(Farooq Tariq is General Secretary, Awami Workers Party, Pakistan. This is an excerpt from a longer article by him.)
It was one of best votes for any Left candidate in decades during any general election held in Pakistan, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan.
The imprisoned Baba Jan, a candidate of Awami Workers Party, got around 4641 votes and came second in the list during the Gilgit Baltistan legislative assembly elections held on 8th June 2015.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) candidate got 8245 votes and won the seat. He is the former ruler of Hunza estate with billions of rupees at his disposal. Pakistan Peoples Party which had won this seat in the 2009 election trailed behind Baba Jan with 3201 votes and the most popular newly established bourgeois party of cricketer Imran Khan Tehreek Insaaf (Justice Movement) was in fourth position with less than 2291 votes.
Baba Jan has been in jail since September 2014 and is serving a life sentence announced by an anti-terrorist court. His real crime was to help the victims of climate change in the area who had protested for fair compensation for all effects of Atta Abad artificial lake created by the land slide on River Hunza in 2010. Baba Jan led a mass movement as leader of Progressive Youth Front, where the town of Ali Abad was under control of the locals for four days. They were demanding the registration of murder case against the police officer who killed a protesting father and son.
Baba Jan was arrested in 2011, spent two years in jail before being released on bail and was arrested again after a brief period when a life sentence was awarded to him.
A second life sentence was awarded to him few days later. The Appellate Court (Supreme Court GB) has acquitted Baba Jan and his 12 comrades in one case and an appeal is being launched against the second life sentence. Baba Jan hails from a working class family.
When Baba Jan and his comrades decided to take part in the elections, there was no formal structure of Awami Workers Party. AWP had decided not to build AWP in the valley because constitutionally Gilgit Baltistan is not part of Pakistan. And AWP respected the independent views of the comrades residing in the valley who were fighting for greater autonomy and rights.
However, if comrades in the valley decided to build a party on the name of Awami Workers Party GB, we would have no objection. It was already decided by Baba Jan and other comrades in the valley to name the new party as AWP GB but the process was still underway to establish the formal structures.
The sudden announcement by PMLN government to go for election had surprised everyone. The PMLN government had just signed a 140 billion dollar agreement with the Chinese to build an economic corridor from Gwader port to China which would pass through Gilgit Baltistan. An impression was created that the valley would be the main beneficiary. They wanted to be on the receiving end of this political mileage.
Here is what one young socialist and member AWP Islamabad Ammar Rashid accurately wrote about the election campaign after his return from the area.
“Just returned from Hunza after the conclusion of Baba Jan's election campaign, where I was witness to some truly remarkable sights.
In the middle of the majestic Karakorams, thousands of young working class men and women have staged a revolt against the political and economic status-quo under the leadership of AWP's socialist candidate for the GB Assembly, Comrade Baba Jan.
Baba Jan remains a political prisoner but his decision to run for election from behind bars has unlocked the floodgates of pent-up disaffection among the young and working poor of Hunza. The already-acknowledged popularity he enjoyed has now spilled over into visible, effective mass support the likes of which has been seldom witnessed in this most remote of regions. The red and white colors of the AWP now dot the landscape of Hunza from Nasirabad to Chipursan.
This was no run-of-the-mill election campaign. Something that started off without any funds ororganisational experience transformed into a mass uprising in a matter of days. People donated their homes and shops as campaign offices across the valley. Others gave whatever little they had for arranging transport and logistics for rallies, often on the spot as organisers appealed for assistance. Several others contributed with original poetry and music that became the mainstay of the public gatherings. For the first time in Hunza's history, women were at the forefront of a political campaign, opening their own election offices, organising their own rallies and leading the fray with their own improvised, heavily-charged slogans and speeches. Compared to the patronage-based political logic of all other parties in Hunza, this was a movement truly started, owned and sustained by the people.
This was not empty-minded, hero-worshiping populism either. Among all the activists involved, serious questions were being debated, from the nature of class exploitation, to Gilgit-Baltistan's place in the federation, to debates on national identity, to the reality of state hegemony, repression and exclusion, to the legitimacy of the heavily classist electoral process, to the significance of gender equality, to the need for inter-faith, inter-sect and inter-ethnic solidarity. There was a palpable sense of an opportunity to critically engage with contradictions of society and state that are all too often brushed under the carpet.
Whatever the election result though, Baba Jan has, through his defiance, commitment and ideological perseverance, laid the foundations for genuine political transformation in Gilgit-Baltistan and created space for the flowering of a renewed Leftist political consciousness. It is merely a start and one with a potentially deeply hazardous future, especially in the face of severe human and financial resource constraints. But it is this peerless example from Pakistan's ignored periphery that progressives must look to if we are to resurrect the Left in Pakistan.”
After the defeat of Baba Jan, there is no unpleasant feeling of defeat. The defeat has generated more energy among the comrades.
The mood was set by Baba Jan himself from behind bars.
“There is a victory in the defeat. No one has challenged the former royalty as powerfully as we did. I had no block vote of a tribe, caste, and area or on religious basis. I came second at almost all polling stations. I got votes from everywhere unlike my billionaire opponents who had block votes in some areas. It was working class and working people everywhere who rose from the shackles of slavery of the corrupt capitalist system and voted for me fearlessly. I have won the hearts and soul of my class and that is a victory and not a defeat”.