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Pakistan: No run-of-the-mill election campaign for political prisoner Baba Jan

Political prisoner Baba Jan.

By Farooq Tariq, general secretary Awami Workers Party, Pakistan

June 11, 2015 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- It was one of best votes for any left candidate during an general election held in Pakistan, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan for decades.

Imprisoned Baba Jan, candidate of Awami Workers Party (AWP), won 4641 votes and came second during the Gilgit Baltistan legislative assembly election held on June 8, 2015.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) candidate got 8245 votes and won the seat. The winning candidate is the former ruler of the Hunza estate who had with billions of rupees at his disposal.

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which won the seat in the 2009 election, trailed behind Baba Jan with 3201 votes, while the newly established bourgeois party of cricketer Imran Khan, Tehreek Insaaf (Justice Movement), was in fourth position with 2291 votes. The religious Shia party Majlis Wahadat Muslimeen (MWM) came fifth with 1041 votes, and the candidate of the party of former dictator General Musharaf, the All Pakistan Muslim League, was last on 254.

Political prisoner

Baba Jan has been in jail since September 2014 and is serving a life sentence announced by an "anti-terrorist" court. His real crime was to help the victims of climate change who had protested for fair compensation for the collapse of the Atta Abad artificial lake that was created by a landslide on the River Hunza in 2010. As leader of the Progressive Youth Front, Baba Jan had led a mass movement that took control of the town of Ali Abad for four days. They were demanding the registration of a murder case against a police officer who had killed a protesting father and son.

Baba Jan was arrested in 2011 and spent two years in jail before being released on bail. He was arrested again after a brief period and a life sentence was imposed on him. A second life sentence was imposed a few days later. The appellate court (the Supreme Court Gilgit Baltistan) has acquitted Baba Jan and his 12 comrades in one case and an appeal is being launched against the second life sentence.

Baba Jan was allowed to take part in the election of 35-seat Gilgit Baltistan legislative assembly; 24 seats were contested directly and the rest filled through quotas.

Baba Jan hails from a working-class family. He did not have billions of rupees to spend on the election campaign. However, he had led mass movements and was known throughout the scenic Hunza valley, which borders China, India and Afghanistan.

When Baba Jan and his comrades decided to take part in the election, there was no formal structure of the Awami Workers Party. The AWP had decided not to build AWP in the valley because constitutionally Gilgit Baltistan is not part of Pakistan. The AWP respected the independent views of the comrades residing in the valley who are fighting for greater autonomy and rights.

However, if comrades in the valley decided to build a party with the name of the Awami Workers Party Gilgit Baltistan, we had no objection. It was already decided by Baba Jan and other comrades in the valley to name their new party AWP GB but the process to establish the formal structures was still underway .

At the founding congress of the AWP in September 2014, two slots on the federal committee were allotted to the comrades of Gilgit Baltistan. The two elected included Baba Jan, who was in jail, and another who was residing in Islamabad for professional reasons.

Who would run the campaign? A comradely discussion started within the AWP about what to do. The view that without the party, the election of Baba Jan would not have much benefit had quite a weight. The other view was “let’s build the party during the election campaign”.

To start with, we established an organising committee of the AWP in Hunza. It was elected at the first AWP membership meeting in Hunza at the beginning of May, a month before the election. A broader election campaign organising committee was established with nationalists, progressives and AWP comrades, led by veteran left activist and engineer Aman Ullah.

Baba Jan is a towering left activist with no hint of sectarianism. He had built great respect among all progressive with his full-time revolutionary work over a decade. As a student leader, he was the top leader of PPP youth. He left them to join Labour Party Pakistan in 2001 and became part of the top leadership of the party. His main contribution was to build the Progressive Youth Front, a youth organisation started by supporters of the LPP. The LPP merged to form the AWP in 2012 and Baba Jan became the first vice-president of the AWP.

Now after the election, we have an AWP organising committee and 1000 membership forms have been distributed among the youth. We hope to expand the network to other areas of the valley as well.

Personalities do matter

Baba Jan participated in all the mass movements in the valley along with the nationalist forces but still kept his socialist ideas intact and never joined a nationalist group. He took up the issue of the artificial lake and toured Pakistan addressing press conferences and organising youth meetings to warn about the great dangers of the climate change. The Atta Abad Lake became a national issue because of Baba Jan's great personal initiatives.

He was also one of the main leaders of Awami Action Committee that organised a mass movement against the withdrawal of the state subsidy on wheat. He was part of the sit-in for weeks and addressed thousands every day. He is a great orator. The movement forced the PPP government in 2013 to withdraw the suggestion of removing subsidies.

Baba Jan was always for the organisation of a left party, and is not an individual who is keen to promote himself above the party-building process.

Baba Jan’s name is very sweet, Baba literally means old wise person and Jan means life. During the election campaign the most popular slogan with a great rhythm was “Teri Jan Meri Jan Baba Jan Baba Jan”. It means your life and my life is Baba Jan.

Campaign

We had no funds in our party account for elections. The sudden announcement by PMLN government to go to an election had surprised everyone. The PMLN government had just signed a $140 billion agreement with the Chinese government to build an economic corridor from Gwader port to China that would pass through Gilgit Baltistan. An impression was created that the valley would be the main beneficiary. The PMLN wanted to be on the receiving end of this political mileage.

The AWP sent an immediate donation appeal to all friends and comrades inside and outside. However, the AWP had been raising funds on several initiatives during the year, so there was not much hope.

Posters and party flags were printed and sent from Lahore. It takes nearly 48 hours to send things to Gilgit from Lahore. Several students from Gilgit who had been working along with Baba Jan had already announced they would go back home to take part in the election campaign. This was a great beginning. Young students from elite private universities opted to carry all this printed matter with them all the way to Gilgit. As the first batch of students with printed matter arrived, it was snatched up by supporters who wanted to take them to their own areas.

The constituency is spread over hundreds of kilometres around the mountains and valleys; it is one of the largest constituencies, with 36,000 voters. “Send us another 1000 AWP flags and 10,000 posters” was the call we received.

Flag making also takes time. Within three days another round of printed matter was sent. The first great rally was taken on May 24, which surprised everyone. People of the area brought their own vehicles, motorcycles and tractors for the rally. The second rally that I participated in on May 31. Never in the history of this constituency had so many people with hundreds of cars, motorcycles and tractors participated in a very charged rally. We had the largest public meeting in the home town of the PMLN candidate and challenged his royal authority.

Here is what one young socialist and member AWP Islamabad, Ammar Rashid, accurately wrote about the election campaign after his return from the area:

Just returned from Hunza after the conclusion of Baba Jan's election campaign, where I was witness to some truly remarkable sights.

In the middle of the majestic Karakorams, thousands of young working-class men and women have staged a revolt against the political and economic status-quo under the leadership of the AWP's socialist candidate for the GB Assembly, Comrade Baba Jan.

Baba Jan remains a political prisoner but his decision to run for election from behind bars has unlocked the floodgates of pent-up disaffection among the young and working poor of Hunza. The already acknowledged popularity he enjoyed has now spilled over into visible, effective mass support the likes of which has been seldom witnessed in this most remote of regions. The red and white colors of the AWP now dot the landscape of Hunza from Nasirabad to Chipursan.

This was no run-of-the-mill election campaign. Something that started off without any funds or organisational experience transformed into a mass uprising in a matter of days. People donated their homes and shops as campaign offices across the valley. Others gave what little they had for arranging transport and logistics for rallies, often on the spot as organisers appealed for assistance. Several others contributed with original poetry and music that became the mainstay of the public gatherings.

For the first time in Hunza's history, women were at the forefront of a political campaign, opening their own election offices, organising their own rallies and leading the fray with their own improvised, heavily charged slogans and speeches. Compared to the patronage-based political logic of all other parties in Hunza, this was a movement truly started, owned and sustained by the people.

This was not empty-minded, hero-worshiping populism either. Among all the activists involved, serious questions were being debated, from the nature of class exploitation, to Gilgit-Baltistan's place in the federation, to debates on national identity, to the reality of state hegemony, repression and exclusion, to the legitimacy of the heavily classist electoral process, to the significance of gender equality, to the need for inter-faith, inter-sect and inter-ethnic solidarity. There was a palpable sense of an opportunity to critically engage with contradictions of society and state that are all too often brushed under the carpet.

As Gilgit-Baltistan votes today, the imprisoned Baba Jan will be up against the combined might of the traditional Hunza royalty, established bureaucratic mandarins, and the political and financial might of the heavily moneyed mainstream parties. For his working-class supporters, even arranging transport for remote voters on election day will be nigh impossible, much less competing with the millions in election handouts being distributed by the likes of Marvi Memon of the PMLN and others.

Whatever the election result though, Baba Jan has, through his defiance, commitment and ideological perseverance, laid the foundations for genuine political transformation in Gilgit-Baltistan and created space for the flowering of a renewed leftist political consciousness. It is merely a start and one with a potentially deeply hazardous future, especially in the face of severe human and financial resource constraints. But it is this peerless example from Pakistan's ignored periphery that progressives must look to if we are to resurrect the left in Pakistan.

After the vote

After the defeat of Baba Jan, there is no unpleasant feeling. The defeat has generated more energy among the comrades. It has provided comrades an unforgettable experience of mass mobalisation without real resources. Everyone I talked to spoke of a great campaign and that we have not lost anything. More than that there is feeling of victory underneath the defeat. All supporters of the campaign congratulated each other.

The mood was set by Baba Jan himself from behind bars.

There is a victory in the defeat. No one has challenged the former royalty as powerfully as we did. I had no block vote of a tribe, cast and area or on a religious basis. I came second at almost all polling stations. I got votes from everywhere, unlike my billionaire opponents who had block votes in some areas.

It was working-class and working people everywhere who rose from the shackles of slavery of the corrupt capitalist system and voted for me fearlessly. It was the youth who had no votes but were seen everywhere chanting slogans of revolution. It may be good that I did not win, because of the massive expectations that have been generated from my campaign, and maybe I would have not been able to meet those. Now we have more time to prepare. I have won the heart and soul of my class and that is a victory and not a defeat.

He told me a day after the election campaign: “Please convey my thanks to our friends abroad and inside Pakistan who supported my campaign anyway they could”. He repeated it several times.

A political and organisational follow up is being discussed. But the most important task is to strengthen the campaign for the release of all three climate change victims who are still behind bars, including Baba Jan.

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