Learning from labour

Published: June 17, 2011
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The writer is associate professor of anthropology, Middle East studies and Asian studies at the University of Texas, Austin and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Berlin.

The writer is associate professor of anthropology, Middle East studies and Asian studies at the University of Texas, Austin and is currently a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study at Berlin.

On June 7, 1972, the Karachi police opened fire upon demonstrating labourers in the SITE area. The next day, the police fired again on the funeral procession of one of the deceased workers. Press reports indicate that at least 10 people were killed, including a woman and a child. These killings marked what is considered by many as the beginning of the end of one of the most protracted labour struggles in Pakistan’s history. Starting in the late 1960s, this movement was pivotal in shaping the transition from military rule to democratic forms of governance. It is indeed ironic that the PPP government that had itself come into power through the overwhelming support of the working class was instrumental in suppressing the workers’ struggle.

Today, with terror attacks, target killings and endemic ethnic violence, the deaths of an earlier era do not seem that ominous. We have, unfortunately, become accustomed to violence and amazingly resilient to the events around us. It is also clear that cities like Karachi do bounce back from periodic crises and people’s mundane and everyday lives, although transformed by the events, continue in meaningful and creative ways. Yet the senselessness of the violence and the ethnic dimension of the ongoing rivalries should make us think seriously about a time when, unlike today, class based solidarities were important conduits through which emancipatory struggles were organised.

The 1972 movement itself came at the culmination of a long military rule when the structure built in the 1960s on the large inflow of foreign capital began to sputter and brought Ayub Khan’s much heralded ‘decade of development’ to an abrupt end. The ensuing popular mobilisation demanded democratic reform, economic redistribution, social justice and national rights; a class-based politics intertwined with the case for recognising cultural difference. Indeed, the 1970 election results, with nationalist parties winning in Balochistan, NWFP and East Bengal, marked an important juncture in Pakistan’s history in which there was a popular consensus to resolve the nationalities question.

However, we should not romanticise that era either, deep differences based on political affiliation and ethnicity were dividing the working class in this period as there were simultaneous efforts to consolidate a united front of working class rights by some trade union leaders and radical political activists. For example, in Karachi the Mohajir dominated trade union leadership may have managed to contain, much to its advantage, the cultural and linguistic tensions between the higher skilled local workers (Mohajir) and the less skilled up-country migrants through a rhetoric of class solidarity and proletarian politics. There were also statements from some political groups about how Pashtuns (instead of the working poor) were being killed in Karachi. Similarly, rather than meet with the labour leadership, Mumtaz Bhutto, the then chief minister of Sindh, met separately with some Pashtun civic leaders and asked for their help in restoring civic peace within the city; generating an impression that the labour strike was not a class issue but specifically a Pashtun problem. Further, while the strike was in progress, the Sindh government, as a response to sustained demands by the Sindhi people, sought to restore the original status of Sindhi as a compulsory second language in schools without prejudice to Urdu. This created a violent reaction by a large section of Karachi’s Mohajir population and which, in turn, may have weakened labour solidarity.

These ethnic tensions, like a spectre from the past, still haunt us today. There may still be other parallels that we can draw from this era. Our current economic model, and its reliance on foreign capital and loans from international financial institutions, is a case in point. We can also foresee that increase in urban unemployment, rising inflationary pressures, high food prices, lack of growth in the industrial sector and an anemic private investment rate is bound to create further social conflict. We are already witnessing public sector employees demanding higher wages and benefits due to the precariousness of living conditions in an unstable and volatile economy. Some economists would argue that higher wages would lead to further inflation, yet there is seldom a discussion of how the state needs to address urgent social concerns of generating employment, providing liveable wages, attending to housing requirements and refocusing on health and education systems that create opportunities for a better future for all citizens. In these terms, the demands of striking public employees and the increasingly audible voices of the urban poor are not different from those raised by workers during the 1972 strike. That said, the lack of unionisation, the increase in contractual work and the incessant ethnic violence that keeps the working poor constantly divided in the city calls for a serious rethinking of political strategies for the future.

The urgency of the issues notwithstanding, rather than invoke grand narratives of resistance and working class solidarities, our historical moment calls for some introspection. New questions need to be asked to create a politics where the category of difference (ethnic, gender, religious) is retained with a renewed emphasis on social equality and economic justice; a vision of a future where identity based politics is restructured and redefined with a politics of social equality. Such formulations emanate from people’s own experiences, as despite endemic personal, social and political violence in Karachi’s neighbourhoods, people do continue to coexist, share resources and work together. Perhaps these experiences can work as building blocks to think about future political reconfigurations and possibilities that are markedly different from the present.

The possibility of such a future may be of crucial importance for contemporary Karachi where a diverse, multi-ethnic population considers the challenges and compromises of coexistence. This, of course, does not mean that all problems are solved or there is blind optimism, yet it may still nudge us toward imagining a different political space, where disagreements can be lived in accordance with tacit agreements with others about how to get by.

Perhaps the government itself can pitch in. In contrast to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s speech on February 10, 1972 in which he had warned the workers that if they did not refrain from participating in lawless behaviour “the strength of the street will be met by the strength of the state”, it is time that the political heirs of the slain leader respond to the voice of the street with the empathy of the state.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2011.

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