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Our sleeping avengers

The news today may bring you to the edge of your seat, but apathy to the violence that endures may soon take over, given the general societal attitude.

At an individual level, it may not be too difficult to fashion ourselves into advocates for what we believe in, whether it`s condemning the slaughter of Balochistan`s Hazaras or speaking in support of women victims of crime. We could use social media to rally support or contribute in other ways towards bringing change; but rarely has civic action, without the requisite numbers or the sustained action, resulted in reforming the socio-political landscape.

So back to the news of the day: a series of bombings across Pakistan have killed some 120 people journalists, a human rights activist whose Twitter profile reads `My religion is respect`, civilians, Frontier Corps personnel, women, children, members of the Hazara community.

Last year was the bloodiest for Pakistan`s Shia population, Human Rights Watch reports, reminding of the callousness and apathy of law-enforcement authorities that have failed to take action against rising sectarian violence. Many question the failure of the state to provide security to communities living in fear and the answer isn`t hard to come by.

More disturbing is political inaction when it comes to investigation and prosecutions. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom says that `more than 400 Shia have been killed in the past year. The violence was tragic and predictable. The government must take action to protect all its citizens`. Tolerating violence threatens stability, when the institutions of democracy parliament, the judiciary, media remain passive towards corruption, sectarianism and extremism.

If the government has failed to act, why has civil society failed to raise its voice? One could argue that civil society has been restricted and controlled, and has been unable to develop into a concerted national movement that feeds off activism and the will to fight injustice. This could be because activism is an elite preoccupation in many underdeveloped countries. When starving, unemployed and worried about the safety of their family, civil society is unable to protest or chant slogans or coin radical tweets.

The effort at best has been sporadic. For instance, in 2011, the Karachi-based Citizens for Democracy, a coalition of 80 civil bodies, ran a campaign when in a single day it obtained150,000 petitions demanding an end to violence and protection for minorities. Little followed that effort.

The paucity of groups with common agendas or the inability of these groups to come together along with an elitist, exclusive model with individual projection as the key driving force, and limited financial resources keepcivil movements, which should be the nucleus of any democracy, at bay.

Activism here is not broad-based or effective. This is unlike India`s vibrant civil society where even moderate voices have demanded and won rights for squatters, labourers, women and low-caste communities. Here civil society briefly united during the 2007 lawyers movement, assisted by the free media but again with negligible staying power.

Historically, the failure of getting diverse groups to converge on one platform is attributed to differing ideologies and missing national will. Social movements liberate to provide opportunities; something that hasn`t happened for Pakistan.

The legacy of the Soviet-Afghan war eroded liberal platforms; uneasy political alliances and military interventions proved detrimental to pro-resistance movements. Periods of military rule gave rise to fragmented movements led by leftists, communists, progressive writers. Resistance was crushed by the state, although some underground movements based on political ideologies managed to sustain themselves.

Conversely, the language movement in East Pakistan lent Bengali identity its impetus and became a forerunner to the nationalist movement, and subsequently the 1971 war and independence for the country`s eastern wing.

Here, in the 1980s, when the women`s movement emerged with the formation of the Women`s Action Forum, civil society was propelled into action by Zia`s draconian Hudood laws.

Women`s rights were not a government priority, and unfortunately regressive societal attitudes overall did not help the cause of the handful who lobbied for change. It was much later that women parliamentarians would win popular attention, spearheading pro-women bills despite religious opposition.

For civil society to extend beyond pockets of protest groups to more advocacy-based initiatives that are funded and longterm, act as a watchdog over the government and participate in policy creation (through awareness campaigns, research, community activation), a more cohesive national movement is needed. Pakistanis must take ownership of their issues. This is a challenge indeed given the large percentage of people living below the poverty line in a country that is at a crossroads, and that stands divided in its fight against extremism.

What is also disturbing are the varied differences that civil society shows to matters that, as human rights violations, should prompt strong, collective action. In May 2012, an amateur video emerged from a conservative district of Kohistan of four women singing and clapping and a couple of men dancing. We don`t know if the women are alive or have been shot after a tribal jirga condemned the participants to death for their celebratory disposition. Civil rights groups haven`t protested on a larger scale for justice for these men and women. But when in October, a schoolgirl from Swat was shot and injured by the Taliban, the attack forced condemnation from politicians and activists, with global shock at this brutal assault.

It seems that traditional practices and beliefs suffice as justification for crimes committed and for uneducated, poor victims being incarcerated or murdered for committing blasphemy. Those who have shown solidarity against religious bigotry and violence have been murdered. Real civil activism will become a high-risk strategy when it comes to the final push for saving democracy. • The writer is a senior assistant editor at the Herald.


Razeshta Sethna, "Our sleeping avengers," Dawn. 2013-01-14.