Ali Nobil Ahmad
The truth behind Zafar Lund’s assassination may never be known, but he tried to protect the poor and downtrodden against the powerful – which earned him enemies among landowners, politicians and sectarian extremists.
They came asking for help. “We’re extremely poor. We need work,” implored the two strangers. Rawal Lund told them his father, Zafar, was not currently in charge of any major projects and unlikely to be hiring. They had experience in the relevant sector, they pleaded, insisting on an audience with the 55-year-old political activist and NGO worker. Zafar Lund was admired for his campaigning work with the disenfranchised and downtrodden people of southern Punjab, and had a reputation for generosity. Rawal agreed to their request, rousing his father from an afternoon nap.
|Zafar Lund with two of his four children, Rawal (left), now 24, and Shahik. Photograph:|
A crudely crafted silencer muffled a single shot. Hearing cries, Rawal went back outside to be confronted with a scene that he sees vividly but hesitates to describe. The two assailants had shot his father in the face before fleeing on their motorcycle. Images of his father’s lifeless body, circulated on social media in the days after his murder last July, indicate an entry wound below the right eye.
To the Ahmadiyya minority into which Lund was born, the message of intimidation conveyed by his brazen execution is familiar. Declared non-Muslims by the Pakistani government in 1974 and prohibited from publicly professing their beliefs, Ahmadis in Pakistan are shunned within the mainstream and hounded by extremists. Hate crimes are rarely prosecuted. In August 2015, unidentified gunmen on motorcycles shot dead another Ahmadi, a 37-year-old pharmacy owner, in Taunsa, a town not far from Lund’s residence in the city of Kot Addu.
Lund’s murder is being investigated by Punjab police’s counter-terrorism department. He was probably targeted because he was an Ahmadi, although no militant group has claimed responsibility. A pragmatic eco-socialist who embraced the pluralism of pan-religious folk tradition, Lund was careful to avoid antagonising clerics and rarely discussed his private life. As a mobiliser of the poor, he ruffled feathers in the districts of Dera Ghazi Khan and Muzaffargarh. The range of reactionaries who might welcome his elimination include a wide array of landowner-politicians, venal politicians and ministers, corrupt bureaucrats and avaricious subcontractors.
Then there are elements of the state that, for decades, have exported jihadism against perceived enemies abroad. Within Pakistan itself, militant wings of religious organisations have been granted intermittent protection from police scrutiny given their useful role in deterring internal “subversion” by ethno-nationalists. Haunted by the loss of East Pakistan in 1971 (when it gained independence as Bangladesh), the military is particularly sensitive to the situation in Balochistan, viewing Islamist terrorism as a lesser evil than separatism. The abduction of outspoken critics of the religious and military establishment in recent weeks has traumatised the country’s beleaguered community of liberals and leftwing dissidents.
The truth behind Lund’s assassination – like so many others that have defined Pakistan’s troubled history, from that of its first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan to Benazir Bhutto and a slew of journalists and activists since – may never be known. A good deal, nonetheless, can be gleaned from the details of his remarkable life.
Lund cut his political teeth as a student organiser under General Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law. A workshop by Bengali theatre director Badal Sarkar in Lahore during the mid-80s inspired him to develop street theatre as a tool of resistance. Guerrilla performances of plays critical of Zia’s tyrannical regime drew crowds that gathered and dispersed before the authorities could intervene.
Following the restoration of democracy in the 90s, Lund adapted to a post-ideological world. Like many progressives of his generation absorbed by civil society, he viewed development from the perspective of local “stakeholders”, empowering populations displaced by the state. The green revolution, Lund felt, was a continuation of the flawed colonial project that famously introduced perennial irrigation to the Punjab. If the British liked to brag of having “turned a desert into a bread basket”, they also disenfranchised the region’s farmers, awarding vast plots of land to tribal leaders whose kin still dominate southern Punjab’s dynastic politics. Continued transformation of the Indus basin through the building of infrastructure, mechanisation and commercialisation of agriculture after independence, Lund complained, had done little to change the political system or address inequality in land distribution.
His NGO, Hirrak, funded by Action Aid and other donors, was named after the sound made by descending hill torrents that irrigate lands adjacent to the Sulaiman range. Hirrak did much to protect the livelihoods of communities along the Indus.
Lund’s advocacy fed into cultural movements calling for his native tongue, Saraiki, to be recognised as an official language and demands for a Saraiki province to offset the dominance of Punjab within Pakistan’s volatile federation. His primary constituency consisted of Saraiki-speaking populations marginalised by the steady colonisation of their region by ethnic Punjabi and Urdu-speaking settlers who have been allotted land since independence.
Adapting folk tales about the mutual dependency of humans, animals and ecosystems into plays performed alongside politically conscious poetry by local bards, Lund and his comrades fused tradition and aesthetics in support of environmental justice. Working closely with a trusted circle of academics and activists in Pakistan and overseas, he contributed to an important innovation in legal resistance to the onslaught of capitalism. Lok Saths – people’s law tribunals – were adapted from traditional south-Asian village gatherings as a means of mobilising communities against a plethora of wasteful and damaging engineering initiatives. Communities across the Saraiki belt gathering to document rights abuses and indict the authorities in their own language, was not merely symbolic: numerous ill-conceived megaprojects to remodel barrages and construct power plants have been delayed, scrapped, relocated or modified to include compensation packages for those affected.
Among those he worked with closely, Lund is remembered with reverence. “My father died that day [of his murder],” says Khadim Hussein of Sindhu Bachao Tarla [Save the Indus], an organisation modeled on India’s famous movement to protect the Narmada valley river. Khadim credits Lund with imparting his community with knowledge about their rights and well-honed techniques of organised resistance, together with the mental strength to deploy these against land-grabbing eviction drives led by the police.
His knack for imbuing the vulnerable with courage and political wisdom is recalled with particular admiration by women, whose empowerment within staunchly patriarchal communities was accorded priority status. Raising awareness about the ills of child marriage and domestic violence, Lund set up adult literacy initiatives and helped many women get their first identity cards. Their transformation into active citizens within a misogynist conservative social order was an end in itself, but also a central pillar of his mobilisation strategy. “Women often outnumbered men in protests, hunger strikes and demonstrations,” says Kalsoom Bibi, current president of Sindhu Bachao’s women’s wing. “We used to run from the police,” she adds, before proudly recounting how she and a band of other women, emboldened by Lund’s interventions, punctured the tyres of a police vehicle sent to evict them from their homes.
Lund’s death went unreported in the international press and received little national coverage, a measure of southern Punjab’s marginal position within Pakistani politics. “If a man of his calibre from central or northern Punjab were assassinated, the story would have run for at least two weeks,” claims Nadeem Shah, a journalist in the ancient city of Multan. With the media dominated by elements of the Pakistani state whose distaste for the Saraiki movement and its sister struggles in Sindh and Baluchistan is well known, the circumstances of Lund’s murder have not been seriously investigated.
A couple of days before it took place, a local man with known connections to a Deobandi madrasa warned several of Lund’s friends to avoid socialising with him, maligning him in terms that suggest a combination of factors, some unrelated to religion, could have been at play in his murder. A source close to the police investigating team confirmed that the man had been released after questioning, playing down his warnings as random and coincidental. “We’re close to catching the culprits,” he said, engrossed in my business card. In exchange for this and other glib reassurances about leads not being followed, I was quizzed about my own movements; the whereabouts of my family; my Facebook user ID and more. A contact in Kot Addu was later asked if I was an Ahmadi.
I once confessed to Lund my squeamishness about the risks he and other Pakistani activists were subjected to during a visit to Muzaffargarh. “You’re wrong to think that way,” he admonished, brushing death aside as an irrelevance: “We live on in our children.”
Rawal ponders the future of a household without his father. His burden is heavy, but the young man’s poise gives strength to Lund’s bewildered father and brother, visibly still deep in grief. The shirt Rawal wore that day, drenched in his father’s blood as he frantically checked for a pulse, has been returned to the belly of the river that Lund spent so much of his life defending against modernist incursions.
An 11-year-old with dimples enters the room smiling. Two days before the strangers on a motorcycle arrived, Lund was coaxed into taking Shamir, his youngest son, for a swimming lesson. Rawal and his elder brother Shahik, currently studying abroad, had taught Shamir to float using a plastic tub in a nearby canal. The last hurdle remained. Much to the delight of friends who learned of this final act on Facebook, Lund was successful. Within minutes, he instilled the boy with the courage to let go.