Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe
Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe

The season of discontent

How has COVID-19 impacted civic mobilisation and organising in Southasia?

Alizeh Kohari is a journalist who divides her time between Karachi and Mexico City.

(This article is part of our special series Unmasking Southasia: The pandemic issue. You can read the editorial note to the series here.)
The last public protest I attended was on 8 March 2020. Two weeks later, the world changed. It was already changing, of course – had already changed, perhaps – but we didn't know yet how much or for how long. That day, the gardens surrounding Karachi's Frere Hall heaved with humans, mostly women; in a satisfying inversion of the status quo, men were allowed only in the company of a woman or a non-binary person. First, we shuffled, single-file, through a metal detector; the day was muggy, and, if we carried water, we had to first sip it under the watchful eye of an organiser, so she could make sure we weren't smuggling acid onto the premises. Guns, explosives, acid attacks – these were familiar threats. What we hadn't yet learned to fear was the simple presence of other humans – their breath, their touch, the threat of contagion.
Many young Pakistani women will tell you that the Aurat March, a feminist movement that culminates in countrywide demonstrations on International Women's Day, was their first experience of old-fashioned, flesh-against-flesh political engagement. In a region heavily segregated along gender, class and religious lines, public and collective forms of resistance hold immense power. But as COVID-19 maintains its grip on the world, has this form of politics become impossible?

As per one risk assessment, at least two countries in the region, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are poised to face unprecedented street protests for the next three years.

According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) Project, a US-based organisation which tracks unrest across the world, the frequency of protests plummeted across Southasia in March 2020, declining by nearly 300 percent from the start of the year. But this dramatic decline didn't necessarily imply that resistance had dissipated. As large swathes of the world locked down, a research team led by political scientist Erica Chenoweth began collecting data on the various methods people were using to express solidarity or press for change in the midst of a global crisis. "Far from condemning social movements to obsolescence," the researchers argued, "the pandemic – and governments' responses to it – are spawning new tools, new strategies and new motivation to push for change."
Chileans banged pots and pans from inside their homes, deploying a centuries-old protest tradition; Hong Kong activists began protesting virtually on social-simulation video game Animal Crossing. Organisers in Washington DC painted a mural on billionaire Jeff Bezos's doorstep, demanding protections for Amazon's workers. Car rallies became popular; mysterious protest messages on immigrant detention filled the skies; digital rallies, teach-ins and online information-sharing became increasingly commonplace.
Inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the United States, street protests ramped up again over the summer. According to ACLED data, in Southasia – where social distancing was arguably always doomed – the number of protests in recent months have exceeded pre-pandemic levels. As per one risk assessment, at least two countries in the region, Pakistan and Bangladesh, are poised to face unprecedented street protests for the next three years. But even if the death of visceral politics was short-lived, it is worth asking: how did it affect organising in Southasia? And, as states seek to entrench autocratic and extractive logics under the guise of disease management, how does it continue to be affected? I spoke to activists across the region to find out.
A digital front?
In a region where internet penetration remains low, is it possible to summon the might of street power in the virtual sphere? What does solidarity look like under social distancing?
As India went into national lockdown in late March 2020 with a notice of only four hours, triggering the largest mass exodus in the country since 1947, labour activists, students, and researchers mobilised under the banner of Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (MWSN) to support the millions who were suddenly stranded. A helpline was launched for stranded workers, posters circulated on WhatsApp in ten languages, and volunteers recruited in different cities to coordinate relief efforts on the ground. On social media, #MigrantLivesMatter began to trend.

"The bodies on the street still matter. They're much more ominous for the state. In some ways, they're more effective now than ever."

At the same time, troubled with cliched narratives about the migrant workers being bailed out by charity, some sought to document their agency and resistance. Sunil Tamminaina, a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University and coordinator for the Migrant Workers Resistance Map, told me in May: "There have been hundreds of instances where migrant workers actually resisted whatever abject conditionalities are being put upon them: they came on to the roads, demanded that food be provided, relief shelters be upgraded, wages be paid." Tamminaina collected over a hundred and fifty such examples, creating an interactive map for MSWN to push back against the prevailing narrative and popular amnesia.
From Karachi, lawyer and rights activist Abira Ashfaq recalled an instance where a demonstration was in perfect keeping with public-health mandates: the 'Justice for Bramsh' protest against the extrajudicial murder of a woman in Balochistan in June. "It was outside the Karachi Press Club; people spread out and powerfully took over two entire streets, maintained social distance and wore masks."
More and more activists are, however, expending the greater part of their energies online. In 2019, Ashfaq had been part of demonstrations in Karachi where dozens of people marched through the colonies facing imminent eviction due to the proposed revival of the Karachi Circular Railway. "Such protests do not seem possible at the moment," she said. "I do see some leftist and radical youth and student groups maintaining street level action. Others are more cautious and have migrated to online conversations." But the limits of such methods are clear.
"The bodies on the street still matter," says Layli Uddin, a historian of modern Southasia and a professor at King's College, London, who spoke to me over Zoom. "They're much more ominous for the state. In some ways, they're more effective now than ever, actually, because it shows that people are putting their lives on the line for causes that are seen as greater than their actual health itself."

Activists will tell you the success of movements is often contingent on an alchemy of timing and circumstance.

As the pandemic threw existing state neglect into starker relief, some activists also sensed a change in receptiveness to their causes – particularly in the early days of lockdown – even as physical-distancing measures made it difficult to organise in person. In Islamabad, when capital authorities demolished an informal settlement in mid-April under cover of COVID-19, evicting 75 families, activist Ammar Rashid noticed the difference. "I've seen 10 or 15 katchi abadis [makeshift settlements] being demolished in front of my eyes," he told me in May. "People are often not that sympathetic. You usually get responses like: 'These are landgrabbers, it isn't their land, the state is right to remove them." Those people are much more muted right now." Rashid also sensed an increased interest in calls for fairness and justice among the communities he organises, who are normally busy with their lives. "Right now, though, it's an emergency situation. People are looking for answers."
However, digital organising – as opposed to, say, corner meetings – can mean that the most disenfranchised are likely to continue being left out. Rashid observed that those who have access to digital media were much more active during the lockdown in mobilisation efforts. "Older comrades are less involved," he told me. "But we're trying to use this as an opportunity to build our digital infrastructure." From Karachi, Ashfaq added, "Online and street work has co-existed for a while. The more interesting question is how much more social media is being utilised as a means of organising now than before the pandemic… and whether we've found ways to forge unities and transgress boundaries, band-aid rifts of class, ethnicity, religion and geography?"
Existing movements, caught unawares by the pandemic, are also using this moment to reassess longer-term aims and tactics. "Hopefully some of us will use this time to think, read, write, and connect so we can come out stronger and more informed in the ways systems of oppression work to reduce most people to bare existence," said Ashfaq. "I do feel that after the pandemic is over, street action, marches, and building within communities will seem more relevant, necessary and an imperative."
Activists will tell you the success of movements is often contingent on an alchemy of timing and circumstance: you can plod on in relative obscurity for years or decades, then the wind will change and your cause might catch fire. Political mobilisation, Uddin pointed out, doesn't usually occur when you're at your weakest. "When you're laid off work, when you're thinking about food, the energy to protest is taken over by a more fundamental need to survive," she said. "Even though it is a very difficult time for mobilisations, I think they do need to happen now." After all, moments of crisis hold revolutionary potential precisely because it isn't just a crisis for people, she added – it is also a crisis for a normally intransigent state.
Blueprint for control
In November, I spoke to Sadaat Ruhul, an eighth semester student at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), who has been campaigning for a 50-percent tuition waiver since universities transitioned to online teaching. In the initial months of the lockdown, he told me, the streets were empty. But this phase of withdrawal from public life did not last very long. "Now if you come to Dhaka, or other parts of Bangladesh, you'll see no attempts to enforce social distancing from the government and, as a result, from the people." Educational institutions remain closed, however, even as businesses and workplaces have opened. In fact, the government has been extending the closure of schools and universities almost every month. Ruhul thinks this is because the Bangladeshi state is wary of the agitational power of students, not unlikely given the recent history of student activism in the country, including the 2018 movement for road safety. "If kids are dying on the street, students aren't going to remain silent – we will come out in force and that might even topple the government," he says.
Ruhul's current battle is with the private university where he is enrolled. "The administration doesn't really take a hard line if you're protesting on national issues. They think you're not coming for them." But as he found out, their approach is different when the demand is something that, as he puts it, "hits their pockets." In mid-November, Ruhul was expelled from the university after he participated in a campaign demanding for a 50-percent decrease in tuition fees. Or, according to the university, for "tarnishing the university's image" – a code, he says, for hurting their bottom line. He is currently appealing the decision. "All the protestors, without fail, have received implicitly threatening phone calls to their homes," he says, "When we announce a protest, there'll be three vans full of the Chhatra League [the student wing of the ruling party]." In the weeks since I first spoke to Ruhul, he has been arrested and released on bail along with a fellow student, after ULAB filed charges of vandalism against both.

Nowhere, of course, is a state's ability to lock down a region – both physically and virtually – more apparent than in Jammu and Kashmir.

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, protests are likely to increase, says an activist I spoke to in June. He was arrested, alongside fifteen others, for taking part in a Black Lives Matter solidarity protest in Colombo. The government was using the cover of COVID-19 regulations to quash dissent, he said. "Even before the pandemic, the Sri Lankan economy was on the verge of a crisis… the pandemic has expedited and worsened the situation," he noted. "On the one hand, there's an economic crisis; on the other hand, there'll definitely be a democratic crisis in Sri Lanka."
Sociologist Ahilan Kadirgamar appeared to agree. There already was considerable apathy in Sri Lanka about the Parliament's handling of political and security crises in recent years, he told me in June, prior to the general election. "So, in this context and given the mounting economic crisis, people are looking for a strongman leader and a fairly consolidated government which doesn't bode well for democracy."
"I feel COVID-19 has been used by the state as a test case or blueprint of how they can shut down communities, detain people, contain movement, and block riots and protest," said Ashfaq from Karachi. She gave the example of an incident where the police, invoking a law that allows the state to ban public gatherings, beat young swimmers from a low-income background at a beach. "Legally they have Section 144 [of the criminal code, which allows bans on public activities] and logistically, they've now seen how law enforcement and physical barricades can be employed to shut down an entire country, city or mohallah in a 'benevolent' curfew. They have a template for a city divided and barricades along class lines."
Nowhere, of course, is a state's ability to lock down a region – both physically and virtually – more apparent than in Jammu and Kashmir, which has been under an internet crackdown for over a year now. As Hafsa Kanjwal, a professor of Southasian studies and member of Critical Kashmir Studies, told me, under the cover of COVID-19, the Indian state has passed a series of laws that intend to change the demographics of the region: a domicile law that allows certain categories of Indians to claim residency rights in Kashmir, and a land law that gives non-residents access to non-agricultural land in J & K.
"Traditionally, street protests have occurred despite a communications embargo, organised by word of mouth and actual physical mobilisation," a Kashmiri journalist told me, preferring to remain anonymous. "In recent years, social media anonymity had played a role, with its instant reach, but with the advancement in technology, it has become too risky. The first and the foremost peril is that the digital world leaves a trace." Both Kanjwal and the journalist pointed to increasing crackdown on online expression. "The cyber police in Jammu and Kashmir has been really ramped up," said Kanjwal. "A few weeks ago, we saw hundreds of social media users in Kashmir disappear, and now we can see that people are being very careful about the kinds of things they say online because they know that's under watch. I think it's going to be very difficult for people to organise in an increasingly digital world because the state is able to enact that surveillance in that space as well."
Indeed, as progressive activists across the region petition their governments to pay attention to their most vulnerable citizens, they also worried about unwittingly arming them with more tools of control: what if the information the state – and some private actors – was collecting, and which people in their desperation were eager to share, was put to more nefarious use? Ashfaq recalled that early on in the pandemic, people were sharing ID numbers of people in need of rations on Facebook and WhatsApp. "This was done in good faith," she said, "but it also exposes the data of the socially weak." Rashid's experience was similar in Islamabad: people, including women – who are usually less forthcoming about sharing personal details – were "falling over themselves" to provide their contact information, he said.
Tamminaina expressed similar concerns, with more than 5 million migrant workers in India being made to travel via special trains where identification was mandatory. "So that's basically 50 lakh Aadhars that have been taken by the government without any obligation of protecting how this data would be used."
Histories of shocks
Is there a period in Southasian history analogous to our current moment?
Uddin was reluctant to make a direct comparison: there have been past moments of stress followed by extraordinary mobilisation, subsequently followed by extraordinary state repression, she noted. But the current moment is also unprecedented in many ways: in terms of the technology available to the government and to ordinary people, its impact on citizen's ability to mobilise, but also in terms of the scale of the failings of existing public infrastructure. Environmental studies scholar Kasim Tirmizey, however, invoked the years of the late 19th and early 20th century to suggest that present challenges are not so different from the past ones.
"This was a period which saw the formation of an international grain market that connected a sharecropper harvesting wheat in the Nili Bar to an English textile factory worker eating his bread for cheap," Tirmizey told me over email. The Subcontinent – and Punjab in particular – underwent massive transformations in those decades: the assignation of private property and the subsequent creation of landlords and sharecroppers; the conversion, via canal irrigation, of plains inhabited by nomadic pastoralists into agriculture fields; the connection of these agricultural fields to the grain markets in London through the development of roads, railways, market towns, and the port of Karachi. "This imposed export-oriented agrarian economy produced famines in British India," Tirmizey explained. "And it created the conditions for weakened immunity that made sharecroppers and landless labour highly vulnerable to the plague and influenza." From the 1890s to the 1920s, more than 12 million people died from the plague in British India, and at least 12 million died from the influenza outbreak of 1918-1919, part of a global pandemic on a greater scale than COVID-19 today.
"What's also interesting is that, in this period, we also find the emergence of anti-colonial movements like the Ghadar Party," Tirmizey added. "These were Punjabi peasants who migrated to North America, East Africa, East Asia because of the famines, epidemics, and land squeeze occurring in this period. But along the way they turn to anti-colonial politics and make these links as well, between colonialism and pandemics."
In the present moment, too, it is possible to identify broader forces at play: in Pakistan, for instance, food-price inflation may have already been a trend prior to the pandemic, connected to International Monetary Fund loans and the structural adjustments that came with it. However, Tirmizey also draws a connection with the state not prioritising hunger in working communities in its COVID-19 response. "I wonder how increasing food insecurity in the region is contributing to vulnerability to COVID-19. And it's an open question whether food insecurity will become a mobilising force as it has been in the past." As thousands of Indian farmers stage possibly the largest protest in world history, defying tear gas – and challenging expectations of what is politically possible during a global pandemic – just weeks after protesting Pakistani farmers were baton-charged in Lahore, the resonances across time and space seem increasingly clear.
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