A flourishing civil society is an indicator of the health of any democracy. Civic demonstrations, by the same token, are not only considered to be vital for any democracy but are also an important part of the system of checks-and-balances. What makes civil society, and demonstrations in particular, important is that it is a bridge connecting the people and the political class.
Playing a mediating role between the rulers and the ruled in any country, an active civil society becomes a conduit via which the legitimate demands of the common masses are articulated to those at the top of the political pyramid. As a result, a vocal civic base is often the target of administrative and governmental clampdowns as popular expressions of demands — from physical demonstrations to activism on social media — are seen as disturbances to the everyday operations of the state.
For many functioning democracies, civic demonstrations are nothing new. They do not tend to invite surprise for these acts are taken as given. But what happens when civic activism comes to flourish in otherwise politically fragile countries? The reactions such movements invite vary depending on which side of the political divide one is on. For the political have-nots in Afghanistan, demonstrations have become an essential medium of expression — one that has the potential of coalescing the disparate people of this country to demand what they believe is due not only from the government, but even from the Taliban!
A Strong Nation Despite a Weak State
Afghanistan has long been regarded as a country with a resilient population. The people of this country have not only endured decades of internal wars and conflicts, but they have also withstood external interference from major powers. The strength of its popular base, however, does not emerge solely from its capacity to tolerate all that is thrown its way — it also comes from its active demands for prosperity, peace, and stability.
Despite not being a democracy for the greatest part of its independent life, civic participation against perceived excesses by the system has not been absent from Afghanistan. In fact, if we may, we could perhaps consider the domestic (albeit internationally sponsored/funded) fight against the occupying Soviet forces as a form of popular resistance. Notwithstanding the turn this resistance took, the civic base of Afghanistan has rarely been a disinterested and docile lot. Yes, there have been instances — or for that matter, years — when their voices were crushed under the weight of a dictatorial and puritanical regime, but as we have seen, the post-2001 Afghanistan has reactivated its strong civic side.
With the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan, the 2014 Presidential elections became a watershed moment in the history of this country. While it coincided with the drawdown of American troops, which in its own way was an eventful development, the thronging of masses to voting booths for this election was seen as give-it-in-your face moment to the anti-democratic factions (aka Taliban) that had actively imperilled the process. Although the outcome of this election has been far from satisfactory, and that the formation of the incumbent National Unity Government (NUG) has not entirely been domestic in nature, the fact that it is close to completing its full term throws good light on the resilience of the democratic structure in Afghanistan.
While the popular faith in democracy was made evident by the turnout during the 2014 elections, the disenchantment of the ordinary masses with the political class in general has been equally evident. It is interesting to note that despite its nebulous form, democracy in Afghanistan has not been shunned. In fact, the people of this country have shown maturity of judgement in differentiating between democracy per se and the institutions meant to embody it. This has been reflected in their use of democratic practices, such as popular sit-ins, social media activism, and even satire, as ways to make themselves heard even if their faith in the government and the administration continues to diminish by the day. Two such instances — Jonbesh-e-Roshini (The Enlightenment Movement) and Helmand’s People’s Movement — have shown that civil society in Afghanistan has taken on the task of getting things right.
The Movement for Light
In an interesting discursive twist, Jonbesh-e-Roshini has come up around a material problem whose implications have gone beyond its immediate objective. In fact, there are two layers to it. At one level, the movement had emerged to protest a supposed change in the route of an electricity grid; at another, it was meant to serve as a wake-up call for the political elites of Afghanistan. Much like the Kantian notion of enlightenment, which, simply put, saw reason and rationality as the light dispelling the darkness of ignorance, the purpose of the Enlightenment Movement was to call attention to the dark realities of Afghanistan. Corruption, nepotism, and other kinds of systemic indiscretions became the larger moot point for this movement, which besides drawing to attention to these endemic issues, also brought the members of Hazara community together to demand redressal of their grievances.
This Hazara-led movement was galvanized to secure parity in power in both the literal and metaphoric senses of the term. The immediate reason that led to this movement was a purported change in the route of TUTAP transmission lines passing through Afghanistan. This movement, which began in 2016, claimed that this multi-country electricity transmission project was “originally” planned to pass through the Hazara-populated province of Bamyan. However, the movement claimed that ethnic biases harbored by the previous and current governments of Afghanistan resulted in the re-routing of the transmission lines.
In fact, Afghans have not stopped at just shaking up the political paraphernalia; they have gone beyond to demand an end to violence and to give peace a chance.
Bypassing their areas (Central Afghanistan majorly), Salang Pass was chosen as the “new” site for the project. Given the demographics in and around the Salang Pass, which are heavily biased in favor of Pashtuns, the claims made by Hazara of ethnic discrimination did not appear misplaced. This rehashing of the original plan, according to the protesting Hazara community, had much more to do with historical and persisting ethnic prejudices than economic feasibility. The current government led by Ashraf Ghani on its part has denied any wrong-doing. In fact, it has steadfastly maintained that the decision to re-route, if any, was taken by the government(s) before it and that the Salang Pass route is more economically feasible.
Although it is still not known if the change, as alleged, actually took place and that the reasons behind it were more cultural than financial, what this movement did highlight with utmost clarity has been the coming of age of democracy in Afghanistan. That a significant democratic tradition — civic demonstrations — was used to hold those in power accountable for their decisions showed that the faith of Afghans in democracy is still intact despite setbacks. Furthermore, this movement also demonstrated that democracy, which allows and in fact promotes competition around community interests, could become a positive force for mobilization. For a community that has been persecuted since the time of Abdur Rahman Khan (19th century), democracy provided them a legitimate outlet to voice their concerns and demand change.
Helmand Demands Peace
What had once been a stronghold of the Taliban and a province that posed a lot of challenges for international peace-keeping operations, Helmand is currently experiencing a surge in popular demonstrations against the war. Long in the center of the storm, the capital of Lashkar Gah was shaken on March 23, 2018 by yet another attack that left 16 dead and more than 50 injured, when a car bomb exploded in front of a sports stadium where people had gathered to watch a wrestling match.
This attack became the trigger for people to demand an end to violence. Called the People’s Movement, this protest came in the wake of the spiralling violence that this town has experienced for decades now. Caught up between the Taliban on one side and government forces on the other, the people of Lashkar Gah are experiencing what in strategic-speak is dubbed as “collateral damage.” Demanding that these violent exchanges end and that the people of Lashkar Gah be spared from becoming pawns in this conflict, this protest has been a remarkable demonstration of grassroots activism. What till now appeared to be a feature of prominent urban centers in Afghanistan, civic activism appears to have taken root in even the most volatile and underdeveloped parts of the country. And this is not all.
In a first — especially for conservative Lashkar Gah — this protest has given space to women’s voices as well. Women, especially widows and mothers, have come out in considerable numbers to demand the cessation of violence. Similar to what is happening across the Afghan border in Pakistan, the members of the People’s Movement are planning to undertake a “long march” to the Musa Qala — one of the critical centers in the Taliban’s narco-militancy nexus.
This protest is certainly smaller in scale when compared with others that have taken place in the major political centers of Afghanistan. But despite its size, the location of this movement as well as its people-led character have contributed to its impact. In fact, according to reports, the People’s Movement appears to have hit some nerve with the Taliban which has “welcomed the movement.” The Ulema Council of the province has also assured the protestors of their support to get their “demand for ceasefire met.”
Although the protesters have also been told by the Taliban to protest at US bases — stemming from Taliban’s opinion that the war in Afghanistan continues to be fuelled by the international military presence — they, however, believe that they are on the “right path.” In fact, one of the organizers of the protest said: “We are not demanding peace from [neighboring] Pakistan or the United States, but we will keep on raising our voice to conclude peace with our brothers”.
As people of Afghanistan mobilize traditions and features of democracy to challenge the inertia and apathy that have set in the country’s democratic institutions, one cannot help but concur with what is said about the land of the Hindukush. It is a country with a strong nation but a weak state. The demonstrations demanding accountability and transparency from the political class and the various governmental and administrative institutions are an expression of both the frustration felt by the masses as well as their faith in the virtues of democracy. In fact, Afghans have not stopped at just shaking up the political paraphernalia; they have gone beyond to demand an end to violence and to give peace a chance. As more and more people — men and women, young and old — take to the streets to demand peace, prosperity, and power, we can be sure that the roots of democracy will spread and deepen in this country with every passing day.