Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The term ‘long march’ first emerged in the mid-1930s, in China, in the throes of a vicious civil war between the communists and the nationalists. In 1930, the nationalist government had begun to successfully surround communist forces in southeastern China, where the communist fighters were based. The idea was to squeeze them out and eliminate them. As attacks by the nationalists increased, the communists started to move to northwestern China near the China-Soviet border.

The ‘march’ lasted for a 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 depleted communist forces, until 1949, when the communists were able to overwhelm nationalist troops and set up a revolutionary communist government.

The long march was, in effect, a military retreat. It was undertaken to relocate communist fighters thousands of miles away from their former strongholds after being encircled by nationalist forces.

In Pakistan, the term ‘long march’ was first used by Benazir Bhutto, chairperson of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). In a bid to force the first Nawaz Sharif government (1990-93) to resign and hold fresh elections, she declared that the PPP would hold a ‘long march’ to Islamabad. She applied the phrase as an offensive tactic as opposed to the Chinese long march, which was a defensive manoeuvre.

The term ‘long march’ has been appropriated by Pakistani politicians since the 1990s, even though it bears little resemblance to its Chinese antecedent. While it is meant as a show of opposition street power, it has never ever dislodged a government

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

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

Through police action, Sharif succeeded in stopping PPP workers from gathering in Islamabad. The phrase returned 16 years later when, in June 2008, lawyers announced a ‘long march’ against President Gen Musharraf, who had come into power in 1999 after overthrowing the second Sharif regime (1997-99).

Eight years later, Musharraf was pushed on the back foot by a ‘lawyers’ movement’ after he dismissed a controversial top judge of the Supreme Court. The PPP and Sharif’s 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 Multan-to-Islamabad car rally. It reached Islamabad on June 13, but the protesters did not stay long after the PPP regime, which was briefly allied with the PML-N, agreed to impeach Musharraf. In August 2008, Musharraf resigned and PPP co-chairperson 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 top judge who was dismissed by Musharraf. Zardari had stalled the reinstatement, believing that the judge had become too politicised.

Sharif had gathered thousands of his party supporters in Lahore. He then began to lead his ‘long march’ to Islamabad. But on March 21, the military chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani ‘advised’ Zardari to back down. Zardari reinstated the judge and Sharif called off the long march.

‘Long marches’ then became a norm. Between 2011 and 2022, there have been numerous ‘long marches’ to oust governments. Most of them were organised by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) between 2014 and 2018. Others were organised by the ‘moderate’ Barelvi cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and the not-so-moderate Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan cleric, the 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 mainstream Islamist Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), and one by the PPP. The last one was the longest because it started in Karachi, which is 1,410 km from Islamabad.

Long marches in Pakistan, no matter how short their distance (compared to the original Chinese march) are a physical demonstration of street power. Elsewhere, however, the phrase is used in a more defused manner.

For example, in 1967, Rudi Dutschke, the German sociologist, elaborated it as ‘the long march through the institutions.’ By this he meant that bringing revolutionary change takes time and requires a peaceful, gradual means of engaging with the institutions of the state (as cited by D. Frost in Red Pepper, an independent online magazine, April 8, 2022).

Often, invocations of ‘the long march through the institutions’ have emphasised the adjective ‘long’, reminding us of the careful, drawn-out process of revolution as against the suddenness of insurrection (D. Frost, ibid).

Therefore, a long march in leftist circles in Europe has mostly meant a series of actions, experiences, adjustments and readjustments across the years to bring revolutionary change. It is evolutionary in nature, mixing revolutionary action with 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 the controversial black-American leader Louis Farrakhan succeeded in gathering thousands of African Americans to exhibit solidarity between African American communities.

The claims of holding million marches in Pakistan are as farcical as claims of long marches. They are applied as hefty terms for events that are (distance-wise) neither long, nor able to attract 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 they are an effective tactic to put pressure not only on the government but, more so, on the country’s powerful state institutions, especially the military, so that the institutions can use it as an excuse to ease out the government.

This hasn’t happened yet, even though the lawyers’ ‘long march’ did make Zardari and Sharif start impeachment proceedings against Musharraf.

Nevertheless, so-called long marches in Pakistan do succeed in wreaking havoc on the economy and infusing a sense of dread and uncertainty in the polity. Maybe these alone are their purpose.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 29th, 2022

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