Pakistan: Teachers and Farmers Protests Brutally Crushed in Sindh

Water cannons deployed against teachers in Karachi

A report on the crack down on teachers and farmers protests currently taking place in the Pakistani province of Sindh. Once again, the state's vicious response to working class protests has differed greatly from its hands-off approach to similar demonstrations and movements of Muslim extremists.

In recent weeks, as much of the Pakistani media remained fixated on the internecine squabbles of the country’s ruling elites, authorities in Sindh have been brutally cracking down on sections of workers and farmers in the province who’ve had the temerity to defend their rights and fight for improved living standards and working conditions.

On December 25, primary, secondary and high school teachers in Karachi held a defiant protest against the Sindh government due to its refusal to provide them with permanent jobs despite having agreed to do so in 2014. The provincial government is refusing to honor its agreement even after forcing teachers to pass a rigorous examination conducted by the National Testing Service and the University of Sindh.

Teachers from all over the province took part in the demonstration, including teachers from Hyderabad, some of whom marched the entire 140km distance to Karachi in order to participate. The teachers were attacked by the police when they tried to march toward the Chief Minister’s House. The police used water cannons, batons and tear gas against the protesting teachers and scores were arrested. On Tuesday, the Sindh authorities claimed that two dozen teachers were detained and that all have since been released. However, according to officials of the All Sindh Primary Teachers Association, more than 150 teachers were arrested and many others were injured by the heavy-handed tactics of the police. Despite the violent response of the police, the teachers have refused to back down until their demands are met, with negotiations between teachers’ representatives and the Sindh government ending in a stalemate on Friday.

Monday’s police attack against demonstrators in Karachi was one of several such assaults on teachers in Sindh in recent weeks. While the tactics deployed against teachers have been brutal, the sheer ruthlessness with which the Sindh government recently cracked down on protesting farmers was nothing less than shocking.

On December 11, scores of increasingly impoverished sugar cane growers from all over the Sindh staged a protest in Karachi against local sugar mill owners as well as the provincial government. The sugar cane growers have been asking the government to fix the price of sugar cane at Rs185 per 40kgs, but sugar mill owners in the province have been paying the farmers as little as Rs130 per 40kgs, even though the government has officially set the price at Rs182 per 40kgs. During the protest, farmers denounced government corruption and slammed provincial officials for colluding with sugar mill owners at the expense of poor farmers. The sugar mill owners are refusing to pay the correct price despite the fact that they have received billions of rupees in subsidies from both the federal and provincial governments.

The peaceful protest, in which many women and children participated, was baton-charged by police only 30 minutes after it began. When this failed to have the desired effect, tear gas and water cannons were used against the farmers, with many falling unconscious. According to farmers’ representatives, many sugar cane growers were injured and around 80 were arrested. While Sindh authorities were able to crush the protest in Karachi, the sugar cane growers have only grown more incensed and are unlikely to give up their struggle. On Thursday, a sugar cane grower set himself on fire during a farmers’ demonstration in Mirpurkhas that called for mill owners to pay the sugar cane price fixed by the government.

Far from a problem unique to Sindh, police brutality is par for the course in Pakistan, where a tiny clique of capitalists, landlords and military elites have lorded over and exploited the working class and rural poor since the country’s establishment.

The police in Punjab are notoriously corrupt and usually the first to resort to violence. On more than one occasion, police in Punjab have even used violent tactics against blind workers protesting for more job opportunities and the implementation of disabled-friendly policies in the province. Meanwhile, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, doctors and nurses have repeatedly been attacked by police when organizing protests to demand better working conditions.

The response of the state to protests and movements of workers, the rural poor and other oppressed groups contrasts sharply with its strategy of appeasement and accommodation when dealing fascistic Muslim clerics and other reactionaries when such forces hold protests and launch movements. Throughout the month of November, Islamic extremists were allowed to wreak havoc in the capital city of Islamabad, complicating daily life for thousands of ordinary people. As usual, no meaningful action was taken against the religious right, despite violent behavior by the protestors. The Punjab Rangers chief was even caught on video distributing cash to the demonstrators and allowing them to take selfies with him. Eventually, the federal government caved in to the clerics’ key demands, further empowering the clergy and emboldening extremist elements.

Indeed, while Pakistan’s ruling elites won’t hesitate to use brutal force against the poor and marginalized, they are unwilling to take any action against the Muslim clergy. The clergy benefit from the enduring legacy of the Partition, which incorporated communal divisions into the state structure of South Asia, elevating the status of the clerics in Pakistan and giving them tremendous sway over the country’s political life.