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Pakistan: Islamabad sit-in sparks new movement

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The first 10 days of February marked the beginning of a new movement of the oppressed in Pakistan. Thousands of Pashtun people, from the cities as well as the countryside, opened a new round of struggle against the chauvinism and oppression of the army, the state agencies and the misery caused by the so-called "war on terror", which has hit the Pashtun people particularly hard.

In response to the murder of Najeebullah Mehsud in a staged confrontation with police, activists called for a sit-in, a Girga, in Islamabad, the country's capital. Mehsud, like many Pashtun people, was shot, together with other "suspects", in Karachi in January, in an operation run by the "specialist" Rao Anwar.

As in many such incidents, the police claimed Mehsud was involved in "terrorism", which is supposed to justify their actions but, on this occasion, there was a huge public outcry on social media and across the Pashtun community. An independent investigation not only proved Najeebullah Mehsud to be innocent but found Rao Anwar guilty.

Until now, Sindh’s so-called "encounter specialists" had not faced any inquiry over the number of such killings to their ‘credit’, despite the fact that, even according to the police’s own records, at least 444 people have been killed in 745 encounters between 2011 and 2018. At the same time, not a single policeman was even injured, let alone killed, during these operations.

Najeebullah’s murder illustrates once again that the Pashtun nation has been facing its own "war on terror“ for almost two decades, leaving thousands of Pashtun martyrs killed and wounded. Millions have been displaced in various military operations and, made refugees in their own country, they have faced racism everywhere.

However, this operation sparked the anger of the Pashtun people everywhere and this was first publicly expressed in the Pashtun Girga in Karachi. Then, on January 25, the Mehsud Protection Movement started with a long march from Dera Ismail Khan through different Pashtun towns and cities. It went via Bannu, Durham, Peshawar, Mardan , Swabi and Tarnol and finally entered Islamabad.

There, the Girga rallied thousands, demanding in the first place the release of some 70 people being held in custody and pledging to continue the struggle until this demand was met. After 10 days, the 70 were released and an agreement was reached with the prime minister to end the Girga.

Clearly, this was a major success but the Girga is seen as the first step in the development of a new movement after years of the Pashtun people facing the terror of the Taliban and the war by the army. There are still many other demands raised in the march, which must be fought for. Chief of these is the arrest of Rao Anwar and his colleagues. The protests also called for:

1) The court to establish a judicial commission to investigate the massacre of the Pashtun people, which should be monitored by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

2) All missing persons should be handed over to the judiciary and released if there is no evidence upon which to base charges against them.

3) Landmines should be eliminated from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, known as FATA, which are under the direct control of the Pakistani state, and Waziristan. Those killed or injured should be recognised as victims and they or their families be compensated.

The protests also demanded freedom of speech and assembly. Currently, in FATA, every democratic mass protest against the military operations, or even after each “unfortunate incident”, is banned and if any protest does take place, the entire local community is held responsible and threatened with violence and torture. However, this time, thousands stood up.

In every city, the Long March was widely welcomed. One could feel a changing Pashtun society. The Girga, from February 1 to February 10, changed everything and gave birth to a new national movement among the Pashtuns. Its demands were and are directed against the spread of military operations and their effects on FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, KPK.

This movement stands against the war on terror and against the military solution and for peace. It also points to the opportunism of the Pakistani liberal, left and Pashtun nationalists who supported the war, claiming that it would eliminate the Taliban and bring peace. In fact, the war on terror has brought more harm and damage to ordinary Pashtuns than to the Taliban. In these circumstances, a new Pashtun leadership is emerging, a response to the failure of the existing nationalist leadership and its increasing separation from the lives and suffering of the ordinary people.

The long march and sit in were both a rebellion and a celebration of the Pashtuns. In spite of a media blackout, thousands participated every day, describing their agony and their determination to struggle. One mother explained how one son was killed and the other was missing. There were also parents whose children were killed by a drone attack.

The crowds included a large number of Pashtun youth and workers, who face daily racism in Islamabad or Punjab.

The whole sit-in became a festival of the oppressed, signalling a rebellion in Pashtun society, and sparking big demonstrations and protests in different cities against the Taliban and against the "peace committees" set up by the government, which are actually an imposition on the civilian population. It has changed Pashtun society and created new possibilities.

Pashtuns from Balochistan, FATA and other cities came to Islamabad to join the Girga, which also attracted many young people, especially Pashtun students from different universities and colleges. Its demands were and are directed against the spread of military operations and their effects on FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Women from KPK also joined the sit in and this was a very significant development because previously women were largely excluded from politics.

Youth played an important role in organising the long march. Indeed, it was young people who initiated and organised the protests. At the sit-in, students from different universities and rank and file members of nationalist or left national organisations helped a lot. Eventually, also the central Pashtun leadership, traditionally organised in the Awami National Party, ANP, and Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, PMAP, participated, fearing that they might lose even more influence. Clearly, they decided to participate in order to regain control.

The protests showed that a new movement for human and democratic rights is emerging. Although it was initiated by Pashtuns, other oppressed peoples soon began to look towards it. Hazara, Baloch and Sindhis wanted to join and organisations sent solidarity messages. In Punjab, different movements are discussing how to join and link up, especially the “Find Raza Campaign”.

Thus the Girga has been become a pole of attraction in the country for human rights and democratic issues. It is creating a new narrative against the state's operations, violence and enforced disappearances. The state apparatus and the governments, central and provincial, are worried that it could spread, making public all of their crimes. Worse still, they fear it could grow out of control so, through the reactionary media, they are already spreading the accusation that the march and Girga are part of a conspiracy against the development and prosperity of Pakistan.

They are also trying to split the movement by incorporating the traditional leaders of the Pashtun nation, the elders, tribal leaders, bourgeoisie and landlords. And certainly this section of society is prepared to compromise, as one could see after their meeting with the prime minister. Even before any written agreement or concession had been given, they were satisfied with his response and wanted to end the protests.

The sit in continued under a new, youthful leadership despite all the unsatisfactory circumstances and hardship. It was becoming ever larger and more and more students were joining it. As it became clear that it was spreading its influence into other areas, the government stepped back, released the prisoners and issued the notification for the approval of the other immediate demands raised.

As Manzoor Pashteen, one of the main organisers of the long march and Girga, said: this struggle is not over, this is only the beginning. He called on the protestors to go to every city, to report on the sit-in and start organising the Pashtuns into one movement against their oppression. This is very important because the state could quickly withdraw the concessions it was forced to make and try to limit them in a way that fits into the ruling class regional strategy. It is also a very important development that the Mehsud Protection Movement changed its name to the Pashtun Movement, a clear signal that it has gone beyond being centred on a single case of murder and repression.

The movement now needs to be organised democratically, so that it can grow effectively, but it must also develop politically. The oppressed nations and layers need solidarity and joint struggle, and this should not be limited to the FATA or the Pashtun areas, but the whole of Pakistan, connecting with other movements of workers and the oppressed.

As the sit-in has shown, a determined mass movement can win and can make steps forward. Ultimately, however, its demands can only be won if it becomes a movement against imperialism and its designs in the region, which bring wars, military operations, disappearances and racism on the Pashtun people. In reality, the struggle cannot succeed without being linked to the fight against imperialism and the limits of the capitalist system just as, on the other hand, those struggles cannot be advanced without the support of the Pashtun and other oppressed nationalities.