Pakistan is a country of over 200m people, but at least 40 percent live in poverty. Life expectancy is low, at an average of 66 years and infant mortality is high, with about about 64.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. For a large part of the population life is a living hell. But on top of this there is also the impact of the western invasions into Afghanistan, the effects of which have spilled across the border, and the repressive operations of the state security forces.
The Pashtuns, an ethnic group of 30m people, living mainly in the tribal region bordering Afghanistan, have suffered the brunt of state oppression. In recent years around 30,000 Pashtuns have disappeared in the hands of the state security forces. Families do not know where their relatives have been taken, whether they are being kept in secret prisons or whether they have been killed. This has been going on for some years now, but this year the people reached the limit of what they could take and a mass movement erupted.
The spark that set off this prairie fire was the killing in Karachi on 13 January of a 28-year-old shopkeeper Naqeeb ullah Mehsud by Rao Anwar, the infamous police officer known for many extra-judicial killings. Naqeeb was a member of a Pashtun tribe, the Mehsud. Such killings are common in Pakistan, but this time the establishment of Pakistan got a shock they were not expecting. Hundreds of thousands of Pashtuns across the country began to mobilise, with tens of thousands turning up at public rallies to protest against the killing and demanding to know what has happened to the other disappeared people.
Initially the state thought it could crack down on the movement, but when it saw how widespread the movement had become it had to change its approach. For instance, some officials started saying that they were open to “dialogue”, with the clear intention of slowly wearing down the movement and bringing the situation back under control. At the same time, they sought the most radical and advanced layers and targeted them for individual harassment as a warning that they should moderate their positions or face serious consequences.
What is significant about this movement is that it has erupted in one of the least-developed parts of Pakistan. The general mood among the wider left was that the situation in Pakistan is ‘reactionary’: that no big movements can be expected in today’s conditions. This, however, is a superficial approach that ignores the real underlying processes taking place within society.
It is true that if one looks at the parties represented in the Pakistani parliament, at the nature of the mainstream political leaders, and at the quality of the trade union leaders, one would draw a very pessimistic perspective indeed. But underneath the surface there was a layer of radicalism bubbling away. The point is that the moment comes when that radicalism comes to the surface, and in Pakistan that has happened in a huge way, and it has come from a section of society considered to be one of the most ‘backward’ and conservative.
To the political activists in Pakistan this does not come as a surprise. We understand that all over the world ordinary working people are waking up to the realities of politics and their working conditions. In ‘normal’ times, people generally accept the status quo, they accept the role of the state, they tolerate corruption and so on. But the whole situation is being turned on its head! Here we have the most ‘backward’ becoming the most advanced. Here we have ordinary, working people who no longer respect the state institutions, nor any of the established parties, and have begun to take their destinies into their own hands. That is what we see today among the Pashtun people of Pakistan.
This also explains why the slogans of the Pakistan socialist and trade union activists have connected with the mood of the Pashtun mass movement taking place. They put forward the most advanced slogans in relation to the state and what needs to be done. They explain that the Pashtuns need to link up with the other oppressed peoples of Pakistan, and in particular with the working class. The Pashtun movement in fact has been attempting to spread to other parts of the country and on 22 April held a rally in Lahore of many thousands. On the same day, there were protests in other cities, such as Karachi in the south.
Because of their role in raising solidarity with the Pashtun movement, the socialists of the Lal Salaam group, and the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) and the Red Workers’ Front (RWF) have been singled out for particular attention from the state forces. That explains the abduction on Sunday of seven comrades: Karim Parhar, leader of PTM and RWF Quetta; Attaullah Afridi, Organizer of PYA Karachi; Aftab Ashraf, central organizer of RWF; Umer Riaz, Organizer of PYA Islamabad; Zain ul Abideen, Central Organizer of PYA; Muhammad Gulbaz, Organizer of RWF Kashmir; and Bilawal Baloch, Deputy General Secretary of PYA.
These comrades have not been arrested, nor charged with anything; they have been abducted by the Rangers, a special security force known for its violence against protesters. They are also known for making activists “disappear” and are used to intimidate trade unionists and youth who refuse to buckle under and abide by what the authorities demand of them. The abduction of the seven comrades is part of this process of intimidation.
We have to fight back against the State repression against the Pastuns and all the oppressed workers in Pakistan!