Non-violence vs. the system


How does one tame a wild horse? Some animals by nature are easily subordinated, and some just cannot be. Somewhere in the world, there is a breed of horse that roams wild. It is such a free spirit to its core, that it refuses to eat in captivity, starving itself to death unless released. So man has left them alone to roam free.
Early domestication had a harsher treatment for stronger, wild adult dogs. The captured animal was first kept hungry for a prolonged period. After finally feeding it well, it was submitted to training, and punished if it didn’t comply. It was not only starved, but severely beaten until rendered inert by pain and helplessness. Then it was fed and nursed back to health with much attention and care.
By the time training was renewed, the dog usually got the message. Otherwise another cruel round or two did the trick. Once it realized that obeying orders brought good food, shelter and care in return, it became a loyal servant for life. A horrible extreme were those well-treated slaves in Roman times forced to fight to the death as a spectator sport. A modern approach is selectively attempted on humans, even in corporations, bureaucracies and police machinery.
The sharing egalitarian society was the original democracy. Feudalism, tyrannical monarchies and colonial legacies changed all that. Today, the police not only maintain law and order, but might be used for active repression. The poor and marginalized don’t need to be beaten into submission. But when oppression becomes intolerable, both weak and strong do react.
Like the untamable wild horse, some are free spirits. They are less interested in consumerism than in prioritizing survival needs, independent decision-making, pursuing their preferred way of life, and rejecting a power structure disrespectful of others’ autonomy.
To settle disputes, parties follow universall accepted rules. So the current standoff arises from opposed perceptions of democracy. Some take human rights very seriously, not just on paper. For others it’s a convenient label slapped onto an established feudal and patronage system. What some see as elitist entitlement, others see as corruption and nepotism. Entire economies can be dynastic fiefdoms or special-interest cabals; police and bureaucracy are merely tools of enforcement. Democracy is perfectly adhered to in appearance and form. — Except that the media exposes its ugly, hidden side.
Some sections of relatively comfortable civil society insist that the ‘democratic process’ should not be ‘derailed’ under any circumstances; but that’s exactly what protestors don’t want either; that they be activated instead.
There is deafening silence on the part of some ‘democratic process.’ Even a section of civil society working for social and human rights don’t see the dead-end reality of double standards; of laws selectively applied to the weak but not the strong. The Model Town case is no big deal; nor the other underhand police actions that followed!
Diversionary tactics swept primary issues – basic needs and curtailing corruption – under the carpet. Not once did the government offer to correct these with clear-cut plans. Yet revolutionaries — out to undo the status quo – are expected to follow ‘rules’ that government itself refuses to. After two generations, and millions having passed away without ever knowing a decent life, many are unwilling to wait for the turtle-slow ‘process’ to bring results.
After 17 days of peaceful, determined non-violence, viewers watched in horror and incredulity the unexpected all-night assault that unfolded on television screens, with militarized riot police using methods usually reserved for enemy combatants on battlefields.
Comparisons flashed through countless minds. How is this qualitatively different from the way the Israelis enclose and oppress the hapless, unarmed Palestinians in Gaza? Or was it more like Iraq, where phosphorous and other chemical weapons were used, passed off here as ordinary tear gas? Or did it resemble the infamous 1919 Jallianwala Bagh (Amritsar) massacre when Colonel Dyer and his men mercilessly gunned down a crowd trapped in a walled-off area?
A non-violent movement gives despotic governments a bad image. Once the idea is understood, non-violence makes it easier for the poor and weak to join up and swell the ranks. So it becomes necessary to nip it in the bud – to drive people to a breaking point that can spark violence in the most non-violent of persons, when opportunistic mobs can no longer be differentiated from real political workers.
When the call was made to move to the lawns of the Prime Minister’s house, it was touching to watch the women carrying their babies, their rolled-up mats, their water-cans and bundles of clothes, to trustingly walk forward. That day the crowd had swelled to a peak: an unexpected side-effect of the ‘dharna’ was that it served as ‘langar’ (free food kitchen) for the curious or unemployed looking for a free meal.
Several times during the 17 days when police contingents would suddenly appear and surround the protestors, there would be a palpable “silence of the lambs” – before police relaxed or melted away. Protestors were lulled into confidence by government statements that they’d never be fired upon. Unfortunately, their non-violence made them sitting targets.
It takes a particular kind of person to be violent on order without any compunction whatsoever. If lucky, soldiers trained for war may never see battle, while others return as psychological wrecks because they belatedly discover they can’t stomach killing and atrocities. After all, people are not born violent, cruel and sadistic. The potential may be dormant, but degree and willingness vary. Some cops are able to impersonalize the violence they inflict on others. Some come into it for livelihood because of a lack of choice; some to acquire power which they don’t otherwise have, so that others can’t push them around. Few choose it so they can be Robin Hoods.
What kind were those involved in the Model Town and PM House operations? It’s a frightening thought, especially when it’s been going on and growing for almost seven decades. With fellow-citizens like these, who needs enemies? With ‘democracy’ like this, who needs martial law? Some emperors become so devoid of guilt and shame, they no longer care about being seen without any clothes on. An old adage from Bengal baldly summed up the attitude of ancient kings: “It’s because I am shameless, the kingdom is entirely mine.”
One question remains unanswered. When unarmed protestors, including women and children were shot from the back and shelled all night, why didn’t the army step in — not to declare martial law, but to stop the Punjab Police assault? Can’t citizens expect that much without compromising the army when their own government attacks them?
Hopefully PTI and PAT have learnt many lessons: don’t trust party-hoppers; playing cards aren’t shown off once dealt; all boats shouldn’t be burnt; and chickens shouldn’t be publicly counted before they’re hatched. They inadvertently armed the sharp-speaking lawyer, PPP’s Aitzaz Ahsan, who set the tone for other speakers to safely follow, to take pot-shots at the PM to grab away some bargaining chips while leaving the dynastic parties of the three provinces intact (in the same breath undermining PAT and PTI – albeit to an already captive National Assembly).
Over a century and a half ago, Claude Frédéric Bastiat, a political economist, a liberal theorist, and member of the French Assembly warned: “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.

Non-violence vs. the system.

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