A corner of Pakistan

It is possible that there will be an unprecedented social upheaval in Pakistan in the not too distant future. This upheaval will not necessarily be organised or guided by political ideology – it would be the outcome of desperation that follows when human beings are pushed to the brink, and feel they have nothing left to lose. Or perhaps the blatant oppression that is the most prominent feature of Pakistan's social and political discourse will continue to mute any and all reaction, as has been the case for the best part of two decades. Either way, whatever little can be said and done about the outrageous abuse of power that defines the country´s political and social landscape would be a small step in the right direction.

At the very least it is important that those who purport to be committed to the welfare of the people be embarrassed into taking a stand where no one else is willing. One place where any action at all could have a massive impact is in the remote coastal fishing region of Badin, approximately 200 kilometres west of Karachi. It is in Badin where the Rangers paramilitary forces – notorious for major abuses in Karachi against landless tenants on Okara military farms and many others – are engaged in perhaps their most incredible and flagrant subversion of all by directly targeting the livelihoods of thousands of indigenous fisherfolk just to make a quick buck.

The Rangers have taken advantage of long-standing colonial laws which deprive local communities of their historical fishing rights to institutionalise a contract system of fishing through which they are able to generate massive profits reaching at least PKR 1.5 million per day. Having appointed a contractor of their choice to whom they then provide 'protection', Rangers forces intimidate local fisherfolk into selling their catch to this contractor at a fixed rate, well below the market average. For example, small shrimp are bought from the locals at a price of PKR 10 per kilogram, and then sold in the Karachi market at an average of PKR 120 per kilogram. The contractor transports the catch to the Karachi market at his own expense, and sells at his will. It has been reported that the Rangers have agreed to receive a fixed sum for the full year of PKR 37.5 million, and the contractor keeps whatever he earns on top of this figure.

There is more. Assuming an income of PKR 500 million per year, the contractor will hand over a large part of this money in individual bribes to Rangers high-ups also, to ensure that the entire Rangers hierarchy gets a share of the booty. Even then, this is the tip of the iceberg considering that the estimate of PKR 1.5 million per day is a conservative one, and the fact that this sort of extortion is commonplace in other parts of the district, and not just the few coastal areas where this particular investigation was centred. Despite the overwhelmingly blatant nature of the extortion, there has been virtually no action from the part of the administration. The Sindhi press, well known for its willingness to take on the establishment, has embellished the story as much as it possibly can, but to no avail.

It is not as if this problem is a new one, and that a time lag can and should be expected in addressing it. In fact, the Pakistan People´s Party (PPP) government of Benazir Bhutto in 1990 explicitly ordered a probe into the issue, including a directive to immediately stop any abuse of power on the part of the Rangers forces if such an abuse was uncovered. Needless to say, the directive remained a dead letter. As such, political and social activists in Badin express deep-seated hopelessness when confronted with the issue, claiming that there are no genuine efforts being made on the part of the administration to challenge the Rangers, or on the part of political parties to mount some form of principled resistance to force the Rangers to retreat.

The next hardship
The Badin episode is but a microcosm of the tragedy that Pakistan faces. In would not be inaccurate to say that there has been no era comparable to the present one in which more systematic abuse of power has taken place, yet there seems to be little that can be done to stem the authoritarianism tide. In Badin, as in many other parts of the country, apolitical donor-funded welfare organisations have occupied much of the social space that used to be the domain of the volunteer political activist who gave up his time, energy, and resources to meaningfully resist oppression and strive towards genuine change. This was difficult work, as activists in Badin testify to even now, but it was backed up by principled politics, and it was supported by a mobilised and politicised society at large. Today it would appear that most ordinary working-class people in the country have accepted their fate. In the regions where relief organisations operate, communities await the next hand-out. In others, they simply wait for the next hardship.

The most damning indication of any society´s decline is when people lose hope, when cynicism overcomes not only middle-class armchair critics (who are cynics by definition), but even those working-class people who are most affected by exploitative social relations. The situation in Pakistan at present is one in which the genuine losers of the prevailing social contract typically have nothing left to lose and are willing to resist, in whatever small way. Unfortunately, there are very few who are willing to build upon this local resistance in systematic ways, without which it is virtually impossible to foresee a long-term, people-oriented dispensation taking shape. Today the fishing communities of Badin are struggling against the Rangers, refusing to buckle down and accept a damned fate. But there does not seem to be any support being generated to give impetus to struggles of such communities. Few believe it is even worth trying to defy the authority of Rangers forces.

It is an indictment of nationalist politics in the country that no Sindhi nationalist party has attempted to take up the issue. Even on this front, class interests remain too prominent to allow nationalist party leaders to adopt an uncomplicated and principled position on a straightforward people´s issue. But despite all of these bleak realities, as mentioned at the outset, sooner rather than later, something has got to give. It goes against all accepted notions that have developed over time about human society that change will not eventually take place in a society in which virtually all standards of legitimacy have been eroded.

What we need to recognise is that perhaps it will only be the slightest of shoves that will precipitate such change, that perhaps only raising our voices against the tyranny of Rangers forces in Badin will spark a series of chain reactions that eventually lead to freedom for the fishing communities of the coastal areas. But it would appear that the chances of much happening are fairly slim, because so little is being done to challenge status quo by 'those who matter'. But it is necessary to revive belief once again that things can be changed. The world over, a new generation of people have been reinvigorated with the belief that oppression can be challenged. Young people in particular are once again rediscovering the courage to embark upon the long and hard task of building a viable challenge to oppression. It is most definitely going to be a long haul. Over a decade has passed since the 'end of history' theses became the vogue in the intellectual centres of the world, a period in which the fishing communities of Badin struggled to stay afloat. A decade is long enough for the forces of decadence and exploitation to thrive unchallenged.

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Himal Southasian