On Monday and Tuesday (March 24 and 25) the 22nd congress of The Struggle, the Marxist tendency in Pakistan, was held. This year saw the largest attendance ever at the congress. Both in terms of numbers and in composition it was unprecedented with 877 comrades filling the Alhambra Art Centre in the heart of Lahore.
The most striking aspect about this gathering was the fact that all the various ethnic groups that live in Pakistan were represented, Baluchis, Punjabis, Hazaras, Kashmiris, Sindhis and many more. This is of enormous strategic importance for an internationalist tendency which is working in a country where the national question has never been resolved and where bloody ethnic clashes periodically break out.
The congress started with a debate on the war in Iraq and on international perspectives, which was introduced by Alan Woods. This was followed by sessions on perspectives for Pakistan, led off by comrade Manzoor Ahmed (the recently elected Marxist MP), tasks of the Marxists in relation to work in parliament, led off by comrade Lal Khan, and a discussion on the organisational tasks for the coming period. Claudio Bellotti was also present as the official representative of the Italian PRC (Rifondazione Comunista).
What has been built by the Marxists in Pakistan is an extraordinary achievement. We must remember that this tendency has been built up starting with a small nucleus of 5-6 comrades in exile during the Zia dictatorship in the 1980s.
In his lead off Alan Woods underlined how the war in Iraq had completely broken down the world balance of forces that had existed up until recently. Alan pointed out that, "Bush has succeeded in splitting the UN, and creating divisions in NATO and the European Union. An abyss has opened up between Europe and the United States. He has now even managed to come into conflict with the Turks. It is quite clear that the Turkish army will not permit a Kurdish state to be set up. The Turks are entering Iraq and the Americans cannot stop them. The split between the USA and Turkey is an incredible state of affairs. For decades Turkey had been the main ally of US imperialism in the Middle East together with Israel.
"Capitalist equilibrium has been broken at all levels, economic, diplomatic, military. The mass mobilisations that have been taking place on a world scale are in fact a prelude to revolutionary developments. Although the movement is still in its early phases, it is clear that the tide has turned everywhere."
Veterans, workers, students, women
What also strikes you about this gathering is its political composition. Gathered here were a whole series of veterans of the class struggle and of the revolutionary movement in Pakistan. There were comrades like Lal Khan, who many comrade have met in Europe during his speaking tours of Spain, Italy, Austria, Britain and other countries in the past few years. There was Shahida Jabeen, a fighting female comrade who can lay claim to being the woman who has received the longest prison sentence ever handed out in the history of Pakistan. She was tortured under the dictatorship of general Zia and later became national secretary of the women's section of the PPP but was later sidelined within the party by Benazir Bhutto for having adhered to Marxist ideas. There was comrade Ghulam Abbas, who has struggled under three different dictatorships. He was only stopped from becoming an MP in the recent elections - in spite of having received 64,000 votes in his constituency - thanks to blatant ballot rigging
There were a significant number of trade union activists and leaders present in the congress. Among these there were the comrades who led the heroic struggles at the Karachi steelworks. There were also the Quetta comrades who eighteen months ago organised a bitter strike of the government workers that paralysed the city and led to the arrest of 197 workers. One of the leaders of that struggle, comrade Hameed Khan, was also present at the congress. Those workers were only released after a massive international solidarity campaign. There was also a large number of rank and file trade union activists from many different sectors: the steel industry, the postal services, the airlines, the dockworkers of Karachi (the industrial heartland of Pakistan), the oil refineries, the railways, the government workers, etc.
In a country where the plight of women is one of the worst in the world, these comrades have shown determination and skill in recruiting women to revolutionary politics. The fact that 87 female comrades were at this congress is testimony to the success of this work carried out in very difficult conditions. We must remember that women are not supposed to attend political gatherings where men are present. (Our readers can find out more about this kind of work in the article on the women's question in Pakistan written by comrade Sadaf Zahra).
There were hundreds of youth who had become active in revolutionary politics over the past one or two years. Two years ago the JKNSF (the Kashmiri national students' federation) elected a comrade of the The Struggle as its chairman and many of these students were present in the congress. One of them made a passionate intervention at the congress. The Kashmiri people have been oppressed for more than half a century. Four wars and 80,000 dead have achieved nothing. Today the Kashmiri people feel oppressed both by India and Pakistan and are demanding their independence. But an independent Kashmir can only be achieved on a socialist basis. It can only be a socialist Kashmir as part of a wider socialist federation involving India and Pakistan. And this can only come about on the basis of a revolutionary socialist transformation of the whole subcontinent. The alternative is an even worse nightmare, with the ever-present threat of nuclear conflict between the two countries.
Returning from Baghdad
Among those attending the congress were also three PPP MPs, Zulfiqar Gondal, Shakeela Rasheed and Qamar u Zaman Kaira. The PPP, as comrade Manzoor Ahmed explained in his interview, has been gripped by a serious internal crisis. This has led to divisions opening up within its parliamentary group and from this a left opposition has begun to crystallise.
Zulfiqar was recently in Baghdad. He left on the very day the war broke out. This is what he had to say about his visit.
"The Iraqis are determined to oppose the invasion. Years of sanctions have hardened their resolve. Their feelings towards Saddam Hussein are varied, but one thing is clear: imperialism is seen as the main enemy. The sanctions have had a disastrous effect. There is widespread malnutrition, especially among the women and children. The Oil for food programme has proved to be totally inadequate, and furthermore it is completely out of the hands of either the people or the Iraqi government.
"As far as the outcome of the war is concerned it is the pitting of technology against human beings. It is obvious that the Iraqis cannot compete on a purely military basis. That is why they have concentrated their forces in the urban areas where they could put up a very strong resistance. I left via Syria where it was obvious that there is widespread anger and opposition to US imperialism. On our way back we met a group of about forty Syrians who were going to Baghdad as volunteers to fight in the war."
Anti imperialist demonstration in Lahore
Immediately after the close of the congress, all the delegates assembled in the centre of Lahore where the local supporters of The Struggle had prepared stacks of red banners and placards. This was a completely illegal demonstration, since the regime expressly prohibits all outdoor gatherings of more than five people. But the regime finds itself under severe pressure. Last week they had to temporarily suspend the ban on demonstrations to allow the fundamentalist parties to hold demonstrations against the war. This shows the weakening of the regime, and it is expressed in the attitude of the police, who seemed more surprised than aggressive at the sight of our column marching up the street.
The police looked decidedly nervous at the sight of so many demonstrators. A police officer strode up to us: "We have not been informed about this. This demonstration is not allowed." He was immediately surrounded by comrades who showed that they were not intimidated by the police: "We have every right to demonstrate! You cannot stop us!" The officer became confused: "Well, yes, everybody has the right to demonstrate," and then he withdrew to a safe distance, as the march halted and the comrades sat down in the middle of the road, completely blocking the traffic for about an hour.
For the duration of the demonstration, the dozen or so cops armed with rifles, looked on passively as a crowd that had swelled to over 1,500 sat down in the middle of the Mall – the main road in the city centre – not far from the Punjab provincial assembly. They did not even call for reinforcements to disperse the crowd. Their attitude was not hostile, but slightly bewildered. Comrade Ilyas Khan, a fiery advocate from Multan and former President of the PPP Youth in Punjab, seized one of the policemen by the collar and yelled at him: "Why don't you start chanting slogans? Come on! Shout ‘Down with American imperialism!' "
All the time the demonstrators sat in the middle of the road, brandishing red flags and shouting slogans like: "Revolution! Revolution! Socialist Revolution!" and "Red! Red! The East is Red!" and the old PPP slogan "Roti, kapra aur makan!" "Food, clothing and shelter!" The female comrades were even more militant than the rest. In general the mood was one of tremendous enthusiasm and militancy. They were absolutely fearless.
One by one, known leaders were hoisted onto strong shoulders and harangued the crowd with revolutionary speeches. Among the speakers were Ilyas Khan, Qamar Zaman Kaira, PPP member of parliament, Ghulam Abbas, the leader of the PPP Left, Zulfiqar Gondal, another PPP MP, recently returned from Baghdad, and, of course, Manzoor Ahmed.
An army lorry drove right up to the line of demonstrators, who refused to budge. Some of the soldiers got down to ask permission to pass. "Please let us go, we are in a hurry," they said. But the comrades remained firm. "We are sorry, but we cannot let you pass." The demonstrators replied with anti-militarist chants. Then the soldiers pleaded: "But we are only ordinary soldiers, we are not officers. This is an emergency." And so the demonstrators relented and parted to allow the one lorry through.
By the end of the demonstration our numbers had doubled from what they were at the start. Despite the revolutionary character of our slogans, nobody protested, and the passers by were sympathetic. Even the police were sympathetic, or at any rate not hostile. They just folded their arms and stood by, allowing the demonstration to continue. In the past, however, they would certainly have called for reinforcements and broken it up violently.
The press and television cameras soon arrived on the scene and interviewed several of the participants. Among those interviewed was Claudio Bellotti, member of the National Executive Committee of Rifondazione Comunista (Italy) and Alan Woods, the editor of Marxist.com. Claudio answered: "This is an unjust and criminal imperialist aggression that must be opposed by all possible means. Demonstrations like this are being held in every major city in the world. It shows the complete rottenness of the capitalist system, which we must get rid of."
Alan was asked if he, as a British citizen, was worried about being in Pakistan at this time. He replied: "Why should I be worried? I am never worried when I am with the common people. They have the same interest and the same concerns in every country in the world. I am not worried about the workers and peasants. The only people I worry about are the rich people, the capitalists and imperialists who are causing wars everywhere."
At the end of the demonstration a veteran comrade turned to Alan and said: "Believe me, I don't know how many times I have been demonstrating and fighting with the police on this very same street. But I have never seen so many red flags here!"
Lahore, March 26, 2003.