The Rebel Road…

I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man. – Ernesto Che Guevara

Hashtnagar | A revolutionary struggle forgotten.

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A recent research trip led me to a little known area known as Hashtnagar, located in NWFP or, as it is referred to by the locals, Pakhtunkhawa. One might, at first, question the significance of this narrow strip of land and its importance to the life of us urbanites. However, such questioning would soon give way to keen interest on the part of anyone studying society and its evolution as a science. Surrounded on all sides by various agencies that comprise the FATA area, Hashtnagar forms one of the two parts of Charsadda district and comprises of eight villages, namely Charsadda Town, Sherpao, Usmanzai, Umarzai, Turangzai, Tangi Town, Prang and Rajar. One of these towns, i.e. Sherpao, was the subject of great media interest recently when a bomb blast went off killing at least 50 people. The bomb blast was meant, however, for Mr Aftab Sherpao – Pakistan’s former interior minister. Mr Sherpao escaped relatively unscathed, though his son was wounded in the blast.

From a social science point of view, Hashtnagar is unlike any other area in Pakistan in that the peasants of Hashtnagar openly revolted against the oppression of the Khans (feudal lords) of their area and waged a protracted armed struggle against the feudal forces in order to gain control over the cultivated lands. Though this movement started in the 1970s, it has continued till now. The feudal lords of the area now live in fear of the repercussions of any oppressive actions they may take against the peasants and, as a result, have either moved out of Hashtnagar entirely or have built massive fortress-like mansions for their protection. It is important to mention here that this peasant uprising was not the result of some form of personal or petty revenge politics, rather the result of years of instilling political consciousness within the peasant body by communists who lived in or visited the area over several years. The party that has historically been associated with this freedom movement is the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (CMKP), then known as the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) – a Marxist-Leninist political organisation that was originally created by such eminent socialists as Sajjad Zaheer, Major Ishaq and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. However, after the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case and the subsequent ban on communist politics in Pakistan, compounded by a series of party-splits, the modern form of CMKP emerged from the fray. The movement of Hashtnagar’s liberation began back in 1969, right after the land reforms introduced in the country by the extremely reactionary dictatorial regime of General Ayub Khan. As a result of these land reforms, the peasants of the area were threatened by eviction by the feudal lords who were, very conveniently, provided legal cover by the aforementioned land reforms. In light of the extreme opposition faced by these peasants it is no small feat that they have, successfully, continued to hold onto their lands. State retaliation and illegal police actions against the peasants are common – all of these carried out at the behest of the families of the Khans (feudal lords) who were the original owners of these lands and who continue to create problems for the peasants of the area. Matters are such that even today very few male members of any house in the area feel safe without having some form of firearm within easy reach at all times – even while they are sleeping. There are various incidents of police actions against the peasants that have been reported. An online journal hosted by the Communist Party of Belgium, relates one instance of such an attack. It says:

“Earlier this year (January 2002), 3,500 officers of the police and Frontier Constabulary attacked the village of Charsadda. The peasants were organised but unarmed. The policemen, on the other hand, were armed with guns, tear-gas shells, armoured vehicles and jeeps. During this attack on the liberated zone, the corrupt and oppressive police force brought tractors to raze the crops of the peasants. But the peasants fought back and succeeded in burning down all three tractors and also a jeep. The police fired in retaliation, which resulted in dozens of injuries. However, peasants and party [CMKP] cadres surrounded the armoured police vans and broke their windows. This engagement also lasted a good seven hours and one Superintendent Police (SP), two Deputy Superintendent Police (DSP), and several Station House Officers (SHOs) were injured. At an earlier confrontation, when the police succeeded in arresting some of the peasant leaders, peasants attacked police convoys and took a few police officers hostage in retaliation for the arrest of their leaders. An exchange was made, and the courageous peasants forced the release of their leaders.”

Such a protracted struggle for human rights and long standing tradition of socialist values within the general populace has also had a very interesting impact on the social structure of Hashtnagar’s society. It has been observed that the people of Hashtnagar, though somewhat steeped in the same cultural values that define conservative Pakhtun culture, practice patriarchal norms only as a necessary function of their society rather than as their personal initiative. The reason I say this is because the cadres of the CMKP in Hashtnagar form perhaps the small group of people who actually send their daughters for education – otherwise the concept of female education remains alien to the citizens of surrounding districts. According to some interviews conducted in the area, it has been estimated that only a mere two percent of the entire local population sends out their daughters for education whereas around 80 percent of CMKP cadres do so happily. In such an event, Hashtnagar not only forms a beacon of hope for other peasant movements fighting for their rights in Pakistan, such as the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab (AMP) that is fighting a liberation struggle against the forcible takeover of peasant lands by either feudal or military elements, but also stands out to show that it is possible to fight against some elements of conservatism even in a predominantly tribal culture.

Today the people of Hashtnagar face a new menace in the form of the rising presence of the Taliban in the area. A large contingent of the Taliban has established a base of operations in Mohmand agency – only a few miles from the Hashtnagar border. These Taliban have already sent out pamphlets to the area warning the local populace to stop sending their female children for education. Furthermore, they demand that women of the area start wearing (shuttlecock) burqa, otherwise they will face Taliban-retaliation in the form of bombings. This is not something new for Pakistanis though, considering the recent tragic murder of Ms Benazir Bhutto – one of the loudest voices for secular values in Pakistan – was carried out by the most militant faction of the Taliban, i.e. al Qaeda, these threats are grave indeed. However, if the people of Hashtnagar, in keeping with their traditions of valour and fortitude in the face of oppression, band together and fight this new threat with some measure of support from the state of Pakistan (for a change) – there is no reason that they cannot prevail and form a beachhead against the rising tide of extremism in Pakistan.

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