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The Generals` Monopoly Bus Service Faces a Rough Route in Islamabad

22. February 2005

by M T Butt

ISLAMABAD, February 7: Pakistani Army Generals think they are qualified to take over, monopolize and expand any business they think is lucrative in Pakistan, the land they think is their occupied territory.

From breeding chicken to cooking cereals, manufacturing cement to fertilizer, running cargo services to passenger buses, banks and trading houses, the only business probably not yet touched by the Generals is trash removal. Pakistan`s military Incorporated is an open and unending saga, leaving everything to be desired in their real job – defending the country.

This story is about the Generals` entry, monopolization and shameless perversion of passenger transport in Pakistan`s capital Islamabad. The story has been written by employees of the only bus service run by the Generals, the Varan. These workers have organized themselves under the banner of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP) and are giving the Generals sleepless night and a real fight for every dime and dollar.

Varan Bus Service was established with millions of rupees loaned to the daughter and son-in-law of a former ISI chief, General Hameed Gul, now the most right wing spokesman of Islamic fundamentalists of Pakistan. His politics of course started after he had secured the financial and economic interests and for his family, using his General´s uniform as the password.

Here is the story which tells numerous tales of how the Generals would not let any business opportunity slip by. Despite the ideological rhetoric and slogan mongering, facts in this story will shake up readers:

“Situated in and around the federal capital, the Rawalpindi/Islamabad district is politically critical because of its proximity to the heart of all government operations. Last summer the CMKP began to reorganize its wing in the area, placing special emphasis on attracting working class youth to the party ranks.

Among other issues, cadres began efforts to develop political consciousness in workers in the Varan city bus service. These efforts have resulted in increased police surveillance and repression of the party and its supporters. This is how the struggle of CMKP started in the district of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

Varan city bus service is a private company that provides urban bus transport in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The company is headed by politically powerful shareholders who enjoy very strong connections with the establishment. Its owner, Uzma Gul, is the daughter of the former Director General of the ISI (Pakistan´s Inter Services Intelligence Agency), Hameed Gul, who some people might remember as the man who headed the anti-communist campaign in Afghanistan, and as a major patron of all right-wing groups in Pakistan.

In addition, 10 or 11 Army Generals are also shareholders in the company. Using its connections as leverage, Varan has acquired special concessions from the Pakistan Government. For example, it has exclusive public transport rights within the city. No other transport company is allowed to operate within city limits, giving Varan a monopoly over transport in certain areas. This company is so powerful that even the Traffic Police is afraid of challenging its operators over traffic law violations.

However, none of the windfall profits from this company go towards benefiting its workers. Workers are not entitled to any holidays, and drivers and ticketing officers are frequently charged penalties and fines by the company for negligible offences. CMKP cadres also discovered that the vast majority of workers were not paid their salary on a monthly basis, since the fines they incurred were so large that they ate away nearly their entire earnings for the month.

Ironically, most employees owe the company money. This results in ticketing officers and drivers resorting to corruption in order to make a few extra bucks. For example, they charge fare from commuters without issuing them tickets. They are compelled to overload the bus with passengers or drive fast in order to pick up as many passengers as possible and make money for themselves in order to pay back their debts and make profits for their owners.

In the summer of 2004, CMKP leaders began to organize the workers of Varan. Daily meetings and study circles were held and not only were the workers quick to accept the political analysis of the CMKP, they were also eager to begin the formation a union. The party quickly built up the requisite number of workers necessary to register a union.

When the management heard of these ongoing efforts, they immediately fired 167 of the most active member of the union. The fired workers returned to their villages (we later discovered that they continued the work of spreading the message of a workers revolution even though they were no longer in contact with the party leadership).

At the same time, the main working-class grassroots activist of our party was picked up by the police and locked in the police station without being formally charged. In addition to illegal imprisonment, he was also exposed to torture, but this only increased his hatred for the establishment and steeled his determination to fight for a worker´s revolution.

Following this immediate and heavy-handed backlash by the authorities, the cadres of the party decided to lie dormant for a while in order to temporarily ease the pressure, given the objective balance of forces in the conflict and our own preparedness. However, the workers spontaneously spray-painted revolutionary slogans and images of the hammer-sickle on Varan buses, and the public of Rawalpindi/Islamabad were accosted with slogans such as “Death to US Imperialism”, “Long Live Revolution”, “Long Live the Communist Workers Peasants Party” and so on (in Urdu).

Several months went by until recently, on the 21st of January, 2005, a Varan bus broke a red-light and crashed into three people on a motorcycle, resulting in their deaths. The next day (22nd January) a similar accident was reported, this time killing two boys, 12 and 13 years of age. The workers in Varan felt that these accidents were occurring mainly due to over-speeding, constant fines, and pressure from the management to work long hours.

However, instead of encouraging its drivers and operators to slow down and take safety precautions, the management passed a law on the 23rd of January, increasing working hours from 14 to 17 hours a day. In addition to the increased hours of work, they imposed a fine of Rs. 1,000 per day (nearly one-third of an ordinary worker´s monthly salary) on anyone taking leave without permission.

When the workers brought their grievances to the management, the latter turned a deaf ear. The management´s insensitive attitude towards this whole situation can be best judged by Uzma Gul´s remarks about the civilian fatalities that had taken place. She callously stated that similar accidents were an everyday occurrence in the city, and that there was no need to slow down the pace of work, or worry about further incidents since she would ask the police to ban motorcyclists from all Varan bus routes in the city! This response stunned everyone.

In response, the CMKP called for a strike on the 24th of January, with two straightforward and entirely reasonable demands:

1. The management should make a public apology to the families of the people who had lost their lives due to the accidents.

2. To rescind the law introduced on the 23rd of January, 2005, imposing longer hours.

Approximately 50 workers led by CMKP cadres began the strike by shutting down the Varan depot at Haathi Chowk. With Haathi Chowk shut down, the entire bus service came to a grinding halt. In retaliation, the management sent a contingent of other Varan workers to beat up and disperse the strikers. However, when these workers arrived to disrupt the strike and heard the messages being relayed on the CMKP speakers, the majority of them decided to join the strike (the rest took a position of neutrality and stood aside).

As a result, the number of strikers grew to about 200. Apart from the 200 strikers and 500 bystanders at the depot itself, more than a thousand other people gathered from around the market-place, blocking access to not just the bus service, but the entire road leading to the bus depot.

The management then called the Elite Force of the Punjab police. About 50 heavily armed Elite Force personnel arrived to break the strike. They no doubt assumed that the mere sight of this heavily armed and much dreaded police force would break up the strikers. But the workers did not budge. The Elite Force baton-charged them, but the CMKP cadres had anticipated their assault and were prepared. The elite force was greeted with a hail of bricks and stones.

Instantly, three Elite Force personnel leading the charge were hit on the head and fell to the ground and others cowered to protect themselves. Workers took advantage of the confusion and grabbed the batons of the bewildered Elite Force, giving them a taste of their own medicine. They kicked and punched the police until, utterly defeated, they ran helter-skelter. CMKP cadres were in the front lines of this workers defence. This demonstrates that when workers are politicized and lead by cadres that believe in leading from the front, the unity and solidarity of the movement becomes extraordinary.

The police called for reinforcements and an additional 8-10 fully loaded police squad cars, bringing the total police strength to 450 or 500. The CMKP cadres gave strict instructions that till such time as the party so orders, no worker should retreat. The police baton-charged the demonstrators a second time and were again greeted with a hail of bricks and stones. Stunned by the bravery, unity and steadfastness of the workers the police upped the stakes by firing a volley of shots above the heads of the protestors and announced (on the megaphone) that the next volley would be aimed directly at the protesting strikers. In addition, the police began to arrest workers on the fringes.

The baton charge continued; however, the CMKP leadership had decided beforehand that arrests would be avoided and resisted since, once arrested and in police custody, the police in Pakistan use all kinds of barbaric means to break the will of our revolutionaries. Therefore, heavily outnumbered and, by this time, severely beaten up (members of the CMKP were also injured during the second confrontation), the party gave the order to retreat in order to avoid arrest.

Luckily, spectators also ran in different directions when the baton-charge occurred, creating such chaos that nearly all of the leading strikers and party cadres were able to make their getaway. The class-solidarity of the workers during this retreat was spectacular. Dozens of workers had sustained injuries and were unable to stand or run. Even in the confusion, these injured workers were picked up and carried to safety by other workers and comrades.

Nonetheless, a few workers and many spectators were arrested by the police and were beaten up at the police station to extract information about the CMKP. One worker, Kashif, was so severely tortured that his left eye is in danger of losing sight. However, all the arrested workers (including Kashif) courageously protected the leadership of the party and did not reveal any critical information. They claimed that they were neither members of the CMKP, nor did they know the names of its leadership, their addresses or their telephone numbers, and that they only came to know about the strike on the day it happened.

This was true for most of the arrested and reflects well on the intelligent and secret organizing carried out by the party cadres. The arrested individuals were all released by the evening, since they were of no more use to their captors.

That night, when workers found out about how Kashif had been tortured, the party called for another strike the following day (25th January). This time around, the police was even better prepared, and another ferocious battle ensued. Unfortunately, the unarmed workers were overpowered by the enormous contingent of police, but once again the leaders of the strike were able to evade arrest.

At about 12:30 am that night, the police raided the house of one of the CMKP cadres leading the strike. Initially his personal mobile phone was blocked, then the entire area was surrounded by police, and finally the police marched into his residence. He quickly contacted other comrades in his unit and warned them about possible police raids on their houses. They immediately fled their homes and were able to evade arrest (each of their houses was raided not long after the phone call).

Meanwhile, the CMKP cadre confronted the police and asked them what they wanted. They said: …‘We have come to arrest you´. He said …‘Fine, do you have an arrest warrant?´. They didn´t have one. Then they said: …‘We have come to search your house´. He said …‘Fine, do you have a search warrant´. They didn´t have that either. But as everyone knows, the only law operational in Pakistan is the law of the jungle. So they marched into his house and confiscated all CMKP literature, pamphlets, leaflets, even tearing down the posters and pictures in his room.

The police wanted to take our cadre to the station no doubt to …‘teach him a lesson´. Luckily our comrade had an influential personal relative who, after a series of frantic calls back and forth, was able to convince the police to let him go in exchange for guarantees of no further trouble. We think our cadre was extremely lucky to not have been arrested that day. However, naturally the CMKP is now encountering all the repression and surveillance that comes with growing strength and increasing confrontation with the authorities.

The immediate impact of the sacrifices and risks that the workers of Varan, under the leadership of the CMKP, undertook was that a few days later the management of Varan withdrew its law demanding increased work days, and imposing fines for absence.

The bigger and more important victory, however, is the growing class-consciousness and revolutionary-solidarity that emerged from this ongoing struggle. The enthusiasm of workers is extremely high and with a fearless and conscientious leadership there is no doubt that the victory is inevitable.

reproduced from South Asia Tribune