Friday, 22 July 2011

Waging Non-Violent Action in Violent World

by Imran Khan

“Non-violent refusal to co-operate with injustice is the way to defeat it.” R.M Gandhi

We live in an extremely violent world. States and transnational non-state actors use violence to achieve their political and strategic objectives, believing that use of violence is the most effective way to do so, notwithstanding that it does not work most of the time. Only the last decade (2001-2011) saw 9/11 terrorist attacks, a protracted and bloody war in Afghanistan, the American invasionof Iraq, Israeli aggression against Lebanon and Palestine, 7/7 bombing in London, terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and so on. Literally hundreds of thousands of people died in these violent conflicts and terrorist attacks. For that matter, the 20th century was perhaps one of the most violent centuries in human history, witnessing two world wars responsible for the deaths of millions of people.
Talking about Pakistan, we are used to violence in thiscountry. In the weeks and months leading up to the creation of Pakistan, the sub-continent witnessed mass killings of both Muslims and Hindus in communal riots. In 64 years of Pakistan’s history, we fought four wars against India. We launched at least four military operations against our Baloch brothers because they offended the state elite by asking for their legitimate rights. Although we haven’t fought any war against a foreign enemy during the last ten years, more than 35,000 Pakistanis were killed during this period in hundreds of terrorist attacks carried out by fellow Pakistanis ledby terrorist organizations.
(Fletcher Summer Institute participants with researchers and academics from Tufts University and ICNC)
Even now as I write this blog piece, Karachi – the biggest city of Pakistan – is burning due to ethnic-cum-political violence perpetrated by the armed gangs of mainstream political parties. They use violence in Karachi for their political ends. More than 100 people have died in target killings during the last two weeks. Not long ago, we witnessed the assassination of Salman Taseer, the then-governor of Punjab, at the hands of his own bodyguard for criticizing draconian blasphemy laws. Later, the Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti – the only Christian member of the cabinet – was brutally assassinated under the same pretext. And yes, how can I forget the mysterious abduction and gruesome murder of the journalist, Saleem Shahzad.

While I work for Khudi Pakistan, a non-violent counter-extremism social movement working to promote democratic culture and pluralism, being a student of history and a Pakistani, I was carrying a baggage of violence when I went to the Fletcher International School to attend a course on Strategic Non-Violent Action (June 21-24). The people I met, the stories I heard and the ideas I was exposed to showed me the other side of the picture.

While I thought that 20th century was a century of war, bloodshed, suffering and genocide, it was also a century of strategic non-violent action, I was told. A century that witnessed many successful non-violent movements waged in different parts of the world.

(A session at the FSI 2011)

I did not know about the role Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha and the civil resistance movement played in the Independence Movement of sub-continent. I was not aware of the strategies anti-apartheid activists used in South Africa to bring down the brutal and repressive Apartheid regime. With my class-mates at Fletcher, I studied the strategies the pro-democracy activists used in Chile and Serbia to bring down the ruthless dictatorships of Augusto Pinochet and Slobodan Milosovic respectively. I heard about the non-violent Solidarity Movement against the repressive communist regime in Poland. These stories convinced me that non-violent action as a political strategy has always had better chances of victory than violent action.

Erica Chenoweth, the author of Why Civil Resistance Works and an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, previously a fellow at Harvard University, told us in her talk that empirical evidence from history proved that non-violent movements had twice as much chances of success as violent movements. More than anything else, I was inspired by the great people I met at the Fletcher Summer Institute. People like Reverend James Lawson, a veteran of American Civil Rights Movement and a close associate of Dr Martin Luther King. Dr King once said: “Revered Lawson is the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world”. The volunteers Rev. Lawson trained in waging non-violent action launched a desegregation movement in 1960s in Nashville, a city in the US state of Tennessee, which eventually led to the desegregation in other parts of the US. The humble and soft-spoken reverend shared with us his experiences as a leader of civil rights movement.

It was a very enlightening experience listening to Jack DuVall and Dr Peter Ackerman – the founders of the International Centre on Non-Violent Conflict that hosted the course for us. Both Jack and Dr Ackerman have devoted their lives to the study and propagation of knowledge about strategic non-violent action. Identifying the elements required for the success of a movement, Dr Ackerman told us: “A civil resistance movement must unify the wider spectrum of society – young and old, all ethnic groups, religious groups, all economic strata – around a limited set of achievable goals. The second thing that is required is planning. There has to be the capacity for the leadership to look objectively at what its capabilities are, who it can mobilize, what tactics it can use, how to sequence those tactics that it has biggest negative impact on the opponent. The third element is non-violent discipline.” According to Dr Ackerman, these three elements are pre-requisite for the success of any civil resistance movement irrespective of the cultural and political context.

(Khudi activist Imran Khan with Palestinian activist Ayman Qwaider and Indian participant Ayushman Jamwal)

While Dr Ackerman taught us the strategies of non-violent civil resistance, I was thinking about Pakistan. I was relating what he was saying to Pakistan. Our lawyers’ movement for the restoration of the deposed Chief Justice of Pakistan had all three elements. Different segments of society were united under the leadership of lawyers, who immaculately planned their every move, organizing long marches and using the traditional and digital media very effectively. Non-violent discipline was also there. No matter how much force Musharraf regime used against peaceful lawyers, civil society and activists, the latter did not respond with violence.

Dr Ackerman told us during his talk that the conditions under which activists work are always difficult and dangerous. However, he said, we witnessed during the Arab Spring that the conditions can be changed by the skills of the activists. Since the activists were successful in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people because of their superior skills and planning, it was no longer as dangerous to protest against the tyrants as it was before. The dictatorial regimes had become weaker, whereas the people had become stronger.

I made many amazing friends at the Fletcher Summer Institute. They are the people whose lives are an epitome of non-violent resistance in the face of oppression and tyranny. My friend Ayman Qwaider is a Palestinian activist, who has witnessed the brutality of the occupiers while working for various humanitarian organizations in Gaza. However, he still strongly believes in non-violent civil resistance. He thinks that brutality against brutality is not the solution. Born, raised and educated in Gaza, Ayman got a scholarship a few years ago to study in Europe. However, the Israeli Army refused to allow him to leave the strip because of their blockade. An undeterred Ayman launched a personal advocacy campaign on the social media, eventually forcing Israel to issue him a permit to leave Gaza. Mashallah Ayman has now completed his M.A in International Peace, Conflict and Development from a university in Spain and he is planning to continue his peaceful struggle for the liberation of Occupied Territories.

While India and Pakistan are archrivals, the people of two countries do not have innate hatred for each other. Far from that, we have so much in common. This is what I realized when I met Ayushman Jamwal, an Indian student from Cardiff University, at the Fletcher. We immediately became friends and spent most of our time together during the course. We discussed the history and politics of Indo-Pak relations. Ayushman criticized the atrocities Indian state has committed against Kashmiris and I castigated Pakistan for supporting non-state actors against India. Thank God neither of us was jingoistic, which made a constructive discussion and friendship possible. We discussed the curriculum taught in Indian and Pakistani schools and realized that both the states were teaching a pack of lies, a perverted and distorted interpretation of history to its future leaders. We concluded that whilst both states might continue their past policies, the people will have to come forward to make South Asia peaceful and prosperous.

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