The family of Makhdoom Altaf Abbasi gives a minute by minute account of what happened in Tahir Plaza on April 9
By Xari Jalil
When advocate Makhdoom Altaf Abbasi called his wife from his office on April 9, 2008, saying that he would reach home by about four in the evening, he had no inkling he would never see her again.
Abbasi had known that that lawyers were having a tussle outside the city courts of Karachi, on main M.A Jinnah Road, and that there was tension in the air, as he heard gunshots and indiscriminate firing, but he kept his calm, confident that he would soon be able to get out of his office at Tahir Plaza which was directly opposite City Court.
Actually his situation was terrible: his office, Room 616, was locked from the outside by unknown people; he was stuck inside along with two clients and a friend who occasionally chatted with him over a cup of tea. He could hear people setting the building on fire. What followed was a tragedy -- charred corpses of two lawyers (including Abbasi himself, and a woman) and three others were discovered after a constant two days search.
Today, his wife, Shagufta sits in mourning, left alone to care for her two small boys.
"I had a slight argument with him," she says, tears of guilt and regret creeping in her already swollen eyes. "I used to give him missed calls; that day I did not because of the argument. But he was a very caring person and would never give these things a second thought. So he called me at around 3.30pm himself and said that he would be home in half an hour."
At around 4.30pm, when Shagufta saw no sign of Abbasi returning, she called him on his cell phone but surprisingly found it to be switched off.
At that very moment, she got news from Altaf's family in Lyari that a horrific incident had happened at Tahir Plaza. It had been set ablaze.
"In the worst state of panic, I switched on the television to see the news where they showed the building ablaze, flames reaching the sky, and they said that Room number 616 had some lawyers trapped inside. I wanted to think that the reporters had made a mistake about the room number," she says.
"I was going insane, I kept crying out loud. No, they've made a mistake, it's not Room 616, the fire must be in Room 606!".
Shagufta tells how panic-stricken and frightened she was and how she was stopped by her brothers-in-law from almost running outside the house in desperation. "I wanted to see him, but they didn't allow me to."
Abbasi was buried later without Shagufta seeing her husband's burnt face. He was only identified by some of his bodily features, and his height.
According to Parvez Abbasi, Altaf was an ardent supporter of the PPP, as is the rest of his family.
"I don't know what he did to harm anyone," says Parvez, the eldest of the seven brothers. "Even during the lawyers' movement, I often urged him to come out on the streets to protest, but he refused saying 'When I die, it will not matter who I supported. I need to think more about the bread and butter for and my family'."
Whether Altaf Abbasi was a thought-out target for killers, led by a criminal known as Waseem 'Hold', or was coincidentally trapped in an incident of violence, it is not clear.
Waseem 'Hold' was recognised by lawyers who had fled the building while the firing was going on. Sources claim that he has strong political connections too.
Parvez Abbasi and his family came to know about the incident at Tahir Plaza, when they were contacted by some other lawyers. "When we went to the building, we saw that the fire had been extinguished but the bodies that were found had been sent off to the Civil Hospital. The CHK staff, on the other hand, told us that no man by the name of Altaf Abbasi was in the emergency ward and they told us to search the Edhi morgue in the Sohrab Goth area."
With a heavy heart, Parvez, his brothers, and some other young men from his neighbourhood, met at the morgue, and as they entered, a thick smell of burnt human flesh invaded their nostrils.
It is here that Altaf's old and ailing mother begins to weep uncontrollably as Parvez describes his brother's body.
"The top part of his skull was absent and his brain was in ashes. His entire body was burnt stiff to a charcoal."
Khalida, Altaf's mother, sobs quietly and says she sees her son everywhere.
"We haven't slept since then." she says. "I wake up in the middle of the night, when I doze off sometimes, and I see him in front of me, crying sadly."
"His children used to wait for him every evening. They have not been able to accept that he will never come back," says Khalida.
Altaf has left behind two wives and six children, the eldest of whom is Hamza, 8, and the youngest is only 2 months old, both from his first wife Shagufta, while his second wife Nageena, has four girls.
Hamza has been told by the family that his father has 'gone to God', who keeps asking "When will God send him back?". Perhaps a more painful question he asks is if he could lie in his father's grave for some time, so he can be hugged by him once.
"We're still waiting for the DNA report, and it has been delayed for quite a long time," says Tariq, Altaf's other brother. "We have lodged an FIR, and the report would do us good as proof that it is certainly our brother's body that we buried. We would also like the government to help us with the compensation package, so that the children's future expenses can be helped to some extent. Even though his children are like ours, we think of them first now, but we can only do as much financially for them at this moment," he says.
The family is vexed over the lack of sympathy and reaction shown by the PPP-led government, but appreciates the lawyers who have given their condolences as if it was a personal loss for them. They say that even the Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry had called to condole with them.
In response to the incident, Naeem Qureshi, Secretary of the Karachi Bar Association (KBA), reveals that his room on the third floor in Tahir Plaza had been used by the MQM Legal Aid Committee since 1985-1988.
"My room, No 309 at Tahir Plaza, was one of the target points by the terrorists, but I am extremely sorry about how these five people were trapped and killed in the building," he says.
April 9, 2008, has not only been a day of violence in Karachi. It has also been a harsh and definite reminder for the public that any such anti-establishment moves would be dealt with in a similar fashion.
Beijing Olympics have been marred by protests over what is being termed as China's 'violations' of human rights in Tibet. The media buzz around the alleged wrongs of the Chinese government gives the notion that it is the most serious humanitarian crisis prevalent in the world today, enough to cancel the historic Olympics event. However, one must take most of the information churning out of the western media with a pinch of salt as behind most claims of western governments (remember weapons of Mass Destruction?), we have far too often witnessed vested interests of the self-proclaimed champions of human rights.
The western case for Tibetan freedom and human rights is filled with too many contradictions to be taken seriously. First, the U.S. and Britain are leading this 'glorious' struggle for Tibetan freedom, with U.S. speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi joining the calls for a boycott of the Olympics. However, both these countries as well as other western countries feeling so bad for the Chinese 'occupation' of Tibet, have not only been notorious colonists by occupying weaker countries around the world during the previous century, but continue to maintain the most despicable occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan against all international norms and morality. As for Ms Pelosi, she refuses to enter China because her heart bleeds for the Tibetans, but she has no problem becoming the first woman speaker of a house that sanctioned not only the recent brutal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also has history of imposing imperialist aggression like the Vietnam War. Of course, these are the same people accusing China of double standards!
The timing of this crisis makes it all the more suspicious. The Olympics were an opportunity for China, which has so far remained isolated, to open itself for the international audience. Just before this historic moment, the issue of Tibet has been revitalised and the world's attention is not fixed on the vibrancy and power of an emerging China, but is glued to a handful of protesters (mostly non-Tibetans) condemning China for its human rights record. This shift in public opinion is coming at a moment when China is rising as a power and it is needless to say that this propaganda campaign will only help those forces (read U.S. and its allies) who want to maintain their hegemony on the world. We have witnessed how imperialist propaganda was able to malign the Cuban, Chilean, Venezuelan and Iraqi governments, to name a few, in order to justify its aggression against all of these states.
This makes it all the more important for us to see the Tibet issue in its historical context. Tibet has always been regarded as a part of China and was recognised as such by all western powers after the Second World War. At this point, Dalai Lama was not seen as a 'divine' soul who can guide humanity towards 'Nirvana', but as a cruel feudal lord who used religion in order to suppress large sections of the Tibetan population. Michael Parenti, a US scholar, wrote a paper 'Friendly feudalism' that dealt with the Dalai Lama and his role as a Feudal. In this paper, he shows how the Dalai Lama was able to control large sections of the population not only through religion, but also through sheer brute force (one can easily draw a comparison with our own feudal lords who also claim to be Pirs). In 1949, with the triumph of Mao Zedong's People's Army, the communist party of China introduced radical land reforms in order to free Tibetans from this reactionary set-up led by the monks.
This was at the height of the cold war and China stood at the wrong end of the U.S. Western powers were ready to use any means in order to curtail the advance of communism and religion was a key weapon. In the Dalai Lama, they found an ally that could use religious sentiments in order to crush the popular reforms the same way they used the 'Mujahideen' in order to topple the People's Democratic government in Afghanistan. For the west that often sees eastern religions, especially Islam, as symbols of oppression, the Dalai Lama became Buddha's reincarnation and a guide for reaching heaven. CIA's relationship with pro-independence Tibetans is shown in many documentaries, the best one being 'CIA in Tibet' that is also available on Youtube. His re-invention as a saint by the west was obviously done with vested interests. Keeping Dalai Lama's history in mind, it should not be a surprise that this symbol of 'peace' was given the Medal of Honour by none other than George W. Bush (and we know how peace loving he is!) and that the Dalai Lama has supported the Afghan war as a war of 'liberation.' One must not spend more time in exposing the hypocrisy and double standards of the Tibetan independence project.
There are many positives to be seen in Tibet under China. The increased literacy rates and land reforms under China have helped industrialise the country and move it forward from the medieval spirituality the Dalai Lama always supported. Lhadar Ngawang Daindzin, vice-president of the Tibetan Branch of the Buddhist Association of China, has stated that there is more religious freedom in Tibet today than ever before. This is a monk speaking who is apparently 'oppressed', let alone a large number of Tibetans who do not even follow any of these monks.
Such voices are unfortunately missing in the western media which tends to put the spotlight on a handful of Tibetans along with Anglo-Saxon protesters in world capitals agitating for the 'freedom' of Tibet. Honest journalism would demand less attention to such minute protests as many more important human rights violations are taking place around the world that are being ignored. Needless to say, China's right to host the Olympics must also be strongly defended not only for the above mentioned reasons, but also because if this logic is used, then I am afraid there will hardly be a country left that will meet the 'standards' for holding an Olympics event.
This is not to say that there is no problem in Tibet. Of course, countries have their internal problems and one does not need to remind Americans of racial issues in their own country. However, while picking sides, one must analyse the forces taking part in a particular movement and clearly, the forces calling for an independent Tibet are reactionary and aligned with imperialism. Hence, progressive forces must defend China against the western propaganda so that it is not used to curb the growing influence of the Chinese power around the world.
It is not time to meditate for a Nirvana but to understand the complexities of the real world. The situation is best summed up by the Cuban revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro:
"I respect the Dalai Lama's right to believe, but I am not obliged to believe in the Dalai Lama.I do have many reasons to believe in China's victory."
And if you feel like coming out of the Netherlands of Shadbagh -- no I am not being rude to the area beyond the railway lines, 'Netherlands' merely means low-lying lands, and it has long been known that the Shadbagh area is low lying -- if you come out of there back to civilization through the 'Do Moria Pul', you will find yourself smack opposite the Yakki Gate.
The Yakki Gate is actually named Zaki Gate, after Pir Zaki whose tomb lies right at the beginning of the gate; it is not very well known, or well kept which is a pity because his exploit is fascinating. Having learnt our history at school, we are used to thinking of the Mughals as sort of semi-saintly characters, and torch bearers of civilization and culture.
The fact is that before the coming of Babar and his family, the Mughals were known for centuries as uncouth marauders, scoundrels and looters. There only occupation was to raid the rich and prosperous country of Hindustan every time they had spent the loot from the last raid, and the phrase for this frequent pestilence was merely 'The Mughals Raid' or Mughlon Ka Hamla.
During one of these the people of Lahore were, as usual defending their lives and property, under the leadership of their local Pir Zaki. The man was a valiant fighter along with being a holy man, and in the course of the battle his head was cut off -- and the legend goes, that the headless torso went on fighting until the marauders had been routed.
Out of reverence for the Pir, and the event, the people buried the head where it had fallen, and the torso where it eventually did; and for years the tradition was that people coming to pay their respects to the Pir visited both tombs in turn. With time and change the gate was obliterated and the tomb of the head was lost and only the other one remains which was right in the side of the gate and still stands as a small two-room hut with the tomb and iron gates. I think the story deserves better!
Then as you go along the northern wall of the city, and do not get distracted by the prospect of gormandizing on the noted Biryani of Sheran Wallah Gate -- and my advice to you is that you do -- you can follow the ancient route through Chuna Mandi or go in through Masti Gate you will get to the area known for long for its eateries, the latest of them in Cuckoos but a much older one is the trotters place of 'Phajja' -- and smack opposite this establishment is the tomb of 'Nau Gaza Pir'.
Really I should amend this to 'one of the tombs' because when I asked them, the people of the area being chauvinistic were ready to dispute it with me, but unless memory is playing tricks on me, my clear boyhood recollection is that there were reputed to be around half a dozen 'Nau Gazas' buried in Lahore. What is more, although most of them are little known and nameless. The tradition is that some of them are actually prophets and not mere saints.
It is an old Lahori tradition and I remember being taken to one of the tombs in my childhood, and I also recall the local people giving his name as 'Hazrat Tartoosh' or 'Tarnoosh' or 'Kartoosh' or whatever similar name struck their fancy. There was also the story that these people were actually warriors, and their nine-yard lances were buried along with them. The latest tale is that another one of these has been found in a secluded corner of Cantt. And a dispute has broken out between the authorities and the keeper. That may just be manifestation of another Lahori tradition -- land grabbing!
Raised in Potohari panorama, grown in Lahori lustre and brewed in exile, Raja Anwar is known as a flamboyant student leader with an embedded rural flavour. Born in Kallar Sayyedan near Rawalpindi in 1948, he was elected secretary and president of Gordon College student union in 1966 and 1968 respectively and studied philosophy at Punjab University from 1969-72. Raja worked under the premiership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) as his advisor on labour and student affairs from 1973 to 1977.
Raja Anwar was initially inspired by Che Guevera, the revolutionary from Latin America, but at home he developed controversies with Murtaza Bhutto who had allegedly resorted to armed revenge of the assassination of his father.
According to his own narration he was kept in Kabul jail for two years on the desire of Murtaza. Later he termed Murtaza a 'terrorist prince' in his book published in 1997.
Raja is the author of six books and a regular columnist. He contested the Feb 18 election on PML-N ticket for the provincial assembly from his native Kallar Sayyedan-PP 5. However, he lost this bet to a PML-Q candidate and could not make it to the Punjab Assembly.
TNS met with Raja Anwar at his residence in Islamabad to learn about his insights on student politics of the 1970s and seek his perspective on the future of student unions in Pakistan. Excerpts follow:
By Amjad Bhatti
The News On Sunday: How do you see the history of student politics in Pakistan?
Raja Anwar: After the establishment of Pakistan, the progressive political tendencies were spearheaded by National Students Federation (NSF). Karachi was the birthplace of progressive ideas amongst the student community as NSF was formed there by a group of student hikers in the late 1950s. Although the NSF was formed primarily on an ideological basis, its outreach remained quite localised.
Many students from Punjab and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) went to Karachi for college or university education. On their return to their native areas they brought home the progressive ideas from Karachi. Even today you will find NSF in AJK very active.
On the other hand Islami Jamiat Tulaba (IJT) replaced pre-partition Muslim Students Federation (MSF). Students were divided along ideological lines.
TNS: Share with us some memories of the 1970s: how did students organise themselves against the Ayub Khan's martial law and participate in the resistance campaign?
RA: The upsurge in student politics was mainly triggered by the University Ordinance 1962. Students from both East and West Pakistan continued their protest against this ordinance for about three months. This ordinance was meant to keep students away from politics. It is surprising to note that no political group or party dared to stand against Ayub Khan particularly in 1962. Students were the ones who broke the ice and demonstrated their political will against the dictator. Many prominent politicians were banned through specific clauses imposed by the then martial law. Student resistance also died down under stern state oppression.
I was the secretary and late Justice Tariq, a cousin of Justice Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramdey, was the president of student union in Gordon College. It is interesting to recall at Ramdey, who was two years senior to us, motivated us to write a letter to Nawab of Kalabagh, the then governor Punjab, demanding to lift the ban on student unions. The governor took serious note of it and sought an explanation from our principal as to why we sent this letter to him.
TNS: How did the students of other universities and colleges respond to the student protests?
RA: All the student leadership in 1968 emerged from colleges instead of universities. These very college students then went on to universities in 1969-70, and then university politics also started changing.
I can recall one late evening on Nov 6 1968, when Mumtaz Bhutto and Mustafa Khar came to our hostel in Rawalpindi. I was president of the union at the time. They secretly conveyed a message from ZAB that he intended to join the student procession led by the Gordon College students. They discussed with me the details of modalities to receive Bhutto in the protest. On Nov 7, we took out a procession which was meted a harsh treatment by the authorities. The police opened fire and started baton charge. Abdul Hameed, a student of Poly Technical College, who was taking part in the procession, was killed by the firing of martial law authorities. All colleges went on strike against this brutality. Bhutto was returning from Peshawar and he joined the procession. Fire was opened shortly after ZAB had the left the place.
TNS: ZAB, when he became prime minister, appointed you as his advisor on student and labour affairs. What did you achieve in that capacity?
RA: We developed the Students Union Act in 1974. The tripartite concept of adjudication of labour-related cases was launched during my association with ZAB. I suggested once to Bhutto sahib that state should effectively regulate the relationship between employee and the employer. I told him that labour cases were facing a disproportionate pendency in the courts; therefore, his government reduced the hearing time of labour cases upto three months.
TNS: Some people oppose the student unions mainly because of the possibility of violence in educational institutions. Don't you think this is a valid argument given the free access to arms and intolerance in our society?
RA: I don't agree with this assumption. We need to understand that universities are a reflection of the society at large. Violence is a social issue which could potentially influence the students as well. But that does not mean that student politics is the cause of violence. Let me put the record straight; it was the state which criminalised the student politics and introduced violence in educational institutions. Concrete examples are the now open secrets about state agencies' involvement in recruiting students for Jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Look at the other forms of violence, where one person with the threat of force can pack up the whole parliament; when one person on the basis of his 'muscular' strength can kick out 60 judges from courts. What do you expect from students in this context? Universities do not exist in vacuum; they inherit the social context and are influenced by surroundings. When ruling classes are inculcating violence, you cannot underestimate its psychological impact on the rest of the society.
If the constitution is being abrogated violently time and again, it would lead to collective humiliation which can stimulate intolerance. The ban on student politics is not an answer to this violence. The dynamite of violence in society needs to be defused.
TNS: Some people do not subscribe to the view that student unions are the nurseries for mainstream political leadership.
RA: I have a number of reasons to believe that student politics and student unions provide an entry point to the middle and lower middle class talent to later participate in national politics. You can see this even in the incumbent parliament. Most of the leadership of all political parties, coming from middle and lower middle class, has made it to the parliament and mainstream politics only through student politics. Therefore, I think that in the presence of feudal and elite-driven parliamentary politics, student unions can give an opportunity to the non-elite classes to send their representatives to the parliament.
TNS: At the end, what would you suggest to reform the student politics in the country?
RA: First, I suggest that Student Union Act 1974 should be reviewed and amended. Second, a mechanism of stakeholders' representation involving teachers, students and parents needs to be developed to counter and eliminate the risk of violence at campuses. Third, a think-tank should be set up to steer and guide student unions in the country.
The furore over its ill-advised so-called 'Pakistan Package' had hardly subsided when one saw a big advert in newspapers by PTCL quite happily informing its customers that their telephones now fell under one of three packages. Of course, there was mention of the controversial 'Pakistan Package' but subscribers were also informed that they now had the option of making local calls at the rate of two rupees for every two minutes and two rupees every four minutes during off-peak hours.
First of all, the 'Pakistan Package' is controversial not necessarily because of its tariff structure -- which at Rs 199 per month for nationwide calls up to 2,500 minutes per month may not seem such a bad proposition -- but rather in the manner it was given to all of PTCL's subscribers. Whenever any business, especially one engaged in selling services to the general public, introduces a new scheme for its customers, it needs to sell that scheme according to certain ethical guidelines. The most basic of these - and this is something that is true for a business in any country and/or social setting - is that the customer should be clearly told what the scheme offers and how much it costs. Furthermore, the scheme cannot be availed of until and unless the customer gives his or her clear and unequivocal approval to it -- usually in the form of a written agreement.
The fact of the matter is that PTCL did not follow any of these necessary steps, particularly in gaining a clear approval from each of its subscribers, before charging them the 'Pakistan Package'. Clearly, it seems to have assumed that each and everyone would be interested in having this package which is why every subscriber was given the package -- even if they did not want it. The 'Pakistan Package' only makes sense if you have relatives and/or friends scattered all over the country or if you run a business where calls all over Pakistan to reach other offices and/or clients are needed. However, if you don't fit into any of these situations then why would you want to pay Rs199 every month for calls that you are never going to make? To that, PTCL will probably say that "well if you don't want to benefit from the Pakistan Package, then just call 1236 and get yourself disconnected".
However, in doing so, PTCL misses the point? Even if calling 1236 is straightforward, hassle-free and not time-consuming -- and it apparently is full of hassles and very time-consuming -- why should the customer be the one calling to seek disconnection of the package? The responsibility should have been on the phone company to seek the customer's permission and to levy the monthly charge once such permission had been obtained. Furthermore, the experience of calling 1236 has apparently not been a good one because many people who have called it complain that they simply cannot get through -- the result: many give up and obviously that shouldn't displease PTCL too much.
The way it has gone about charging all customers for the 'Pakistan Package' is grounds alone for an investigation by the state telecommunication regulator, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), into its marketing tactics. However, given PTA's silence so far on it, there doesn't seem to be too much hope on customers getting a fair deal. As for the new government, the portfolio of information technology, which oversees the telecom sector, has yet to be assigned, which also means that for the time being PTCL's customers will keep on getting a raw deal.
There is also the issue of local calls. Quite surreptitiously, the phone company has more than doubled the cost of local calls -- a service that makes up the bulk of its traffic given that phone users, rich and not-so-rich, all heavily rely on local calls. The cost has gone up because compared to the past when a five-minute call cost a little over two minutes -- and a new call was charged after every five minutes -- a local call now costs two rupees for every two minutes. Even during off-peak (evening and night-time) hours, the tariff is two rupees for every four minutes, considerably less than before.
In the past week or so, motorists on Karachi's roads are seeing young men wearing black T-shirts with 'Community police -- CDGK' written at the back (the initials are short for 'City District Government of Karachi'). According to a report in this newspaper, the men are part of an initiative taken by the city government to help smooth traffic matters. In fact, one remembers these men also during Ramzan, when Karachi's traffic goes completely haywire (as if that isn't already the case, though).
While the programme may indeed be well-intentioned, there are several problems with it. For starters, even regular traffic cops have a hard time making Karachi's motorists and motorcyclists abide by traffic rules and regulations so one can only imagine what is going to happen (nothing!) when these men wearing black T-shirts and baseball caps go about on the roads telling the city's incorrigible motorists and motorcyclists to behave.
In fact, according to another newspaper report, this is precisely what happened -- when one of these 'community policemen' tried to tell a road user to exercise caution and respect for traffic laws he was soundly beaten and the regular police had to intervene to prevent an all-out fracas. Of course, this reflects poorly on those who use roads in Karachi, especially since most of them couldn't care two hoots for the law and are quick to huff and puff their real or alleged connections to influential people when pulled over for traffic violations.
Having said that, one can only wonder at the point of introducing such a scheme in the first place. This is a bit like saying that well, if our judicial system and courts do not work, are generally corrupt and unable to provide justice, let's introduce another system alongside the existing one. Clearly, a better approach would be to strengthen the existing traffic police -- through salary increases, better training and closer monitoring and accountability of their actions -- so that it can do its vital job of improving/regulating Karachi's traffic mess in a more thorough, professional and efficient manner.
writer is Op-ed Pages Editor of The News.
May 1, 2008, an ideal opportunity to revisit the labour laws in Pakistan that blatantly court the employers at the cost of putting workers into misery
By Babar Mirza
In his speech to the National Assembly on obtaining vote of confidence last month, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani announced that trade unions would be restored and the Industrial Relations Ordinance (IRO) 2002 would be abolished. On the face of it, it sounds like good news: trade unions protect labourers' rights so they should be allowed to function, and IRO 2002 must be some inherently unjust law enacted by Musharraf that should be discarded in toto.
No doubt, the prime minister knew how it would sound. In the presence of such pressing matters as the restoration of judges, war on terror and energy crisis, an announcement concerning perennial labour issues just needed to sound good to evade public scrutiny.
Hardly has anyone pointed out the fact that, unlike student unions, trade unions were not banned during the previous government. Also, a law regulating industrial disputes between employers and workers -- a crucial determinant of the orientation of a government's economic policies -- cannot simply be abolished without having formulated an alternative legislation (in its election manifesto, the PPP had in fact promised to 'review' the IRO 2002). However, the prime minister didn't even suggest anything in this regard. The lack of legal and political insight manifest in the announcement is quite similar to that was exposed in the announcement to abolish the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). The point being that you may want the laws in question to be one way or another, but it would be chaos if you try to get rid of them entirely.
Having a law in a particular way implies following the social consensus on a particular question or favouring one social force over another when there are conflicting interests involved. The IRO 2002 falls in the latter category: it determines power distribution and rules of the game between employers and workers, and any change in this law would translate into increasing the relative power of one party over the other.
Currently, as has also been the case historically, labour laws in Pakistan blatantly court the employers at the cost of putting workers into misery. The first step in this relationship is to exclude as many workers from legal protection as possible with such handy excuses as national security. Thus, the right to unionise -- almost a sine qua non for other labour rights -- is extended only to industrial workers, orphaning a long list of occupations and institutions: agricultural workers, teachers, charity/non-profit workers, export processing zone workers, workers employed at managerial and supervisory posts, and numerous institutions that have even a quixotic connection with security or state.
The second step is to brainstorm about all the procedural requirements which would be so time-consuming and pointless that trade unions could seldom satisfy them. The pre-requisites to announcing a strike are so numerous, protracted and strict that one is deluded into hopelessly imagining a gauntlet upon the Great Wall. Unions of bank employees cannot use bank premises or any other facility for union activities. Time periods for notice, negotiations, conciliation and arbitration seem to attempt at diluting the workers' resolve to go to strike. Even if the resolve endures, the government's power to ban any strike lasting more than 15 days on grounds of 'hardship to community' comes as a lethal axe to the workers' struggle.
The laws facilitating these two steps include the Industrial Relations Ordinance 2002, the Essential Services Act 1952 and the Banking Companies Ordinance 1962. And here we are only talking about laws directly related to unions, which is just the tip of the iceberg.
According to prominent lawyer Faisal H. Naqvi, Pakistan has a body of 160 laws, regulations and rules concerning labour, though most of them are ignored in practice. However, laws relating to the employment contract, wages, working conditions, rest time, maternity benefits, child labour and bonded labour are crucial to gauge the wretched state of labour rights in Pakistan.
The third step involves enforcement. Government officials, police and employers all work together to ensure that the meagre legal rights available to workers on paper are not accessible to them in reality. Ayub and Zia couldn't care less about workers and relied exclusively on the third step to secure themselves and those who were secured through them. Contrary to popular perception, and quite ironically, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto also used the strength of the state to crush the strength of the street in early 1970s. The Labour Policy of 1972 is a record of Z. A. Bhutto's aversion to labour activism. Benazir Bhutto's first term in office lifted the Zia era ban on trade unions, but in her second term, she hardly did anything worth mentioning for workers. Nawaz Sharif also couldn't develop a reputation for adopting pro-labour policies during his two terms (because, for example, he didn't allow trade unions in his own factories).
At present, though both PPP and PML-N have the heavy mandate and pressure of the people to at least make some promises to the workers, they still might succumb to a massive global (read US) pressure to introduce liberal market mechanisms, just like they did in the 1990s by accepting economic reforms suggested by IMF and the World Bank. Much would depend however on the workers themselves. If they consistently put sufficient pressure on the government, they can get their rights restored as well as duly enforced.
Unfortunately, not much exists at present in the name of 'the labour movement'. Due to legal and political constraints and divisions among workers, the percentage of unionized workers is no more than three percent of the national labour force (that is, less than 1.5 millions workers out of total of 51 million). Unlike 1968-69, when students and workers together toppled a military dictatorship, participation of workers in the political events of last year was marked by its absence.
However, the workers can get a good deal if they exploit the political space available now to assert and obtain their rights. They must also realise that no one, not even the present popular government, would give them their universally recognised rights unless they make vigorous and united efforts in this regard. In this regard, the May 1 offers them an ideal opportunity to get together and organise themselves to struggle for their rights.