A Historic Long March That Fell Short

Lawyers’ leadership on the road from resistance to reconciliation
By: Farooq Tariq

We started our Long March from Lahore around 6pm on 12 June 2008. Four vehicles were carrying around 100 Labour Party Pakistan activists. The destination was Islamabad, where leaders of the lawyers’ movement announced a picket of parliament. This was to put pressure on the Pakistan Peoples Party government to fulfill their promise to restore the country’s top judges.

The judges had refused to take oath under a Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO) after General Musharraf announced an emergency on 3 November 2007. Taking such an oath would have meant legalizing Musharraf’s dictatorial measures.

After the general elections of 18 February, the Pakistan Peoples Party came to power with the promise to restore the top judges within 30 days. However, they failed to fulfill their promise. Instead, before the judges’ reinstatement the PPP government decided to place conditions on the independent judiciary.

We arrived at Islamabad on 14 June at 2am. Due to the massive outpouring of people journeying to Islamabad, it took us 44 hours to cover a distance of 300 kilometers. That means, on the average, we drove just 7 kilometers an hour. Along the way there were reception camps, with many thousands of people standing in line in order to greet those marching and to wish them good luck. In many locations the reception camps offered a drinks, food and biscuits. We were quite pleased with this gesture.

The mood was euphoric. Everyone shouted slogans against the Musharraf regime and waved to all who passed by. I have never heard so much muddy language against a ruler as then, when many saw this opportunity to express their inner feelings. They all were happy that at last something was happening. They said, “Go and get Musharraf out, we are with you.” All the way along the route crowds expressed a definitely all-out anti-Musharraf consciousness.

Imagine people queuing up in thousands, even after midnight! We attended a public meeting at 4am at Gujrat, where a few thousand refused to go home until the caravan arrived and addressed them. Gujrat is the city where the leader of the Musharraf-supported Pakistan Muslim League was defeated.

Within the crowd at Gujrat we saw for the first time the flags of the Pakistan Peoples Party. The PPP leadership had advised its members not to attend the Long March. Likewise, the Peoples Lawyers Forum, a PPP organization for lawyers, had announced a complete boycott of the event. Many PPP leaders were telling jokes about the Long March.

Javed Bhatti called me, an LPP activist, and said that some private television channels were commenting about the Long March’s “low turn out.” I was surprised by these dirty tactics. The PPP leadership had used some of its journalist supporters to propagate this lie, which was contrary to the facts on the ground.

However, PPP activists in the hundreds defied their main leadership to become part of the lawyers’ movement. This was a welcome development and speakers at the 4am public rally acknowledged the importance of their participation.

Every few hours I was using my mobile to write a running commentary on the march and posting to Labour Party Pakistan-supported email list “Socialist Pakistan News (SPN)”. However, here in Gujrat, my revolutionary tempo had a break. The leaders of Pakistan Bhatta Mazdoor Union at Gujrat offered us a cup of tea. Given the constant shouting, I had almost lost my voice so I was using some hot water to freshen up my throat. With my attention diverted, my mobile disappeared in seconds. Six months of collecting telephone numbers and email addresses were lost! It took few hours before I recovered from this shock.

Around 6am in Jehlum we held a meeting of all the LPP comrades and discussed our strategy and possible improvement. It was a very good road- side meeting and boosted the active participation of our members.

We entered Rawalpindi around 2pm and saw some LPP flags welcoming the Long March. Here we also saw the red flags of other Left groups, including the Peoples Rights Movement, the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party, the Awami Jamhoori Itehad, the Awami Tehreek and the National Workers Party. While the green flags of Jamaat Islami and the Muslim League Nawaz were the major part of the caravan, it was difficult to ignore the red flags. Flags of the Imran Khan Tehreek Insaaf were also seen all along the route.

From Rawalpindi to Islamabad it took us 12 hours. Alia, an activist of People Rights Movement, inspired many thousands by her creative slogans and speeches. Then we were all out of our vehicles and gathered around the PRM truck, which had loud speakers. All the Reds were there. It was a good unity action by all Left groups.

We were the last to reach the parliament area. None of us had rested or had proper hot food for 18 hours and we wanted to eat something before we reached the final destination. With our red flags and shouting slogans, over 100 of us started walking to the parliament from Aab Para Chouck, a distance of two kilometers.

Everywhere there were people waving flags and chanting slogans. As we entered the main area we could see over 100, 000 gathered. There were thousands of lawyers in their black suits. Some had traveled a long distance and had already erected tents in anticipation picketing for a few days. For them, it was a now or never situation.

We drew near to the main platform as Mian Nawaz Sharif was just starting to speak. He spoke well about the issue of the judges but then he advised the lawyers’ leaders to rethink their picket of the parliament. He asked them to be satisfied with what they had accomplished and not to go ahead with the picket.

We immediately realized that the leadership of lawyers’ movement had been in discussions with the PMLN. The leadership had not announced publicly what they would do at the end of the Long March, but they definitely left the impression that “It is now or never.”

A picket of thousands of lawyers would have spoiled the uneasy alliance of the PPP and PMLN, the two main parties of the capitalists and feudalists. Currently the PMLN is in power in Punjab but left the central government when the PPP did not carry through with its promise to restore the judges. Before the march the chief minister of Punjab, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, already came out openly against the picketing the parliament.

Aitzaz Ahsan, president Supreme Court Bar Association, spoke and announced the end of Long March. His words sparked an immediate reaction from young lawyers, who wanted to continue. Many had tears in their eyes as they realized the main leadership was unwilling to go further. The leadership moved quickly from resistance to reconciliation. No one agreed to Aitzaz Ahsan’s argument that we did not have the resources to picket.

At this historic gathering it was a gross tactical mistake to lose the opportunity to exert maximum pressure. It left the crowd in a very bitter mood. Now the movement is divided, with the leadership indicating that it is open to conciliation.

Nonetheless the Long March was one of the great events against the military dictatorship in Pakistan. It brought hundreds of thousands into the street against militarization. It helped developed new layers of political activists. It was a great manifestation of the working class joining hands with the middle class. Not only will those who participated not forget, but those who welcomed the caravans will remember as well. It put pressure on the parliament but it eased up with when it should have been decisive.

We arrived back in Lahore on 14 June evening but those comrades who began on 9 June from Sindh only arrived back homes on the evening of 16 June. For them, it was a full week on the road. That was also true for those who began their Long March from Quetta and other cities in Baluchistan.