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Engaging With Pakistan

By Warisha Farasat

30 October, 2006

Brightly painted trucks in hues of orange, red and green whiz past. Confusing mazes of concrete interspersed with green fields’ line the highway. Momentarily shaken out of a nap, I forget where I am. Borders dissolve. This could have been a drive on an Indian highway. The semblance is astounding. The sophistication of the Daewoo bus complete with a beautiful hostess makes one realize that it is a highway in Pakistan and not India. Clichés of the partition come to mind: ‘two nation theory, one people, two nations, at the stroke of midnight…..’ No, this is not a trip of a peace activist or someone involved in any track diplomacy. It’s a humble effort to confront the veneers of Pakistan that shadow our Indian psyche.

Old fashioned brick lined houses, billboards with the latest fashion trends, and gizmos, its all there. The orderliness of Islamabad is complimented by the chaos of Rawalapindi. The history of Lahore is built on by the modernity of Karachi. Much has been written about the historical and cultural richness inherited by Pakistan post partition. The magnificent Badshahi Masjid (mosque) or Anarkali Bazar in Lahore epitomizes the sense of nostalgia that grips most Indian visitors to Pakistan, especially the Dilliwallas. What with their Jama Masjid and Chandi Chowk.

Other than the historical on both sides, the Indo Pak peace process is widely discussed and finds generous mention in editorial spaces in the Indian newspapers and magazines. More recently, General Musharraf’s memoir, “In the Line of Fire”, is occupying the imagination of the Indian public. And as always, Kashmir. What is often left out of this mainstream discourse obsessed with peace is an understanding of movements within Pakistan, both old and new.

In a dusty office with paint peeling off the ceiling is situated a group called People’s Rights Movement (PRM) which was formed in January 2002. They identify themselves as a group engaging in political activism. In an atmosphere where civil society movements have facilitated increasing depoliticization of the Pakistani state and society, they are conscious of the challenges. Strengthening various people’s movement in Pakistan and attempts at bridging the gap between activism and the need and aspirations of the working classes are some facets of this movement. The dilapidated walls of the office are explained by the refusal to seek foreign funding by the group.

PRM supported a recent uprising by the peasants in Okara in Southern Punjab against the army. The tenants were being coerced to discard the existing tenancy system and switch to the contract system. The army was illegally occupying land and unfairly demanding a share of the produce. When the army attempted to crush the resistance by arresting and imprisoning the men, the women of the community effectively mobilized and carried the struggle forward. Eventually the army relented and could not takeover the vast tracts of fertile land. Gauging the success of the movement on various counts, it is obvious that it helped create spaces for women within existing patriarchal structures. This is a rare success story of well-organized mobilization in modern Pakistan.

Women’s rights movement which started with the formation of Women’s Action Forum (WAF) against the repressive laws of General Zia stands at a crucial juncture. One of the most significant battles they fought was against the Hudood Ordinance, originally promulgated in 1979 during Zia’s regime. The women’s movement is infuriated that after two decades of opposition to the controversial Ordinance, the present military government has conceded merely to amend and not repeal the law. The first amended version of the Hudood laws was acceptable to most women’s rights activist, the subsequent watered down versions continue to be misogynist. The progressive amendments to the law have been constantly opposed by the political and religious incumbents.

Though groups with wider mass bases such as the Sindhian Tehreek (the women’s wing of Awami Tehreek) joined the WAF, it has largely remained the bastion of the upper class woman. Aware of the shortcomings of the movement in its restricted mobilization of upper class women over the years, a senior member speaks with admirable honesty, “As urban middle class women, we failed to connect with the masses and the trade unionists. Two reasons for this failure were the lack of democratization of Pakistan and the fact that only the rich could afford to indulge in advocacy, the poor had other priorities, and crucial issues of survival.” Though professional lobbying at policy making level effectuated changes, it did not translate into advocacy at the mass level.

The movements challenging the absolutism of the Pakistani state have emerged both from agrarian and coastal areas. When in 1996, the fishing area was increased by 200 nautical miles as part of the Exclusive Economic Zone declaration; the beneficiaries were not the traditional fisherfolk of Sindh and Balochistan, but the deep sea trawlers. The environmental and livelihood issues surrounding the coastal areas are similar to those in India involving: senseless corporatization of the fisheries sector, destroying the livelihood of local communities and tremendous environmental costs. Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum formed in 1998 is a collective of fisherfolk from the coastal areas, activists, academicians and local politicians. Since its foundation in 1998, it has organized mobilizations, outreach and grassroots action on various issues of livelihood and sustainable development.

Indians pride themselves on the vibrancy of civil society and democratic movements within the country. However, we fail to acknowledge the culture of resistance that has developed in neighboring Pakistan. They are still popularly perceived as ‘long bearded, short salwar wearing and fanatical.’ But like us they are a community that has struggled between conservatism and liberalism, women’s rights and patriarchy, radicalization and Sufism. As the flight takes off from Lahore for Delhi, I feel queasy. Whether or not I will be able to return (given the stringent visa procedures) is not as important because I leave the country with an immense sense of optimism. Pakistan is much more than just a US ally in the war against terror.

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