The website of the United States Central Command recently reported that Pakistan suffered a USD 10 billion loss (almost one-third of total external debt) because of its support for the US wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Within hours of the posting, the information was removed from the website and was played down by the mainstream media in Pakistan. That such information should be suppressed as quickly as possible is hardly surprising. After all the Pakistani military establishment and its puppet political elite have made their living since 11 September on a healthy dose of blatant lies, drawing their cue from the most sophisticated fabricator of all.
The fact is that Pakistan’s economy went into virtual freefall because of the US ‘war on terror’, and no amount of reference to the sparkling macroeconomic figures that the International Monetary Fund quotes ad nauseum can hide this fact. Nevertheless, General Musharraf, finance minister Shaukat Aziz and the rest of the gang that runs the country have tried very hard to propagate a lie about progress and stability. Of course, this is possible because the disenfranchised majority of Pakistanis are taking the fall, and their political voice is muted. Meanwhile those trying hard to stay in the good books of the global financial elite are all too happy to pretend that everything is better than ever.
The lie industry is now very well established. It has a long tradition backed up by a handy infrastructure that exists solely to serve the interests of the elite. The weapons of mass destruction fraud that dominated media networks before the war on Iraq has been completely exposed, but the lie industry has already relegated this fraud to the category of relic news items. And now the United Nations has acquiesced quite easily to the US and UK Iraq reconstruction drama. Meanwhile in Pakistan, Musharraf’s complete unwillingness to retreat from his position on the Legal Framework Order is also based on a compilation of lies that makes everyone else but the army responsible for the crisis that Pakistan faces.
But the most significant lies, the ones that are based on the carefully constructed social fabric that is the Pakistani state ideology, the ones that expose the sordid brutality of our state, and the ones that have broken the backs of people’s resistance till now, are coming undone. And it is this process that will hasten the evolution of an organic political movement for change, perhaps the only long-term resistance to the US imperial advance in periphery countries such as Pakistan.
It is now three years since Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (AMP) (Tenants Association of Punjab) came into being as an organisation of landless sharecropping tenants on state land in the Punjab. The AMP has resisted the arbitrary abuse of power by the Pakistani state, something that virtually no other entity in the country has been able to do with any degree of consistency in recent years. The AMP’s struggle is important for a number of reasons, including the manner in which social norms limiting women’s mobility have been challenged in the areas where the movement has taken root. The most conspicuous site of the struggle has been Okara military farms, where a direct standoff rages between tenants and paramilitary forces.
Since August 2002, Pakistani Rangers – the border patrol troops – have imposed a reign of terror on over 100,000 people living in 18 villages in Okara. While the AMP represents almost one million people from over 10 districts in the province, the largest and most populous farm is in Okara. And because it is controlled – although not owned – by the military, the stakes are also the highest. The authorities in Okara and the rest of the province want tenants to accept a limited-year contract that will effectively revoke tenancy status. Instead of paying harvest shares in-kind, the authorities want the ex-tenants, aka new contract labourers, to pay cash rents. From the beginning, the AMP has maintained that changing the tenants’ tenure arrangement is simply a convenient legal cover for eventual eviction.
There is serious merit to this suspicion, given some of the stipulations in the contract that tenants have been asked to sign. There is also clear inter-governmental correspondence indicating that the authorities have every intention of having the land vacated. Accordingly, in August 2002, Rangers descended upon Okara to force tenants to put their thumbprints on the contracts. They killed a young boy, and a murder case was promptly registered against AMP activists. On 11 May 2003, a 60-year-old man was gunned down, again by the Rangers, and another murder case was lodged against AMP activists.
In this whole period, a handful of people have died, including a pregnant woman, because they were prevented from leaving their villages by Rangers who have set up permanent barricades. Hundreds of people are harassed daily, some detained, some even arrested on trumped-up charges of terrorist activities or anti-state conspiracy. Overall there are now some 1700 criminal cases filed against AMP activists across the province. Since the movement started three years ago, at least 50 people have been jailed for extended periods, and they continue to be jailed on a regular basis.
The lies emanating from the state machinery on this issue are almost laughable. Despite the fact that the disputed land is owned by the government of Punjab, military officers and sympathisers either claim that the land belongs to the military, or simply disregard ownership altogether. At a broader level, most observers know that land grabbing by the military has reached monumental proportions. More importantly, this rent-seeking activity has become highly institutionalised. In the so-called ‘national interest’, land and other resources are captured by the military – meanwhile, dissenters are treated like war criminals in their own homes. Kashmir, anyone?
State repression is likely to continue. However, what the ruling classes did not account for is the ongoing resistance of the one million tenants across Punjab. They refuse to pay cash rents, and they refuse to give up harvest shares. There should be no doubt that the tenants are bleeding the state, slowly but surely. Then again, the officers in Okara rake in good money from their daily allowances, money that comes from the national exchequer, extracted from the pockets of ordinary Pakistanis (the comparisons to Kashmir truly are compelling).
So the standoff can be expected to continue. But anyone who thinks that more conciliatory approaches to protecting the basic freedoms of citizens should be adopted needs to think again. There are now so many flagrant violations of even the liberal capitalist order’s own norms and ethics – whether by the US itself, or by the dozens of satellite states that ascribe to US hegemony – that it is imperative that clear and principled dissent be expressed at every possible juncture.
In much of the world, the empire enfranchises corrupt and obsolete elites. There is no shortcut to doing away with these regimes other than to challenge them directly. The fact of the matter is that there is only so much to go around, and as increasingly obscene methods of appropriation are devised by the US and the elite, more people will be pushed down into a rapidly growing underclass. The lie industry faces a contradiction – the lies only make sense insofar as they are given cover by distractions and temporary relief from time to time. When however, for example, the Pakistani state engages in direct repression, the lies are difficult to uphold. And with poverty shooting through the roof and people’s daily livelihoods threatened, the chances are that more Okaras will emerge. Everyone should sit and up and notice. The frustration and resentment many people feel due to US imperial designs and the complicity of the elite in Pakistan and elsewhere can be given voice by supporting struggles such as that in Okara. It is time to make the decision to act. Those truly at the frontline of resistance to empire demand it.