Lessons Learned from Civic Resistance in South Asia

Author: Prakash Bhattarai, PhD.

As a part of its varied array of digital initiatives, Kathmandu-based social think tank Centre for Social Change (CSC) initially launched the “People’s Power Blog” series as a means to provide a safe digital platform for South Asian scholars, activists, educators, and practitioners to express and explore topics surrounding nonviolent action in the South Asian context. Thus far, a total of 24 blogs have been published ranging the series’ scope across South Asian countries, cultures, and communities. All the articles have spotlighted why and how the diverse principles of nonviolent action have contributed to inspire South Asian protestors, activists, campaigners, and leaders in their struggles for peace, equity, and justice. Similarly, the articles have also recounted struggles that range across different levels of national or regional influence and different nonviolent approaches that have been adopted to successfully bring change in systemic governance processes.

Although the shared history of South Asian communities date back to pre-historic times, and contain rich histories across counties and cultures, the formal evolution of nonviolent civil disobedience in South Asia can be considered to have been significantly marked by the end of British colonialism from 1947 onwards. It is observed that the success of those democratic independence movements and social justice struggles sparked faith and inspired the exercise of nonviolent action among people to end several other authoritarian regimes, bring peace and security, establish democracy, foster equality and guarantee people their fundamental rights and liberties. Looking back, it can be seen that the use of nonviolent strategies and techniques used against the imperial colonizers have lived on either directly or indirectly, with the subsequent encouragement of broad participation ranging from elite to grassroot marginalized communities, and gaining domestic and international legitimacy over the years. Strikingly, all the blog articles published in this series so far have consciously pinpointed that the genuine cause of the movement, its peaceful nature, and the legacy of ultimate justice of nonviolent actions have been at the core of attraction for organizers and demonstrators to avoid the violent path in expressing their opinions to the powerful.

In the assessment of the various South Asian case studies, chronicling countries including Nepal, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, the scope of nonviolent action and applications were found to be broad, dynamic, and unique.

Firstly, reflecting upon instances of civil resistance such as the 1952 Language movement in Bangladesh, the People Movement II in Nepal, Farmers protest in India, and The JaniKhel Sit-in in Pakistan, it is observed that nonviolent disciplines were the heart of civil disobedience in the defense of democratic rights and social justice. Secondly, the application of nonviolent action was found not to be limited to bringing radical change in regimes but also for resolving social issues or conflicts related to patriarchy, structure, and contemporary matters. The Dalit movement, Badi movement,  Land rights movement, Shaheen Bagh and women’s movement were some illustrations that break the silence of suppression, discrimination, and injustices to marginalized groups from patriarchal mindsets, dictatorships and stereotypes of society as a whole. These movements brought change in thinking that women are not weak; women are also an inseparable part of socio-economic and political development as well as change makers of a country.

Thirdly, the selection and strategic use of specific nonviolent methods appeared to determine the success rate of the nonviolent struggle. In South Asia, peaceful demonstrations by sloganeering, displaying bodies in the street, march protests, boycotting tax, hunger strike were some of the effective techniques used. For instance,  displaying and refusal to bury dead bodies was strategic nonviolent technique that proved the Janikhel sit-in protest successful in Pakistan because dead are treated as scared in Pashtun region.

Youths take to street against poor handling of COVID-19 yet again. Source: The Himalayan Times

Finally, the scope of nonviolent movements was found to be diverse in the modern age. Nonviolent actions have emerged as key instrumental tools to communicate, unify, and solidify domestic and international support to protect the earth and environment from haphazard destructive development. Environmentalists and activists have adopted nonviolent modalities in combatting climate change and environmental justice struggles like  Tweet stormFridays for Future to attain serious attention and find a common ground to act against climate change and development projects that deteriorates the environment significantly. Likewise,  students’ movement against university fee hikes and youth demonstrations against the mishandling of the Covid-19  pandemic shows how youths are inspired to employ nonviolent tools for the organization of social change movements, demand lawful legislation, rule of law and good governance against oppressive governance system and youth suffrage.

The Nepal Police stand guard during a protest in Kathmandu, Nepal on June 30, 2021. ©2021 AP Photo/Rojan Shrestha/NurPhoto

Emerging technologies in the form of online, social media are shaping the organizing capacity and operation of nonviolent resistance in South Asia and across the globe. For instance, # Enough is Enough movement,  #MetooTweet storm, etc. were successful social media campaigns that provided unique lens of nonviolent campaigning by setting a new roadmap of future civil resistance. Mobilizing technologies have resulted in the expansion of digital free space, especially useful for under resourced dissent campaigns to reach large masses of people within relatively short timeframes. The use of language also plays a similarly crucial role in digital activism because of public’s varying interest, perception, and time on specific subjects.

It is often observed that hashtags and memes are given credit for making online contents viral. However, the role of the organizers, activists, educators, artists, and all involved people are key to shape a safe digital infrastructure and strengthen digital activism to gain further momentum. Indeed, organizers must use creative languages and nonviolent tactics to deploy movement in a wide array of audiences whereas leaders must be aware of the fundamental rights and the socio-economic, political, and cultural issues of the society. While critically analyzing the use of digital activism in South Asia, the digital space was found to have been a successful catalyzer to organize, communicate, build networking, and assemble all segment of people for taking the leap from online activism to street protests. This shows that physical space is crucial to pressurize oppressive systems to fulfill the demand of the resistance, all things considered.

Source: The WIRE

Considering how deeply and successfully nonviolent disciplines have been embedded by the relevant organizers in nonviolent movements, opponent groups or state actors were found to act violently in many cases. It is found that for peaceful demonstrations also, states use coercive forces like charging baton, use of abusive language, firing tear gas and water, applying curfew and restricting the mobility of demonstrators. For instance, during famers’ Delhi Chalo protest in India, protesting farmers were charged with bamboo sticks and tear gas by government forces, resulting in at least one confirmed death. Despite governments’ coercive interventions, strong faith, commitment, determination and the principles of nonviolent movements were found to have made protesting groups disciplined during long civil resistance campaigns.   

To sum up, in South Asia, most of the civil rights struggles exhibit powerful execution of nonviolent action to bring societal and political changes. Lesson can be extracted from all blogs that a genuine immediate concern, knowledgeable leaders, good networking, wise use of emerging technologies, social media and well-organized strategic employment of nonviolent technique are essential in successful civil resistance. Concurrently, the active involvement of youth and students are making nonviolent resistance more alive, vibrant, and diverse. With the development of ICT and social media, the approach and scope of nonviolent movements has become more organized, participatory and result oriented.

Although online and street protests are inextricably linked, street protests are found to be the determining turning points needed to gain momentum and create pressure to concerned authorities for addressing crucial issues and concerns. Still, digital spaces are thus playing a growing role in amplifying the motive of civil disobedience in a large scale. For this purpose, digital literacy on the ethical standards of campaigning is must for the future of nonviolent movements.

The graphics, views and opinions expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Prakash Bhattarai, PhD.
With almost 20 years of professional/academic experience on issues surrounding governance, peace-building, development, migration, and more, Dr. Bhattarai currently serves as the Executive Director of Centre for Social Change. He has extensive experience in leading and coordinating various youth and student organizations along with a strong consulting portfolio working as a researcher and M&E expert with a wide array of international development-centered organizations. Dr. Bhattarai is one of the leading researchers in the Nepali governance, politics, and peace-building spheres, having published dozens of articles and opinion pieces in peer-reviewed journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs.

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