As the stand-off between the PTI government and protesters under the leadership of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) enters into the fifth day, it becomes clearer that the protagonists of the so-called ‘Azadi March’ are unwilling or unable to mount a systematic challenge to the material and ideological foundations of the ‘national security’ state that is the single biggest obstacle to democracy, federalism and fundamental civil liberties in Pakistan. Instead, its leadership has appeared more interested in protecting its own patronage networks, giving it the appearance of factional conflict within sections of the establishment, while cynically employing incendiary rhetoric that threatens the rights of minorities and women.
There can be no doubt that the PTI government has lost what little legitimacy it enjoyed barely a year after its dubious ‘victory’ in the 2018 general election. Yet the real power brokers in Pakistan are not the PTI, Prime Minister Imran Khan, or the parliament. More than ever, ordinary Pakistanis today understand that it is the military establishment that plays puppet master in the polity, in part to protect the vast corporate empire that it has built. Undergirding the military’s domination of Pakistan is an ideological claim to being ‘guardian of the state’, thereby enjoying default monopoly control over all of Pakistan’s resources and people can forever be deprived of economic, political and social freedoms under the guise of the ‘greater national interest’.
The Azadi March, despite its claims of fighting for civilian supremacy, has kept its veiled criticism limited to non-interference of the military in elections; it has yet to openly call for accountability of the military establishment, or heinous practices such as extra-judicial killings (including Khar Qamar), enforced disappearances, death of innocent people and destruction of their livelihoods under the guise of ‘counter-terrorism’ operations, or the ideology of national security and foreign policy with neighbouring countries.
Insofar as the Azadi March enjoys public support, it is because vast swathes of the population have grown fed up with this government and the system it holds in place.
While AWP recognizes the JUI-F’s and other opposition parties’ democratic right to protest, and reiterates progressive political forces’ longstanding commitment to civilian democratic supremacy, we believe that no such ‘Azadi March’ can truly succeed without a viable alternative to the national security state in the form of a people’s democratic state which undoes the social foundations of class, ethnic, religious and gender domination.
Despite the magnitude of the crisis at hand, the JUI-F’s and other parties’ demands remain limited to PM’s resignation and fresh elections — hardly guarantors of any meaningful deepening of democracy and which have little bearing on the material, economic and strategic basis of the military’s power.
An examination of the JUI-F’s own accommodationist history and current grievances suggests it will likely be all too willing to compromise if granted concessions in terms of electoral space or retreating from the regulation of its madrassa networks.
Critically, the rhetoric the JUI-F has employed for opposing the government has been rife with fundamentalist rhetoric that actively scapegoats and endangers minorities as a cynical strategy to undermine the government’s religious legitimacy. This cannot be condoned in good conscience, however much the inciters of such violence lay claim to democratic credentials. Open bigotry and threats to vulnerable groups must always be unequivocally opposed.
The March has also witnessed hostility towards women’s participation, in terms of the absence of women in the march, as well as the attacks by the JUI-F on women’s presence in the ruling party’s protests and political spaces in general. We believe that the normalization of such positions on women would be a massive setback for the precarious recent progress made on women’s rights in Pakistan.
AWP does not believe that the fight for civilian supremacy can be premised on a politics that attacks the rights of the already marginalized.
Further, AWP does not believe that substantive democratic transformation in Pakistan can be achieved through another shuffle of faces at the top absent any meaningful debate over an actual agenda of transformation. To be successful, the worthy political project of civilian supremacy must be tied to a concrete and credible agenda for socio-economic transformation, justice, and redistribution that aims to rebuild the foundations of state and society. This must include land reform, demilitarization of the state and economy, expansion of public spending in health, education, housing and employment, an independent, anti-imperialist foreign policy, a genuine redistributive taxation system, women’s social, economic and political liberation, restoration of student unions and universal, mass education, ending restrictions on worker unionization, policies for green industrialization and ecological restoration and a complete commitment to federalism, decentralization and civil and political freedoms.
We stand with the working people of Pakistan, oppressed nationalities, women and religious minorities that are being pushed further into a desperate situation by the mounting economic crisis that has pushed millions of people into desperate circumstances. We stand with and will organize against IMF-imposed austerity and exploitation of our natural resources by foreign investors under the guise of development, particularly in peripheral regions like Balochistan, Sindh and the ex-FATA districts.
We stand with katchi abadi dwellers and street vendors struggling against the tyranny of ‘anti-encroachment’ operations. We stand with students struggling for the right to quality education and adequate representation. We stand with doctors, nurses, and teachers fighting for public health and education reform. We stand for women and girls who deal with abominable crimes to their bodies, minds, and persons every day. We stand against unaccountable operations, laws, profiling, and discrimination under the guise of the ‘war on terror’. We stand for peace, justice, democracy, and equality of all.
We will continue to express reserved support for the mainstream opposition parties, but refuse to be drawn into a cynical battle for power between factions of the establishment in which the military’s position as arbiter of power remains unchallenged. We will continue to strive to build a genuinely counter-hegemonic popular force of Pakistan’s working people to transform the state and society.
AWP Rawalpindi-Islamabad District Chapter