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Footprints: see red on the mall

Footprints: see red on the mall

LAHORE: On a regular day, it takes fewer than a hundred protesters in front of the Lahore Press Club to block Davis Road and with it, the entire Garhi Shahu circuit. But this May Day, nearly a thousand workers descended on the road to celebrate the international workers’ holiday, or “mazdooron ki Eid”.

Large barriers blocked both sides of the road and barbed wire ensured that anyone trying to enter the arena would have to step gingerly to prevent their clothes from getting snagged, to the benefit of a heavy police contingent in riot gear frisking the protesters trying to pass in a single file.

As May Day commemorations go, this year’s attendance was set to peter out before it even began. On April 27, the Lahore DCO sat down with the main labour leaders of the city to persuade them not to congregate on the Mall at all because of a security risk. “But we told them straight up that workers have nothing to do with terrorists and do not pose a security threat,” Rubina Jamil of the All Pakistan Workers Confederation says.

Then they were told that the Mall venue, where all rallies converged to form a mammoth gathering, would not be available to workers this year, perhaps not for a very long time. “We wanted to prevent another attack on The Mall,” Additional Deputy Commissioner (General) Asfandyar Baloch explained.

No one has been allowed to protest on The Mall since the Lahore High Court banned it in 2011, he added, and on April 18, the LHC directed the government to start enforcing the ban strictly. “Public sentiment necessitated this.”

DIG Haider Ashraf confirmed to a Dawn reporter that they had not received threats specifically about May Day or The Mall, but rather there was a general threat in Lahore. And yet, Hafiz Salman Butt of the Jamaat-i-Islami’s National Labour Federation adds that the Multan district administration had also stopped his organisation from bringing out a motorcycle procession from Ghanta Ghar to the city railway station, citing, once again, security reasons.

Standing atop a truck during Monday’s rally, Rubina Jamil thundered: “We condemn the government’s attempt to make workers invisible.”

However, veteran labour leader Yousaf Baloch says this is not the first time the state has tried to deliberately quash expressions of solidarity by workers. He remembers a time when May Day was not a bank holiday and workers would have to surrender a shift’s pay to take out rallies to celebrate their ‘Eid’. The elderly unionist fondly recalls May Day in 1969: “That was the year Abdul Hakeem Wafa, who worked at the Lahore Railways Workshop, wrote a poem: Maang raha hai har insaan roti kapra aur makaan.

“Naseer Humayun, a close comrade of legendary labour leader Mirza Ibrahim, and I wore rotis around our necks and led the procession, beating our chests and shouting that slogan.”

Leftist imprint

The demonstrations back then had a strong leftist imprint. Khursheed Ahmed of the Wapda Hydroelectric Workers Union recalls the May Day rally of 1970, when the Wapda workers suspended electricity supply to The Mall for two hours in protest against harsh working conditions and low salaries. “Mr Bhutto was staying at a hotel on The Mall and he came out to join us. We told him ‘sir, today is the workers’ day. You will have to take a backseat’.”

That year, Yousaf Baloch recalls, the theme was anti-imperialism. “We were young back then and not very aware. While taking part in the rally, we shouted ‘Amriki samjraj murdabad’ (down with US imperialism), and also ‘Soviet samraj murdabad’. Only later did we learn that we were walking with a Maoist group!”

Factory workers, clerks, sweepers and janitors, teachers and employees of private firms brought out two of the largest processions from Kot Lakhpat and Shahdara and travelled to The Mall on buses and trucks and any vehicle they could find space in, Hafiz Salman Butt recalls. “The atmosphere was positive, electric and inspiring.”

The railway workers had started walking from the railway workshop toward McLeod Road, where the Tongabaan Union, led by Taaos Khan, joined them and a few metres ahead merged with the late labour leader Bashir Bakhtiar’s rally up till Kim’s Gun, or Zamzama Gun. At this point Tahira Mazhar Ali, in whose garage was founded the Progressive Writers Movement, and writers of the stature of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Alice Faiz and Habib Jalib addressed a sea of workers waving red flags.

There Habib Jalib read his poem, Main Nahin Manta, for the first time.

Back then, citizens who weren’t a part of the rallies or did not identify as workers themselves, sympathised or understood why May Day needed to be a spectacle, activist Dr Laal Khan says. All this was undone through the concerted efforts of a state beholden to imperialist powers and neoliberal diktat. He cites restructuring of labour, the contract system and privatisation as examples of anti-worker measures.

There is immense power in unity and capitalist forces were quick to grasp this reality. “They did all they could to damage workers’ unions,” Rubina Jamil adds.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s labour wing was allowed to hold a camp on The Mall on May Day, says Farooq Tariq of the Awami Workers Party. Mr Chaudhry Nisar cited tradition and labour values to force through a commemorative event at the Pakistan Ordnance Factory that day.

Today we see an onslaught on the workers of this country, Rubina Jamil laments. Labour leaders across Punjab rejected the government’s decision to raise the minimum wage by Rs1,000, calling for unity in an age of adversity.

“This year’s May Day was subdued, but I foresee revival and hope even where tradition and ritual have been crushed,” Dr Laal Khan says.

Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2017

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