A battle of nerves
On the face of it, the Pakistan tehreek-e-Insaf led government is not threatened by the sit-in. Prime Minister Imran khan did form a committee tasked with negotiating with the JUI-F, but then continued his personal attacks on Maulana, rendering the negotiations akin to a still birth.
Imran khan believes that the sit-in will not last beyond a week. Maulana, on the other hand, has a plan. Simply put, it is to test the government’s nerves. He can be seen being saluted by a stick-wielding armed force in videos unleashed on social media.
In Pakistan, sit-ins were pioneered by the late Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed. In the following years, Tahir ul Qadri, Imran Khan and Khadim Hussain Rizvi have also tried to use a sit-in for political gain. None of these resulted in the immediate fall of a government, despite the fact that every single party that staged a sit-in resorted to using violence, disrupting peace in the process.
Sit-ins were born during America’s civil rights movement. On February 1, 1960, four African American students staged a sit-in at a restaurant after being refused service at a booth reserved for whites. Every day, the students would reach the restaurant and stage a sit-in at a booth dedicated for whites. Slowly, they were joined by other students. In other restaurants of the city, more African Americans joined in the protest, and staged sit-in at the restaurants that practiced segregation. In three months, the protest had spread to the entire southern belt of the U.S.A, with whites joining in at various points.
The sit-in breathed new life into Martin Luther King’s struggle. From South Carolina, a simple protest spread to seventy cities and towns. It is important to remember that the protest was spontaneous, and had sprung out of a social injustice.
This was the most prominent example of civil disobedience in America’s history. One of the reasons behind its success was its simplicity. Large amounts of money and laborious efforts were not required. Even though the students were being arrested by the police, they themselves remained peaceful, asking just that they be served food.
Whenever a political or social movement takes birth, its critics far outweigh its proponents. Not many are willing to give it due importance. But whether a movement or a protest is successful or not, the fact that it leaves an indelible effect, is undeniable. The real purpose is to convince people who are in doubt about joining the movement. A sit-in attracts attention, media takes its message to the people, and the people then decide whether they want to join in or not.
Fazlur Rehman’s sit-in does not fit in on the basic criteria of a protest. Bringing in tens of thousands of people from all over the country, and then staging a sit-in at the capital, is a laborious and expensive job. It is being said that the purpose of his sit-in is to get the government, or at least the Prime Minister, to resign. Emphasis is being placed on remaining peaceful, but what guarantee is there that in the process of gathering so many individuals and keeping them peaceful, something untoward might not happen?
Judged against the civil-rights sit-in staged by African Americans, Maulana’s sit-in seems destined for failure. Unlike the small victories that were celebrated in that protest, here Maulana has emphasized to his followers that he will not return without bringing the government down. This is too big a goal. Governments simply do not give up that easily.
More than a test of the government’s nerves, it is a trial of Fazlur Rehman’s own wits. Will he be able to keep his people motivated? Ahead of him lies a mammoth task; aligning the ordinary man with his demands. If, on a minor inticement, a small segment of the participants ends up taking a wrong step, then even those that oppose the government, will back off from offering support to the JUI-F.
On the other hand we have a government which, in 2014, staged a sit-in of 126 days, holding the entire country hostage to their demands. Today, they want the media to not cover Maulana’s protest, while in 2014 they ahd demanded 24-hours coverage for their own protest. Even before Maulana has set off for Islamabad, federal ministers are giving out statements that make it obvious that the government, too, has weak nerves.
Much like the arrests of the protesting students in South Carolina helped turned neutral people into sympathizers for the civil-rights movement, the use of force in this situation will lead people to feel empathy towards Fazlur Rehman, and his cause.
This article first appeared in Urdu in Daily Dunya.