue “till the rule of the workers and peasants was set up in the country”.
SHPC head Punhal Sario lambasted past and present rulers and systems of the government in the country for doing nothing substantial for the rights of peasants, workers and women, and for not ensuring the implementation of laws in letter and spirit.
Speakers at the sit-in took pride in the fact that not a single window was broken during the march. “Our peaceful struggle is our strength. It should, however, not be taken as a sign of weakness,” they said.
The long march started in Hyderabad on 15th February from the tomb of “Baba-e-Sindh” (father of Sindh) Haider Bux Jatoi and culminated on 26th February in Karachi with a sit-in in front of the Sindh Assembly building to demand the establishment of Haari courts, amendments in the Sindh Land and Tenancy Act and rights for landless peasants in the province.
In London Mukhtar Rana told the New Worker:
“Our movement has been supporting this. So many bonded labourers marching for their freedom! This is the task we have been fighting for years and years. It’s why I visited Karachi last year.
“But even when people got their freedom their was no work for them to support themselves.
“Now they are demanding land reforms so they can become landowners and have somewhere to grow their crops and support themselves.
“That’s the most important thing. Now things are going forward and we are playing an active role in supporting this struggle.”