People in villages around Kot Addu have been holding people's tribunals or Saths to discuss the issues confronting them and formulating strategies to further their cause
By Ammar Ali Jan
Despite a heroic struggle and morale-boosting victory for the lawyer's movement, there are little expectations for substantial structural changes in our society. At the grassroots level, despite the advent of the "independent" judiciary, there seems little trust in the lower courts and the judiciary is still viewed as part of the oppressive state apparatus which includes the police, the army, bureaucracy etc.
Little attention has been paid by the media to the resistance movements in central and southern Punjab as the peasantry in this region has been in a constant state of revolt. In order to better understand the problems faced in this region and the resistance to them, we reached Kot Addu (Southern Punjab) with a group of students and researchers. We were hosted by the Action Aid, Hirak Foundation and the Lok Party (a local Seraiki nationalist party), all of whom have been active in the local struggles.
The day we reached Kot Addu, we got into a heated argument with the locals over the Long March. Coming from Lahore, and being part of the movement for almost two years, it seemed impossible that any serious activist would question the legitimacy of this movement. However, progressive activists and thinkers from the Seraiki belt dubbed the Long March as a "Punjabi conspiracy against smaller provinces". One activist told me that people in Punjab (Seraikis do not consider themselves Punjabi) were against Zardari because he was a "son of the soil" (Sindhi).
Whether the locals were right in terming the movement a "Punjabi conspiracy" or not is beside the point. There are two important conclusions that have to be drawn from this analysis that you seldom hear in central Punjab. One, that the master narrative created by the media depicting Zardari as universally hated in all of Pakistan does not seem to be true as he continues to enjoy support from the smaller provinces (a fact noticed during the Long March when it got ignored in these provinces). Second, it shows how dangerously the country is fragmented along ethnic and linguistic lines as there is no longer a "national politics" in the country with the "popular" Nawaz Sharif having little base of support in southern Punjab or rural Sindh. This divide could prove to be the biggest challenge for the sustainability of the Pakistani State.
To come back to the issue in Kot Addu that brought us all together. The problems in the area are a result of the neo-liberal agenda of 'development' sponsored by international donors. The proposed re-aligning of a barrage and creation of water reservoirs built by the World Bank will result in flooding in the adjoining areas, destroying fields and forcing people to leave their lands. These projects have also been a disaster for the natural environment but such is the development discourse that the international donors remain insensitive to living beings.
There is precedence for such developmental projects in the region that have ruined the lives of the locals. Development projects in Chashma and Taunsa have resulted in massive flooding and water logging in the adjoining areas, ruining the livelihood of thousands in the process. All those families are being forced to live in camps around their devastated fields.
Internationally, such models of development have had similar results. If we look at Latin America, this neo-liberal onslaught has been extremely detrimental for indigenous populations like those in Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile, Ecuador etc. At the same time, resistance movements against this anti-people development have given rise to new forces that are now implementing an alternative model of development which is more sensitivity towards the locals as well as the environment.
The Seraiki belt is also witnessing a rebellion that is steeped in its local culture. It revolves around Sath, or a People's tribunal on the water issues. Such Saths have been formed as a result of the work done by local progressive groups in the region. These tribunals meet every month to discuss the issues confronting them and formulating strategies to further their cause. These tribunals have been able to bring the communities together to jointly struggle for their cause. In Chashma and Taunsa, these Saths remain an integral part of their resistance. Despite being thrown out of their fields, the peasants in the region have been regularly organising themselves against the international donors through these tribunals and once a consensus is reached, the resolution becomes binding on everyone.
Visiting one of these Saths in the villages around Kot Addu was a memorable experience. Those who had been wronged by the system and had been denied justice by the courts were now formulating alternative models to resolve their issues. Everyone was encouraged to come up to the mike and speak about their issues. Such an exercise has helped give voice and confidence to thousands who once felt that no one had the time to listen to their grievances. One important feature of this gathering was the large turnout of women from this conservative belt. In fact, as has been witnessed in Okara, the women seemed far more aggressive than the men and were extremely vocal against local politicians.
Representatives of the irrigation department were also present on the occasion and were grilled by the locals for all the broken promises of the government. It was decided in the end that the peasants would continue to organise demonstrations and rallies until the government accepts their demands. If this tactic fails, the tribunal decided to stage a sit-in in front of the Supreme Court, asking CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry to take suo motu notice to stop these projects. This would be a huge test for the newly restored Supreme Court to meet the expectations of the general public which helped restore it.
One reason why such forms of resistance and alternative set-up of courts is coming into existence is because of the dissatisfaction and resentment against the State apparatus. In this region, there are no hospitals, schools, infrastructure, jobs opportunities or industry created by the State. Hence, you only see the coercive arm of the State (Police, Army) in action in order to maintain "law and order". However, the State refuses to shoulder the many other responsibilities in order to create a sense of loyalty amongst the citizenry. In fact, while we were there, it was announced that the retired army officers have been allotted 13000 acres of land in Muzaffargarh. This will require the displacement of thousands of peasants who have been working on these fields for decades.
Such examples reflect the complete insensitivity of the Pakistani State towards its citizenry and its complete subservience to the global development philosophy. The resistance by local groups against the high-handedness of the State may prove to be its biggest challenge.