Karachi, Pakistan’s most populated city, has been paralysed for the last week by an outpouring of violence orchestrated by the military regime of general Musharraf, and his political allies in the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). It has left at least 41 people dead.
But rather than crushing the mood of resistance, the repression seems to have ignited further opposition, and the survival of the regime now looks in doubt.
The excuse for the brutal attacks was the arrival of the suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. Before his removal few would have suspected that a high court judge would be the figure to rally the opposition to Musharraf, but Chaudhry made his name by ruling against the government and is extremely popular.
He has blocked attempts to privatise state assets like the steel industry, and fights for those who have been accused of supporting Al Qaida and have been “disappeared” by the security agencies.
While the mainstream political parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party expected the Iftikhar issue to blow over quickly, first the lawyers, then many thousands beyond them, saw the opportunity to defeat the government.
They began to organise a movement independent of the parties using the tradition of judges being allowed to address bar councils anywhere in the country as a means of enabling Iftikhar to rally supporters.
On the day of his scheduled arrival at Karachi airport the streets were packed. Workers and students joined lawyers at many different rallying points.
The police set up roadblocks to trap people into confined areas and then allowed MQM activists, armed with brand new Kalashnikov rifles and hand grenades, to attack the crowds.
Salam, a young activist with an NGO in Karachi told the Socialist about his ordeal.
“I was with over 20,000 people on the highway from Quaidabad to Malir Halt. We had all come to greet the judge who had stood firm against the dictator,” he said.
“The lawyers were at the front, about 1,000 of them. At Malir Halt we heard gunfire. The lawyers ran for cover and the crowd spilled over into the sides of the road. The firing came from the Falaknaz apartment block on the highway.
“They threw three hand grenades at us, and kept up the firing for an hour. I think that there were over 200 of them, and they acted like well trained military men but they showed their allegiance to the MQM.
“Next they started firing directly at the crowd. Three people were killed directly in front of me. After an hour of shooting there were bodies littered all over the place and people were crying for help”.
Elsewhere in the city entire areas where surrounded by anti-lawyer political activists carrying weapons, who acted in unison with the paramilitary police. But from 11am until 9pm the protesters kept up their momentum and refused to leave the streets.
In the wake of the slaughter the authorities have banned all public assemblies of more than two people, but lawyers taking to the streets in defiance of the ban, and a solid strike and shutdown of Karachi on Monday of this week was our response.
The turmoil has revealed the deep splits in the ruling class, both about a variety of national questions in Pakistan, how to implement the neoliberal economic policy followed by the government, and about the close relationship between the leaders of Pakistan and the US.
It has also led to huge anger with the MQM, which is the ruling party in Karachi. The party has a strong base among the Urdu speaking lower middle classes who migrated from India. It is strongly in favour of the “War on Terror” and organised celebrations at the end of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
The MQM city government in Karachi has targeted slums that are mainly inhabited by Pashtuns for demolition, creating ethnic tensions in the city.
Pakistan is in deep crisis and some sections of the ruling class are desperately calling for a compromise, but it is difficult to see how that can come about.
Two key organs of state are fighting each other, with as many as 95 percent of high court judges having appeared in receptions organised for the sacked chief justice, while military generals are refusing to accept the rule of law.
Meanwhile the police have shown no interest in preventing further slaughter on the streets. Their only objective is to prevent the growth of the lawyers’ movement.
But while our rulers are at war, millions of workers and students have been radicalised and the possibility of the movement finding a home in the workplaces and colleges is one that must truly terrify the regime and the bosses.
For more on Pakistan go to International Socialist Pakistan website (in Urdu) www.geocities.com/internationalsocialistpakistan
For background on Pakistan read Pakistan: on the edge of instability in International Socialism 110