People’s Law in Pakistan

The noise, the drum, the poem, the song, the film, the word – these are the methods by which the World Tribunal on Iraq (WTI), held in Istanbul in June 2005, came to be and began investigating the truth. Indictments and testimony were presented, recalling and articulating crimes, lies and deceit. In its course, the tribunal uncovered imperial machinations where states of exception and permanent war become the norm; where collective punishment becomes the means of policing; and where mercenaries of torture and pain are invoked as 'extraordinary renditions'.

The WTI produced judgements aimed at addressing the gap created by the failure of international institutions to protect Iraq. The final session of the WTI collated this testimony and produced a verdict (drafted by a 'jury of conscience' whose spokesperson was Arundhati Roy) that can be read as a veritable manifesto for the new anti-war movement.

The tribunal process embodied a deeply symbolic recognition of the failures of international law in Iraq, a process that has largely interrupted the 'myth of law,' based on the values of the enlightenment.

The WTI was a retort to Empire's Law. If the tribunal is seen in terms of its potential for law-making and law-doing – its declaratory, deliberative authority derived almost exclusively from those millions who marched on the streets – then it can be seen to be enacting some of the still-unfinished business of decolonisation: dealing with the law itself, thinking the law anew (see book review, pp 102). In so doing, it represents a deep shift towards an idea of People's Law – an assertion of the right to judgement of ordinary people in the world.  As academic Jayan Nayar argued persuasively at the WTI, by wresting the "capability of judgement, authorship, control and action" away from national and international authorities, we reinvent the very stuff of political practice. It is here that the WTI coincides with the many grassroots struggles and imaginations that animate resistance movements and 'rebellious consciousnesses' across the globe, including the Subcontinent.

Lok Sath
One particular moment of People's Law is symbolised by the Lok Sath movement in the Chashma Canal region of Punjab in Pakistan. Although the debate in Pakistan on the decolonisation of law has revolved around secular-versus-religious law regimes, this is clearly a false dichotomy, for both operate within state law. Indeed, the perspectives and needs of those in struggle present radical departures in form and content from the essence of dominant law and politics.

The Lok Sath started in August 2003 during the debate over the implications of the construction by Islamabad of the 274 km-long Chashma Canal. With much of the funding for the USD 254 million project provided by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the canal shattered the livelihoods of the local communities through illegal land appropriations, the destruction of a traditional irrigation method (the rowed kohee), extensive flooding, and the subsequent destruction of homes, crops and lives. As with all large-scale water projects, the net effect was to grant the state a monopoly over water – to "hand over destiny itself," in the words of the Lok Sath.

Affected individuals appealed first to the state and later to the ADB for redress. While neither avenue offered much hope, in the process of voicing their demands, affected communities came to the decision to stake claim to the idea of law itself. Doing so resulted in an inevitable disengagement from the state and ADB processes, reflecting a quiet moment of 'decolonisation'. By organising a series of Lok Sath meetings, relying upon and reinventing historical processes of engagement, communities came together to evolve new ways of approaching negotiation. They recorded the destruction and suffering, and outlined a loss of local control. Although passing judgement on those responsible, activists were not making demands of those groups; rather, they were demanding action from the communities themselves of non-violently re-inscribing the people's collective will and "taking back power of one's destiny".

Long march
As with the WTI, the Lok Sath has been challenged on the grounds of legitimacy, and with the fear of a looming anarchy that comes with people 'performing' law. The Lok Sath's simple recognition of its own existence, coupled with the very real anarchy that the state-maintained irrigation system has brought, has yielded its own retort. That response arrives at a new political practice emphasising non-violent resistance. During the March 2005 Lok Sath, a Chashma Lok Sangh pilgrimage was declared, which was held the following July. Using the ingrained cultural memory of walking long distances to express devotion and commitment, the Lok Sangh marched 170 km over eight days – holding meetings along the way, uniting communities, and deciding on specific actions. Some of those new approaches included refusing to pay irrigation taxes, committing to breach the canal when it threatened lives, and pledging an indefinite hunger strike outside the ADB office in Islamabad.

For these communities, a future within the Lok Sath framework includes the possibility of re-inventing traditional irrigation forms, with all of their concomitant social and political-economic ramifications. Doing so would challenge the state irrigation systems, which have long been the single most effective way of establishing state control over lands and peoples. As such, a challenge of this type could redefine the very terms of state power – a process that is urgently needed throughout Pakistan. The effort towards such a redefinition is currently being spearheaded by Sindhoo Bachao Taralla, an emerging confederation of movements struggling on water-based issues along the Indus river.

If the enlightenment project of law has failed, it is People's Law that should represent the new site  for decolonisation. Rethinking law involves a challenge not just to the state (and its concomitant internationalism), but more so to political practice itself. It is with this lens that the WTI, the Lok Sath, and the many resistance moments across Southasia need to be viewed.

~ Asad Farooq is associated with the Chashma Struggles and People's Tribunal in Pakistan.

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Himal Southasian