The Gujar Khan Intifada in Pakistan

The complaints by friends and family never ended: nothing’s happening, nor will it happen, since people, even though the vast majority of them are suffering, are lazy and passive. My stay in Pakistan so far has often encountered such cynicism. I expect such a sentiment from those who like to speak the talk of change, but really know that their interests lie in more or less the perpetuation of the status quo. But unfortunately, this virus of cynicism had begun to infect ordinary working people in Pakistan as well, who correctly perceive neither the reigning military regime nor any major political formation as being representative of their interests, and simultaneously feel that their society has simply become too depoliticized to mount an effective challenge to the way things are.

And then, the people of Gujar Khan, a fairly large town about forty minutes from the capital Islamabad, treat us to one of the most energetic and inspiring displays of popular action I’ve ever seen in my life. The immediate cause for this protest has been the lengthy “load-shedding” or cutting of electrical power by the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), a government agency. WAPDA has taken more and more power away day by day, and in the context of the scorching heat pervading this part of the country during this time of the year, this has been utterly disastrous for the residents here.

It was people’s power that was on display here today, the 6th of July. It was massive but surprisingly fairly spontaneous, able to attract hundreds and thousands of people within minutes of when some of the leading activists converged. The amazing fact to many (at least to those who accept at face value the establishment line that the “masses” or the “mob” are senseless, erratic, incapable of appropriate self-action and thus in need of a “vanguard” leadership) was that the spectacle was highly decentralized and participatory, where people from all walks of life in the town were making decisions about what to do and what not to do, what to target and what not to target, etc. The semi-anarchist nature of the event encouraged many who otherwise did not consider themselves as “Leaders” (with a big “L) to become “leaders” (with a small “l”) in their own right. It was a positive sign in a society whose history and politics have compelled a good deal of the population toward an almost pathological obsession with personalities and leaders. An analysis of objective conditions, institutions, and processes, something which does have the potential to offer a framework for social action for social change, is often considered too dull and dry.

The popular protest took over the main highway that runs through the town, the quite historic Grand Trunk (G.T.) Road. It put the typically very heavy traffic going in both directions to a standstill from the early afternoon till late evening. Again, the participation of the town folk in the demonstration was immense, and neither did people in their cars put up a real fight against the protestors blocking their way, nor, more importantly, did the police. The protestors controlled the streets, blocked the traffic, and stormed the offices of the despised WAPDA, but the police could not do a thing about it. The most comical but also quite symbolic aspect of the event was the parading of a donkey with the words “WAPDA Chairman” written in Urdu on it. Some people complained that this was an insult to the donkey. The people really had the power today. 

It is also important to note that the people’s disciplined and principled action, quite militant (but non-violent) at times, won the allegiance of many of the spectators and working people nearby, as well as, surprisingly, some of the police. I was immediately reminded of the stories of American soldiers in different contexts and various moments in history, of course Vietnam but also Iraq now, refusing to participate in unjust repression and murder. It seemed like there were security forces in Gujar Khan whose consciences, like those American soldiers of yesteryear and today, also triumphed over their immoral orders from higher-ups.

What was understood by all was that this was about the corruption and callousness of government, the complete indifference shown to the suffering and collective torture of whole villages, towns, and cities where people, especially children and the old, are routinely dying of heat strokes. Of course, there are also pockets of cities in Pakistan where electric power is not being cut, and they – surprise, surprise – are mostly inhabited by the more affluent sections of society. Additionally, the wealthy can afford generators of electric power in their homes, often two or more, so this load-shedding phenomenon, as well as the emerging resistance to it, is a rather remote reality for them.

The driver of one of the cars stuck in the blocked traffic complained to one of the protestors that he has children in the car who are suffering in this heat. The protestor responded sympathetically, but also said that, “Your children have only suffered a few minutes. The children of Gujar Khan have been suffering and dying for a month now but no one has lifted a finger.” Gujar Khan, for some strange reason, has been disproportionately affected by this nationwide load-shedding. Perhaps it is because the head of the WAPDA district that is able to implement the most hours of load-shedding will be rewarded by a bonus. It seems like the head of Gujar Khan WAPDA got his bonus early this year.

Undoubtedly, there will be many from the intellectual class and political parties that will feign sympathy with the protestors’ and the people of Gujar Khan’s conditions, but will simultaneously pontificate on the “correct way” of doing things. We shall hear platitudes that call for the peaceful voicing of concerns, sensible negotiations, etc. – all from those who for the most part do not have to experience an iota of the misery being felt here over the past month or so. For them, the peace has only been disturbed today; for the people of Gujar Khan, their peace, their right to decent life, sleep, and care for their children, has been disturbed for quite a while now, but shamelessly ignored by the haves of the country.

In reality, what elite sections of Pakistani society, including even the more liberal elements within it, fear most is political protest of this kind, where ordinary Pakistanis take control over their lives as well as the means to improve them, unmediated by the corrupt local, provincial, or federal government, or by some paternalistic NGO. There is also trepidation amongst these upper classes at the way in which the protestors made the connection between this particularly oppressive act of lengthy load-shedding with the general sentiment (and popular Urdu saying) that the poor and ordinary working Pakistani’s blood is being constantly sucked by the powerful.

Only a spark was necessary, thus, to ignite what was commonly thought of as a dormant population to action, and a highly motivated and effective one at that. The courage displayed by people who live in a country under military dictatorship and with police and security forces not averse to using violent and brutal means to suppress the population, was extraordinary and is something certainly those living in more privileged and freer societies can lean from. This struggle, this “intifada” or “shaking off,” however, cannot advance under the leadership of any major political party in the country. Nor shall we have too many NGOs involved in such types of popular movements, since the language of “civil society” and “empowerment” that they have been taught must fit the demands of neo-liberalism (or provide some cushion for a handful of the peoples devastated by it), not challenge or resist it. No, such a struggle can only be carried out from below, by the same impoverished, suffering, and working people that did it today, by those who use the language of “empowerment” not to get more foreign funding, but to truly help make the people sovereign. The dynamic social movements of the world, particularly the ones that have arisen in Latin America, are the examples before us.

One of the most fascinating facets of the day’s event was how quickly camaraderie, friendship, and purpose developed. Such then, as my good friend Bob Jensen says, are the “joys of the struggle.”

Junaid S. Ahmad is a law student at the College of William and Mary, an Executive Board Member of the Domestic Violence Resource Project, and a member of the Abu Dharr Collective, a collective of Muslims committed to the ideal of social justice and to articulating an Islamic theology of liberation. He can be reached at:


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