Pakistan Lawyers’ Movement Shows Global Reach of Nonviolence

November 9, 2007 By Amitabh Pal

The one heartening thing about the recent events in Pakistan is that the global reach of mass nonviolent protest has yet again been confirmed.

The amazingly defiant lawyers’ movement that has taken on the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf has demonstrated that the Muslim world is as fertile for the application of nonviolent disobedience as any other part of the planet. The peaceful uprising has been an extremely effective counter to the libel that Muslim people—being followers of an allegedly intrinsically aggressive and violent religion—are immune to the charms of nonviolence.

I was going to complain that the Western media was ignoring this incredible exercise in nonviolent organizing, but recent coverage has (happily) proven me wrong. The New York Times, for instance, on Nov. 7 carried a long front-page article on the genesis of the lawyers’ movement and the astonishing courage it has shown.

Perhaps due to this coverage, there have been wonderful expressions of support from the United States. The American Bar Association has written a letter to Musharraf voicing disapproval of his actions. And the National Lawyers Guild has issued a strong statement asking President Bush to suspend aid to Pakistan.

The lawyers’ protests began in March, when Musharraf sacked the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, for having the gall to defend Pakistan’s constitution. The protests were so effective that Musharraf was forced to reinstate Chaudhry in July. Even after his reinstatement, Chaudhry refused to back down, causing Musharraf to impose emergency rule.

And the lawyers are carrying on their struggle. They are driven by a simple question, articulated by Babar Sattar, a prominent figure in the protests: “How do you function as a lawyer when the law is what the general says it is?”

For the temerity of asking that question, the lawyers and judges (and their civil society allies) have been subject to massive arrests, beatings and tear gas by the Musharraf regime, with thousands now filling the prisons. And this may be only the start of it. Human Rights Watch has issued a statement of concern that three prominent lawyers are quite possibly being subjected to torture.

Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that the Pakistani military’s feared Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and Military Intelligence (MI) agency are jointly detaining and interrogating them,” the statement says. “Both agencies have a well-documented history of ‘disappearances’ and using torture against political opponents.”

Pakistan’s most famous human-rights activist Asma Jahangir has also alleged that lawyers are indeed being tortured in custody.

Still, the lawyers are carrying on defiantly. For inspiration, they can turn to
Pakistan’s own history. Pakistan’s first military dictator, Ayub Khan, was forced out of office in the late 1960s by nationwide protests. And further back in time, Pakistan from the 1920s to the 1940s was home to one of the most remarkable nonviolent movements of modern times—the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God). This Pashtun organization, which reached 100,000 at its peak, was formed by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a friend of Gandhi’s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region to oust the British and bring social reform.

Many of the lawyers’ demonstrations have opened with a poem by the late Marxist poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, perhaps the greatest poet of the modern era from the Indian subcontinent:

Promises that you make to us,
Of the day, the hour, the moment of our victory,
The promise of the promised land,
Of course, we shall wait and see.

These shackles, this burden around our necks,
Will turn into cotton and vanish in thin air,
And when we common people will stake a claim
On this land that is our very own,
When the tyrant rulers will submit to defeat
At the hands of us simple folks,
Of course, we will wait and see.

The lawyers hope to paralyze the judicial system by not having any attorneys appear before judges accepting Musharraf’s emergency rule. May the shackles around their necks turn to cotton and vanish into thin air.