Ever since Pakistan’s landmark general elections in May 2013 which saw the first transfer of power between civilian governments, opposition leader of the Tehreek e Insaf party or ‘Movement for Justice’, Imran Khan made allegations of corruption and systematic vote rigging. Having initially sought an audit of four disputed constituencies and verification of voters’ thumbprint impressions and exhausting all available judicial mechanisms in the process, Khan forewarned that his party would take to the streets with ‘a million man march’ if legal redress could not be found via institutional means.
On 14 August 2014, Pakistan’s political underdog-cum-visionary unleashed a 300-kilometre Azadi (freedom) march on the country’s 68th National Independence day—and seized an opportunity for Pakistan to look within. PTI’s anti‐corruption march from Lahore to Islamabad culminated in sit-ins across Pakistan’s major cities and the eventual occupation of the capital’s heavily fortified ‘Red Zone’. Despite the government’s failed attempts to thwart the procession with restriction of movement, arbitrary arrests, intimidation and attacks against PTI party workers—Khan’s ‘caravan of democracy’ continued on its course.
For 126 consecutive days, Constitution Avenue, D-Chowk situated in the government enclave, was occupied as the movement’s base #AzadiSquare, from where a series of impassioned dharnas (sit-ins) united Pakistanis around Khan’s mission of a Naya ‘New’ Pakistan. The PTI’s live nightly broadcasts against the status-quo from atop a bombproof shipping container (inside which Khan slept) awakened the nation’s political consciousness and steered the country towards the edge of revolution. Despite the scale and traction of this historic non-violent mass movement, it was largely sidelined or downplayed in the global corporate media.
Following the resignations of Khan’s MP’s from 3 of 4 provincial assemblies in late August 2014, PTI delivered a charter of six demands to the government. Besides electoral reforms, the charter demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the ruling PML‐N party (currently serving his third term in power) for alleged corruption and electoral fraud. Khan claimed that the “struggle is not limited to the resignation of Sharif…but aimed at changing the system.”
Despite opposition over the timing and method of Khan’s demonstrations, in parallel with a full-scale military operation, Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan against local and foreign militants, Khan is championing legitimate grievances. His ‘politics of agitation’—as the opposition describes it—attracted the attention of Dr. Gene Sharp, the world’s foremost scholar who promotes the advancement of strategic non-violent action.
According to Dr. Sharp—whose accessible catalogue of non-violent methods of resistance have become hallmarks of popular revolutions including the Arab Spring: “The degree of liberty or tyranny in any government is in large degree a reflection of the relative determination of the subjects to be free and their willingness and ability to resist efforts to enslave them.” Sharp’s ‘consent theory of power’ is widely accepted by a diverse range of political theorists as the most effective method to bring about political change.
Although non‐cooperation is a foreign concept in Pakistan, Khan demonstrated a crash course in civil resistance encouraging the non‐payment of utility bills. Rising inflation and a national energy crisis that limits access to power for often over 12 hours a day have provided fuel for his cause. The self-professed ‘rational idealist’ urged the masses: “As long as the protest lasts, as long as we sit here, it is going to add pressure on him [Nawaz Sharif]….the longer it lasts, the better it is because people are realizing their rights”.
Pakistan-based political analyst, Dr. Rasool Baksh Rais who observed the process of critical consciousness remarked, “Khan has successfully de‐legitimized parliament, evoked popular sentiment against the political establishment and introduced a new political discourse at the household level.”
Imran Khan put Pakistan on the map, when as captain, he led the Pakistani cricket team to its first and only victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup in Australia. Remaining a national icon in the Pakistani psyche, Khan won hearts and minds when he established a number of world‐class humanitarian institutions in response to the country’s lack of soft development. Khan later founded the grassroots Movement for Justice in 1996. The anti-corruption party’s stated mission is “to create a free society based on justice and equality.” After securing one seat in the national assembly in 2002, Khan boycotted the 2008 elections under then General Musharraf’s rule. According to a Wikileaks cable from Islamabad in 2007, the US Ambassador remarked: “Khan’s PTI party—effectively a one‐man show—has little to lose”.
Although he never intended to become a career politician—Khan is credited with changing Pakistan’s political discourse without actually coming into power. In the disputed 2013 election, which attracted historic voter turnout (55 per cent), Tehreek-e‐Insaf emerged as Pakistan’s fastest growing political party. Having won 35 of 272 seats in the national assembly, PTI formed government in Khan’s native Pashtun Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). It is from this province suffering from ongoing militancy and an education emergency where, founder of The Australian Pashtun Peace Forum, Mr. Shafqat Nangyal states investment cannot be overstated.
Regarding the Azadi mass movement as a process rather than an event, it is useful to consider a structural analysis to determine what Imran Khan wants. A new conceptual framework based on a systems approach known as the ‘Pillars of Peace’ measures ‘positive peace’—which can be understood as: the structures, attitudes, and institutions that move societies towards conflict resolution through non-violent methods.
As an extension of The Global Peace Index (GPI), its Australian founder, technology entrepreneur and philanthropist, Steve Killelea AM, reasons: “it is useful to see peace as the product of institutions—not merely the absence of violence.” The mutually reinforcing ‘Pillars of Peace’ are optimal factors found to be associated with more peaceful nations. Killelea’s research team at the Institute for Economics and Peace classify these as: a well-functioning government, sound business environment, equitable distribution of resources, acceptance of the rights of others, good relations with neighbours, free flow of information, high levels of education, and low levels of corruption.
A six‐year trend line ranking Pakistan amongst the bottom ten countries of The Global Peace Index underscores the seismic shifts (structural, attitudinal and institutional) required for sustainable improvement in the entire system. The ground realities in Pakistan and the metastasis of violent global trends, make urgent sense of Khan’s politics of peace. By challenging the pillars of power, Khan’s Azadi movement has strengthened the so-called ‘pillars of peace’ that are the cornerstone of healthy democracy and which characterise more peaceful nations—as consistently substantiated by the Global Peace Index.
In his first speech to parliament in July 2013, Khan stated that: “all the problems in Pakistan stem from injustice.” Since then, emerging post-election reports and evidence now vindicate PTI’s allegations that Pakistan’s 2013 elections manifestly failed to meet constitutional obligations. Although the majority of parties in the National Assembly supported PTI’s call for electoral reforms and an independent judicial probe to open the four disputed constituencies, a report produced by the judicial commission last month denied claims of ‘systematic’ rigging, declaring that polls were “organised and conducted fairly and in accordance with the law”.
On the one-year anniversary of the Azadi dharna, an Election Tribunal recently declared 3 of 4 disputed constituencies NA-125, NA-122 and NA-154 null and void. Re-elections have now been ordered in these constituencies and a verdict on the fourth disputed constituency, NA-110 at the time of writing. Following the election tribunal’s verdict last week, PTI Chairman Imran Khan said “the decision is the victory of justice.”
The late Stéphane Hessel who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stressed that “societies must be based on rights whose violation prompt outrage.” Credited with inspiring the global Occupy Movements, the former diplomat and activist honoured with the Sydney Peace Foundation’s Gold Medal for Human Rights in 2013, urged that societies must learn to choose hope over violence.
In the face of imminent violence, Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Azadi Movement has made history in Pakistan, while emerging as a world-leading example of classic strategic non-violence. In his efforts to institute a culture of accountability and ensure free and fair elections to strengthen Pakistan’s promising democracy—Khan stresses his intention is not to derail democracy, “but to give Pakistanis the right to know where their votes went.”
As a leader of conscience, Imran Khan has chosen hope over violence to this end.
First published in Sydney Globalist Issue X. Vol II. 2015 ‘Crises’ Print Edition Global21 Network of International Affairs Magazines.
The author was in Pakistan during the final days of PTI’s 126 day Azadi movement in December 2014. At the height of the Azadi Movement, Imran Khan shut down Pakistan’s major cities consecutively, ending with a strike in Lahore (Punjab province) 15 December, the final city before a pledged strike across the entire country. The Azadi movement came to an abrupt conclusion following the Peshawar Army School attack on 16 December, which is situated in the province of Khyber Paktunkhwa governed by Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf party. The attack is considered the worst terror incident in Pakistan’s history.