Artwork by Abro

The term “long march” first appeared in the mid-1930s in China, in the throes of a brutal civil war between communists and nationalists. By 1930, the Nationalist government had begun to successfully encircle Communist forces in southeastern China, where Communist fighters were based. The idea was to bring them out and eliminate them. As Nationalist attacks increased, the Communists began to move into northwest China near the Sino-Soviet border.

The “march” lasted one year (October 1934-October 1935) and covered approximately 6,000 km. The communists crossed 24 rivers and 18 mountain ranges, and out of 24,000 fighters, only 4,000 survived the march. The Herculean nature of the “march” inspired thousands of peasants to join the exhausted Communist forces, until 1949, when the Communists were able to overwhelm the Nationalist troops and set up a revolutionary Communist government.

The long march was, in fact, a military retreat. It was undertaken to move communist fighters thousands of miles from their former strongholds after being surrounded by nationalist forces.

In Pakistan, the term “long march” was first used by Benazir Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). In a bid to force the first Nawaz Sharif government (1990-93) to step down and call new elections, she said the PPP would stage a “long march” to Islamabad. She applied the phrase as an offensive tactic as opposed to the Chinese Long March, which was a defensive maneuver.

The term “long march” has been appropriated by Pakistani politicians since the 1990s, even though it bears little resemblance to its Chinese antecedent. Although it was intended as a demonstration of opposition power in the streets, it never unseated a government

In November 1992, Bhutto announced that his party workers would organize a “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad. The distance between Lahore and Islamabad is 378 km. In a column (November 1992) for The News International, the late journalist Kaleem Omar advised Benazir to stop calling his planned protest a long march, as it trivialized the term associated with the year-long 6,000 km march of the Chinese communists.

Lily: From PPP to PML-N to PTI — A story of long marches and sit-ins in Islamabad

Thanks to police action, Sharif succeeded in preventing PPP workers from gathering in Islamabad. The expression returned 16 years later when, in June 2008, lawyers announced a “long march” against President General Musharraf, who came to power in 1999 after overthrowing the second Sharif regime (1997-99).

Eight years later, Musharraf has been rebuffed by a “movement of lawyers” after he sacked a controversial senior Supreme Court justice. Sharif’s PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) had won the most seats in the February 2008 elections and formed a coalition government, but Musharraf retained his post as president.

However, in June 2008, the lawyers wanted him out. Their “long march” was actually a car rally from Multan to Islamabad. He reached Islamabad on June 13, but protesters did not stay long after the PPP regime, which briefly allied itself with the PML-N, agreed to depose Musharraf. In August 2008, Musharraf resigned and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari replaced him as president.

In March 2009, the PML-N announced a “long march” against the Zardari government, demanding the reinstatement of the senior judge who was removed from office by Musharraf. Zardari had blocked reinstatement, believing the judge had become too politicized.

Sharif had gathered thousands of his party’s supporters in Lahore. He then began to lead his “long march” to Islamabad. But on March 21, military leader Gen Ashfaq Kayani “advised” Zardari to back down. Zardari reinstated the judge and Sharif canceled the long walk.

“Long walks” then became the norm. Between 2011 and 2022, there have been many “long marches” to overthrow governments. Most of them were organized by Imran Khan’s Pakistani Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) between 2014 and 2018. Others were organized by the “moderate” Barelvi cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and the no so moderate Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan cleric, late Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The third PPP and PML-N regimes faced the majority of these marches.

The PTI regime (2018-2022) faced two long marches, one by the Islamist mainstream Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the other by the PPP. The last one was the longest as it started in Karachi, 1,410 km from Islamabad.

Long marches in Pakistan, regardless of their distance (compared to the original Chinese march), are a physical demonstration of the power of the streets. Elsewhere, however, the phrase is used in a more defused way.

For example, in 1967, Rudi Dutschke, the German sociologist, framed it as “the long march through institutions”. By this he meant that bringing about revolutionary change takes time and requires a peaceful and progressive way to engage with state institutions (as quoted by D. Frost in Red Pepper, an independent online magazine, April 8, 2022).

Often, invocations of “the long march through institutions” have emphasized the adjective “long,” reminding us of the painstaking and protracted process of revolution as opposed to the suddenness of insurrection (D. Frost , ibid).

Therefore, a long march in left-wing circles in Europe has mostly meant a series of actions, experiments, adjustments and readjustments over the years to bring about revolutionary change. It is evolutionary in nature, combining revolutionary action and political pragmatism.

Another popular term used by Pakistani politicians is the “million march”. Tahir-ul-Qadri used it in 2013. Imran Khan is its most frequent user. The origins of the term are rooted in the 1995 ‘Million Man March’ in Washington DC, when controversial black American leader Louis Farrakhan successfully rallied thousands of African Americans to demonstrate solidarity among African American communities.

Claims of a million marches in Pakistan are as outlandish as claims of long marches. They are applied as heavy terms for events that are (in terms of distance) neither long nor capable of attracting a million people. But no “long march” or “million march” has ever been able to dislodge a government.

However, those who launch them believe that it is an effective tactic to put pressure not only on the government but, even more, on the powerful state institutions of the country, in particular the army, so that the institutions can use it as an excuse to relax the government.

This has yet to happen, although the lawyers’ “long march” has prompted Zardari and Sharif to initiate impeachment proceedings against Musharraf.

Nevertheless, the so-called long marches in Pakistan manage to wreak havoc on the economy and instill a sense of dread and uncertainty within politics. Perhaps these alone are their purpose.

Posted in Dawn, EOS, May 29, 2022

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