Post-Karachi: An unprecedented political space for progressive dissent in military-run Pakistan Print E-mail
Sydney April 5, 2006.

PAKISTAN: World Social Forum opens democratic space

Pip Hinman, Karachi

It had been touch and go for this six-day World Social Forum, postponed from January because of the devastating earthquake last October. But in the end, more than 35,000 people attended — mostly Pakistanis but also activists from 59 other countries — and created an unprecedented political space for progressive activists to speak out in military-run Pakistan.

Farooq Tariq, the general secretary of the Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), which was a central part of the Karachi WSF organising group, was ecstatic about the outcome. “Karachi WSF was unique”, he told Green Left Weekly. “It brought together, on one platform, most of the movements in Pakistan — from peasants to fisher-folk, women’s rights’ groups to national liberation struggle groups opposing the neoliberal agenda, militarisation and imperialist globalisation. Never before have political forces had such an opportunity to exchange views and discuss strategy openly.”

The WSF hosted more than 300 seminars and workshops and countless rallies and cultural programs, something Tariq said “showed people at liberty”. This is not insignificant in any country, but it is particularly important in Pakistan where the democratic forces, wedged between the military government and the religious fundamentalists, have an enormous struggle just to carve out the democratic space for their campaigns.

Because the event went off so well, and the mainstream media coverage was so favourable, it would have been hard for the conservative forces to pull off a distracting incident, as happened in Mumbai in 2004 when a rape case was fabricated to discredit that WSF.

Local print media gave front-page coverage to the WSF — both international campaigns, but also the specific national struggles. Radical writer and activist Tariq Ali, Jamal Jumma from the campaign against the apartheid wall in Palestine, as well as leaders of the Kashmiri independence struggle and the workers’ and peasants’ struggles were all given coverage.

Tariq said that journalists were overwhelmed at how ordinary Pakistanis took advantage of the forum to vent their anger at the regime of General Pervez Musharraf.

The relationship between India and Pakistan and the US government’s manoeuvres, the imperialist wars and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the Cuban and Venezuelan alternatives to neoliberalism were major discussion points. While a Cuban delegation attended, unfortunately no-one from Venezuela was able to, although the social and economic advances in that country were often mentioned.

The LPP’s left party initiative — the People’s Democratic Movement (AJT) — allowed it and its affiliates to host broader left forums, some of which ended up being the largest in a very competitive environment. Tariq, who spoke at many of the LPP-inspired sessions, was invited to speak at many others as well, an indicator of the respect his party has earned in its seven-year history.

Of the seven LPP-initiated forums, the most popular were “Political Islam, challenges and responses” with Tariq Ali and Jamal Jumma, which 1000 people attended; “Women Workers in Pakistan — the struggle for change”, hosted by Women workers’ Help Line; “Globalisation and anti-globalisation”, hosted by the Labour Education Foundation and featuring Pierre Rousset of Europe in Solidarity Without Borders and Assim Sajad Akhtar of the People’s Rights Movement; “Privatisation, neoliberal agenda and fight-back” with Rasul Bukhash Paleejo of Awami Tehrik (the People’s Movement); and “Socialism as an alternative”, hosted by the National Trade Union Federation with Tariq, Abid Hassan Minto of the National Workers Party and Masoor Karim from the Pakistan Communist Party.

A seminar on the peasants’ struggle, hosted by the Pakistan Peasant Coordination Committee, gathered together two generations of peasant leaders, and a seminar titled “Falsification of Soviet history” was addressed by Dr Mark Goloviznin from Russia.

Apart from seminars, the WSF was a non-stop series of demonstrations. All around the stadium, loud and colourful groups of activists marched with their flags and banners held high. On March 28, many organisations joined a rally against the demolition of shanty towns in Karachi. Hundreds of LPP red flags were distributed, and the most popular chant was: “Surk hai! Surkh hai! Asia surkh hai!” (Red is, Red is, Asia is Red!)