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Issue 48

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Issue 48, June 2000

Pakistan since the coup

    Pakistan's economic catastrophe
    Trampling on workers' rights
    The West's greatest fear
    Minority rights
    A programme for change

Clinton's recent tour of South Asia revealed the concern with which US imperialism views the situation developing in the subcontinental powder-keg. Yet, despite consolidating his regime, including the March-April trial and imprisonment of former premier Nawaz Sharif, General Musharraf's coup has not stabilised the situation for the ruling classes in Pakistan, writes AIJAZ HUSSAIN.

Aijaz Hussain is the national organiser of the United Socialist Party (USP), a sympathising section of the Committee for a Workers' International in Pakistan.

THE SEIZURE OF power by General Pervez Musharraf on 12 October 1999 surprised very few people in Pakistan. Tensions between sections of Pakistan's ruling classes had been growing for months. The Kargil issue proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back. (Kargil, a mountainous area of Kashmir, was the arena for a struggle between Indian and Pakistani forces in mid-1999. The Pakistan army lost face when Sharif ordered the troops withdrawal - see Socialism Today Nos 41 & 43.)

Kargil sharpened the differences within the ruling elite. One section, the Grand Alliance - linking many opposition bourgeois parties - organised rallies around the country, appealing to the army to intervene and dismantle Nawaz Sharif's government.

Apart from the loss of prestige in the Kargil conflict, the main fear of the opposition parties and the army was the increased radicalisation of the masses because of the unpopularity of Sharif's government. People were becoming more and more disillusioned by the complete inability of the feudal and capitalist elite to take society forward, exacerbated by Sharif's anti-democratic measures. Many commentators have said that had the army not taken over there would have been a bloody revolution of the type which culminated in the formation of a radical Islamic fundamentalist regime in Iran in 1979: the coup maintained the status quo.


The ousted prime minister once appeared as a champion of democracy. But Sharif's government, like that of his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto, acquired a reputation for corruption, with Pakistan's financial resources flowing into foreign bank accounts. Pakistan is suffering from very deep social and economic crises. Its state institutions are collapsing, corrupt officials cream-off millions of rupees, ministers run personal fiefdoms giving jobs to family and friends, bribery is the only means of getting anything done, religious and sectarian strife is rising, and the ruling elite is split. A complete breakdown in society is threatened and it is the working class, poor people and peasantry who are paying the price.

Sharif's right-wing government was elected in January 1997. Under his rule, over 100,000 workers were sacked, utility bills rocketed and food subsidies were slashed. Further devastating job cuts in state industry and the public sector were planned. At the same time, Sharif and his coterie amassed enormous wealth through the direct pilfering of state coffers, tax avoidance and kickbacks from lucrative international contracts. Sharif was widely hated. He cracked down on the workers' right to demonstrate and strike, and banned some state-sector unions. Democracy was a farce.

This was why not a single whimper was heard in this huge, poverty-ridden country when the army took over. Especially for the working class and poor, the cry to bring to book the leaders of the Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif's party) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP - Benazir Bhutto's party) is loud and clear.


The extreme social and economic crises and Sharif's drive for power accentuated the divisions within the ruling elite. Friction between the military and the governing party was compounded by the fact that, under pressure from US imperialism, Sharif had been pushing for cuts in military spending and attempting to negotiate with the Indian ruling class over the future of Kashmir. This was a major threat to the military's power and prestige: Pakistan's occupation of Kashmir allows the army to demand and receive a large slice of the state budget.

top     Pakistan's economic catastrophe

IN THE 1960s, the World Bank estimated that 17% of the population were living below the poverty line. In 1999 this rose to over 40%. And the rate increased fastest over the last nine years, under so-called 'democratically-elected' leaders. In such a situation the clamour for democracy sounds hollow. As poverty dominates the lives of the poor, the most important priority for them is whether there is enough food to go around. Wheat production per acre has fallen by a third in 1999 as compared to the 1960s. Cotton, rice and maize yields have also declined dramatically. Foreign loans are used to import foods - a tragic irony given the fact that the area once fed the whole subcontinent.

Land to the tillers is the only solution to increase output and end poverty and unemployment. A mere 0.5% of the population own 37% of agricultural land. Long-awaited and far-reaching reforms are an absolute necessity. General Musharraf will not carry these out.


Industry is also on the brink of total collapse. More than 7,500 major industrial units - almost 70% of the industrial sector - are shut down, bankrupt, uneconomic or have been deliberately liquidated. This accounts for the unemployment of almost 1.5 million trained workers. And this figure does not include the thousands of small businesses which have collapsed as the recession goes unchecked. The Sharif government sold public companies to their friends for a song and was a past master at turning viable public enterprises into loss-making ones. Military and civil bureaucrats also made hay in the process.

Musharraf presented a seven-point programme as a remedy for the present ills. In addition to economic and foreign policies, and nuclear and defence affairs, which have always been taken care of by the armed forces, inter-provincial disharmony, law and order, justice and accountability are being handled by a newly-created cabinet, the National Security Council. The security council is a combination of military personnel, technocrats and participants in non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This body, it is claimed, represents the 'civil sector'. To divert the attention of the working class and poor away from the need for a radical alternative, the ruling elite promotes the ideology of 'civil society', in contrast with class society.

The immediate challenge facing this dictatorial civil-military mish-mash of a regime is to revive the economy. Presently, the government's income is Rs350 billion ($6.5bn), while its expenses are Rs650 billion ($12bn). Rs300 billion go to service the national debt, defence spending accounts for Rs140 billion, and the running of civil government takes up Rs50 billion. The regime's stated aim to recover defaulted loans is blatant sloganeering designed to fool the people: the government is owed Rs300 billion. It is inconceivable that the crooks and gangster capitalists will repay this sum. Some commentators believe that the government could reclaim just Rs6 billion - about 2% of the total owed.


Military regimes have ruled for 25 of the years between October 1958 to August 1998. Government corruption and the concentration of industrial and economic power in the rulers' and their cronies' hands have been the hallmarks of these regimes. For example, 313 leading civil servants were dismissed or retired during Ayub Khan's military regime on charges of corruption, tax evasion and maintaining foreign exchange holdings. Yet the president's son, Captain Gohar Ayub, amassed $3.3 million by 'facilitating' a number of business deals. Ayub Khan himself was rated as one of the wealthiest presidents in the world. The wealth of Ayub Khan's family was estimated at $10-20 million when he stood down in 1968. The Khans are one of the top 22 families controlling the bulk of industrial and banking assets.

The gap between the rich and the poor is the root cause of many basic problems facing the working class and peasantry. Seventy percent of capitalisation in the stock market belongs to a handful of companies, and 70% of bank loans go into the hands of a similar group of industrialists and politicians. (Incidentally, 70% of the defaulters also belong to this category.)

top     Trampling on workers' rights

THE RULE OF the landlord is the rule of an all-powerful elite which represents the least productive part of the country. They own acres of land, immeasurable amounts of wealth and are educated at the best foreign universities. At the same time, they exploit the poor peasantry to the last extent, refuse to pay and evade taxes. In 1998, annual tax evasion was almost equal to the entire fiscal deficit. Human rights under these 'waderas' (feudal lords) are completely violated. The waderas maintain an estimated 9,000 private jails in the rural areas.


The Pakistani working class has fewer rights and protections today than when it secured independence from British imperialism in 1947. All governments, regardless of their differing natures and priorities, have demonstrated a remarkable consensus in dealing with the working class and curtailing their rights. Nonetheless, workers have suffered their greatest setbacks under military rule.

Musharraf's seven-point plan was widely acclaimed. But it is full of abstract notions, such as 'rebuilding national confidence and morale' and 'restoring national cohesion'. It does not refer directly to any of the problems faced by the working class. Like other leaders before him, Musharraf merely points the finger at the dismissed regime. On seizing power he stated that, 'In the past year, Pakistan has experienced merely the label of democracy, not the essence of it'.

The fact is that democracy has been a sham for the whole 52 years of Pakistan's existence. Today, less than 5% of the labour force enjoys the basic right of association, and even that is conditional. Workers in all sectors gained the legal right to form their own independent organisations under the 1926 Trade Union Act. The 1969 Industrial Relations Ordinance, however, disenfranchised around 75% of them, especially land workers, and severely curtailed rights for the rest!

The military regimes ordained that workers' rights were incompatible with the demands of 'national security and defence'. Thus workers employed in defence production could not be unionised. This was extended to cover any establishment, even in the private sector, that was remotely connected with defence production. On this pretext, factories providing commodities such as water coolers to the army were exempted from basic labour rights.


The infamous 'Contract Labour System' was also introduced extensively in the 1980s. In 1982, the state declared that almost every railway line in the country was a Ministry of Defence line. The unions in this sector were thereby banned! In January 1999, when Sharif asked the army to take over the administration of WAPDA, the union was immediately suspended and later de-registered. Musharraf admitted that this was the precondition for the army's intervention! The danger is that these rules could be applied to every employed person in Pakistan, including the millions of contract workers and tenants.

In the early 1980s, the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq ruled that provincial labour ministries could not undertake inspections without prior notice and the consent of the owners. As a result, Pakistan has one of the worst records of fatal industrial accidents and occupational hazards in the world.

Pakistan's elite was largely created and shaped in collaboration with British imperialism. It has faithfully maintained the structures of the colonial state: its outward appearance, mindset, functions, business rules and attitude towards working people. There is an exclusive monopoly on power enjoyed by an extremely tiny coterie of rulers who invariably come from the bureaucracy and military elite, the landed aristocracy, and capitalist nexus. The rulers have changed their masks not their faces.

top     The West's greatest fear

THE OPPOSITION OF the US and other imperialist powers to full martial law was partly due to the pressure of international public opinion and the threat of repercussions amongst the masses throughout the neo-colonial world. The CIA on 20 September publicly warned the military about taking action against the Sharif government. Their main fear was the potential for increased tension between India and Pakistan. One of imperialism's worst nightmares is of so-called 'rogue' states developing nuclear capability. This is exacerbated by the fact that the US is finding it hard getting its policies adopted in the region. South Asia is of high strategic importance to the West, particularly the US. The area's proximity to Central Asia, China and the oil-rich Middle East means that, if any of its component states were to 'fall', the resultant political instability would be virtually uncontrollable.


Since its creation, it has been an almost constant feature of Pakistan's foreign policy to be aligned with the US and the West. This was in pursuit of two interconnected objectives. Firstly, the cultivation of political, military and economic links with US imperialism to maintain the balance of power with India. Secondly, because of their fragile social base, successive governments have relied on US patronage to perpetuate their rule.

Most Pakistani rulers have cultivated a special client relationship with the US. And US imperialism used Pakistan during the cold war as a bargaining counter to keep New Delhi at a distance from Moscow, and as a conduit for behind-the-scenes support to reactionary regimes in the Middle East. Since the end of the cold war, however, Washington has devoted more time and money to improving relations with India. But now a new and horrifying prospect has emerged with the developing nuclear capability in South Asia.

Will the reactionary generals in South Asia try to beat each other to the nuclear draw? After being pillaged and plundered for centuries, its inhabitants systematically dehumanised and treated as commodities at the hands of Western imperialist powers - Britain to the fore - this part of the world is now one of imperialism's worst nightmares. That is why it intervened so promptly in the Kargil crisis. Sharif initially supported the armed incursion into Indian-occupied Kashmir to divert people's attention away from the economic hardship and to curry favour with the military elite. But he was forced by US imperialism to recall Pakistani forces in July. The generals regarded this as a humiliating blow to their prestige and signaled their discontent. The coup was triggered by the sacking of General Musharraf while he was in Sri Lanka.


The army has long been split between those influenced by US imperialism and those who support Islamic fundamentalism. The regime is unstable. Its policies will zigzag between taking action against the most corrupt elements of Sharif's regime and, when necessary, against the masses and national minorities. Musharraf's delay in announcing the military's plans showed that the generals did not have a thought-out political plan. More hard-line sections of the military probably felt that a transition to a nominally civilian regime could re-open political instability. Transition to a civilian government is not an immediate prospect. They have once again tasted power and may be unwilling to let go.

Members of the higher echelons of power in the military bureaucracy, and business, religious and political leaders, have all lost credibility. This is a major transformation: there has been an erosion of the authority of those who rule.

top     Minority rights

ONE OF THE major problems facing Pakistan's ruling elite is the growing call for more autonomy by smaller provinces and national minorities - a radicalisation brought on by the dire social and economic situation they face. The ruling elite is seen as a chauvinist Punjabi elite. The same applies to the army. National unity, as a concept, encapsulates political, social, cultural and economic integration. But Pakistan has always been beset with the formidable problem of competing regional demands within the context of a single nation state. Today, centre-to-province relations are in a state of turmoil and the tension is mounting.


The bonds holding the centre and provinces together have always been fragile, even when all appeared to be in order. Even the relatively representative structure of the state in the first seven years of the 1970s, when a certain level of discontent could be expressed, was unable to keep protests to a 'tolerable' level. The return of army rule in July 1977 and the ensuing repression seriously damaged prospects for national unity. As a result, the demand for greater regional autonomy and the decentralisation of decision-making resurfaced with greater vociferousness in the latter half of the 1980s.

The situation in the smaller provinces, especially in Sindh since 1983, is potentially explosive and will have far-reaching consequences. Relations between the government and the provinces are strained. Middle-class sections in the smaller provinces feel that the centre has not satisfactorily dealt with their grievances. Inhabitants of the smaller provinces argue that the centralisation of political and economic power and the consequent political, economic, cultural and linguistic suppression, has held back regional development. They feel that the political and economic authority is under the control of the Punjabi and Pathans (another nationality with a big share in the establishment), and Muhajirs (Urdu-speaking refugees) because of their domination of the military and civil services (which consume over 60% of the government annual revenues), as well as control of industrial, commercial and professional groups. They contend that a voting system based purely on votes cast offers few incentives to the smaller provinces as the Punjab comprises 56% of the country's population (with 60% of the population identifying itself as Punjabi and Seraiki-speaking). It can, therefore, out-vote all the other provinces. Representatives of the national minorities, therefore, argue either for breaking-up the provinces into smaller units or for equal representation in the national legislature.


The Punjab is the main beneficiary of the status quo which has existed since the foundation of the state, and especially since 1977 (when the army under General Zia toppled the first elected government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto). After a show trial presided over by Punjabi judges in the High Court in Lahore (the Punjabi capital) in April 1979, Zia sent Bhutto to the gallows. The execution received worldwide condemnation and, within Pakistan, it was seen as the execution of the Sindhi by the Punjabi. Bhutto's execution increased the Sindhis' sense of alienation.

The centre's all-embracing powers include the right to take on direct governance of a province, in a 'law and order situation', without either the invitation or consent of the provincial government. Under this pretext, the PPP government took control of Baluchistan in 1973 and Sharif's government took similar action in Sindh in 1998. The central government's power also extends to the appointment of judges, governors and other key administrative officials.

Because of their predominance in the policy-making process, Punjabi-Pathans' ethnic interests are equated with Pakistan's national interests. Since Sindhi and Balochi interests clash with those of the Punjabis and Pathans, they do not tend to share the same definition of national interests. With this lack of consensus between the dominant and dominated ethnic groups, Sindhis and Balochis basically look upon the Indo-Pakistan discord as a clash between Brahminical India and Punjabi Pakistan. They have little enthusiasm for the accession of Kashmir to Pakistan and do not share Punjabi-Pathans' promotion of the nuclear programme. In fact, they see Pakistan's nuclear bomb as an instrument of internal suppression and the arms race as a sheer waste of money. Sindhis and Balochis disapprove of Pakistan's politico-military links with the conservative regimes in the Middle East and are increasingly challenging Punjabi domination.


Since the coup, Musharraf has been trying to buy-off individuals from the different nationalist parties to try to head-off the rising discontent. But the proclamations on rebuilding 'national confidence and morale', and restoring 'national cohesion', have only further angered the national minorities. Because of the centre's record of repeated violations of constitutional arrangements, the denial of open political expression and long periods of outright military dictatorship, there is little faith in any institutional framework coming out of the existing socio-political set-up. The demand for the wider distribution of power has become more vocal and radical. This cannot be accommodated within the existing constitution which, in any case, has been suspended by Musharraf. The call for a new constituent assembly has become ever more urgent.

top     A programme for change

WHEN TALKING ABOUT national oppression, it is also important not to overlook the more fundamental class exploitation which exists. The exploitation of nationalities is itself part of the class question and is maintained by alliances between the ruling classes of all nationalities. Thus, along with national oppression and exploitation, there is always class oppression and exploitation present. The national minorities in Pakistan face a two-fold exploitation: Sindh and Balochistan are exploited by the centre and Punjab, but within the two provinces, the feudal and tribal lords and capitalist class further exploit the workers and peasants. The Punjabi working class and peasantry are exploited, in the main, by members of their own nationality.


The incompetent and privileged elite in the military and civil bureaucracy, buoyed up by US aid, has assumed the function of the old colonialist bureaucracy. Whenever Pakistanis have threatened to assert their democratic rights, the civil service and army have brutally stopped them. These vicious forces have been behind all the main events of the past 52 years: the splitting of East from West Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh; the wars with India; the repeated overthrow of civilian rule and the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto; and military action against Balochis and Sindhis. The return of the military shows the chronic instability of Pakistan's state.

What is needed is a change to a genuine democratic workers' state. Only a workers' state can break with capitalism and feudalism and show a way out of the country's crisis. This would require a revolutionary constituent assembly, fought for and won by a mass movement of the working class, peasantry and lower-middle class of all nationalities.

Such a movement would have to be organised around demands calling for an end to military rule, national oppression and feudalism and for the defence of the cultural and language rights of all minorities. It would call for the cancellation of the imperialist debt. It would demand the freedom to organise democratic trade unions with accountable leaderships on the average wage of a skilled worker, with the right to strike and demonstrate.

It would call for the freedom of the press and for trade union rights for soldiers, a minimum wage in the army and the election of all officers. It would demand the slashing of military spending and for unilateral nuclear disarmament.


It would insist on opening the books of industry to committees of workers and unions, and raise the demand for a minimum wage of Rs7,000 per month for all workers and a comprehensive social security system.

It would stand for a workers' and peasants' government drawing up a socialist, democratically-planned and controlled economy: for a socialist Pakistan as part of a socialist federation of the sub-continent.

Feudalism and capitalism has meant only poverty, suffering and wars, paid for by the blood and sweat of the workers and peasants. Only the Pakistani masses - led by the working class - can guarantee genuine democratic rule and an end to social deprivation.

Decisive action will prepare the best activists for changes in consciousness as any illusions in the military regime are undermined by daily experience. There will be explosions of anger against undemocratic rule. If the best activists are prepared now, these movements could challenge the whole existence of military rule, feudalism and capitalism, raising a socialist alternative not only in Pakistan but across the Asian subcontinent. 

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