March 5th, 2022
By Rehan Piracha
A new generation of tech-savvy, college-educated, and middle-class poor youth have become the face of the new disruptive social movements ranging from the Aurat March, Students Solidarity March, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and campaigns against enforced disappearances, mass evictions, and nurses and doctors that have emerged in the last five years, according to a report released by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
The HRCP report written by Umair Rasheed and titled ‘Mapping Social Movements in Pakistan’ notes that social movements in the country’s last decade “took place in isolation, without a broad-based network among activists and mobilizers which could synthesize the various particularistic struggles or social movements into a unified mass movement”. These social movements included the lawyers’ movement for restoration of the judiciary against Pervez Musharraf’s military regime, nationwide campaign against privatization of public utilities such as PTCL, and peasant and labor mobilizations for agrarian land rights and improved wages.
According to the report, there has been a conscious effort to link various social movements in the last ten years, and more particularly since the last five years. “This new effort features mobilizations by a new generation of tech-savvy, college-educated, and globally oriented activists,” the HRCP report states.
Middle class poor youth leading mobilization
The report emphasises that supporters of the various social movements belong to the educated poor middle-class segment of society instead of the traditional bases of the labour movements like factory workers or small peasantry. “Instead, most spectacular social movements in the decade have been led by a new generation of educated youth resembling the precariat or middle-class poor categories.”
According to the report, these youth are often pushed to activism in the backdrop of austerity-stricken economies, authoritarian states, and patriarchal societies.
The report documents the women’s rights movement, the students’ movement, the movements led by victims of enforced disappearances and urban development, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, and movements organized by working professionals such as young doctors, nurses, lady health workers, and teachers.
Based on a series of focus group discussions, the HRCP report documents the changing dynamics and strategies employed by different social movements and their organizers, along with a deep delve into the history of their demands, breakthroughs, and roadblocks.
The report looks at their potential for social change, their relationship with mainstream politics, the possibility of collaboration between different social movements, and the role of social media as a tool for mobilization in the face of censorship and mainstream media blackouts.
Since 2018, International Women’s Day celebrations have given way to an innovative form of public protest and expression, combined with new feminist subjectivities, under the banners of ‘Aurat and Aurat Azadi Marches, the report points out.
The scale and vibrancy of these marches has increased amid backlash from conservative and far-right segments. Explaining a key difference between organisation of Aurat March and the Women Action Forum, the report states that a lack of centralised authority has enabled an innovative and disruptive protest culture. This has enabled the participants of Aurat marches to channelise personal moral shocks into publicly carried out protest performances. It has led to highlighting of a slew of issues and topics ranging from trans and reproductive rights to child marriages, and access to quality healthcare, public spaces, dignified work, and from social, economic, and environmental justice to an inclusive polity with an end to religious or ethno-nationalist persecution, the report adds.
Students Action Committee
The report cites the country-wide students’ solidarity marches held in November 2019 as an instance of emerging social movement. The solidarity marches under the platform of the Students Action Committee (SAC) had rekindled memories of earlier students’ mobilisations which had proved precursors to the anti-Ayub and anti-Musharraf movements, the report adds.
However, the extraordinary mobilisations and nation-wide scale of the marches in 2019 remain unmatched by the subsequent marches held in 2020 and 2021. Part of the explanation concerns state-led crackdown on organisers and Covid-19-related precautions.
According to the report, the country-wide students’ solidarity marches signified a coming together of students’ organisations on the political left. The SAC formed as a result featured 28 organisations, coming together under the primary demand of restoration of students’ unions, banned across university campuses since the General Zia era.
“Around this main demand, students expressed a range of grievances—from securitisation and militarisation of campuses, stifling of academic freedoms, criminalisation of cultural expression, and sexual harassment to systemic public divestment from higher education under IMF-mandated austerity reflected in fee hikes and withdrawal of quotas and subsidies for students from marginalised ethnic backgrounds,” the report states.
Demonstrations against evictions in Karachi
The climate action march held in Karachi on December 12, 2021, sought to seek redress for communities affected from possible evictions in Gujjar, Orangi and Manzoor colonies along Karachi’s various stormwater drains or those along the Karachi Circular Railway and Malir Expressway routes.
The organisers of the 11 December climate march represented a nationwide network of networked activists and organisations based across the urban and political hubs of Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad-Rawalpindi.
The report explains that citizens and activists in the networks have used a variety of ways to seek redress for the affected communities. These campaigns are underway in courts through public interest litigations or in suo motu proceedings. Secondly, the affected communities have used physical public spaces of streets and squares, or cyberspaces of social media platforms to demonstrate their grievances and solidarity. “Thirdly, the contemporary struggles against evictions and displacements or for affordable housing have featured a novel counter-power move, through knowledge generation and dissemination activities, facilitated by activist researchers, academics, and journalists,” the report states.
Pashtun Tahafuz Movement
The report credits the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) for launching the most spectacular and disruptive mobilisations in 2018. The PTM held an 11-day sit-in in Islamabad over killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring social media star in Karachi.
According to the report, the sit-in highlighted a key schism between an old generation ‘tribal elders’ and a new generation of young, educated middle and lower-middle-class Pashtun men and women who were now in firm command of the mass gathered at the Islamabad Press Club.
The young refused to end the sit-in on the call of the tribal elders, who left the gathering on the seventh day after meetings and verbal assurances from the government. The young and the mass in their command stayed back till the 11th day when the government agreed in writing to proceed against Naqeebullah’s killer SSP Rao Anwar and to start working on the removal of landmines left across the tribal districts’ geography as a legacy of the war.
The report points out that the PTM ‘has since evolved into two distinct yet inter-related trajectories: one faction representing the voice of the lower-middle- and working-class youth in the PTM leadership seeks to continue the ‘movement’, while the other faction based upon the upper-middle 19 class segment of the leadership (from families of Maliks who resisted the Taliban and were brutalised by Taliban and state alike) seeks a political party form’.
Demonstrations by public-sector workers
For almost a decade, public sector workers including clerical staff in federal and provincial bureaucracies, entry-level doctors and women health workers have gone on strikes against government austerity drives.
From the organized fronts of the Young Doctors Association (YDA), Lady Health Workers Associations (LHWA) and All Government Employees Grand Alliance, and All Pakistan Clerks Association (APCA), these workers have taken to the streets and occupied public squares multiple times in the 2010-20 decade with sit-ins met with state coercion tactics like deployment of riot police.
These struggles are a direct consequence of the fiscal austerity policies imposed on the country in the backdrop of a bloated military budget and soaring public debt.
According to the report, a key element underlying these disparate, yet interrelated, struggles of public sector workers has been the unionization right which unites these struggles in principle with the broader labor or trade union movement.