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Pakistan: Eyewitness report -- `the power of the state was helpless in front of the power of the street'

[Ammar Ali Jan, youth secretary of the Labour Party Pakistan in Lahore (LPP), will be one of several international guests at the the World at a Crossroads conference in Sydney, Australia, April 10-12. For more information, or to book tickets, visit http://www.worldatacrossroads.org.]

By Ammar Ali Jan

Lahore, March 16, 2009 -- Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific -- We all are ecstatic about what happened in Lahore on the March 15, 2009. This day will be remembered as one where the power of the state seemed helpless in front of the power of the street. The most crucial moment during the day was the battle at the GPO that galvanised the entire city into action. The scene of almost 150 people battling a repressive police and forcing it to retreat will remain in the collective memory of our nation for a very long time to come.

I happened to be part of that "GPO 150" when the police started using tear gas. Here is a short description of how we managed to reach the spot and how we were able to inflict defeat on the state apparatus.

Beating the checkpoints

We had left Zaman park where Aitzaz had been placed under house arrest. Lahore gave the look of a deserted ghost town in the morning with the Mall Road completely blocked. I was with the Labour Party Pakistan, Student Action Committee and civil society members. We decided to walk towards the High Court in pairs so that the police would fail to notice us. Some of us succeeded, while others, like Nauman Qaiser and Jalees Hazir, were arrested at the checkpoints. We saw civil society activists Feryal Gauhar and Hina Jilani once we reached the GPO chowk.

I have been to many protests in the past but I have never seen anything like the passion visible in front of the High Court. There was a consensus that if the Lahore High Court fell, the movement would fizzle out. Everyone knew that the police would use the most brutal measures to suppress the will of the people and were mentally prepared for an epic battle.

As the police started shelling tear gas indiscriminately, many activists started falling unconscious. All of us panicked and started fleeing the scene to evade arrest. A man who must be in his 70s, started yelling to the fleeing crowd (which included me, as I could no longer breathe) that this was not a time to run but to fight. Eventually, the baba ji fainted as well but he encouraged all of us to come back and continue the fight.

Two-hour battle

We resisted the police for over two hours, pushing them back many a times. Express News reported that 250 to 300 tear-gas shells had been fired at the protesters. Express News reporter Rabia Mehmood and AAG channel correspondent Mani almost fainted and had to be taken away from the scene. Many were vomiting because of the chemicals in the tear gas, which were worse than anything I have witnessed. However, this brought the best out of the Pakistani nation. Some people were carrying salt and water for those getting injured in the fighting. Others were helping carry people to the diagnostic centre in the High Court or on to Edhi ambulances. I was about to faint a couple of times and was almost blinded by the gas before some random people gave me enough water and salt.

My friend Murtaza Khwaja (who was taking part in a violent protest for the first time) showed immense courage and we stayed on the front line throughout this epic battle. The protesters were also fighting with a spontaneous strategy that proved to be very effective. We had split into three groups. One on the Mall Road, one towards the left of the GPO while one group stayed inside the High Court building. When the police would charge protesters on one side, they would be pelted by stones from the other side. This was the key to this street battle as the police was being hit by stones from three sides, which is why they could not takeover the High Court. It didn't matter which political party or group one belonged to. Everyone was looking out for each other and we all wanted to win.

By this time, a lot of lawyers, political activists and civil society members had gathered at the gates and those of us who had been there since almost 12 noon decided to leave as we felt dehydrated and could not breathe properly. When we went into the courtyard where all the activists had gathered (including Justice Tariq Mehmood, advocate Anwar Kamal, Hina Jila, Tehmina Daultana), we had no idea what this battle at the GPO really meant. We were just looking for water and a place to sit. In fact, I was a little disappointed that the numbers in front of the GPO had not been big and that the Long March could be a failure.

It is here that we received the news that this battle had gripped the entire country's imagination. The news channels were constantly talking about the police high-handedness and the resistance by many activists. I even received a call from a friend in Karachi who said that he had read about the crazy fighting at the Lahore High Court. The tide was definitely turning.

People control the city

After this, the people were in complete control of the city. Thousands joined Nawaz Sharif's caravan as he defied detention orders to lead the procession from his house in Model Town. The High Court courtyard went ecstatic when we heard the news of the resignations of the IG, DIG, SP, DCO and deputy attorney general of Pakistan. Crowds cheered wildly as some of these gentlemen joined us at the High Court. The most memorable part of the evening for me was when Aitzaz Ahsan defiantly entered the High Court building despite orders for his house arrest and the police officers stood in line to salute him. This meant a complete victory for the movement and from then onwards, it was just a matter of time before the government would be forced to accept our demands.

I feel that the way Taseer's goons were defeated at the GPO showed the weakness of this state apparatus. It represented the best of Pakistan. On one side, it represented despair, state brutality and police repression. On the other, it reflected hope, resistance, the passions and the dreams of many Pakistanis. We had won not because of the generosity of the country's leadership, but because of the countless sacrifices of lawyers and activists for the past two years with March 15, 2009, becoming the grand finale in Lahore.

Here, I want to thank those comrades who stood their ground at the GPO chowk and showed Pakistan why we should be fighting this system. I will remember their support and courage for the rest of my life. This is the courage, confidence and spirit of sacrifice that we need if we want to continue our fight against the capitalist system. This has given us new confidence in our own ability to fight and in the revolutionary potential of our nation. Despite this success, our post-colonial state is still full of problems and oppression and there will inevitably be more resistance. In all of the future struggles, we shall remember and take with us the spirit of March 15.

See also `A victory hard won' by Farooq Tariq.

[Action in Solidarity with Asia and the Pacific (ASAP), formerly ASIET (Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor), is a network of solidarity activists campaigning for democratic rights, self-determination and other justice struggles in the Asia Pacific region. ASAP's People's Power Fighting Fund runs appeals for material support for various democratic struggles in the region. To donate to this fund and to help maintain this website, you can deposit directly into the Commonwealth Bank Australia BSB 062026 Account number 1006 0743. Thank you. Your help is appreciated.]

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