Monthly Archives: March 2016

The white working class – does it exist and should you despise it?

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In the US, the Republican right have taken to sneering at the “white working class”. But they’re not alone. Middle-class liberals same and the media feel free to caricature “white trash” or “chavs”. Class hatred lives on … when it’s top-down.

It’s so difficult to hate in peace these days. Overt racism is generally frowned upon – even by racists (“I’m not racist but …”).  Islamophobia is having a moment, it’s true. And then there’s class hatred, as long as it’s de haut en bas, especially if you target the “white working class”, the subject of sneers from the American right recently but also portrayed by media and liberals as the repository of all bigotry, backwardness and bad taste.

Having created a monster, the Republican establishment is desperately trying to shift the blame for flipping the switch that brought Donald Trump to political life. Two writers in the New Republic have found the perfect suspect – “the white working class”.

“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles”, writes Kevin Williamson, going on to decry “the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog”.

Cheering him on, David French claims Williamson has debunked “the idea that the white working-class (the heart of Trump’s support) is a victim class”. His church tried to help these people, he reports, but found its efforts wasted because they prefer welfare to work, drop out of education on a whim, shag the neighbour at the first sign of marital discord and neck prescription drugs with the same gusto that respectable people sip Chardonnay.

Reassuringly, French “hate[s] the mockery that poor and working-class people of all races endure” and doesn’t think that the drug-addicted fornicators are solely responsible for their fate. The government, the “cultural elite”, “progressive culture”, “progressive policies”, the “progressive welfare state” and the “elitist sexual revolutionaries” are not blameless, he adds … to no-one’s surprise.

For the New Republic, while both the causes and the guilt seem to be collective, the solutions must be individual – don’t claim disability, be faithful, stop snorting OxyContin move to get a job – and the way to achieve this is to give “white working class” – collectively – a good telling-off.

It isn’t just the right that lumps white working-class people into a homogeneous, contemptible mass.

“[S]ince Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash’,” writes US journalist Connie Schultz. “These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.”

Jack Metzgar in In These Times points out that the statistics don’t bear out the assertion that Trump’s support comes disproportionately from non-college-educated whites, the definition of working-class adopted by a Brookings article that says it does, while Charles Davis of TeleSur claims that among white voters who make less than US$25,000 a year, it is Bernie Sanders who is in the lead by a margin of 15 per cent.

But Trump isn’t really the point.

“Every group has its ‘other’,” Schultz observes. “For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

When Hillary Clinton was fighting Barak Obama for the Democratic nomination, she was accused of playing to racist sentiment to appeal to the white working class. In France the white working class is often blamed for the rise of the Front National’s support, as it is for Ukip’s successes in the UK, where “chav” is now a term of abuse and the poor are the given the reality-TV treatment. These are standard liberal media analyses, repeated again and again in various forms, but generally identifying a hazily defined racial-cum-socio-economic category with whatever prejudice is to be decried at any given moment.

My own experience is that there are selfish shits and bigots in all social classes, although upbringing and level of education may influence the degree of subtlety with which these characteristics are manifested. Generosity and open-mindedness can be found everywhere, too, although I’ve found solidarity, in the sense of standing together in the face of common oppression, is somewhat lacking in the middle and upper classes.

But, however you define it, the working class is not ethnically homogeneous.

So what is that adjective doing in front of that noun?

We don’t talk about the black female gender, so why would a socio-economic category have an additional racial characterisation?

I understand one can reasonably talk about a white bourgeoisie in some Latin American countries, we could certainly talk about a white slave-owning class in the southern United States and the Caribbean in the past but, despite racist employment practices, membership of the working class is not such a privilege that it is restricted to any one race.

When factories close workers of all ethnic groups are thrown out of work. When incomes are squeezed, the banks foreclose with a lack of discrimination that would be praiseworthy in another context.

Some working-class people may react to the loss of relative security with racism or other prejudices – as may middle-class business owners or professionals who feel the pinch – but, when they do so, they are identifying as white, not working-class. When you express contempt for someone who is less privileged than yourself, whether in education, income or status, you’re defining them by class. And that’s a form of bigotry, too.

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Pakistani atheist infiltrates jihadi training camps

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Saying you don’t believe in any god can be dangerous in Pakistan. It has tough blasphemy laws and apostates from Islam could be punished by the death penalty, if fundamentalist mullahs haven’t incited a mob to murder you before your arrest. Nevertheless some Pakistani atheists are open about their non-belief, there’s even a Facebook page, and are accepted by their friends. In Karachi in 2008 I met an atheist who took his bravery a little further and infiltrated jihadi training camps. Here’s what he told me (article first published on RFI’s English website).

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The port in Karachi Photo: Tony Cross

Karachi 21.02.2008

While Pakistan’s three largest parties are all secular, all mainstream politicians are at pains to justify their policies with reference to Islam.

Sikandria Hayat Janjua, a member of Farooq Tariq’s Labour Party, feels no such constraint. Sitting in a hotel restaurant, he rips into religion at considerable volume. Tareeq says that his outspokenness has landed him in trouble more than once. One night, after outlining a vigorous critique of Islam to a young man who was staying with him, Janjua woke up to find the shocked believer stabbing him repeatedly.

He fought him off, summoned help and was taken to hospital, where, he’s happy to report, medical science saved his life.

“I believe that we will one day conquer death,” he tells me.

Janjua’s religious skepticism dates from the death of his father, a soldier who was killed in the nominally-independent region of Azad Kashmir in 1980. His killer was not an Indian soldier defending Delhi’s rule of much of the divided state, but an Islamist who took exception to what Janjua calls his father’s “progressive views”.

Janjua joined the secular Jammu and Kashmir Student Federation and then came to Karachi University, where he now leads an organization called the Progressive Youth Front. The organisation’s relations with the Islamist student organisations are not particularly friendly.

But back home in Azad Kashmir Janjua is part of the community, so, in 2001, when a group of young men went off to an Islamist training camp, they invited him to attend.  He says he went back on two other occasions, in 2003 and 2004.

Janjua says that there are five such camps in Azad Kashmir and that they take in about 180 18-22-year-old men for six-month courses in fighting for Islam, including preparation to become suicide-bombers.

“They welcome me as a muslim and took me to a barracks,” he says of his first visit.

The fajr prayers, at dawn, were followed by readings from the Koran. Janjua says the verses were selected to encourage suicide-attacks then followed by physical training.

He says he attended an international training camp at Kotly, 160 kilometres north of Islamabad, where the mullahs tried to convince him to join their version of jihad.

“They said ‘You will be in heaven, paradise, and you will be with houris [the pure and beautiful companions promised to the faithful], you will get then wine and different kinds of fruits, honey, and you will have your own luxury cars and horses …’ ”

Most of the youths who go to the camps are poor, Janjua says, attracted by promises of happiness that escapes them on earth. Some are criminals, invited to atone for their sins by sacrificing themselves for the fundamentalist cause.

“They are told that ‘You are a criminal and you will be in heaven and this is the way – that you take a jacket and finish your enemy all over the world, especially India, British, America and all the white-skins’.”

Janjua confirms reports that Pakistan’s secret services help the camps, claiming that some of the preachers were from the military. He adds that Saudi Arabia is a major financial backer.

The camps still exist, he says, but their names have changed. In 2001 they were bellicose references to the armies of the faithful.

“Now their terrorist camps are changed, like gardens and like flowers’ names, and inside the terrorist camps they are the same.”

He hopes that a PPP-led government in alliance with secular parties like the Awami National Party in the North-West Frontier Province will bring the intelligence services to heel and close the camps.

“This is my hope. Ground realities may be different,” he concludes.

To read or listen to my reports for RFI of Pakistan 2007-08 click here

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Pakistan votes to end military rule under shadow of violence

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Pakistan’s 2008 election came soon after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and saw more murders and bombings. But voters turned out. The result was historic. A military ruler democratically removed and his supporters accepting the result with more good grace than they were generally given credit for, leading to the first peaceful transition from one civilian government to another in 2013, although not, sadly, to the end of the violence and corruption that continue to dog the country. Here’s my account of polling day in Lahore.

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The old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Lahore 18.02.2008

A stretch of Cooper Road is cordoned off by the police and the polling stations, one for men and a separate one for women, have to be approached on foot.

The parties have set up stalls to check off their voters’ names as they arrive, often delivered by vans driven by political activists. Lahore is the Muslim League Nawaz’s stronghold and the PML-N is doing brisker business than the People’s Party, the PPP. But, at 9.30am, voting is slow, as is also reported to be the case in other areas.

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PPP activists check voters’ names Photo: Tony Cross

PPP party worker Farhat Hussein believes that people are afraid there will be bombs or shootings.

“Violence is the main problem,” he says. “You know, one candidate was killed and the people of Lahore is afraid.”

Last night in the city, PML-N candidate Chaudhry Asif Ashraf was shot dead, along with his driver and secretary, while three other party workers are still in a serious condition in hospital. Voting in four constituencies has been postponed because of the death of a candidate. One of those constituencies was to have been contested by Benazir Bhutto, whose assassination sparked fears of a major bombing campaign.

During the campaign most of the violence was restricted to the tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the secular, Pashtun-nationalist Awami National  Party has been the  principal target.

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PML-Q activists on polling day in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

The worst attack was on Saturday in Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal agency, where 47 people were killed and many more injured. Most of them are reported to have been PPP supporters who were attending an election rally.

In NWFP dozens of public employees tried to get out of their obligation to man polling-stations. They’ve been told that they must find replacements or face disciplinary action. And many retired police and soldiers are reluctant to take up the offer to help with security. They consider the pay – one-and-a-half euros a day – insufficient compensation for the risk.

Here in Lahore police claim to have arrested 37 would-be bombers over the last three months, while in Hyderabad, Sindh province, they claim to have caught three yesterday.

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Voting at a women’s polling centre in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

No wonder the desire for peace is on many voters’ minds. A chatty group of women, some wearing hijab, say that they voted PML-N. Razia Mumtaz says that she and her friends want change.

“We want to elect people who work for our country and for better system, change the system, for the safety of the people,’ she says. “First of all, for the safety of our country.”

Most voters seem to expect some electoral fraud by the outgoing government. PML-N supporter Osama Ahmed is typical.

“They have already said in the newspaper ‘We have won’. What else I can say? Everybody knows there’s going to be something fishy-fishy.”

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PML-N supporters parade a lion on the back of a lorry – and RFI tries to record its roar – during the 2008 election campaign in Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

Aref Lateef, who also supports Nawaz Sharif – “he lies less, the others lie more” –is resigned to the idea.

“Pakistan has a tradition of vote-rigging, it was always rigged. Except once, I think that when East Pakistan broke away [to become Bangladesh] at that time it was not rigged but they did not give the power to the party who was in majority.”

Throughout the day, people report that they or their families are not on the electoral register, although it’s impossible to tell if this is due to their negligence or official malpractice.

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Inside the old city of Lahore Photo: Tony Cross

If the PPP is to be believed, there’s also a danger that voters will turn up and find that their polling station isn’t where they expected it to be. In Punjab the party has complained about 398 “ghost” polling stations, moved to between four and seven kilometres’ distance from where they were initially sited. The PPP claims they will be used to provide over a million fake votes.

If there’s a Benazir cult in PPP strongholds, like Faisalabad and Sindh province, the principal object of veneration in Lahore is Nawaz. The PML-N’s symbol is a tiger, often transformed into a lion by the party faithful who wear big-cat badges on their shirts or waistcoats. Yesterday the party sent a truck with a lion in a cage on the back touring the city. The wild beast can stand equally for the party and its leader, so Osama Ahmed, who seems to have a penchant for natural history, declares: “Better a man-eating lion than cannibals!”

Another PML-N supporter, Sayed Shaufiq Hussain, sees Nawaz as a local boy persecuted by Musharraf.

“We have our hero from our society – number one – from our region – number two – and he was competent. One thing was very bad when he was sent in Saudi Arabia forcefully. So that’s why people are still with him. He had done a lot of jobs for our society, especially for the Lahori people, so that’s why we are with him.”

More than one Nawaz-admirer praises his backing for Pakistan’s nuclear-weapons programme. In a poor area far from the city centre, Liaquat says that the bomb is essential for the nation’s security, although he doesn’t see any immediate threat.

“Nobody will attack on Pakistan because we are safe,” he declares. “And we are brave. And we are Muslim.”

Musharraf’s collaboration with the US war on terror also comes under fire. Sitting astride a motorbike, Sohel Iqbal refuses to say who he voted for. But it certainly wasn’t the president’s party, as becomes clear when he explains his top priority for the new government.

“Independent foreign policy, independent. Not to depend on America or things like that. All the decisions should be taken within the country.”

Voting picks up as the day progresses. By the evening the opposition are convinced that they have won. Their supporters take to riding around the city cheering and, in some cases, firing into the air, a form of celebration which leads to several arrests.

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Moghul-era lattice-work in Lahore’s old city Photo: Tony Cross

To hear my radio report for RFI on election day in Lahore click here

Military ruler Musharraf’s party bows out ‘with grace’ after 2008 election defeat

Credit where credit’s due, it was historic that the PML-Q, a party that was not overburdened with principles, accepted the 2008 election defeat and that General Pervez Musharraf didn’t hang on much longer. Musharraf is still being dragged through the courts but Pakistan, for the moment at least, no longer seems under danger of a new military coup, following one elected government succeeding another in the 2013 election.

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Mushahid Hussain concedes defeat Photo: Tony Cross

Mushahid Hussain knows how to make a virtue of necessity.

His party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, has suffered a humiliating defeat in the election. It has gone from government to an isolated minority in the National Assembly. Its share of the vote may not have fallen much but its share of seats in parliament has been slashed.

Several party leaders, such as party president Chaudhry Shujat Hussain and his brother Pervaiz Elahi, are no longer MPs. Former Railway Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmad, a key figure in the previous government, managed to lose two seats, Pakistani law permitting candidates to stand in two constituencies in one election.

But Mushahid Hussain handles interviews with the aplomb of the journalist-turned-politician that he is and assures reporters that the PML-Q will be the first party in the history of Pakistan to “accept the election outcome with grace”.

Let the PPP and the PML-N form a government, he says. “We want to play our democratic role in the opposition, as a vibrant and robust opposition, an issue-oriented opposition.”

Apart from the press, the PML-Q’s rather scruffy headquarters is largely empty now, after a meeting of the party’s MPs and its more numerous failed candidates earlier today.

“The mood was upbeat, the morale was high,” Mushahid Hussain insists, although Chaudhry Shujat Hussain, who is hovering in the background, doesn’t appear to be brimming over with joy.

Mushahid Hussain is a Senator and Secretary General of PML-Q. Before the election he predicted that the PPP would invite his party to join a coalition, an option that Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, flirted with for a brief moment. Now it’s clear that PML-Q is banished from the ministries.

Hussain warns the new government against confrontation with President Pervez Musharraf, whose coup against Nawaz Sharif in 1999 gave rise to the split between the N and the Q and the latter becoming the governing party.

“We don’t want any destabilisation. We don’t want any polarisation. We don’t want any new fronts opened between parliament and president.”

Although Hussain says he hopes the new government will last its full tenure, the PML-Q clearly hopes to profit from the political turmoil that is likely to hit the new government, both in its relations with the president and in relations between the biggest parties in its ranks.

Meanwhile, PML-Q needs to hold onto its members. Its leaders have appealed to the PPP not to poach from its ranks.

“This has been a tradition in Pakistan. We hope the norm has changed now because let’s not repeat old mistakes,” says Hussain but he laughs when reminded that his own party wasn’t shy of the practice in the past.

So far as government policy is concerned, Hussain doesn’t expect big changes. He calls for a “consensual” foreign policy. Musharraf’s collaboration with Washington may be unpopular with the voters, but that doesn’t mean that the new government will change it.

“That foreign policy has not been criticised by the opposition, as yet. The People’s Party and PML-N have not criticised the fundamental contours of Mr Musharraf’s foreign policy,” he points out with a courteous smile.

Lawyers fight on for chief justice Chaudhry’s reinstatement and Musharraf’s departure

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Pakistani lawyers demand the reinstatement of Chief Justice Chaudhry, fired by Pervez Musharraf Photo: Tony Cross

Another question on which the government’s supporters may face disappointment is the fate of the judges sacked by Musharraf last year.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry’s dismissal, last March the ninth, started a long battle between the president and the legal profession. Chaudhry was later reinstated … and then sacked again.

Later, when Musharraf declared a state of emergency, the president sacked about 60 judges who refused to take a new oath of office.

Nine months of noisy and emotional protests, usually ending in black-suited lawyers being teargassed and beaten by the police, played a major role in discrediting Musharraf and his allies in government.

But the PPP has not committed itself to reinstating Chaudhry or the other judges. Nor has Zardari made any promises to that effect since the election, even though one of his party’s best-known members is lawyers’ leader Aitzaz Ahsan, who’s still under house arrest in Lahore.

So the lawyers are still demonstrating. At Islamabad’s district court, a group of them sit in front of a giant photo of one of their colleague’s suffering the attentions of a zealous police officer.

They say they’re optimistic, especially since PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has said that the judges must be reinstated immediately. Since the election, Sharif has made surprise appearances at lawyers’ demonstrations and even proposed direct action to place the judges back in office. Now he says he wants an executive order, like the one that dismissed them, to reverse the damage.

Nobody seems too clear as to how this would work, however.

Should they argue that the order which sacked the judges was unconstitutional, on the grounds that Musharraf didn’t bother to consult parliament about it?

Or does the president have to issue a new one? And does that necessitate getting rid of the present incumbent?

The demonstrators’ legal training doesn’t seem to be much help in this case. But there’s no doubt what Islamabad Bar Council member Malek Lateef Kokar favours from an emotional point of view.

“A new president might come,” he hopes. “This president, better sense may prevail on him just at this right moment. Better sense may prevail and he may do what the people of Pakistan like and what they want. They have given a clear mandate against the President Musharraf. The honourable way is that he must restore the judiciary and quit.”

The lawyers, who by now must be as adept at chanting as pleading a case, segue from slogans in support of the judges to “Go, Musharraf, go!”

To hear my radio report for RFI on the lawyers’ protests click here

To read and listen to my report for RFI from Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here

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In rural Pakistan politics is still a violent, feudal, family business

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Support for the Pakistan People’s Party has been drastically reduced since it came out in the lead in the 2008 election. But the province of Sindh remains its stronghold. When I visited a rural constituency I found both the PPP and the PML-Q, which supported military ruler Pervez Musharraf, represented by political dynasties, relying on traditional loyalties from the poor to elect wealthy landowners. With corruption charges and a failure to tackle poverty along with ongoing politico-religious violence, the PPP in government proved a disappointment to many of its voters.

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Street traders in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Thatta 20.02.2008

Buses honk, motorised rickshaws putter and cars and lorries rattle through the centre of Thatta. Mechanics hammer and weld in small workshops. A shopkeeper struggles to open a metal shutter and start business for the day.

Modernity has brought its noise and its pollution to interior Sindh, the rural heartland of the Pakistan People’s Party, the PPP.

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Soomar prepares to sell milk in Thata Photo: Tony Cross

But Thatta has kept its traditions, too. Street-vendor Soomar stands in a side-road ladelling milk from large churns to small ones, ready to carry it around town on his skinny shoulders.

Another tradition here, as in much of Pakistan, is a fractious political scene. Monday’s election may have escaped the major bombings that were feared but about 20 people were killed throughout the country on the day.

One of them was Thatta’s assistant presiding officer. He was shot by a police officer. At least the crime doesn’t seem to have been politically motivated. The officer of the Islamic republic is reported to have been drunk.

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A donkey cart struggle through the traffic in Thatta Photo: Tony Cross

Another death, yesterday, was political. PPP workers who were celebrating victory in one of the Thatta seats clashed with supporters of the losers, the PML-Q. One PPP member was killed.

On the busy main road, a group of People’s Party supporters say the shoot-out was an unwarranted attack. In his party’s local headquarters, which are almost deserted today, Safraz Shah Shirazi, a former PML-Q National Assembly member, claims that the PPP men provoked the attack by noisily bursting into the homes of his party members.

He adds that he condemns the violence that has taken place during the election.

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Safraz Shah Shirazi Photo: Tony Cross

Shirazi didn’t stand this time but his brothers stood for the two Thatta National Assembly seats … one successfully, the other being the loser in the constituency where yesterday’s confrontation took place.

Three other Shirazis stood for the Provincial Assembly and the top district official, the nazim, is also a relation.

So another Pakistani tradition is alive and well in Thatta … a tendency for one or two families to dominate a district’s political life.

PPP activists here denounce this as “feudal”, although their party owes much of its influence in Sindh to the fact that PPP leaders, starting with the Bhuttos, own huge landed estates in the province.

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Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

In Thatta newly-elected Provincial Assembly member Abdul Jaleel Memon comes from a PPP dynasty.

“My grandfather was elected in 1970 – he was one of the founder-members of the party – and he was elected Provincial Assembly member from this same constituency which I have been elected,” he explains. “My father was elected from this constituency. This is our third generation in People’s Party and we are committed to this party.”

Jaleel’s home resembles a feudal court today, with dozens of local men come to pay their respects. In front of the house, cloth stretched from poles provides shade from the sun for visitors, guards and a couple of cars. Inside the main room is packed with congratulators, favour-seekers and ingratiators.

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Local people at the home of Abdul Jaleel Memon Photo: Tony Cross

Jaleel promises to tackle poverty with industrial development.

“The main problem in Thatta is employment,” he says and promises that his party will revive a project for a 5,000-megawatt power-plant, which he claims was planned by the Benazir Bhutto government but shelved by its successor.

To hear my radio report from Thatta in 2008 for RFI click here

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Sassi Paleejo Photo: Tony Cross

In her large house just outside town, another newly-elected Provincial Assembly member, Sassi Paleejo, is in her element. Brightly-dressed and weighed down by garlands of flowers, she, too, is holding to court to dozens of well-wishers. In between greeting visitors and an interview with a TV crew, she boisterously leads the crowd in chants of ‘Bhutto zinda hai!” and “People’s Party zindabad!”

Paleejo is quick to point out that not only is she the only woman to have been elected in Sindh, she’s the only woman to have run for either a provincial or a national seat, although others will be given reserved seats in both assemblies.

Her election campaign may have been helped by the Bhutto aura. She was a close friend and political collaborator of Benazir and, unsurprisingly, remains faithful to her memory. She predicts that the first act of the new government will be to ask the UN to investigate Benazir’s assassination, a demand which seems to have slipped national party leaders’ memories in the aftermath of the election.

She dismisses the idea that the Bhutto family’s dominance of the party is a weakness, especially after Benazir’s death, describing such dynasties as “kind of a norm in south Asia”, as with the Bandaranaike family in Sri Lanka or the Gandhis in India.

Paleejo believes that the PPP will be able to cohabit with Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N, despite their past rivalry, citing as not very convincing evidence, the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, an anti-Musharraf front which broke up when the two parties fell out.

The new Provincial Assembly member could yet fall victim to the PML-Q’s penchant for the continuation of politics by judicial means. She’s facing terror charges, arising from the riots that exploded after Benazir’s assassination.

“They claim that, at a time, I attacked four to five police stations, that I stole their weapons, I was involved in so many different kinds of riots and attacks.”

No charges have been laid for the murder of PPP workers, she claims, “but right now Pakistan is the unique district where you will see that more than 120,000 cases have been registered against our people.”

Several candidates were charged in Thatta, seriously hampering their campaigns.

“Even during my election campaign, the first thing I used to do was I had to go to the Session Court for a hearing, then I had to rush to Anti-Terrorist Court … and then I had to come back to Thatta and run my election campaign.”

But “we believe democracy, we believe in Benazir Bhutto’s sacrifice, that’s why we won’t let our people down.”

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Makli cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

On our way back to Karachi we stopped at the Moghul-era Makli cemetery, parts of which have been restored.

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Sufi snake-charmer Photo: Tony Cross

There were Sufi pir snake-charmers there.

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An adventure with a snake

Yes, they made me hold the snake – it’s like having a muscle rap itself around your arm.

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Mongoose v snake Photo: Tony Cross

… before setting a mongoose on it and killing it (this wasn’t my idea!).

Before the election … the PPP campaigns near Islamabad

During the election campaign I saw the PPP campaigning in a rural constituency near Islamabad. Candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari insisted he had the voters’ interests at hear but it wasn’t easy to see what he had in common with them.

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Nayyar Hussein Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Zia Masjid 12.02.2008

The village of Zia Masjid doesn’t seem especially bucolic. The motorway out of Islamabad roars right past it. Many of its buildings are brick and concrete structures, several storeys high.

Parliamentary candidate Nayyar Hussein Bukhari describes his constituency, which covers parts of Islamabad and some of the villages around it, as 80% rural and Zia Masjid as one of its suburban districts.

The main entrance from the major road is blocked by stones and a police officer with a rifle, part of the security for an open air meeting in support of Bukhari’s bid to be re-elected on behalf of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party, the PPP.

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The audience at Zia Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

You can enter the village by a side road and drive along a ridge until you are overlooking a patch of dusty ground. Here an auditorium has been created by making a wall of blue-patterned cloth stretched on poles. On one side a huge banner bears the party’s colours, red, green and black, its symbol, an arrow, and giant pictures of Bukhari and Bhutto.

At first, there are only a few party activists and scruffy children, all male, many with skin complaints and snotty noses, dressed in ear-muffs and woolly hats against the relative cool of a February afternoon.

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Prayers open the meeting Photo: Tony Cross

As a young man tests the rackety sound system, without any evident effect on the distortion it visits on the voices and music it broadcasts, eager party members lead the kids in a warm-up chant. A tape of Benazir’s voice, hoarsely addressing a crowd before her assassination, echoes across the empty seats. There are no women present.

A crowd forms well before the arrival of the candidate. Mansour Ahmad, a tall, gaunt man who looks eerily like a Pakistani George Orwell dressed in a checkered scarf and double-breasted jacket over a shalwar kameez, fervently denounces Musharraf as an “unwanted and unnecessary person in our country” and predicts that his party will triumph in next week’s election.

An old, raggedly-dressed man raises the main concern of many voters, the rising price of basic foods and other essentials.

“We are citizens of Pakistan and we cannot find attar [the wheat-flour with which chapattis are made]. Everything is getting very expensive. So we get into debt … We have no money, we don’t run businesses, we don’t have any work. We can’t afford clothes, there’s no electricity, no gas. Everything is finished! Where should we go?”

When Bukhari finally emerges from a land-cruiser, he’s mobbed by boys and men alike.

The candidate glows under the blaze of attention, although he isn’t quite as freshly pink as his picture on the election posters, and handshakes his way through the crowd.

There are good many warm-up acts. Mansour Ahmad chairs the meeting and introduces the local imam who says a prayer. Then a succession of village orators take the stand. Their delivery is more than competent, a tribute to the survival of oral culture in Pakistan. It’s impossible to imagine a comparable number of good speakers in a European village or small town.

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Zia Masjid prepares for the PPP meeting Photo: Tony Cross

Bukhari is well-received when he speaks and he doesn’t fail to invoke the memory of Benazir. Like many Pakistani politicians, he’s a lawyer, so certainly considerably better-off than his audience. Seated in the landcruiser as he whizzes to his next engagement, I ask if he understands the problems of the poor people of Zia Masjid.

He seems slightly offended and a little flustered by the question.

“Yes, of course I do, sir,” he says. “Because I hail from a rural area and I understand the people’s problem.”

He adds that he was, in fact, born and brought up in the area that he represents.

“Most of the people they ask for the provision of the basic necessities, you know, provision of the gas, roads, schools, hospitals. These are the basic things which they lack in the area.”

He claims that the PPP started providing gas to smaller communities. “Since 1996 People’s Party’s out of power and not a single village has been provided gas by any succeeding government.”

There are no colleges in the area and he wants more colleges and schools “for girls and for boys, also” to combat illiteracy.

The PPP has been encouraged by opinion polls produced by two  right-wing American organizations, Terror Free Tomorrow, on whose board sits Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, and the International Republican Institute. They show the party winning 50% or more of the vote, with Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League-N, coming second and Musharraf’s allies, the Muslim League-Q trailing in third place.

Bukhari says that the party will be pluralistic in victory, seeking to form a coalition with all “democratic forces” even if it wins a majority of seats on its own. But that doesn’t include “the one that was under the umbrella of a uniform”, that is to say PML-Q.

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Bukhari arrives at the meeting in Islamabad Photo: Tony Cross

Back in the city, Bukhari rushes into another improvised meeting-place. Colourful materials form decorative walls for the next meeting, which this time is composed only of women.

To hear my radio report for RFI of Bukhari on the campaign trail click here

To read and listen to my reports of 2007-08 in Pakistan click here

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Crime, poverty, Baloch nationalism and politics in Karachi

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The Karachi slum of Lyari was exultant after the 2008 election that toppled military ruler Pervez Musharraf. Populated largely by migrants from the state of Balochistan, where a separatist rebellion has been going on for decades, it is notorious for its poverty and gangsterism, which has also seeped into the cities politics. On a brief visit I met some interesting individuals, whose political activism could have been linked to other interests.

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Containers in the port of Karachi Photo: Tony Cross

Karachi, 19.02.2008

Lyari is a traffic-choked slum near Karachi’s port. Piles of rubbish fester underfoot and flies settle on anything that doesn’t move. Blocked drains spill sewage into the street, leaving puddles of filth which will become breeding-grounds for disease-bearing mosquitoes.

But many people in Lyari are exultant today. Unofficial results show a humiliation for President Pervez Musharraf and his allies. The politicians have rushed to Islamabad, as the People’s Party tries to form a government.

The PPP has come out in front, although some of the sympathy generated by Benazir Bhutto’s assassination seems to have evaporated in the polling booths. The party doesn’t seem to have lived up to the most optimistic predictions, while Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N is believed to have done a bit better than expected, mostly in Punjab where it rules the roost again.

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Boys sells offal to feed the birds on a bridge overlooking Karachi’s port Photo: Tony Cross

 

Karachi is in the PPP’s strongest province, Sindh. But the giant city’s politics are complicated by the existence of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the MQM, whose vote-base is the mohajirs, Urdu-speaking immigrants who fled India at the time of partition.

There have been many other groups of immigrants since then, both from other Asian countries and from Pakistan’s poorer provinces.

Listen to my report from Karachi in 2008 for RFI

The biggest group in Lyari is from Balochistan province. In an empty shell of a building, which should probably be a shop, I meet Khuda Baksh and Mahmoud Yacub.

They’re Baloches and they worked for the PPP. Baksh is clearly somebody around here. He’s tall, walks with a swagger, wears flashy wrap-around sunglasses along with more traditional Pakistani clothes and speaks passable English.

I don’t know whether he unduly influenced voters but he certainly tries to influence my interviewees. After agreeing to translate, he leans over and whispers to them, apparently anxious that they may fail to mention to his party favourably.

He doesn’t have to put words in the mouth of Air Bibi, who lives up to the reputation of Baloch women for forthright assertiveness. Without waiting to be asked, she explodes into praise of Benazir –“Benazir is in our hearts! Benazir is our star! Benazir is our daughter!” and condemnation of Musharraf “He will be out, insha’allah!”, punctuated with “aah! aah!”, “upurroopurroopurra!” and finger-clicking.

Air Bibi finishes with a declaration of Baloch pride. Further down the street, Zahid, one of a group of young men who gather around me, mixes Baloch nationalism with resentment of the poverty around him.

“Look at this area! We are not having each and everything, especially Baloch nation. And also Punjabis are providing each and everything by the government.”

He gestures to the grimy buildings. “See our areas? Nothing has been providing our nation. We are jobless and everything. If PPP governs, it gives each and everything to Baloch nation.”

Baksh and Yacub are clearly annoyed that the MQM, which allied itself to the PML-Q in Sindh and at a national level, seems to have resisted the anti-Musharraf wave in this election and won about 20 seats.

In one of those they-say-we cheated-we say-they-cheated declarations, Baksh claims to have been swindled out of votes in his ballywick.

Karachi is a violent place and in this election the city was up to its previous bloody form. Party workers have passed from polemic to shoot-out on several occasions. Five activists have been killed, the latest being a PPP member killed in a gunfight with MQM supporters on Friday.

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A young couple enjoy the late afternoon Photo: Tony Cross

The PPP accuses the MQM of vote-rigging and kidnapping some of its workers. The MQM accuses the PPP of using “the mafia” to improve its chances of electoral success.

Elsewhere in the city, Karachi residents amuse themselves. On the bridge by the port, crowds buy lumps of lung from ragged boys and throw them to scavenger birds. The birds swoop and catch them in their claws, never letting a single morsel fall into the water below.

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Camel ride on Seaview Beach Photo: Tony Cross

On Seaview beach no-one swims. Here boys sell ice-cream and corn-on-the-cob and offer to take your photo. Families mount on camels and young men ride beautiful white and brown horses across the dark mud as night falls.

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Sunset approaches on Seaview Beach Photo: Tony Cross

Read and listen to my reports for RFI from Pakistan in 2007-08 here

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Record French tax haul shows how much corporate tax dodgers cost us all

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French tax services netted a record 21.2 billion euros from tax dodgers last year. And the biggest culprit was big business, a result that should lead the government to dissolve the units responsible since, like most governments nowadays, practically its sole job-creation strategy is to let companies off paying their fiscal share.

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France’s Economy Ministry Photo: Pline/Open access

More than a quarter of the tax-evasion haul – 5.8 billion euros – came from corporate tax fraud, up from 4.2 billion euros in 2014.

Individual tax-dodgers with secret bank accounts abroad, no doubt panicked by Luxleaks and the UBS investigation, fessed up to the tune of 2.65 billion euros.

“We have to lay to rest this idea that income from tax inspection comes from hammering small taxpayers,” Budget Minister Christian Eckert pointed out in a rare counter to the right-wing – sorry, “centrist” in establishment-speak – offensive against the state collecting its due. “It’s not true! Income from tax inspection comes essentially from big companies.”

The indiscreet junior minister probably won’t keep job for long if he carries on in that vein.

Because France’s Socialist government has pursued an energetic policy of cutting taxes to business, on the pretext that boosting profits will persuade bosses to take on more workers, with only a minor deviation this year in the form of a labour law pretty much drafted by the Medef bosses’ union.

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The share of dividends in French companies’ operation profits

It’s a strategy that has proved startlingly unsuccessful. Unemployment remains at 10 per cent as companies have paid out the tax handouts in dividends, an international tendency to short-term gluttony that is particularly virulent in France.

Given that the 2014 Socialist government contained no fewer than eight millionaires, one can imagine that it feels more collective empathy towards those struggling to maximise their wealth than those struggling to survive on the breadline – even if the cabinet’s net worth must have taken a hit with the departure of the fabulously wealthy Laurent Fabius.

So the DVNI, the division responsible for chasing up companies with a turnover of more than 154.2 million euros at whose headquarters Eckert and Finance Minister Michel Sapin announced the good tax news, would be foolish to aspire to longevity.

If we follow the government’s logic, following the current economic orthodoxy, it should be closed down and those companies allowed to carry on fiddling their tax returns in the hope that they will be kind enough to employ a few more members of the lower orders with the gains made from their accountants’ creativity.

Indeed, the tax windfall, which has been one of the only positive contributions to the EU-ordered effort to reduce the deficit, seems to have been pretty much an accident.

The unit to pursue holders of secret foreign accounts was set up after budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac was found to be guilty of that very offence and forced to resign. His case opened last month and, the defendant having arrived lawyered up, been put off until September.

Successful though the tax inspectors have been, unions have complained that they could do better with more resources.

That’s certainly true if estimates of the level of tax fraud quoted by the ministry are true. They put the figure at 60-80 billion euros, so 20 billion should be just the beginning if ministers were serious about tackling white-collar crime.

Eckert’s statement is important – and not just in France – because campaigning against taxation has been the right’s most effective weapon in winning middle and working-class support for policies that have actually shifted wealth away from most of the population.

Tax is the Achilles’ heel of collectivism. Most of us want good public services but we’d all rather somebody else pay for them. At the very least, we’ll take any opportunity to reduce the amount of tax we personally have to pay. The right has played on that conflict between immediate individual interest and delayed collective gratification with enormous success.

An important component of most right-wing campaigning issues – benefits fraud, migrants, “wasteful” public spending – is an appeal to the wallet. And, although there seems to be growing scepticism about capitalism and a revival of some form of collectivism among the young, Donald Trump, or France’s Front National, are evidence of the kind of mass reactionary movements that will be whipped up and manipulated if the interests of the wealthy are ever seriously challenged.

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