Festival of the oppressed: February 9th, 2008
February 9th, 2008, was an important day for the lawyers’ movement and for the people of Pakistan. It was that day when the lawyers showed their resilience in the face of State repression on the streets of Islamabad. It was that day when the lawyers showed to the rest of the world that their movement will not fade away. It will stand to accomplish its objectives. It will stand for the rights of the people, for restoration of judiciary, for free and fair elections. The Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP) finds it to their honor to stand by the lawyers in their struggle for democracy and justice.
It started with the usual chill of the winter morning when a car rally organized by the Concerned Citizens of Pakistan left from the gates of Aitzaz Ahsan’s residence in Lahore. The organizers were kind enough to give space to some student-members of the CMKP for free. The long journey was made easy by discussions that ranged from anti-war movement in USA to political theories and the upcoming elections in Pakistan. We made short stays at the Bar Associations on our way as more lawyers and cars joined in. Ahmed Mukhtar, who is contesting elections from Pakistan People’s Party against Pakistan Muslim League-Q’s stalwart Shujat Hussain, hosted our lunch and briefed us about his preparations to tackle rigging of elections in his constituency. As we were getting late, we had to avoid more stops and rushed towards Islamabad.
Still we were not on time to attend the Pakistan Bar Council’s meeting at Islamabad. We drove to the Aitzaz Ahsan’s house where a group of lawyers was waiting for us, ready to march on to the residence of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. As the demonstration started, members of CMKP from Rawalpindi/Islamabad arrived armed with large red flags marked with the hammer and sickle and a megaphone. Without wasting any moment, we ran towards the rally waving our flags, caught our breath, and started raising our slogans against the military rule.
The path to the Chief Justice’s house passes through an upward slope and a large contingent of Police was deployed there behind a barricade. As we approached the cordon, the first splash of water cannon was thrown our way. At first, there was a slight panic. The water cannon were being used for the first time and some people who were not expecting to face the strong pressure of water also fell on the road. The Government of Pakistan was trying to find proper use of fire brigade, which had failed miserably in dealing with a number of fires in the past, to defeat the political protests. However, it only dampened the protestors in the chilling cold – nothing more than that. Obviously, those who are willing to get their heads opened by stones in the course of struggle were not to be deterred by water. Soon there was a cry: “it’s only water”. Everyone moved forward facing the high pressure of water cannon. Some lawyers also started pelting stones to respond to State’s aggression. As I approached the barricade, all wet and damp, I found fellow CMKP members standing right on the barricade. Comrade A was standing with open arms challenging the water cannon while his back was being supported by Comrade F. The pressure of water was so high that even Comrade F slipped a few inches back to hold up Comrade A from falling back when faced with splashes.
The fire brigade failed miserably – again. They must have run out of water. The first shell of tear-gas was launched at the agitators. It was dreadful. I have been facing tear-gas since March last year and not that I can resist tear-gas (one of my friends who has been swimming since childhood can), I could see that this was not the ordinary one that we have been inhaling in Lahore. Old ladies, their commitment must be appreciated, who could not run fell down in the midst of the tear-gas attack and were helped out by young students. It was unbearable. As I ran back, my face and eyes were burning with stinging pain and there was a strong urge to vomit. With eyes half-closed and face coved by the wet flag, I ran back to the point where I could feel comfortable. It was quite a run.
Anyhow, I recovered in around five minutes and rushed to the front where an active fight was taking place between lawyers and Police. I immediately started looking for a stone and was lucky to have one delivered by the Police just few feet away from me. I happily returned it.
The lawyers were fighting with great energy and enthusiasm. They were chanting slogans against the Police and standing valiantly in the line of stone-fire. More tear-gas shells were fired, which were returned back by angry agitators who were wearing gloves to save their hands as they hold hot shells. Such daring was appreciated by loud cheers from the rest and boosted our spirits. Young girls were swearing at the dictator and throwing rocks at the Police. That was a place to be – all that I could have wished for. Now, I wish for more. But, I was joyful. Revolution is, after all, a festival of the oppressed.
In a middle of all this, a well-known senior lawyer positioned himself at higher spot, wanting to engage the crowd with his cold speech. That gentleman was keener to deliver a speech to the lawyers rather than leading them like other gallant senior lawyers, some of whom was arrested by the Police. People were not interested in words. They wanted action from their leaders. A young female lawyer asked the orator to step down (in no kind words) and to go where action is. That “leader” had to step down, but was nowhere to be seen at the front.
Another interesting bit was interaction with the management of Marriott Hotel that was on the street where the whole event was taking place. Some lawyers asked the Hotel management to provide them with water so that they can treat their burning eyes. The management plainly denied. The furious lawyers started throwing the tear-gas shells that could not be returned to the Police at Marriott. When the Police misfired a tear-gas shell into the Marriott, it was cheered by the protestors. Such was the anger against the apathetic management of the Hotel that found it better to serve their rich clients rather than those fighting for democracy in the streets. Such was the anger against the symbols of class oppression.
In the meanwhile, the protestors had divided in four groups: one in the middle, one on the right, and the third on the left. The fourth was at the back. The middle one was the bait for the Police. Attacks were launched from the left and the right. The group at the back only moved further back.
The Police, hitting their shields with their batons, moved further in offensive and the lawyers had the retreat. Some lawyers tried to make last attempts at attacking a police. A small group chanting Allah ho smashed themselves into the Policemen. All were arrested. It was interesting how the rich sufi tradition of the South Asia found itself in the movement for democracy and justice. The flank on the left was routed by Police into a street. One of my friends who were with that group evaded arrest by excusing that he was only there to pick up his sister from the protest. Many people from that faction were arrested by the Police.
Finally, the lawyers had to retreat into the Super Market with the chants of Allah ho. It was a good day. The lawyers engaged the Police for three hours in a fierce street battle and showed superb patience and valiance. The movement was shown to be alive and kicking.
Before I part with this report, there is a questions that erupted after the protest that I want to deal here. A good fellow questioned the utility of going these protests. His argument was that we should focus our energy in raising awareness elsewhere rather than attending public demonstrations. While I whole-heartedly agree with the idea that we must go to schools and colleges or, for that matter, everywhere we find a crowd to raise consciousness, we should not underestimate the potential of protests. People don’t learn merely through words. Had that been the case, the revolution would have occurred many years ago. People also learn from practical examples. We must show them and motivate them with our struggle in the street protests against the Military Dictatorship. As the Salvador Allende, the Marxist President of Chile, said in his last address to his people moments before he was murdered when fighting against military generals who instigated a coup against him: “I am sure my sacrifice will not be in vain; I am sure that it will at least be a moral lesson which will punish felony, cowardice and, treason.” When we attend the protest, we challenge apathy and cowardice. Not only we set an example for others, we educate ourselves with the lessons that can only be experienced from the streets and not the books.