Pakistan is a country of resistance.
On the face of it, that’s somewhat surprising. After all, Pakistani politicians are famous for their inability to take a principled stand. Most of them show no loyalty to any leader or party and are strangers to deeply held convictions. As Pakistanis know all too well, most of their elected representatives can sell their votes and change their allegiances at a moment’s notice.
And yet, even dictators in Pakistan have found it difficult to suppress dissent. For one reason or another, Pakistan’s military rulers never seem to last more than a decade or so. The country’s first military ruler, Ayub Khan, faced waves of protest as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto toured the country whipping up anti-government feeling. Gen Zia may have been Pakistan’s harshest dictator, fitting microphones to amplify the screams of those being lashed. But even Zia could not get a grip of his country’s truculent journalists — not for nothing did he call the Karachi Press Club “enemy territory”.
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And then there was Gen Musharraf. When he tried to sack the chief justice, thousands of lawyers marched through tear gas to get him reinstated. Despite having an army at his disposal and despite the authorities’ record of torturing and even disappearing people, when Musharraf opened up the media, journalists used their new freedoms to satirise him.
Civilian governments too, have felt the brunt of protesters’ ire. True, there may have been some official sponsorship of the protests that helped bring down successive elected governments but there has never been a shortage of people willing to take to the streets demanding change.
For a time, it was just the PPP that understood the value of protest and martyrdom. Leaders such as Benazir Bhutto and Salmaan Taseer walked to their deaths, heads held high, defending democratic ideals. Both fully understood their likely fate and both could have lived in comfort abroad. But they refused to bow down before the threats they faced. And it’s not just been the senior leaders willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. After the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, some PPP activists self-immolated to make clear the depth of their despair at what the government had done.
More recently, the archetypical establishment party, the PML-N, has also come to understand the value of resistance. Its leaders now make barnstorming speeches up and down Punjab, denouncing the powers that be in the strongest terms. And nowadays they are also willing to suffer behind bars so as to make their point. And the fact that so many Pakistanis admire such defiance only makes the task of the authorities more difficult. Whoever is in power — military or civilian — faces a dilemma: the more they clamp down on resistance, the more resistance they face.
And then there are the Baloch. Even if many Pakistanis view their successive independence campaigns as misguided, there is no denying the determination of the Baloch to fight for their goals. Ever since 1947 there have been waves of violent insurgency in the province and there is no sign of it stopping any time soon.
In her latest book, Countering Violent Extremism in Pakistan: Local Actions, Local Voices, Oregon scholar Anita Weiss has shown how, at the lowest levels of society, there have been in recent years many displays of resistance to the Taliban’s attempt to impose its views on others. Pashto poets and Sindhi singers expressed their disdain for the puritan mullahs in their midst. Her book celebrates those Pakistanis who, with no official protection, reasserted their traditional culture in the face of violent fanatics willing to murder in the name of their religious dogma.
And we must not forget the Taliban themselves. They can, after all, be seen not only as oppressors but also, as Prime Minister Imran Khan pointed out, as liberators. They have pulled off one of the most implausible victories of our age. Over a period of two decades after 9/11, countless young men left their homes and took their lives in their hands as they crossed the border with Afghanistan and fought the vastly technologically superior US forces. Whatever else there is to say about them, it was a campaign of resistance that eventually led to victory.
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There are various explanations as to why Pakistanis are so consistently rebellious. Poor governance means that they have plenty to protest about. Poverty means some have little to lose. State weakness means that people can hope to avoid detection. A lack of commitment to the rule of law can mean protesters enjoy impunity. But such explanations only go so far. The fact remains that many Pakistanis have died fighting for their ideas.
In Pakistan’s great ally China, there are countless millions who day after day comply with the diktats of the state. But not in Pakistan. It’s a country of resistance.
Owen Bennett-Jones is author of The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan.
The article first appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.