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Pakistan: PTI-Government capitulates to reactionary pressure

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At the end of October, Pakistan almost came to a standstill after several days of mobilisations, demonstrations and road blockades by Islamist forces led by Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan, TLP. These arch reactionaries had been outraged by a decision of the Pakistan Supreme Court, PSC.

On October 31, it acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who had been condemned to death on blasphemy charges in November 2010. After years of court cases and of imprisonment, the PSC stated that the evidence was not sufficient for the severity of the accusation, there was “no proof beyond reasonable doubt”. Even now, having been acquitted, she remains in "protective custody" because, although her life is obviously in danger, the government will not allow her to leave the country.

Clearly, Asia Bibi was never guilty, what the case highlights is the reactionary nature of the blasphemy laws and of the hard core Islamists in the country as well as its patriarchal culture. Asia Bibi is a mother of five who belongs to the Christian minority in Punjab province. In June 2009, while working in a field, she had a quarrel with two Muslim co-workers who refused to share water with her because she was Christian. The co-workers later accused her of cursing The Prophet in this dispute. This led in the end to the death sentence according to the blasphemy law.

The case became a key political issue as it was repeatedly used by Islamist extremists as a pretext for mobilisations. In 2011, the former governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, who spoke out in support of Asia Bibi, was gunned down in broad daylight in Islamabad. The killer was hailed as a kind of religious hero and his prosecution by the courts was accompanied by fierce protests.

The whole legal process against Bibi was full of breaches of common juridical standards. As well as being based on very poor evidence, the handling of her case by several courts was characterised by constant intimidation and harassment of judges and lawyers, demonstrable bias and prejudice against the defendants on the part of judges and public and numerous breaches of procedural rules. The Supreme Court therefore halted the execution in 2015 and allowed an Appeal against conviction. Its ruling in October was what would be expected from an Appeal Court in such circumstances: it stated that the evidence was not sufficient for the severity of the accusation, that is, there was “no proof beyond reasonable doubt”, and ordered the immediate release “if there are no other allegations”.

Reactionary outburst

The decision of the court led to a stormy mobilisation of street terror by Islamist extremists. On October 13, the TLP threatened to “paralyse the country within hours if the Supreme Court sets Asia Bibi free”.

The immediate and fierce reaction from the Islamists hit the new government of Imran Khan hard. This is especially ironic since Khan and his PTI had recently exploited the insecurity created after the last Islamist mobilisations in November 2017 for their own advantage in the power game against the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz, PML-N. Now, the PML-N in turn sees itself in a quasi alliance with parts of the Islamist spectrum vis a vis the new PTI government. This alone shows how the different factions are prepared to exploit the Islamist fascist card as long as they think it might benefit their short term interests, meanwhile obviously strengthening the Islamist parties in the long run.

After news of the possible release of Bibi was released, thousands went onto the streets and tried to blockade main roads and railways. The hate speech messages on social media were so numerous that, for example, twitter threatened to shut-down. The TLP not only threatened to bring the country to a standstill, but openly called for the murder of at least the main judges of the Supreme Court.

Moreover, it also openly called for the “forces that stand by Islam” in the army to overthrow the government and take power. At that point it appeared that the country was heading for a decisive confrontation.
Initially, the government and the main opposition parties, the PML-N and the Pakistan People's Party, PPP, formally defended the Supreme Court and condemned the hate speeches of the Islamists and the atrocities during their protests. A section of bourgeois parties seemed to favour a crack-down on the TLP-led movement. During the big protest wave that started on October 30, several leading figures were arrested and the security forces started to attack the demonstrations.

On November 1, however, a deal was struck between the government, represented by the minister of religious affairs and the interior minister of Punjab, and the TLP leadership that ended the protests. The government conceded that an Appeal against the ruling of the Supreme Court would be possible and that Asia Bibi would be put on the Exit Control List so that she would be prevented leaving the country. The government also agreed to release all protestors arrested during the events. The TLP only agreed to stop the protests and to apologise, “if it (had) hurt the sentiment or inconvenienced anyone without reason”(!). The information minister also explained that this agreement did not mean that there would be no prosecutions under civil law, for example regarding physical injuries. Clearly, the TLP not only escaped any prosecution but strengthened its position through the whole affair.

These developments show the strength of the arch reactionary Islamist forces that are cohering into a form of clerical fascism. These so-called “defenders of Islam”, however, can rely on tacit support from parts of the ruling class and from within the state institutions. Despite openly calling for the killing of high representatives of the state and even for the overthrow of the government, they were rewarded in the end by a deal with the government that leaves them without any prosecution. This obviously shows the danger that a further political and economic crisis in Pakistan could lead the ruling classes of Pakistan to use these Islamist forces for a much more brutal form of “solving the crisis”, if faced with popular and working class resistance to the cuts and privatisations demanded by the IMF or to repay Chinese loans.

Without coming directly to power, the reactionary Islamist forces can already be used to strengthen the role of the army and the security forces in the political arena and allow them to take the measures they want against the real opposition; the working class, the oppressed nationalities, religious minorities and women.

It was not only the threat of Islamist mobilisations that led the government to strike a deal so quickly. It is also conducting important negotiations on the economic front. Recently, prime minister Imran Khan visited China in order to get new loans, a few days later the IMF sent a delegation to Pakistan, to negotiate a $12 billion loan, the biggest in the country's history. In this situation, further days of protests, or a possible crack-down on the movement, would have threatened further destabilisation and weakening of the government.

The oppressed can only rely on themselves
That is why it conceded, indeed capitulated, to the reactionaries on the streets. Imran Khan and his PTI-led government, just like the rest of the bourgeois “opposition”, have shown that their commitment to “democracy” and the “rule of law” is worthless. They need the backing of the state forces to impose their agenda, actually the agenda of Chinese and Western capital as well as the Pakistani capitalists and landlords. They do not want more “trouble” on the home front, even if that means sacrificing the freedom and life of an innocent woman.

Nobody who wants to defend democratic rights should trust these hypocrites for a second. And nobody should trust the tears of Western imperialist governments and bourgeois politicians for Asia Bibi either. They may express their “concern” for her plight, but they worry more about making mega-profits from their investments in Pakistan and other countries where the oppressed are denied even elementary democratic rights.

In reality, the whole case is not about Asia Bibi; it is about demonstrating the reactionary nature of the Islamists, the Pakistani government and the bourgeois parties. It is another warning against any illusions in these forces by workers, women, national and religious minorities.

It shows that the working class, the oppressed, the poor are the only social forces which could wage a consistent struggle for democratic rights, for the rights of all religions and national minorities, for women and for working people. All working class, student, democratic and women’s and progressive organisations should condemn the capitulation of the government, the bourgeois and state forces to the reactionary Islamists and fascistic groupings. They should demand that the acquittal of Asia Bibi be upheld and that she should be allowed to leave the country if that is her wish. They should demand the abolition of the blasphemy law. As the Supreme Court showed, the law was used arbitrarily to sentence opponents, women or religious minorities to death on the basis of the vaguest accusations.

At the same time, they must oppose the increasing state repression that has been used against social media activists, democratic forces and national minorities in recent months. They also need to reject any claims by the government that such measures are only intended for use against the Islamists. In reality, this would just be a pretext for giving the state forces even more repressive powers.

All this points to the need for the working class, the oppressed and the democratic movements to organise to defend themselves against increasing state repression and fascist violence. We call on the workers, rural poor and oppressed nationalities and their organisations to build a united front of struggle in defence of democratic rights and to organise the fightback against the next round of political and social attacks. Thus, such a struggle can pave the way for a united struggle against imperialist plunder and capitalist exploitation and for a socialist revolution in Pakistan.