Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Passive or Non-Violent?

by Haris Gazdar and Noorulain Masood

Martin Luther King, Jr. at an anti-Vietnam War rally (April 27, 1967)
Photo credit: Wikipedia/Minnesota historical society/Flickr

Bacha Khan is an inspiration for many. Founder of the Khudai Khidmatgar movement, he was a man who directed his vision and political insight to advocate for peaceful social change. The carnage at the Bacha Khan University is not the first time his legacy of non-violence has faced a violent backlash. In fact Bacha Khan spent much of his life in jail or exile. He died in 1988 under house arrest. His funeral in Afghanistan saw two bomb explosions. Fifteen people died. While the attack on the university is a reminder of how far we have strayed from Bacha Khan’s philosophy, so does the response.

There are competing analyses. The terrorists are branded as foreign agents by some, and local products by others. In either case they need to be eliminated. A dissident view, increasingly held by many, is that the terrorists are rogue elements who were once sponsored by actors within the state. This view regards more effective violence against the terrorists as proof that the state has finally turned a corner. Violent retribution, therefore, is the inevitable endpoint of these apparently diverse perspectives. When the government promises to show its “resolve to eliminate terror” through “a ruthless response by the state” it can justly claim to address the entire political spectrum. In effect, we accept that ordinary citizens look on helplessly while an elite that specializes in the use of force takes on its alter-ego.

There is an ethical position, of course, that decries all violence, political violence included. It has been used at times by those who said that the Taliban are “our people”. This selective pacifism was discredited as it was seen as condoning the Taliban’s violence. In effect the “peace agreements” with the militants in Swat and FATA advocated surrender to the militants. These failed agreements also fueled speculation that elements within the state were complicit with the Taliban and other militants.

But non-violence of the form practiced by Bacha Khan and his comrades is not a passive acceptance of oppression of the type promoted by the “peace agreements”. Neither does it reduce the role of ordinary citizens to being mere spectators. If we think that the persistence of terrorism in our society implicates the state’s ability or its willingness to act then ordinary citizens cannot allow their voices to be marginalized by the noisy duet of “ruthless response” and “peace agreements”.

Non-violent resistance needs to be considered and developed as a realistic political option. To succeed, it needs to be democratic, moral and strategic. Democratic in the sense that it requires the active participation of large numbers of ordinary people for the attainment of a specific political objective. Moral and strategic in the sense that peaceful methods are deliberately and studiously deployed to occupy the moral high ground and deny it to the opponent.

If all of our various analyses of terrorism in Pakistan lead us inevitably to passively supporting violence, then perhaps we need a shift in how we think. Perhaps we need to start at the end: what sort of society do we envision and what sort of state? If we want a society with active citizens then why should we delegate the responsibility of resisting terrorism to a vanguard whose ability and willingness are moot? If we imagine non-violent resistance as a positive and empowering way of doing politics what needs to change in state and society? Who is interested in that change? How can those individuals and groups act together? And most importantly, how can they act democratically, morally and strategically, to win? Bacha Khan would have thought like that.


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