The rise and success of the Punjab peasant movement proves that autonomous resistance — not party politics — is the path to popular self-determination.
The democratic politics of Pakistan are impassioned and turbulent, but more often than not ineffectual and counterproductive. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has proven incapable of bringing peace and security to the country, in addition to its abysmal record in delivering basic goods and services to its population.
The status quo is untenable; Pakistan is one of four countries left in the world unable to eradicate polio, is ranked 113th in the world in its literacy rate, is plagued by corruption at all levels of government, is subject to rolling electrical blackouts, the feudal system governing land ownership is pervasive, and nearly one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. Thus, one might conclude that conditions are ripe for genuine change and that the time is rapidly approaching.
But what will this change look like and under whose guidance will it come about? With national elections set to take place in 2013, various politicians have attempted to seize this moment of disillusionment and articulate some form of revolution. Former cricket star Imran Khan has established a formidable opposition with the Tehreek-e-Insaf party, vocally lambasting government corruption and repeatedly calling for a political “tsunami” to bring about substantive change in the country.
More recently, preacher turned politician Maulana Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri has sparked a new movement calling for the downfall of the current regime, citing corruption as a primary reason to lead a nationwide march on Islamabad.
But while Khan and Qadri — and probably many more — vow to shake up the status quo, they seem to operate within a particular political framework that accepts and foregrounds the notion that the state has the benevolent potential to act as the primary caretaker of the people. Their statist views presuppose that the primary force preventing substantive change in Pakistan is merely a large group of corrupt individuals, although dominant societal institutions remain intact.
While their intentions to improve conditions on the ground may (or may not be) sincere, the implicit and fundamentally flawed assumption of the parliamentary opposition relies on the notion that new parties or a new President or Prime Minister can vitally transform Pakistan while sustaining two dominant societal institutions: what Anatol Lieven describes as patronage and kinship.
Lieven contends that political families use their access to resources to plunder the state and redistribute them to their followers in exchange for political legitimacy. Both are products of and operate in unison under the umbrella of capitalism, with institutional players such as the military, political party leaders, land owners, drug cartels, and industrialists working in conjunction. Without escaping or entirely abolishing the patronage and kinship paradigm, in addition to patriarchal and ethnically discriminatory structures, the same fundamental inequalities and marginalization will continue to reproduce themselves.
Therefore, it is detrimental to rely solely on a political transformation of the state in the hopes that this will provide empowerment and improved well-being to the population. As Lal Khan has poignantly remarked, it seems that Qadri (and I would include reform-minded individuals like Imran Khan) wants to “change the system without actually changing it.”
Conversely, an alternative vision of revolutionary politics is being articulated in Pakistan’s Punjab province. Law professor Asad Farooq described the development of Anjuman-e-Mazareen-e-Punjab (Association of Punjab’s Tenants), essentially a peasant movement determined to reclaim their land and sovereignty from originally the British but now the Pakistani military, stating:
Before 2000 you were told what you can grow, where you can grow it; you were told how much you must give to the military; you were told where you can grow and also where you were to live. These villages are called chaks. Historically, they were organised by the British: the Christians would live in one corner, the market would be in one area. You could not go outside that grid. These structures remained in place all the way up to 2000 for these communities. They couldn’t go outside the chaks. They couldn’t grow crops as they liked. Everything they made was regimented. Everything was organised, and nothing allowed to change. The rigidity was enforced by extreme violence, constant beatings, and tortures of various kinds. So, what happens in 2000 is a radical transformation. With the military gone, power and decision making is localized and democratized.
He further comments on the redistribution of land occurring within the movement:
Before the movement the farmers would give 50 per cent of whatever they grew to the military and keep 50 per cent for themselves. Now they keep everything. They grow what they want; their land is their own. One of the interesting dynamics within the movement is that some of these communities had people who didn’t have any land, so there were various moments within the movement where land was distributed to those without land.
But the wider effect is that there is now a debate about how we should organize, what we should do from now on. And those debates are ongoing: in fact, I don’t believe there will be any resolution to them. But now these are debates from a position of power. This is a debate among tenants owning their own land. The military continues to make incursions now and then to lay claim to the land. It’s not a dead issue, but aside from defending the gains, the questions of what to do and how to organize are on-going. We are standing our ground.
The phenomenon unfolding since 2000 described by Professor Farooq is not necessarily new, as this type of peasant resistance has been occurring since the Mughal period led by Sufi saints Bayazid Ansari and Inayat Shaheed, and the formation of peasant unions and the Sindh Hari Committees under colonial rule. It is rather an evolutionary continuance of resistance, now occurring under the specter of globalization.
What is happening is a form of political disengagement. Rather than flock to the empty hope of ballot boxes and illusory speeches and marches, these groups are bypassing the state and its political apparatus’ in favor of collective self-organization and self-rule. Instead of remaining in and reproducing the shackles of the state, they have taken control of their own lives. Furthermore, this resistance isn’t only concentrated solely on the claiming of land, but has extended into the realm of law as well. Professor Farooq discusses the emergence of ‘people’s law tribunals’ in Southern Punjab against the backdrop of unfair water and irrigation policies sanctioned by the government. The creation of these tribunals, or saths, was the result of affected communities asking:
Why are we speaking to power to address its own failures?” There was this remarkable moment over a period of six months to a year when people began to realize that they need not engage with the state. This realization materialized in sets of villagers forming what I would hesitantly call ‘people’s tribunals.’>
He further adds:
We have this fetish that either the state is the institution that crafts and administers the law, or that people are governed through customary law. These people’s tribunals were outside these two categories. They were deeply imbricated in the political struggle, and the political struggle is what gave it its shape and its flavour. The beauty of these tribunals is that they reclaim the crafting of law, reclaim the ability to actually say “we are the ones who do law, we are the ones who want to articulate judgments and we are the ones who craft the law that stems from that.”
What we are witnessing, therefore, is a wholesale rejection of the state and its tentacles by groups it has marginalized throughout history. By actively disengaging, these peasant movements are actually challenging the legitimacy of the state more than Qadri or Khan could ever dare to imagine. The real danger in the pseudo-revolutionary babble espoused by these individuals is that they continue to condition the masses into believing that substantive change, that an equitable and just society, can be achieved through the prism of this state which has continually failed to secure a just socio-economic reality.
The statists further the false hope that long marches and high voter turnout, what some may characterize as components of a vibrant democracy, are capable of dismantling the oppressive structures and institutions of the state. The wisest course of action for the people of Pakistan, people starving for the status quo to be shattered, would be to take a moment and witness what has been unfolding in Punjab. Pakistanis are capable of controlling their own destinies and reclaiming their sovereignty from the state and those who leech off of it, as famed international law professor Martii Koskeniemmi stated:
In the context of war, economic collapse, and environmental destruction, in spite of all the managerial technologies, sovereignty points to the possibility, however limited or idealistic, that whatever comes to pass, one is not just a pawn in other people’s games but, for better or for worse, the master of one’s life.”
Sajjad Ali Malik is a prospective PhD applicant who recently graduated from the American University in Cairo with an MA in International Human Rights Law.