There should be no confusion or lack of clarity about what has happened in Islamabad earlier this week. The government’s move to destroy Afghan Basti, a katchi abadi in I-11, and evict its tenants by force, represents nothing less than a continuation of its long war against the poor. Thousands of people have been rendered homeless, moving from a position of abject poverty to absolute destitution, hundreds have been injured, and many have also been arrested for the ‘crime’ of resisting the brutality of a state machinery inured to the use of violence against the subordinate classes. While it would be tempting to say that this incident has revealed the government’s true colours, the truth is that the government has always displayed an eager willingness to trample all over the rights of the poor in its pursuit of the interests of the rich and powerful.
When the government first began its demolition of Afghan Basti, its approach bore all the hallmarks of similar exercises undertaken in the past. Armed with a court order that conferred the proceedings with a dubious legitimacy, allowing for the settlement to be razed to the ground without even mentioning the need to help the displaced and dispossessed, the government’s description of its activities as being a ‘clean-up operation’ was inadvertently revealing; it was clear that, to the government, this settlement represented a blight on the face of Islamabad and the CDA’s plans for the city, and that its residents were little more than human detritus that needed to be disposed of to make way for shinier and flashier buildings and people. Claims that the Afghan Basti was a hub of iniquity plagued by drugs and criminality were supplemented by an openly racist narrative that associated such activities with the Afghan refugees living in the settlement; the fact that this was factually incorrect (the majority of the Afghan Basti’s residents are Pakistani citizens, and levels of crime are no higher than comparable low-income areas in other parts of the country) is also irrelevant when considering how basic human decency, if nothing else, dictates that we should treat everyone with respect and empathy regardless of their national origins.
Once again, the old bogey of ‘development’ was also invoked to justify the unjustifiable, providing a veneer of acceptability and respectability to proceedings that were anything but. As always, no real attempt was made to outline exactly what this development would be or who would benefit from it but if past experience is anything to go by, the contours of the process should be abundantly clear. With their focus on mega-projects that serve as showy symbols or ‘progress’ as well as great opportunities for graft, successive governments in Pakistan (most notably those headed by the PML-N) have repeatedly demonstrated how their visions of ‘development’ have no room for the poor. Amidst all the massive roads, glitzy buildings, and billions of dollars of investment, little to no attention has been paid to addressing the basic needs of Pakistan’s poor, with spending of healthcare, education, and welfare remaining abysmally low. Instead, shadowy cabals of well-connected businessmen, landowners, and government officials continue to carve up the economy amongst themselves, ensuring that Pakistan remains a country that exists to protect and pursue the interests of the few at the expense of the many.
In the context of the I-11 evictions, it is clear that the government has failed to provide the populace with low income housing, even though the right to shelter is enshrined in the constitution. The thousands of families forcibly removed from their homes and deprived of their belongings in Afghan Basti have been offered no compensation or any form of resettlement, and will be left to fend for themselves. For the government, and for much of society, the ultimate fate of these people is of no interest or consequence; they are invisible, intruding on the public consciousness only when they attempt to resist the forces responsible for their impoverishment, or when they disturb the comfortable status quo that characterises elite spaces and privilege in this country (as evinced by the clearly classist entrance fee introduced by Islamabad’s Centaurus Mall in the weeks prior to Eid).
To their credit, the PTI and the JI raised the issue of the I-11 evictions in parliament but did little more than engage in the verbal castigation of a government to which they are inimically opposed. This is unsurprising given that these parties, like their other mainstream counterparts, are constrained by the same structural logic that sees them all beholden to the property-owning classes and in thrall to the logic of capitalist development. They are inherently limited in the extent to which they will oppose the economic status quo, and cannot be relied upon, or expected to, engage in anything even remotely resembling a robust defence of the interests of the working classes.
Instead, resistance to the evictions was spearheaded by the Awami Workers Party whose activists were at the frontlines of the struggle helping to mobilise the residents of the settlement in their attempts to resist the bulldozers of the CDA and the batons of the police. In the event, some of these activists, as well as many residents of the Afghan Basti, were arrested and are currently being booked under Pakistan’s draconian anti-terror laws. While these arrests, like the rest of the eviction ‘operation’, are a travesty that needs to be protested against vocally and repeatedly, this entire episode, has once again, demonstrated how those who oppose the economic status quo and challenge the interests of the elite are guaranteed to be met with the full force of the state.