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Lawyers Take to the Streets of Islamabad

Down No-Constitution Avenue

by UZMA ASLAM KHAN

Lahore, Pakistan.

A week ago Tuesday, Islamabad sounded like a whistle factory. Clusters of policemen screeched themselves silly on their whistles, lest any mortals dare to ‘gather’. It was four days after Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was declared ‘non-functional’ by General Musharraf, and the first time the judge was to be publicly seen. No one making circles off Islamabad’s barricaded Constitution Avenue in search of a police-free zone would have called the street by its given name. What constitution? The one mocked in 1999, when Musharraf sacked an elected Prime Minister and declared himself ‘chief executive’? Or mocked again in 2002, when he held ‘elections’ that made him ‘President’ and, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, gave the religious parties control of two provinces? Or, the constitution that has been forgotten completely in the many grim years since he has waged a war against his own people, in the name of fighting ‘terror’?

Last Tuesday, as the Chief Justice arrived at the apex court to defend himself, lawyers and political party workers gathered in his support on a scale the General could not have foreseen, and could not prevent. Within hours, the whistles turned to tear gas, and batons.

But over a week later, the country is still whistling back. Lawyers are boycotting courts; judges are resigning; protests and rallies continue; criticism in the press is fierce.

We are looking for a kind of justice. The kind that will remove this dictator and grant us democracy. And the kind that calls American Democracy by its proper name.

* * *

That name was made clear when, with the help of CIA dollars in excess of aid to the Contras in Nicaragua, an Islamic fundamentalist dictator, General Zia ul Haq, was promoted in Pakistan to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan (1979-89). Under Zia, with US assistance, the Mujahideen were recruited from several countries to fight the Communists. Their hardcore interpretation of Islam then was a boon, not a bane, so much so that President Ronald Reagan called them as noble as his founding fathers. That equation should be stamped on every American flag hoisted in every public and private space on the Empire’s soil.

The fallout of the 1980s Afghan War on both Afghanistan and Pakistan was devastating. Pakistan teemed with drugs and arms, and a nasty ethnic war ensued between the indigenous people and the migrants who’d settled in Pakistan after the partition of India. General Zia introduced Sharia’a, Islamic law. Our history books were rewritten, scientific inquiry stifled, artistic expression censored, and the right to theological debate completely eradicated. An amended, draconian version of the Blasphemy Law, first introduced by the British in the nineteenth century, was now passed by ordinance, as were other laws that still exist today, such as the infamous Hudood Laws that target women.

And all of it was happening under the tutelage of American Democracy.

The country envisioned by Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, was one that celebrated the multiethnic, multilingual, and multireligious makeup of Pakistan. It was to be secular, not Islamic. In fact, the creation of Pakistan in 1947 was opposed by the religious parties, who called Jinnah a heretic. That should be stamped on every Pakistani flag.

But the generation that grew up under General Zia, my generation, has only ever known our country as a client state of the US Empire.

* * *

It is rumored that Justice Iftikhar’s unpopularity with the current US-backed military dictator (but also, given the heat being turned up on Busharraf by the Democrat-dominated Congress, US-back-stabbed), is in part because of his sympathies with the families of suspected Pakistani ‘terrorists’ being illegally detained in military torture cells across Pakistan. Whether this is true, and to what extent, is not entirely clear. What is clear is that many of those who’ve disappeared have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. They are being held either for no reason other than as evidence of ‘peformance’ for the Empire, or because they threaten the General’s internal interests ­ particularly in Balochistan, the largest and poorest of Pakistan’s four provinces. And, not surprisingly, the province that is richest in natural resources, particularly in minerals and natural gas. And, not surprisingly, one that has repeatedly waged a separatist war against successive Pakistani governments, both civilian and military.

There is a long history to separatist ethnic movements within Pakistan, ever since the country’s birth, because many groups doubted the likelihood of Jinnah’s vision of an equally representative, multiethnic state being realized. The Baloch and the Pashtuns (and later the Sindhis) felt, and continue to feel, politically and economically marginalized. Balochistan has been the most neglected of the four provinces. Its mountainous, arid terrain is vastly inaccessible by road. Its literacy rate is the lowest in the country. Its representation in the armed forces negligible, in industry and commerce even less.

In 1953, when natural gas deposits were first discovered in Sui, in the Baloch district of Dera Bugti, the first province to be supplied with the gas was the Punjab. Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, did not receive any till 1986. Even today, of its twenty-six districts, only four are supplied with gas, even in winter, when the temperature drops to below freezing. The federal government earns Rs 84 billion annually from the gas fields, while Balochistan receives a pittance (between 5- 15 billion rupees in royalties). This is its only major source of income. It has good reason to feel it is not a partner but a colony.

In effect, Balochistan is to Pakistan what Pakistan is to the United States.

Balochistan is also strategically positioned. It borders Afghanistan and Iran. US attacks on Afghanistan have been launched from bases in Pasni and Dalbandin, both in Balochistan. Should the United States decide to use military means to tame Iran (the country it once described as one of its two eyes in the Middle East; the other being Israel), who will have to help? Balochistan, of course. And Pakistan will comply. (It wants to be an eye but readers must imagine its anatomical position.) Along the way, Pakistan might launch yet another military attack on its own province, to quash the separatists who somehow don’t feel integrated. Back in 1998, in the Ras Koh Mountain and the Kharan Desert, both in Western Balochistan, Pakistan conducted nuclear tests. We were not shown the people in the mountain and the desert cheering as they choked.

Aside from natural gas, the province is rich in gold, copper, and, most importantly, uranium. Near the Ras Koh Mountain, where the nuclear tests were conducted, the rising US rival China is currently operating gold and copper mines (only?). China’s share is 74% and the federal government’s 25%. Balochistan gets 1%.

China has also been involved in the biggest and most controversial ‘development’ project in the Balochistan province, not in its mountains but on its Arabian Sea coast: the construction of a deep-sea port in Gwadar, a small fishing village and one of Pakistan’s three naval bases. Billed as a ‘trade corridor’ for China, Central Asia, the Gulf, East Africa, Iran, and India, Gwadar Port is popularly perceived as a Chinese Naval Outpost, constructed at record-breaking speed (three years) in response to Beijing’s fears of post-9/11 US presence extending east from the Persian Gulf, into countries bordering China.

The decision to construct the port was entirely the central government’s. The labor was almost exclusively Chinese: only one-sixth of the laborers were Baloch, and they were on daily wage. Even payment of these minimal wages has been sporadic. Thousands of local Baloch tribesmen and tribeswomen have been displaced; many others have been removed for fear of ‘terrorism.’ It’s a no-go area for the Baloch, on its way to becoming a ‘free trade zone’ for the rest of the world. When the second phase is completed, in another three years, it will be able to receive oil tankers with a capacity of around 200, 000 tons.

Given the utter disaster of the 2003 oil spill, caused by the Greek oil tanker, Tasman Spirit, this should ring alarm bells across the entire country. What happened in 2003? The tanker beached outside Karachi, split, spilled 28,000 tons of crude oil into the Arabian sea, destroyed our marine life (including two species of rare turtles, the Green Turtle and the Olive Ridley), littered Karachi’s beaches with dead fish, blackened the sand in sticky crude still seen and smelled today, blew toxic fumes across the city, made residents sick with diarrhea and vomitting, and put 90, 000 fishermen out of work. How did the government respond? It admitted it wasn’t equipped to deal with ‘such accidents’ and then concluded: ‘The situation is not that bad.’

Four years later, we open our shores to more disasters, because we are suddenly equipped to deal. Let it not be forgotten that nothing came of the claim the Pakistan National Shipping Corporation (PNSC) was supposed to file against the Greek company Polembros, who owned the all too spirited Tasman Spirit. Is it really likely to take up such claims in the inevitable future?

The official inauguration of Gwadar Port is the day I write this, March 20th.

Baloch opposition has been fierce. The Gwadar Garrison is so tightly policed that victims of this frequently brutal opposition are whoever-can-be-targeted. Early in 2006, three Chinese engineers of another development project were murdered. A year earlier, two Chinese workers were kidnapped, and one killed. The government responds by ’rounding up the militants.’ The Baloch respond by blowing up a Sui gas plant. Ad infinitum.

The Pakistan Human Rights Commission, and Amnesty International have been pleading for the release of the 4,000 men and women ‘terrorists’ arrested in Balochistan alone since September 11, 2001. The numbers are expected to be even higher. (From this province alone, then, more Pakistanis have been killed than those who died on 9/11. No, there is never any point in exchanging number with number, unless you are the number that doesn’t count.) Baloch men and women have also been arrested outside the province, most often in Karachi. Among those who have gone missing are an MD of a Bahrain-based Balochi-language television station; a Baloch poet; Baloch political activists and their families; Baloch students and their families. Some are known nationalists, others are not (but are likely to become so). Only 200 have been taken to court. None are proven Islamic terrorists. A few are released: all tell horrific stories of torture.

Before Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was declared ‘non-functional,’ he’d ordered the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the most powerful institution in Pakistan, to locate the missing. While this is hardly likely to be the main reason for the judge’s ‘suspension,’ his concern for the detained men and women was a little bit of hope. A little bit of hope goes a long way in Pakistan. That the judge is now himself being detained (albeit under far better conditions) without charge has made his cause real.

At last, in a client state that has always put the interests of others before its country’s, we can say what kind of justice we are looking for.

UZMA ASLAM KHAN is the author of The Story of Noble Rot (PenguinIndia 2001) and Trespassing (Flamingo/ HarperCollins UK 2003; Metropolitan/Henry Holt USA 2004). She lives in Lahore, Pakistan.