police charging batons on protesters during the movement for restoration of democracy MRD in August 1983

Why are nonviolent movements not successful in Pakistan?

Photo source: Dawn.com

Author: Imran Sardar

Looking back at the history of nonviolent movements in Pakistan, one finds a patchy road towards realizing social, political, and economic rights. This does not mean Pakistan’s land is not fertile for nonviolent movements. The people of Pakistan are young and energetic, but less interested, and thus oblivious to the strategies of well-organized nonviolent protests. Reasons for youth’s disinterest are many but three are fundamental: independence struggle legacy, authoritarian political culture, and the exploitation of religion by the Pakistani influential class. 

Independence struggle legacy

The nature of Pakistan’s independence struggle from the British Raj in 1947 and the way leaders headed it, has had a deep impact on the psyche of the people of Pakistan. Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s, the founder of Pakistan, style of struggle was primarily constitutional. Despite not having favorable support from many notable Muslim leaders at that time, he was able to persuade the British that the division of the subcontinent was inevitable. In contrast, Mahatma Gandhi orchestrated a mass-level non-cooperation campaign against the British. His popularity among the masses grew over time and soon he was able to garner people’s support for his struggle. This difference of top-down and bottom-up approaches have served as the very basis of people’s orientation on both sides of the India-Pakistan border to engineer their struggle towards social, political, and economic injustices. India’s several protests have essentially been inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolence which arguably has not been the case in Pakistan. Instead, judicial activism seems more prominent in Pakistan than in India, though it remains a costly business for common people to get speedy justice from the courts in Pakistan.

Authoritarian political culture

The second reason for Pakistani youth’s disinterest in nonviolent movements is an authoritarian political culture established as the result of periodic military interventions. This provided enough space to the Pakistani military to bring about significant structural changes in the political system to its advantage. The military regime also succeeded in altering the psyche of civilians to the interest of the military institution. As a cumulative effect of these two factors, none of the nonviolent movements in Pakistan have reached  triumphant ends.

There were serious efforts like the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in the early 1980s. The MRD is one of the notable, or perhaps the most potential nonviolent struggles staged in Pakistan. Beginning from the Sindh province, the movement soon spread all over the country like wildfire. Many protesters were arrested, tortured, and some lost their lives. However, the regime in power was able to maneuver the struggle through media control, subversion charges tactics, and exploitation of ethnic factors.

police charging batons on protesters during the movement for restoration of democracy MRD in August 1983
Protest of women against a proposed law during Gen. Ziaul Haq regime to reduce the value of legal testimony by women to half of that of men. Courtesy Dawn.com

Nevertheless, the reasons for the failure of the MRD are many. But notably the differences between the political parties vis-à-vis approach, planning, and coordination eventually left the movement in disarray. Moreover, in the absence of desired grassroots-level support, because of the lack of people’s trust in the leadership, the movement could not advance as a genuine national cause. These factors combined provided the military regime a fair chance to put a serious dent in the so-called unity among the stakeholders. The story does not end here. The military regime further consolidated its power through a referendum. It was only the sudden demise of General Muhammad Ziaul Haq in the plane crash in 1988, which created a political vacuum in the country. Otherwise, there was no room for the democratic struggle to even occur in the then existing political arrangement. However, the democratic setup that emerged in the vacuum was nothing but a puppet regime.

Exploitation of religion by the Pakistani influential class

Religion has been repeatedly exploited by Pakistan’s influential classes: the military, bureaucracy, feudals, and clerics to either endure their rule or overthrow so-called democratic governments. Such exploitation of religion is not restricted to political engineering. The clergy of Pakistan, particularly, was able to navigate religion to their interests and thus continues to dominate women in Pakistan. Religious bigotry has always demonstrated the sufferings of the common people as sacred which invariably restricts millions of people from protesting or even raising their voice against  injustices in society, thus providing a cover for the poor governance by the ruling elite. Much to everyone’s surprise, it becomes a holy demand to support the powerful opponents to get rid of a regime that is branded as disrespectful to religious values. Similarly, men have been able to exploit religion to have an edge over women of all ages.

Protest of women against a proposed law during Gen. Ziaul Haq regime to reduce the value of legal testimony by women to half of that of men. Courtesy Dawn.com
Protest of women against a proposed law during Gen. Ziaul Haq regime to reduce the value of legal testimony by women to half of that of men. Courtesy Dawn.com


Millions of women in Pakistan are living under ‘religious patriarchy’ where men have been able to twist religious connotations to their advantage. Therefore, subservience is largely believed to be a sacred duty by women en masse. And this has been the biggest challenge for women activists in their effort to gather all-out support of women across the country, especially from rural, and remote areas. Exploitation of religion in Pakistan is a burgeoning threat to women’s struggle for their due rights which are even protected by Islam. Even so, there are some serious internal issues with women’s struggle in Pakistan but the external threats predominate. 

For instance, the Women’s struggle or the Aurat March (Women March), as it stands today, cannot be termed a movement. Although it stands on sound moral and ethical footing considering the patriarchal culture in Pakistan, it lacks all-out support from women across the country in terms of strategy. The manifesto of the Aurat March is interesting as it reflects upon all the problems of Pakistani women of all ages and cultures, ranging from social injustice to cultural, political, economic, and religious rights. However, the strategy of the Aurat March is not in tandem with its objectives. The way the Aurat March is inviting criticism especially from religious circles by displaying inappropriate slogans could be counterproductive. The organizers need to create a fine balance between religious values and their cause. It would be more beneficial if women from religious circles are taken on board since it is a struggle to regain the lost prestige of women that Islam itself has guaranteed.

Aurat March in Islamabad. Courtesy Dawn.com
Aurat March in Islamabad. Courtesy Dawn.com

Nevertheless, there are several other reasons that essentially have been born out of the above three fundamental reasons; lack of knowledge about social, political, and economic injustices, little to no awareness about fundamental rights, human rights, and more importantly, vague knowledge about how the institutions are running in the country. In the given situation, the advent of social media is both a blessing and a curse. It has become an ultimate guide, especially for youth to excel in different fields of their interest. However, it often turns counterproductive. In the absence of speedy justice, people tend to believe in mobocracy. They are more inclined to take the law into their hands rather than going a nonviolent way to get their problems fixed. Mob lynching are becoming a norm today. Thus, the situation necessitates learning nonviolent strategies more than ever before. A recent peaceful protest by hundreds of thousands of people of Gwadar, Baluchistan, is indeed a guide for millions of victims in Pakistan.

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.

Imran Sardar

Syed Imran Sardar is a Senior Research Analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies, Islamabad and running a ‘Regional Conflict and Human Security Program’. He is an M.Phil. International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and Masters in International Relations with distinction. He is a recipient of Gansu International Fellow, China.

He has published more than a dozen research papers on regional conflict & human security issues pertaining to South Asia. He has authored a book on ‘Conflict Transformation between India & Pakistan’, 2011. He has been a member of IRS editorial board. He teaches research skills, professional write ups, and contextualization of researchable ideas at his institute. Also teaches ‘Area Studies’ course at National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. His work is regularly cited and indexed by national & international journals. He also writes in local newspapers and magazines, i.e., Daily Times, The News.

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