Who is Protesting in Pakistan? Businessmen, Doctors and Academics.

Posted on April 6, 2011
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Economy & Development, Education, Law & Justice, Society
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Adil Najam

News from Pakistan (at least the television variety) is always full of protests. Everyone seems to be forever protesting about something or the other. But the protests flashing on the screens right now do seem qualitatively different.

Guess who is protesting right now: businessmen, doctors and academics.

The three protests are distinct, unrelated, and none of them is really clear-cut. And let us be honest: at this point each of the three is a relatively small protest in terms of what protests (and tolls of protests) in Pakistan can be. Small-business owners in Karachi are protesting against extortionists and law enforcement’s inability to provide protection but in the process are themselves embroiled in infighting and divisions (news here). Younger doctors in government hospitals the Punjab and elsewhere have been on strike to protest against what seems like truly abysmal working conditions and salaries but in the process have also caused much anguish to poor patients (news here). And academics have come out in support of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and against its devolution to the provinces as a result of the 18th Amendment, but really out of the fear that this move will squander whatever benefits HEC has brought to academia and academics (news here).

The three sets of protests have no obvious connection between them, each is complicated, and none can be discussed in simple black and white terms. Yet there are at least two key characteristics of these three cases (especially when taken together) which helps to shed light on the polity that is today’s Pakistan.

First, in the context of what they are protesting about right now, these are three very unlikely sets of protesters. None of the three have a proclivity to come out on the streets in this way on such issues. Whether you consider their demands or their tactics to be justified or not (and there is plenty of room for disagreement there) you should pay attention to the fact that their coming out on the streets signifies a level of frustration within these otherwise sober constituencies. A frustration that should not be underestimated or overlooked.

Second, although all three issues have now become politicized – as everything in Pakistan’s highly charged political climate is bound to become – it is clear that none of the three is a partisan political issue at its core, or began as such. Political parties and operatives have pounced on the issues because they sense the issues to be charged, but the issues themselves began as and remain at their core issues that relate to the loss of livelihoods and economic frustrations. Politics – in the sense it is bandied about on our talk shows – is not the driver here; if anything it is the ‘driven.’

Protests over petrol price hikes or over tax proposals are also economic protests, and protests over the acts of unknown and protests over pastors sitting four continents away or over ‘outside actors’ or as acts of sectarian insolence are always happening, but all of these are are now well-rehearsed political affairs. We know who protests, why, how and politicians know exactly how to capitalize on the sentiments – which are indeed very real and strongly held – that underlie such demonstrations.

But it seems that what we are seeing in these three examples – small business owners, doctors and academics – may be something different. Maybe something less politically charged, but also more politically significant: a manifestation of rising frustration with failures of livelihoods and institutions. When unlikely actors come out to protest in unlikely ways on unlikely issues, one is best advised to sit up and notice. The impulse of political expediency will be to reap whatever short-term political benefit can be had in riding these issues. The demand of political maturity is to recognize such acts as early warning signs of what could turn into much more deep and dangerous fissures – a crumbling of trust in the institutions of state as well as of society – and to act before things spiral down any further.

One hopes that political maturity will trump political expediency in these cases. In Pakistan politics, however, that is usually not a safe bet to make.

15 responses to “Who is Protesting in Pakistan? Businessmen, Doctors and Academics.”

  1. Masood Raja says:

    I am all for provincial autonomy, but do believe that HEC has played a crucial role in developing a culture of research and merit. As an academic in the US I have seen, in the recent years, the number of Pakistani graduate students increase dramatically. I do hope that HEC is allowed to continue its good work.
    We have also launched a petition in support of HEC on our blog. Please do visit and leave a comment in support if you agree with us: http://wp.me/p1jyFD-V8.

    Thank you.

    Masood Raja

  2. Jawed says:

    I am not sure what the fuss about the HEC is. The provinces will have challenges but they will learn and it is good if it is devolved. Maybe some of the oversight functions should remain with federal but certainly the doling out of money business can go away. All of HEC’s problems were because it had become a money dole out program.

  3. sipa says:

    What happened to the lawyers marching in favor of more religiously motivated murders. They must be taking the day off today

  4. Laeeq says:

    I agree with Anis Dani’s comment. There is an odd mixing of a culture of entitlement and a culture of disempowerment and that is what is dangerous. The right to protest is basic and should not be denied. So problem is not ‘stopping’ all these protests it is to find governance solutions so that these do not happen so frequently and people start building confidence in their state.

  5. Syed Qudratullah says:

    Good post. Watching the Pakistani news on one channel it is just one protest after the other. Many of them quite silly. We have become a nation of protesters because that seems like only way to get anything. Like spoiled kids who cry for everything because that is the signal their parents give them!

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