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October 10, 2015

Protesting and persisting

Opinion

 
October 10, 2015

On October 4, 2015, the Democratic Students’ Alliance, an organisation of left-leaning students, called for a protest in Lahore against the ban on student unions in Pakistan.
The protest was attended by students belonging to various chapters of the DSA. They were also joined by young activists belonging to the Awami Workers’ Party, the Progressive Youth Alliance and Ali Aftab Saeed. The protest was one of the many follow-ups planned by DSA for their plea sent to the chief justice in August 2015 to take notice of the ban on student unions.
Participating in this protest spurred a number of observations regarding protest culture in Pakistan which require emphasis, since public protest and assembly are two rights critical to any democratic dispensation.
One of the most important demands spelt by the situation in Pakistan today pertains to the idea of independent mobilisation, divorced from politicisation relating to political parties but not political issues, and the need for it to take root in Pakistan. And it is vital for any culture of civil society action here to be based on the belief that any ordinary, concerned person can independently take initiative both as his right and duty as a citizen of the state.
The recent protests and rallies taken out by parents against a hike in fees of private schools and their success should only provide impetus to the idea of civil society organisation and action operating within the scope of democratic liberties.
This particularly resonates when kept in view of the late Eric Hobsbawm’s emphasis: “Depoliticization of a great mass of citizens is a serious danger, because it could lead to their mobilization completely outside the modus operandi of all kinds of democratic politics.”
It is especially crucial for the youth in Pakistan, which forms a population bulge today and is increasingly faced with prospects of a future that appears bleak at best, that they know they can negotiate their present and

future within the realm of democratic rights, expressions and possibilities.
However, for students several strands of challenges confront them regarding the issue of mobilisation and action; one of which is the education vs activism binary that pronounces an engagement in activism as a denouncement of commitment to education.
In his book on Eqbal Ahmad, Stuart Schaar mentions that Ahmad argued in 1992: “The educational purpose is truly well-served when students are helped to develop a moral outlook…when they know that a primary purpose of learning is to elevate the quality not merely of one’s personal and family life but of the social environment.”
And as an expression of awareness and action, student mobilisation clearly complements the essence of education. This is a fact evidenced by numerous student movements that have dotted global histories including Pakistan’s, where students have constantly stood up since the very beginning – against Ayub’s ‘Decade of Decadence’ to Ziaul Haq’s regime to Musharraf’s rule.
But the reason for this association of activism with a lack of commitment to education also owes itself to the predominant attitude towards activism in Pakistan, which is not just of apathy but also of antipathy; seeing activism and civil society mobilisation as futile activities that will yield nothing. Personal detachment from activism is coupled with looking down on those who are engaged in it. It is perhaps this mindset that has acquiesced with the deplorable conditions in Pakistan which have been perpetuated regime after regime, relying on public inaction as a prop to their own indifference regarding the country.
Yet this perception towards protests and activism has been heightened and expanded into one that also demonises them – completely disregarding Pakistan’s rich history relating to them – as foreign cultural imports lapped up by the godless and west-loving ‘liberals’. Creative methods of keeping the people engaged, such as music, during events of protests and activisms are especially frowned upon in the country.
‘Everyday Rebellion’, a documentary ‘about creative forms of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience worldwide’, which was screened at the Karama Human Rights Film Festival 2015 in Gaza does much to particularly throw light on this aspect as not only something that is organic during moments of mobilisation but often also critical to their success in sustaining the spirit of collective solidarity, action and unity.
However, a most alarming aspect related to the larger perception of activism and protests in Pakistan is the scandalisation of women’s participation in them. This was a phenomenon that became notoriously prominent in the spate of attacks hurled at Imran Khan’s dharna last year which, disagreements aside, must be lauded for having created, encouraged and welcomed space for women.
In a country where women are discouraged from having opinions, their expression and demonstration in public spaces will naturally be a cultural anomaly – to be condemned. This scandalisation is but a part of the larger problem women here face regarding public spaces and places, which are designated as alien territories in which their presence and visibility are cultural anomalies. But for any culture of mobilisation, protest and action to thrive to the benefit of progressive changes in Pakistan, the normalisation and acceptance of female participation is imperative.
During the DSA protest we accompanied our chants and slogans with clapping; While we were doing that two men on a motorcycle, construing the act as some sort of celebration, jokingly commented: “anday sastay hogaye hain?” (has the price of eggs gone down?). But if this mobilisation, scant for now, and collective expression of consciousness and conscience persists and grows as both a right and duty, who knows, someday we might really be clapping for having achieved greater affordability of the basic necessities of life, and of course, sastay anday.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Website: hafsakhawaja.wordpress.com

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