by Sarwar Bari
Courtesy: The News, Monday, October 19, 2009
“This is a stronghold of Bijarani, Somroo, Jhakhrani, Oghai and Taighani sardars,” answered a handsome Sindhi villager who was sitting next to me on a charpai at a roadside restaurant on the Super Indus Highway, where we had stopped to have tea. My peculiar appearance (white beard, moustache and a ponytail) and interest in their issues caught the attention of others, who wanted to share their thoughts. In order to trigger a debate, I asked about the role of these tribal sardars in local development and their well being. No one had anything good to say about the sardars and the successive governments in which the former have played a major role. Almost everyone complained about their tyranny, and the lack of educational and health facilities. Among them was a teacher who said that it had been many years since a school was opened or upgraded in his taluka. In fact, most schools had become non-functional despite the swelling population.
One man said that in his area, 100 people have been killed over the theft of a buffalo and the sardars have been playing a huge role in the perpetuation of the feud. Since most rural populations are organised on primordial lineages, very often in the case of a conflict, the feuding parties would approach different local factional leaders for help. In return, they would have to vote for him or his nominee in elections. They blamed their sardars for the perpetuation of feuds as it allows them to have control and exert power over the population. According to them, the local police, revenue officials and lower judiciary collaborate with the sardars in this nefarious game. The government officials are bound to serve the sardars, as they are the peoples’ representatives and the law makers too. “Why did you vote for such candidates?” I asked them. Their answer was crisp and sharp. “Our choice is restricted between one feudal sardar or the other.”
They also complained that most mainstream political parties issue tickets to those candidates who were wealthy and have their own vote bank which means “bonded haris,” according to the teacher. He also said that these “sardars are the gatekeepers of our areas — they don’t allow anybody to unite the people.” An old man said that “be it military dictators or civilian governments, these sardars have remained in power as a class.”
However, the gatekeepers were challenged a few days ago when the Awami Tehrik launched a long march from Kandh Kot — the hub of the sardari system of Sindh. The march was kick-started by Rasool Buksh Palijo and his party workers on October 8. Thousands of Awami Tehrik workers – both men and women – were at the venue. The people were chanting slogans against the jirga and sardari system, condemning the practice of karo kari, asking for educational and health facilities and demanding opportunities for employment.
The issues that are being raised through the long march reflect the true aspirations of the people. Throughout the three days that I spent with the people at the long march, I saw men, women and children of goths along the Super Highway waiting to welcome us. Some were holding traditional snacks; others had set up sabeels of cold water for us. Most of them joined us in sloganeering. I was curious to know who and what had motivated them to welcome the marchers. Most said the local influential sardars had in fact instructed them not to welcome the marchers. They dared to defy the orders of their sardars. Moreover, many passersby would show gestures of solidarity.
The marchers covered about 20kms on day one. We spent the first night in Ghauspur – a small town on the highway. Next morning, we walked for another 20kms and finished the day at Karampur another small town on the same highway. We spent the second night at village Pirbux Shujra. Hassan Ali, a local leader of the Awami Tehrik, was our host. The area we covered in two days is a stronghold of Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, the Federal Minister for Education. I was curious to know what changes in education had come about since he became the minister. The villagers told me that there had not been any improvement and that they did not expect much in the future. They said out of the 20 odd schools only four were functional in their union council.
In order to verify the claim of the villagers, I spoke to some independent people of the area who repeated what I had already heard. I then visited various websites. The data I found about Human Development Index (HDI) ranking of, and allocation of budget for, education in these districts proved what the people had told me. According to the National Development Report 2003-UNDP, Shikarpur and Jacobabad fall at the bottom of the HDI ranking list. According to a recent survey conducted by the Sindh government, these districts have one of the highest numbers of ghost schools and have high absenteeism among teachers and health officials. The overall literacy rate in these districts is much lower than the national average (30 per cent). The national average is 54 per cent. In comparison to other districts, the budget allocation for educational development has been less than three per cent; the rest goes to recurring costs, that is, to cover salaries of the absentee teachers and ghost schools.
The area is infamous for crimes against women; that is, karokari, wanni etc. The role of tribal chiefs is shameful in this regard. They have been using the jirga as a tool to please men in order to keep the women in complete subjugation.
Therefore, the decision to start the long march from Kandhkot was significant. It was like throwing the first stone against the tribal-feudal chiefs who have been kept in power for decades, now by an unholy alliance of the PPP and MQM and before by uniformed politicians. The MQM, whose rhetoric against the feudal elite is revolutionary, has actually been helping feudal sardars to maintain status quo.
Coming back to the long march, I was pleasantly surprised that despite fear of retaliation from the local feudal lords, dacoits and terrorists, nobody carried any weapons. Nobody was scared. The marchers were peaceful and highly disciplined. They walked on the left of the highway, which helped the traffic move smoothly — a rare occurrence during processions. The girls and boys, and men and women strode towards their destination. They sang revolutionary songs, shouted slogans and were proud of being part of the march. Despite harsh weather, poor facilities and unsuitable walking shoes nobody wanted to give up. I told Palijo this should have been called a walk of endurance.
The route of the march will cover the length and breadth of Sindh. The total distance from Kandhkot to the Karachi Press Club (KPC), where it will end, is about 1,000kms. The distance will be covered in 46 days. This is perhaps a historic and unique event in the history of social movements in Pakistan. Yet, the mainstream media finds little news worthiness in it. All over the world, the media tends to give coverage to elitist, glamorous and bloody events. The Pakistani media is no different. Marginalising peaceful and democratic demonstrations can push people towards extreme steps. We can’t afford to let this happen any longer. A man in the roadside hotel said: ‘the long march is good but not enough; we need to take up arms against the oppressors.” I tried to convince him otherwise by giving him a comparison of the Swat Taliban, Lal Masjid militants and the lawyers’ movement. One was bloody and the other was peaceful. Who won, I asked him. He kept quiet. He did not want to argue, perhaps out of courtesy. The writing on the wall is clear — the people of Pakistan are fed up with the existing leadership and prepared to play their role. Social movements across all four provinces and FATA must join hands in order to transform social base of our polity. We know very well only social movements have brought meaningful social change and democratic development in history.
The writer is a civil society activist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org