Between Islamists and the military – two voices of the Pakistani left

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Left-wing activists face state harassment and threats from Islamists. When I met two of them during the 2008 election that put an end to President Pervez Musharraf’s rule, they pointed to creeping Islamisation of both the military and civilian life and seemed isolated as previous anti-Musharraf allies dropped calls for a boycott.

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Activists, including Pervez Hoodboy, protest at police brutality in Islamabad during the 2008 election Photo: Tony Cross

Lahore 17.02.2008

As Shahbaz Sharif addressed several thousand people in Sheikhapura yesterday, an umbrella group set up by his party held a smaller rally in Lahore – to call for a boycott of the election.

The All Parties Democratic Movement, APDM, was never an entirely accurate name. The PML-N formed it along with the religious alliance, the MMA, and some secular parties when their previous alliance with the People’s Party broke down.

During the political turbulence that followed the firing of the Chief Justice and the declaration of the state of emergency, the APDM declared that the election couldn’t possibly be fair and launched the boycott call.

But PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif never seemed 100% committed to the idea, especially when the PPP refused to commit itself thus threatening to take most of the PML-N’s seats in a newly-elected parliament.

When the PML-N finally threw itself into the election campaign, its offspring turned Oedipal and expelled it, along with the Jamaat-Ulema-Islami, one of the two largest parties in the MMA, which also stood candidates. A revision of the group’s name seems in order, as the country’s three biggest parties devote all their energies to the election campaign. Among the relatively few parties left in the APDM, the best known are Qazi Hussein Ahmed’s Jamaat-e-Islami and former cricket star Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf.

Still, an alliance of left-wing parties came to comfort them in their solitude and this shell of an alliance managed to muster a couple of thousand at the Pakistan monument in Lahore.

Farooq Tariq Photo: Tony Cross

Farooq Tariq is the leader of the Labour Party Pakistan, a small group which is part of the People’s Democratic Movement, the AJT, a newly-founded coalition of former (?) Stalinists and Trotskyists who seem to be happily coexisting, for the moment at least.

Sitting in his garden in a quiet suburb of Lahore, he seems to be having second thoughts about participation in the APDM. Yesterday’s rally was smaller than expected, he says, and most of the movement’s activities have been dominated by the Jamaat-e-Islami activists. But he claims that there have been successful meetings in Baloochistan, where’s there’s a powerful, armed independence movement, and the APDM has been the only organiSation that has managed to hold meetings in all areas of the country.

There will be a successful boycott in Baloochistan, he thinks, and a low turnout elsewhere, except, perhaps, in Punjab.

“There is no enthusiasm in the election. It’s the most colourless election in my political life of 30 years. No mass meetings; no street meetings; only the media campaign, most like in the developed countries where the media is the main part and that has come to Pakistan in this election.”

There was no choice but to boycott, says Tariq, because the election was intended “to legitimiSe President Musharraf’s rule” and without an independent judiciary or election commission there will be no check on fraud and manipulation.

The left is already thinking of quitting the APDM, although he describes its platform as liberal and progressive and claims that the alliance is dominated by progressive nationalists.

“We can’t work with the fundamentalists, that’s very clear.”

His party has clashed with the Islamists on many occasions and he has received death-threats by SMS. One claimed to be from Osama ben Laden’s son, Hamza, and told him that “If Benazir Bhutto can be killed, the leftists must pay attention;” Musharraf’s régime hasn’t been too kind to him, either, arresting him 12 times and obliging to go into hiding for 18 days during the state of emergency.

Tariq expects the PPP to form the next government and PML-N to do well in Punjab. But “it doesn’t make much difference, only really the faces change.”

He says that representative of the three major parties all attended a seminar in Washington before the election, he says, and assured the US government and the International Monetary Fund that there would be no change in economic policy.

The PPP will be sharing power with Musharraf, “which is contrary to the consciousness of the voters who will go to the polls tomorrow” but was “Plan A of the Americans”, bringing Benazir Bhutto’s party together with the president to fight the fundamentalists.

Tariq and other left-wingers were invited to visit Bhutto shortly before her assassination. She asked for their advice but doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to it. Tariq notes that Benazir opposed the restoration of the judiciary.

To read my interview for RFI with a left-wing activist who infiltrated a jihadi training camp click here

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Pervez Hoodboy Photo: Tony Cross

Also on the secular left is Pervez Hoodboy, whom I met in his office at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad a week ago.

Hoodboy is a nuclear physicist who has opposed Pakistan’s nuclear arms programme, worked for normalisation of relations with India and taken up causes such as the campaign for the reinstatement of the sacked judges.

He believes that the election leaves Pakistanis with few choices and that it is unlikely to be free and fair.

“There’s a very strong opinion that these elections should not be held at all. On the other hand, there’s a very strong opinion that, unless these are held, the country will simply break apart and all hell will let loose.”

Hoodboy believes that the opportunities for rigging are limited because Musharraf and his allies are “deeply unpopular” but also that a coalition government would be divided, thus leaving great power in the president’s hands.

But it’s in his own field of expertise that Hoodboy is at his most gloomy. He doesn’t believe government assurances that the military’s professionalism and security safeguards keep the country’s nuclear weapons in safe hands.

“My concern is that technology ultimately is operated by human beings and soldiers over here in particular and the fact is that within the army there are a growing number of people who disagree seriously, severely, with the position the government has taken in fighting the Islamic militants.”

He believes that many soldiers are more sympathetic to the Islamic militants than to the people fighting them, so the “insider threat” is growing.

“Look at the fact that we’ve had numerous suicide-bombings done by insiders, guided by other insiders, and one cannot really be confident that these nuclear weapons can be kept out of the hands of the extremists.”

Earlier this month, he says, a convoy of ammunition and equipment were hijacked, just two days after the president claimed that it was impossible to steal even one rifle from the armed forces.

To the argument that Islamism has spread among lower ranks but not among higher offices, Hoodboy replies: “The lower matters more than the top because it’s the lower ones who have to do the fighting. We’ve seen hundreds of soldiers surrender without firing a shot in Waziristan, in the tribal areas.”

According to Hoodboy, the jihadists, who have been used as an instrument of foreign policy for a quarter century, have now infected the whole of the country’s culture.

Most female students at his university now feel obliged to cover their hair, he says, while photos on his computer show that this was not the case 20 years. About a million students now attend the country’s madrassas and even state education has been Islamised. As an example he produces pictures used to teach the Urdu alphabet. Knives and guns illustrate one letter, while kites and musical instruments are part of the image chosen for “an obscure Urdu word which not even I knew” – the plural form of the word “sin”.

To read about my visit to a madrassa run by Taliban supporters click here

To read and listen to more of my reports for RFI on Pakistan’s 2008 elections  click here

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