November 26, 2020
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Dispatches From Karachi

'Welcome To The World Stupid Forum'

As Yasin Malik joked, was the Karachi World Social Forum (March 24-29, 2006) too populated by 'intellectuals'? Or did it at least give a genuine taste of debate, dissent and democratic mobilization to military-ruled Pakistan?

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'Welcome To The World Stupid Forum'
Ananya Vajpeyi
'Welcome To The World Stupid Forum'

As soon as I enter the precincts of the World Social Forum in Karachi, on the morning of 25th March, a figure in orange overalls, his head in a black cloth, his hands tied behind his back, kneels at the base of a lamp-post, as though about to be executed. I take a couple of photographs. He is there for a day or two; then he is removed. None of the countless posters, banners, signs, leaflets, photographs, pin-boards, or hoardings that fill the City Sports Complex on Kashmir Road, none of the riot of texts in Urdu, Roman, Bengali and Nagari scripts provides any explanation for this macabre installation.

The effigy of the Guantanamo prisoner requires no commentary, perhaps. And yet in this WSF there is very little by way of discussion about or protest against the war in Iraq. That which one expected would be at the heart of this gathering is left, for the most part, unsaid.

Instead of Iraq, dominating the first half of the six-day WSF proceedings is Kashmir. A mournful mug shot of Yasin Malik is plastered all over the walls of the stadium, grainy blue and white, like an announcement for either a celebrated shaheed or a wanted criminal. His own appearance is in stark contrast to his picture, as he sports, for at least two days straight, a bright red shirt and denims, with occasionally a black-and-white checked Palestinian kaffiya thrown over his shoulders. He could be a student leader at JNU, one of those who stay on in campus politics long after their twenties. The real life Yasin is as upbeat as he gets, and with good reason. A plenary session on 26th March – four hours long and four hours late, which means effectively an entire working day – as well as some off-site events around the city, all focus on Kashmir.

At the Kashmir plenary Hameed Haroon, head of the Dawn group of newspapers, plays master of ceremonies, inviting an entire range of leaders from Srinagar, Muzaffarabad, Islamabad, Ladakh, Jammu, Northern Areas and elsewhere to speak on the same platform. From the Indian side of the LoC, Hurriyat, PDP, NC and Congress representatives all share the stage with editor Anuradha Bhasin-Jamwal of Kashmir Times, and veteran peacenik Balraj Puri. The proceedings are interminable. Occasionally, supporters of Yasin, or of Balawaristan raise slogans, wave flags and interrupt the speeches, probably more out of boredom than conviction. One speaker gets angry and gives a public dressing down to the unruly sloganeers, like the irritated father of too many young children.

Finally, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, dapper as ever, steps up to the mic. He speaks in English, and without any trace of the distinctive Kashmiri accent. The humidity of Karachi’s afternoon is quite oppressive, but he keeps his warm cap on, and seems none the worse for having waited his turn for several hours. "We have to learn to think,’ he says, ‘out of the box." A Pakistani journalist I am sitting next to, Badar Alam of The News, rolls his eyes behind very stylish glasses. "’Wonder who sent that line to his Inbox," he mutters. The finefeatured, well-dressed, articulate Mirwaiz is far above everyone, Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri alike. No surprise then, that when Yasin finally rises to address the audience in Urdu and English, he almost brings the house down. Kashmir banega albatta! – "We will create an independent Kashmir yet!" – shout young and not so young men, some of them ethnic Kashmiris, some just hired help. Middle-class folks sitting on chairs under a billowing red and yellow canopy (shamiana), many of them from south India, Bangladesh, Brazil or Africa, watch peaceably.

Yasin strikes me as preoccupied with his world back in India. Before he takes the mic, he is continually in conversation with the writer Sonia Jabbar, who appears to be his close pal. From the podium he talks of non-violence, and of Ramachandra Gandhi, and Arundhati Roy, and Manmohan Singh, and Kamal Mitra Chenoy (a professor at JNU who happens to be sitting in the audience), and of his quarrel with states, not people. I half expect him to mention Barkha Dutt as well, but luckily he refrains from yet more personal references connected to his life in Delhi.

He narrates the story of his political career, which comes across, in his version, as rather a romantic transformation from commander (of the JKLF) to prime stakeholder in the peace process, via terrible passages in unlawful detention. He criticizes the WSF as a mere gathering of "intellectuals", not sensitive to the needs of those he calls "stupid people – like myself". "Welcome to the World Stupid Forum," I say to Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, a young academic, political activist and commentator from Lahore who made a speech the previous day on the same panel as Tariq Ali, Jamal Juma, and Jeremy Corbyn.

Aasim, Badar and I have been chatting and laughing in loud whispers for so long that I forget I have to make a presentation at a different venue. A frantic phone call from my colleagues reminds me of where I really ought to be. I leave in a hurry, but discover in the course of the next few days that I am not the only one over-dosing on Kashmir. All sorts of Pakistanis – reporters, politicians, NGO-wallahs, ordinary folk – say to me: ‘Look, we have enough of our internal problems. Frankly, we’re tired of Musharraf going on about Kashmir, when he hasn’t got our own house in order.’ I get the impression that with relentless American pressure, Afghanistan still a mess, India’s super-power posturing, unrest in Balochistan, and a revolt of sorts in the agricultural sector in Punjab, there is only so much earthquake relief and war-mongering that this beleaguered nation can withstand, no matter what its history of being obsessed with Kashmir. At the moment the Pakistani people have just too many other things to worry about.

It’s hardly a shock then, that no one shows up at what are billed "The Kashmir Sessions" at Jinnah University auditorium, slated to take place on March 27th. Despite prominent advertisements in the Dawn, the hall was so empty, reportedly, that the seminar, titled "Intractable Disputes: South Asia in Conflict" had to be re-scheduled for the next day, 28th March. Even then the turnout, according to Terra Viva, the independent newspaper of the WSF, remained very small. On the evening of 27th March, I spot Yasin (who is hard to miss in his red shirt, really) at Bar-BQ Tonight, one of Karachi’s most popular restaurants in Clifton, near the tomb of Abdullah Shah Ghazi. On the crowded rooftop where the seabreeze blows strong and cool, and city lights are visible in every direction, and the food smells great, and large families make a huge racket as they eat late into the night, Yasin is hobnobbing with WSF organizers, sponsors, and local luminaries. He seems to be the toast of this elite international group, but you really have to wonder what kind of broad-based constituency, if any, the Kashmiri leadership enjoys in Pakistan, at least down here in Sindh.

By contrast, a land-based movement in Punjab, represented by Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (AMP) or the Tenants Association of Punjab, may have the support of something like 10 lakh share-croppers. Pakistan’s ruling military establishment is attempting to turn long-term hereditary tenants, who have practiced share-cropping (hissa-batai) from generation to generation for the last hundred years, into contract labour (dihadi-dar), and they are resisting, by refusing to pay rent or taxes to the government. On the principle that possession (kabza) is nine-tenths of ownership, the protesting farmers don’t sell, don’t vacate, and don’t trade their land or its produce. "Malki ya Maut" – "Ownership or Death" is their slogan.

In retaliation, the administration slaps false charges on the farmers to get them embroiled in court cases, or detains them under extraordinary national security and antiterrorism laws, besides trying to intimidate them with sheer force of arms. Human and political rights abuses are rampant. Since it already controls all state institutions, and prevents any democratic processes from unfolding, Musharraf’s regime now wants to take away people’s material assets, i.e., their lands and homes as well. "There are two military dictatorships in our region,’ says Probir Purkayastha, a WSF India organizer, ‘Myanmar, and Pakistan." The Burmese may be the worse off of the two countries, but Pakistanis are beginning to have enough as well.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, who teaches colonial history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), an expensive private college, introduces me to Liaqat Ali and Mehr Abdul Sattar, the leaders of the AMP, which they translate for me as "Organization of Landless Peasants". Aasim is a wiry, youthful, and I daresay somewhat intense radical associated with this movement. Educated in England and America, he coordinates, together with Asha Amirali, another prominent left ideologue, the Islamabad-based Peoples Rights Movement (PRM). The man speaks good Urdu, but writes about the AMP mainly in English language newspapers and journals. He could belong to another time, a time that has passed into history for the organized left in India.

Talking to Aasim, and to the older, more rustic and more wily Punjabi farmers Ali and Sattar, I get the sense that Pakistan’s long-overdue date with land reform is now coming back to haunt it. Trouble has been brewing in Okara district since 2000. While the peasant uprising Aasim secretly hopes for and perhaps talks to his LUMS students about may not occur in a dramatic fashion any time soon, it’s clear that the struggle between tenant cultivators and the military has already reached a high pitch, occasioning some violence, mass jailings, injuries and even the loss of a handful of lives.

Marxist ideas, Gandhian methods (though perhaps in some other name), the legacy of anti-colonial struggle, examples of people’s struggles in the regional neighbourhood (like the Narmada Bachao Andolan in India), revolutionary (inquilabi) rhetoric and progressive thinking in intellectual circles involved with new social movements in Pakistan, have boosted AMP’s agitation. It is muted by Indian standards, but nevertheless shows signs of growing to attain the kind of critical mass necessary for political change. In an essay in the New Internationalist (No. 349), titled "The Democracy Killers", at the time of the presidential referendum in 2002, Aasim wrote:

There are not many in Pakistan willing to support the Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (Tenants Association of Punjab).

Almost a million landless tenants in 10 districts across the most populous and richest province in the country have come together to demand rights to land they have tilled for a century. Their struggle directly confronts the military authorities that operate these farms. The struggle should strike at the moral conscience of this society because it illuminates the amazing resilience and resistance of those who have been oppressed for generations – and the kind of vision that this country should be built on. Scores of tenant farmers have been killed, imprisoned and harassed.

In the intervening 3-4 years, however, the AMP and the PRM have both matured as rural and urban expressions, respectively, of the long repressed and frequently interrupted search for democratic politics in Pakistan. Arguably hosting the WSF, too, is such an expression. Aasim disagrees, as he finds the WSF in Karachi, dominated by NGOs and the media, not political enough for his liking. But against his criticisms, it has to be said that two issues which were central in the WSF agenda this year, namely, the rights situation in Balochistan and water problems in Sindh, both did lend an overtly political temper to the proceedings, at least from the point of view of its domestic participants and audience. Strident anti-government rhetoric from the Balochis and from Sindhi fisher-folk, and critical reflections from prominent politicians like Javed Jabbar and Iqbal Haider, did suggest that the Sports Complex on Kashmir Road may have acted, if momentarily, as something of a counter-weight to General Musharraf’s presence in Karachi during the latter part of the WSF.

An indifferently organized and haphazardly conducted gathering of activists, mostly from Pakistan and South Asia, can only do so much to energize the Pakistani public (awam), which has been thoroughly dominated by authoritarian forces for almost its entire existence since 1947.

But even if the WSF isn’t a harbinger of democracy, it’s good for Karachi’s sagging morale to play host to a third of this "polycentric" global event, split this year over Bamako (Mali), Caracas (Venezuela) and Karachi (Pakistan). The buzz among the event’s organizers was that as many as 40,000 people attended, from 58 countries. A beautiful, cosmopolitan and over-populated city, so much like its sister across the water, Mumbai, in recent years Karachi has suffered miserably for being the headquarters of communal mobilizations, terror networks, underworld activity, big and petty crime, jihadi groups, and to me always one of the most heinous events since 9/11, the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl. Citizens can’t believe that all kinds of foreigners, especially the ever-hostile Indians, would risk coming to their city in such large numbers, for any reason other than cricket. People have come, though, even sceptics like me. Danny Pearl was my friend and I find it hard to forgive his gory death, but Karachi turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

WSF 2006 may not even remotely begin to bring down Musharraf, but at least it gives Pakistanis a taste of the debate, dissent and democratic mobilization that they so sorely miss in their own society.

Ananya Vajpeyi is a Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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