“Against that accusatory finger…

“Against that accusatory finger…

there are four more pointing back at you.”

— famous Chinese proverb (according to a someone much better-read than me)

What do you do with a Judas?

He opens so many doors to so many people – yet he lets so many die… or worse, participates in, precipitates their deaths, or the death of their dreams. There are many such examples in today’s world of billionaire philanthropists.

Here, I am mainly intrigued by a Pakistani entrepreneur who has had a major influence on our lives at a very basic level: through the introduction of cheap, food-grade packaging solutions. This company has enabled the agri-business sector (and possibly alleviated unemployment a tad bit) and instead of being another burden on the balance of trade, it has contributed positively to it via exports and the avoidance of imports. Yet, it has brought about a revolution in the sales reach of packaged foods so that you can now find biscuits, chips, milk, cream of more or less questionable quality in the khokha of the smallest hamlet of the country. The environmental degradation, health issues due to consumption of these “non-organic” food products esp. among children, and cultural costs due to the disappearance of so many cottage/home industries brought about by this sea-change are issues that the next generation will have to deal with. Did such intelligent people as those working on these projects not see what they were doing? Or they did not care? “Negative externalities” is the right term to use I believe – which sounds like the economics equivalent of collateral damage.

At another level, the same person has proven to be a visionary: establishing academic institutions that are some of the best in their fields in Pakistan. Well, at least as per the generally accepted standards in these matters. More penetrating analysis might provide alternative, possibly more useful, perspectives. What cannot be denied is that these institutions have been steadfast bastions for a population in need of knowledge, critical thinking and creativity.

So it’s all the more puzzling that he should continue to be associated with a global trans-national corporation that is either the biggest or second biggest food processing group in the world – and it keeps growing, gobbling up smaller companies, expanding its “portfolio”, cowing and cajoling governments into “liberalizing” legislation for fatter profit margins. I don’t doubt that its competitors follow the exact same practices – else, they could not possibly keep up! But it does mean that this company – and its major competitors – care only for the “bottom line”… and even there, only for the profits of its big shareholders and upper management. For many shareholders of this company have tried to hold its feet to the fire on multiple violations of international treaties and national laws (in Europe, Africa and Asia) and have had no more than partial success – such is the power of Manon. For a very balanced, painfully careful account, you can read Mike Muller’s Guardian article from a few years ago: Nestlé baby milk scandal has grown up but not gone away

By providing a public space for Nestlé to comment, this article succeeds in drawing out a revealing response from its chairperson, Mr Peter Brabeck (see comments below the article), which allowed a civil society campaigner to point out some crucial inconsistencies and omissions in Mr. Brabeck’s response.

And then here’s something that is a source of immense pride for me. I really admire the courage and steadfastness of Syed Aamir Raza, a Nestlé baby milk salesperson from Sialkot, who, when he realized that babies in his sales region were dying because of the work of his team “influencing” doctors to prescribe Nestlé’s formula, resigned and spoke out against these practices. Despite the incredible pressure that such a large company has brought to bear to shut him out, to shut him up, he persisted and now, in collaboration with the International Baby Food Action Network, the film, Tigers, dramatizing his struggle has been released. I love this guy – here’s a regular, un-pretentious guy, trying to stand up for what’s right, regardless of the consequences. Struggling, wavering and ultimately choosing to take the road less traveled.

Do you see the incongruity of it all? A Pakistani guy, a young man from a nation reviled for the actions of its young men, from a group of countries considered “failed states”, “basket cases”, “corrupt to the core”, showing up the much bigger, “legalized” corruption of one of the largest companies in the world, based in the country that is the very symbol, in the mind of the public, of high idealism, of human rights (the UN Human Rights Council is based in Geneva) and humanitarianism (via the ICRC and the IFRC)*.

Just so it’s clear, Nestlé has consistently violated the marketing codes related to food products for infants – all over the world.

cover of the original 1974 report documenting unethical, aggressive marketing practices of companies producing powdered milk for babies
cover of the original 1974 report documenting unethical, aggressive marketing practices of companies producing powdered milk for babies

In its home country, Switzerland, and its home continent, Europe, it has repeatedly faced criticism for its unethical actions, leading to multiple boycotts and even punitive judicial action in some Third World countries with spine. The World Health Organization estimates that breast-feeding could prevent 800,000 child deaths every year – yet Nestlé and its competitors continue to aggressively market their formula milk for infants, constantly breaking the rules.

So, coming back to the dilemma – what do we do with this man? Just accept that “it’s complicated” (as per social media) and get on with one’s life? I tend towards this conclusion – with one caveat: it’s important to understand the fuller/deeper/larger story and what it means in its context. A case in point: getting a handle on the paradoxes he embodies gives me a better understanding of the highly publicized case of sexual harassment of a student by a teacher who is a member of his clan – at one of the very institutions he helped establish. A case in which, despite the directives of the Federal Ombudsman that he be fired, the predatory relative was protected and the victim vilified. After all, what does one measly National Outreach Programme scholar matter when the deaths of thousands of babies leave one unruffled?

At this point, a friend said, but he could always claim that as a member of the BoG of the company, he can’t be expected to keep an eye on the day-to-day activities of Nestlé Pakistan. To which I have two answers: I’m sure he knows exactly where each and every paisa in the account books come from and also that when one goes into a joint venture with a company, one does one’s due diligence and if the fact of a global boycott campaign somehow escaped their notice, then it sort of makes one wonder if corporate “due diligence” is yet another example of Orwellian Newspeak. Milkpak became Nestlé Pakistan in the late eighties/early nineties, the Nestlé baby milk scandal broke in 1974 and, as noted above, has never really gone away. So.

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I asked a friend, an economist, to review this post and he came back with a comment that he says is standard political economy but which untangled so many knots for me: “He created a school so his class could hire cheap local labor and then there were some good things along the way for which he’s had sufficient political mileage. And he’s probably monetized that as well. I judge him neither for the “good” nor for the “bad” for they appear to me to be two sides of the same coin. It’s all good business and that’s how you do good business in a capitalist world. And then there are people […] who keeping nipping at their ankles […] And that’s quite nice.”

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The deeper, really difficult question for me is: how would I behave given the same power and privilege? Would I meet the same standards of farsightedness and honesty that I expect from the enlightened don of our business “community”?

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* Which opens a whole different can of worms – how to reconcile the co-existence of major UN and various international organisations that may be termed “pro-people” in Switzerland with its terrible record during WWII and the notorious banking secrecy laws – the laws that allowed Switzerland to pioneer the “we’ll keep your ill-gotten wealth safe for you” industry?

Self-respect

There’s an amazing bit of dialogue in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. It’s in the scene where Bajrangi is being tortured in a prison cell by Pakistani some un-named “counter-espionage” organisation in order to extract a false confession from him. The officer-in-charge eventually recognises Bajrangi’s innocence and decides that if Bajrangi is consigned to a life in limbo in Pakistani jails on false charges, he would consider it an insult to Pakistan’s honour – something he could not tolerate.

In this video, one brave Pakistani woman reminds us with simplicity and quiet determination of our duty to protect the weak and vulnerable sections of our society – without which we cannot claim to be responsible citizens of an honourable society.

I invite you to stand with those of us who believe, in the words of V, that “while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning and, for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.”

Fighter

The following is an ode in prose in memory of one of the major influences on my life. What he faced, what he faced down, were far far greater challenges than I am ever likely to face. The writer is my beloved uncle[1][2] who passed away the same year in the autumn of 2009.

Iqbal Bali
A tribute

My dear friend and a great revolutionary, Mohammed Iqbal, affectionately
known by all his friends and admirers as Bali, died on 19 June in
Rawalpindi following complications after major heart surgery.
How does one talk of this man so full of energy? For me it is impossible
to imagine Pindi without him. For the last forty years he was the moving
force in all the demonstrations and meetings held in Pindi to promote
democracy in Pakistan. In this article I will talk about how I knew him
and about some of his political ideas. The activities that I will
highlight pertain basically to the period from 1969 to 1989 when I
worked closely with him. I left Pakistan in 1989 and withdrew from
taking active part in the democratic movement because of personal
reasons and because of the collapse of the left and the trade union
movement.

Bali’’s political activism goes back to the days in the sixties when he
was a radar technician in the Pakistan Air Force. He got into a lot of
scrapes while in the air force as he stood up to officers who mistreated
ordinary airmen and fought for the rights of the latter. Several times
he was punished for this.

He moved to Pindi in the late sixties when he was immediately involved
in the 1968-69 student movement against the Ayub Khan dictatorship. At
this time there was a rebirth throughout Pakistan of socialist and
Marxist ideas inspired by the great Vietnamese resistance and the
student movements in Europe and America against the war and for greater
democracy. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was also riding this wave with his
slogans of “roti, kapra, makan”. In Pindi too there were many people
discussing the concept of reviving a communist movement. Bali was part
of a group of young idealistic people wanting to overthrow the
oppressive capitalist social order in Pakistan. There were such groups
consisting of intellectuals, students and workers springing up in all
the major cities.

He worked with the People’s Labour Front (PLF), newly founded in Pindi
by Riffat Hussain Baba (now at PILER in Karachi) and Nazir Masih
(Secretary-General of the Municipal Worker’s Union of Rawalpindi).
(Sadly Nazir Masih, another great figure in the workers’ movement in
Pindi, died many years ago). In its heyday the PLF was the main trade
union federation for the major industries of Pindi and Islamabad,
including the large Kohinoor Textiles Mills on Peshawar Road. The PLF
played a leading role in negotiations for workers rights. There was many
a heroic battle that should be recounted by others. During his PLF years
Bali ran study circles with workers and wrote pamphlets and helped to
distribute them and to paste them on walls around the city. He was
always an activist who did not like long theoretical discussions and he
wanted to immediately get into action.

On 25 March 1971 Yahya Khan postponed, under pressure from Bhutto, the
Army and sections of the ruling class, the inaugural session of the
newly elected Parliament in which Sheikh Mujib’s Awami League had a
clear majority. Bali never forgave Bhutto for his role in this clearly
undemocratic move by Yahya. The group in Pindi (this included Bali) was
one of the few on the left who opposed the subsequent army action after
Mujib declared the independence of Bangladesh on 26 March 1971. I
remember that he and I were in Commercial Market, Satellite Town, on the
evening of that fateful 25th of March when we heard Yahya’s announcement
on the radio and we turned to each other and whispered: “This is the end
of Pakistan”. The consequences were obvious. Pakistan broke up and
Bangladesh was finally liberated in December 1971 but not before the
Pakistan Army perpetrated genocide in Bangladesh with probably millions
of deaths of innocent Bengalis. Bali opposed the army action and helped
to print and distribute leaflets against the military action. He also
took part in wall chalking against the army action in Bangladesh. This
was dangerous work but he was never afraid of being arrested.

Bali was not only active in pro-democracy and anti-dictatorship
movements but he was also a convinced anti-imperialist. He was
particularly incensed by the US war on the Vietnamese people and took
part in concrete actions against US interests in Pindi in the early 70s.
He also took part in an action to protest a particularly savage bombing
of a school in Vietnam and later in another action to protest the
bombing of Cambodia in the spring of 1970.

When Bhutto became President in December 1971 many on the left were
taken in by his rhetoric and had hopes that now Pakistan would be moving
towards socialism. Bali however was very clear about this. He did not
take the easy route of either joining or supporting the populist
movement represented by the People’s Party. He saw immediately that
Bhutto, although popular, represented the landlord class of Pakistan and
could not be relied upon to solve the problems of workers and peasants.
He believed that there should be an autonomous workers’ and peasants’
movement and that one should be working towards setting up a genuine
communist party. His seeing through the slogans of Bhutto was a
characteristic of Bali. A self-educated Marxist he could immediately see
through the rhetoric and could get to the core of an issue.

Although Bhutto talked about workers’ rights his government soon ran
into conflict with trade unions. He sent in police to break up strikes
and to evict workers who had taken over factories when owners tried to
do a lockout. In Multan several workers were killed when police fired on
them. The conflict with the Bhutto government intensified when Bhutto
introduced his labour laws, which were clearly not in the interests of
the working class. Trade union leaders were harassed and arrested and
this included, Riffat Baba, in 1973. The new labour laws and the
crackdown of labour unions by Bhutto and later Zia-ul-Haq led to the
collapse of the workers’ and trade union movement in the middle and late
70s.

Bali was one of the few on the left who supported the Baluchistan
insurgency between 1973 and 1977 not only by the usual propaganda
efforts but also by concrete material aid, which was not very large and
was mostly symbolic to show our comrades in Baluchistan that not all
Punjabis supported the army action there. Bali and his comrades were
isolated on this issue in the Punjab. Bali was instrumental in finding a
safe house for a Baluch comrade who had to go into hiding in 1973. This
was all highly risky work but again Bali did not hold back.

After 1977 when Gen. Zia-ul-Haq took over as dictator, Bali was as usual
at the heart of protests and propaganda against the dictatorship during
these long dark years which cast their ominous shadow on us even now. He
was an enthusiastic participant in the election boycott movement
proposed by the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1981.
At one point the MRD offered mass arrests in Rawalpindi. This turned out
into a farce because of the cowardice of the parties allied in the MRD.
The plan was to offer mass arrests voluntarily at a certain point in
Raja Bazar at a certain time. At this time the area was full of police
as expected. At the appointed time Bali issued forth with a placard
raising slogans against dictatorship and for democracy but not a single
worker from any party followed him. Of course he was immediately
arrested. First he was taken to a local thana and then taken to the
infamous dungeons at the Lahore Fort.

This was his longest period in jail. While in the Lahore Fort he was
beaten up and tortured with cigarette burns. He was interrogated both by
the police and the military intelligence services. But he was courageous
under this torture and did not name a single one of his companions. He
flaunted the fact that he was a communist and would remain so. They
asked him specifically about me. He laughed it off by saying that Dr.
Faheem was one of these intellectual leftists who came around to trade
unions and took part in demonstrations but did not do much and was not
taken seriously by the workers. He also told them that we were family
friends, which was true. I think he saved me from being arrested at that
time by laughing me off. Actually he was afraid at one point in his stay
at Lahore Fort that I had been arrested. While he was in the Fort he
heard one evening that they were bringing in three prisoners from
Islamabad, all of whom were professors. He inquired whether one of these
had a beard and the answer was yes. He thought this is it. Faheem has
been arrested. It turned out not to be true. The three brought to the
Fort that day were Jamil Omar and two other teachers from Quaid-i-Azam
University who were arrested for pasting pro-democracy leaflets on walls
in Islamabad. Jamil had a beard at that time. Iqbal told me that
although he was sad that these three had been arrested but that he was
relieved that I was not one of them.

On his release from jail after many months he continued to be active.
Even in his darkest years in the nineties when he was in severe
financial difficulties he never lost hope. To overcome financial
difficulties he went as far as Baluchistan to earn money doing physical
labour. On his return he plunged into his pro-democracy activities again.

Not only was he involved in demonstrating, writing pamphlets but he was
also very keen in promoting enlightenment and secular, rational thinking
in his neighbourhood. He set up several local educational committees
under whose aegis scientific lectures were delivered to local
townspeople. He even had the astrophysicist, Prof. Asghar Qadir, give a
talk on the origin of the universe, the big bang, black holes and all
that. His living room in Angadpura, off Saidpur Road, near the thana was
the meeting place for progressives of Pindi and was an obligatory halt
for visiting leftists. I remember long evenings discussing revolutionary
practice and theory, Punjabi and Sikh history, poetry, world affairs
with Bali and his friends. These evenings were spiced by the excellent
food served by his wife, Salma, and by liberal drinks of the fermented
kind.

On my return to Pakistan in 2005 I found Bali to be as active and
enthusiastic in the struggle for democracy as before. He was
particularly happy to note that there was a new crop of young people in
Islamabad and Rawalpindi who were imbued with Marxist ideas and were
beginning to organise workers and peasants for a democratic,
anti-capitalist struggle. The 2005 earthquake found him in the forefront
of mobilising aid for the affected people. With funds raised in
Islamabad and abroad he helped establish a school in the Siran River
Valley near Nawazabad, north of Mansehra. I remember climbing up to 3000
metres to survey a badly hit village and later carrying aid up to this
village, both of us unaware of having bad hearts at that time! We were
both struggling with our breathing and we could have popped off at any
time! Anyway we survived. All the time that we were in the mountains he
would keep up his democratic and anti-mullah propaganda and try to
convince people that the best response to the disaster was not to become
dependent on outside help but to rely on self-help. Sometimes his
anti-religious jokes were so strong that I was worried that this might
incite the local people to whom he was talking.

This brings me to another aspect of Bali’’s character. He was above all a
committed, life-long Marxist. He often said, “I was born a Marxist and
will die a Marxist”. But beyond that he was a democrat and a militant
atheist. He was always carrying out propaganda against religion and
mullahs in whatever company he found himself in. One of his favourite
texts was Bhagat Singh’’s article “Why I am an atheist”. But there was an
interesting contradiction in him and that was that he had a soft spot
for Sikhism. According to him, his forebears were Sikhs. He would often
quote from the Sikh gurus and would even sometimes give the Sikh
greeting “Sat Sri Akal”. In his later years he always wore a Sikh
“kara”. Once he explained to me that he did not regard Sikhism as a
religion but as something pointing out the “dharma”, one’’s righteous duty.

Bali’’s revolutionary Marxism was not based on some abstract ideas and
was not imported from outside. His views were deeply rooted in the soil
where he was born and that is Punjab. His inspiration for revolution in
Pakistan was not so much the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban
revolutions as the Ghadar Party in India and particularly the Punjab and
its revolutionary activities in the early years of the twentieth
century. He knew everything about that armed struggle in the Punjab
against British imperialism and would talk about that often. More than
Lenin, Che, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, his revolutionary hero and example were
Bhagat Singh and his comrades. He was also exceptionally well informed
about India’’s First War of Independence in 1857. Surprisingly he was
also a keen student of Sufi philosophy and history. In this sense he was
a real son of the soil, although he had read many of the classic texts
of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao. But this does not mean that he was
parochial in any sense. He was a keen observer of the revolutionary
movements around the world.

Like most of us, at that time in the late 60s and early 70s, inspired by
Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, Bali believed in the revolutionary
armed struggle and the imminent arrival of the socialist revolution. We
were all idealists but we soon realised that the revolution was a long
way away. Some lost heart at this point and dropped out of the struggle
but Bali never lost hope in the ultimate victory of the workers and
peasants. He, however, realised that the short-term goal in Pakistan was
the establishment of democracy and the end of military dictatorship. In
the last years of his life he came to the belief that armed struggle was
not appropriate at the moment in Pakistan and what we needed was a
peaceful mass struggle for democracy. In this regard he was impressed
and inspired by the recent victories of the democratic movements in
Latin America.

Bali was sceptical of NGOs. He never trusted them. He thought that they
took away young people from the real democratic struggle and corrupted
them by paying them high salaries. He would proudly proclaim that he had
never joined an NGO.

The lawyers’’ struggle of 2007 for justice and democracy against the
Musharraf regime found Bali in the forefront of the demonstrations. He
was to be seen every day in front of the Supreme Court carrying banners
and raising slogans. He printed and distributed pamphlets and organised
the demonstrations. The struggle seemed to have rejuvenated him. In
spite of the fact that by this time Bali had discovered that he had
serious heart problems he continued to be present at the demonstrations
carrying his water bottle and pills. In fact although his heart
condition was quite serious he went on a hunger strike in favour of the
Chief Justice in March 2008 outside the Judges Colony. When I reproached
him for not taking care of his health, his reply was that he was a
revolutionary and had to do his duty and that he was already more than
75 years old so it did not matter if he died.

He was particularly happy to see that there were so many new young
people involved in these demonstrations. In return young people
discovered in him an example of a dedicated revolutionary to follow and
he inspired all those who met him. During the lawyers movement he became
close to the young members of the Rawalpindi branch of the Communist
Mazdoor Kisan Party, CMKP. As far as I know, Bali had never joined a
party before, but these young dedicated workers of the CMKP finally
persuaded him to join the party, which he did in March 2008, at a
restaurant in Islamabad where I was also present. This move gave a boost
to the CMKP in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. His house became the meeting
place for the CMKP. In June 2009 he was elected as the Chairman of the
CMKP Pindi District Committee. Because of his militancy, revolutionary
enthusiasm and untiring work ethic he was also elected as Chairman of
the Awami Jamhoori Ittehad in Islamabad.

During the last year Bali came to the conclusion that Islamic extremism
and the Taliban were the greatest danger to Pakistan. He was quite clear
about this. He, like many others on the left, supported the recent
military action against the Taliban in Swat and Waziristan. However at
the same time he continued to be a staunch anti-imperialist and did not
waver in his stand that the US and NATO should withdraw from Afghanistan.

Bali continued to be active to the end. We will miss his enthusiasm, his
hard work and revolutionary zeal. He will live in our hearts as an
example of a true revolutionary.

Faheem Hussain
The author is Professor of Physics in the School of Science and
Engineering, Lahore University of Management Sciences.

defenders of the faith

Pakistan’s Islamists, the great defenders of the faith, don’t have the respect and trust of the Chinese authorities that would allow them to persuade them not to ban fasting in China’s western-most province, Xinjiang.
They also seem to be powerless to protect Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
They make the lives of Indian Muslims a living hell by their murderous attacks every 5 to 10 years in India.
They have earned the hatred of all Afghans, most of the tribal Pashtuns of Pakistan and all of the Ismailis and Shias of Gilgit-Baltistan.
In the most generous interpretation, a “deviant split” of theirs seriously compromised Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent by blowing up our only AWACS aircraft at Kamran airbase.
Why exactly do the PMLN, as well as some sections of the PTI, support them? Why do we insist on calling them patriotic, the best Pakistanis, the defenders of the faith?

ignore the politics

thinking about the reactions to the military operation, I can’t help thinking that the difference between those in support and those against, comes down to a difference in youth, or hope, or perhaps mental age.
those in support have given up all hope that there is any other way of addressing the problem of religious militancy – to use their own words, their own framework.
those against, quite apart from questioning the framework of those in support, are far from convinced that all non-military avenues have been exhausted.
Somehow, all this reminds me of this line from the film Troy:
Odysseus: [to Achilles] “War is young men dying and old men talking. You know this. Ignore the politics.”
The old men are telling us, yet again, to ignore the politics, that is, the real arena of power and decision-making, and to blindly follow their orders. And this is true of the old men and women on all sides, Pak Army, pro-operation politicians and power brokers, heads of state-sponsored militant outfits, TTP leaders. Apparently, something like 300 million USD in military funding is at stake here.
A few thousand lives, Pakistani or otherwise, Pak Army or civilian, Punjabi or Pashtun or “tribal” or Gilgiti or Balti or Urdu-speaking or Seraiki simply can’t compete with that amount of money in the eyes of these decision-makers.
So, it seems the mentality of the army top brass continues to be what Maj. Gen Akbar Khan heard repeatedly in the conversations in Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi in the 1950s: “Pakistan is like a beautiful woman who must sell herself to the highest bidder.” (see, Akbar Khan’s “Raiders in Kashmir”, Karachi, 1970)
If anyone was still in doubt after the 2009 Swat operation, this phoney war is an end in itself.

mandela, south africa, barghouti, palestine – tout en vrac

just saving links to inter-related texts here, kind of a follow-up to the sufi exuberance earlier 😉

earlier this year, Ronnie Kasrils’ confessional on the African National Congress’ Faustian deal: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jun/24/anc-faustian-pact-mandela-fatal-error/

Marwan Barghouti pays homage to Mandela from Hadarim prison, cell no 28: http://www.humanite.fr/nelson-mandela/marwan-barghouti-sur-nelson-mandela-je-salue-le-co-5547/ – this is in French. I can’t find the English version, if there is one.

And Jonathan Cook’s somewhat dissenting note on Mandela’s achievements: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/12/06/mandela-a-dissenting-opinion/