Posted by Adaner Usmani on the Peoples’ Resistance network
If 16th March 2009 marks the victory of Pakistan’s two-year movement to restore a free judiciary (and depose a dictatorship, of course), posterity might very well regard yesterday, the 7th of May, as a day that some of Pakistan’s poorest first reaped the direct rewards of that struggle.
Varyaam Faqeer, the by-now infamous ex-MPA from Sanghar, turned up in court for his bail hearing in connection with the murder case lodged against him and four others by the villagers from Muhammad Issa Khaskheli. With him came his entire retinue of retainers, hangers-on, gangsters, etc.–possibly as many as a hundred men, all carrying themselves with the palpable arrogance of unapologetic power.
Their very visible presence around the City Court premises was, no doubt, intended to intimidate the Khaskheli farmers, the judge, and the media into cowering in the face of Varyaam’s obvious clout. Nonetheless, by roughly 8:30 in the morning, about a dozen supporters (Labour Party activists, members of PR, a comrade from the National Workers’ Party, among others) had gathered in solidarity. Geo News and KTN set up cameras outside the courtroom.
After initial deliberation, it was announced that the the hearing would be delayed to 11:30am. As many might know, the decision whether to allow Varyaam’s bail had already been postponed twice, the first time in late-April, when Mr. Faqeer had feigned illness, and the second on May 2nd after the judge requested time to review the case’s documents. All this, coupled with Varyaam’s hiring of a team of storied lawyers (including the ex-principal of SM Law College) to fight his case, had left us all expecting that the judge (Abdul Naeem Memon), a 33-year old with an untested reputation, would concede to the demand to let him post bail.
But, to the shock of the tens of people who crowded the court room to hear the judge relay the previous days’ arguments before offering his verdict, Varyaam’s request to post bail was dismissed.
Almost immediately, things took a turn for the absurd. Upon hearing the judge’s announcement, Varyaam–a 70-year old, grey-haired feudal with a pot-belly–made a run for the exit. Though there was a sizable police presence in the hallway (at least 20 policemen, I think), they were outnumbered by Varyaam’s support. An almighty scuffle followed, in which Varyaam’s men successfully shielded him from the police while he ran as fast as he could (not very fast, mind you) down the stairs and out the entrance.
Though, by this point, the majority of the people in the building had crowded the stairways and windows to watch the scenes unfold, I’m not sure what exactly happened once Varyaam stumbled into the courtyard. At first it seemed clear that he had escaped–as an alleged witness said, “jumped into his waiting Pajero and sped off” (probably straight to Pir Pagara’s house). Three of the five people implicated in the case had been arrested, inside. After some memorable naray-bazi inside the halls of the District Court, we made it outside to see them being driven away in a police van.
But, after 15 minutes or so of celebrating an unexpected partial victory, the news filtered through that Varyaam had been caught. GEO was running news of his arrest on their ticker. We tried to confirm with some police stationed outside the premises, who said that he had indeed been nabbed outside the gates. At this point some of us made our way back to the Press Club, along the way telling anyone and everyone that Varyaam had been arrested, justice had been served.
However, that euphoria was short-lived. Madad Ali–nephew of the murdered Wali Dad–soon learned from an officer on the phone that they, in fact, hadn’t been able to catch Varyaam and another one of the accused. Whether their inability to do so had been intentional, one can’t really say–I myself inside the hallway had seen two or three ordinary policemen do their level best to arrest Varyaam, grabbing hold of his hair and shalwar before being pushed away by a ring of retainers. All will become clear in the next few days, I suppose, as we see how honestly he is pursued.
It has to be said that, despite hearing that Mr. Faqeer still walks free, the Khaskheli protesters remain in good spirits. The fact is that a man who has presided over decades of injustices in Sanghar (the stories are legend) is today a fugitive from the law. The man to whom these villagers have been forced to pay their respects has been shamed. In an interview on KTN at the Press Club, after the events at the City Court, they expressed their hope that this would move the provincial government to act on its now month-old promises, which included the payment of compensation to Wali Dad’s relatives and–most importantly–the legalization of their ownership of goth Muhammad Issa Khaskheli. (They all also implored the government to immediately provide protection to those hundreds of people living in the village right now, in case Varyaam is moved to take revenge).
To this observer, two things stood out about today’s events. First, the bravery of this young judge–one can’t help think that he must have been shaped, in the course of the past two years, by the dogged spirit of the battle for the judiciary’s independence. So much in the next few years will depend on whether others can show courage like his.
And second, of course, the dividends of struggle. At no point in the last few weeks have these protesters numbered more than a few dozen–throughout, they’ve been dogged by the fears and worries of those they’ve left behind in Sanghar–yet, owing principally to their persistence and bravery, they have brought Pir Pagara’s right-hand man to his knees.
One can only imagine what might be possible if a political movement could emerge, perhaps inspired by this example of successful defiance–a movement which might unite the innumerable, scattered cases of injustice into a broad-based offensive against the impunity enjoyed by our landed elites. If militants in the northwest have been taking advantage of precisely these long, tortured histories of exploitation, what other, better way to fight extremism than this?