Social movements are a major platform for those who feel their voice has not been heard or who find their unique voice lost in the cacophony of stubborn structures and systems. Through loosely knit alliances and individuals, social movements enable citizens to come together and organize on issues that political parties and state structures tend to ignore or lose sight of. Such movements allow citizens to amplify their demands around issues, actions and policies that affect their lives.
South Asia offers good examples of social movement before and after independence. Well-known examples of post-independence social movements include the Chipko movement in India in the early 1970s, when a group of women opposed the felling of trees. Hundreds of thousands of people across India have supported women protesting against deforestation by hugging trees (Chipko) to prevent them from being cut down. There were also social movements by Adivasis farmers and tribal people in the Narmada Valley in Bihar, India against a large hydroelectric dam project which, in addition to harming the environment, threatened the displacement of millions of people. Known around the world, the recent Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has shaken both the United States and Europe. Many attribute the movement’s impact to the fact that it was felt during the US presidential elections of the same year.
In Pakistan, historically, the women’s movement is one of the best examples of continuous social movements, especially under the Zia regime where the Women’s Action Forum organized and advocated for the repeal of draconian laws under Ordinance Hudood. Since then, there have been many movements, big and small.
Some social movements have both powerful supporters and opponents across political lines. An example of this is Aurat March, a widely known social movement for women’s rights and gender equality. With the exception of very obscurantist forces, Aurat March has attracted more and more crowds from all political backgrounds every year and has created a physical space for itself through various socio-economic groups and political parties.
Two movements that have recently surfaced in Sindh oppose the encroachment of peoples’ ancestral lands and the federalization of the islands, both of which are concentrated in areas of Karachi. Although both still nascent, they have managed to amplify the voices of aggrieved people not only in their immediate environment but on a larger scale.
The movement against land encroachment has sparked large protests in support of the rights of local people to annex their lands in the Goths of Karachi. It spread like wildfire and hundreds of thousands of people, including supporters of almost all political parties and nationalist groups in Sindh, supported the protest. Civil society in Karachi has added its voice to popular protests. The level of spontaneity that drove crowds to stage protests last June echoed across the province and beyond. This movement created immense awareness for future social action.
The other brewing issue is against the federalization of two Karachi islands threatened with conversion into a mega housing project at the level of almost a mini-city. Seeing popular opposition to the project, the PPP government withdrew the NOC issued earlier for the project. Movements against the encroachment of local people’s lands and common resources (islands) are very much alive and likely to attract even larger crowds in the future.
Social movements differ from traditional political parties in that the latter aim to “grab” power through political processes, primarily elections, while social movements create a rallying point for or against social change , often at the local level. Unlike structured politics where citizens exercise their “power” through voting once every 4-5 years, which can be (rather often) manipulated, especially in weak institutional structures, social movements allow ordinary citizens to participate in public policy by making processes more inclusive. Political party programmes, manifestos and agendas are much broader and often ignore thematic issues. Political parties are generally viewed and dominated by the political elite while social movements go beyond class and party politics. Social movements are not necessarily always successful in achieving results, but the mass mobilization and awareness they create remains embedded in people’s consciousness. The hallmark of social movements is that they demystified fear of the state apparatus and instilled defiance and resistance among ordinary people.
Although this is a long academic discussion of the origin of social movements and what constitutes them, we can say with certainty that they emerged in the 18th century. The increase in freedom of expression and mass education has given impetus to social movements, although they are not the only determining factors. Social movements also reflect the level of consciousness of a society in which they take place; these can be both reformist and revolutionary.
Unlike the pre-social media era when the organization of social movements depended only on physical contact, leaflets and other traditional sources of information dissemination, social media has given social movements an extra boost. Social media has changed the balance of power compared to traditional media, print and electronic, and has dramatically strengthened causes much faster and stronger than ever before. With ever-expanding technology, social media actually spawns social movements and it is highly likely that social movements will grow in strength and become the alternative platform for citizens to amplify their voices.