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Why Protests In Islamabad Could Have Large Geo-Politicial Ramifications

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The years of democratic governments since fall of Musharraf regime in 2008 have remained an unfulfilled dream.

The fragility of democracy in India’s neighbourhood has been exposed on numerous occasions like in 2009 when the Pakistani Taliban took control of Buner (177km from Islamabad) with news spreading of the march progressing towards capturing Islamabad. The 2012 protests in Lahore where Difa-i-Pakistan Council (DPC), a group of Pakistani hardliners opposed Islamabad’s decision to help USA’s anti-terror operations is another example. The latest though is the 2014 Azadi March by Imran Khan’s ‘Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’, where supporters of the cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri protested against erstwhile PM Nawaz Sharif for winning the 2013 elections illegitimately.

The situation reached its worst stage, when protests last week in Islamabad led to the death of six people and injured over 200 after clashes between police and protesters belonging to hardline religious groups.

The controversy erupted when Pakistan amended the declaration of faith (Khatm-i-Naboowat) in the recently passed Election Act 2017. The amendment in the Elections Act 2017 was that the words in Form-A “I solemnly swear” had been replaced with “I believe” which led to the dilution of the candidate’s belief in the finality of the prophethood of Prophet Muhammad and it had been made not applicable to non-Muslim candidates. Also Sections 7B and 7C of The Conduct of General Elections Order, 2002, which relate to the status of Ahmediyas were absent from the Election Act 2017.

As reported in Dawn, Section 7B says that the status of Ahmadis remains as stated in the Constitution of Pakistan, while section 7C states that if an enrolled voter’s belief in the finality of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood has contended, they shall have to sign a declaration stating so, failing which their “name shall be deleted from the joint electoral rolls and added to a supplementary list of voters in the same electoral area as non-Muslim.”

Hence, the omission of 7B and 7C empowered Ahmadiyas who have historically been persecuted by Pakistan, 1984 Anti-Ahmadiyya Amendment said that Ahmadis cannot call themselves Muslim or “pose as Muslims” which is punishable by three years in prison.

This relaxation to Ahmadiyas was the bone of contention between the government and the pre-dominant Barelvi led by three parties namely Tehreek-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwwat, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and Sunni Tehreek Pakistan. Barelvi parties called the liberal steps of the government as blasphemy which ultimately led to the government accepting the demands of Barelvi hardliners and called the Election Act 2017 changes as “clerical errors” and subsequent resignation of Law Minister.

These developments reflect a deeper point which needs to be analysed as to how the domestic politics of Pakistan is developing, its influence on the Indian subcontinent, and the relations of Pakistan with other nations.

In the domestic politics of Pakistan, this movement was a significant step. It represented the growing disenchantment within the Barelvi community which is feeling discontent due to large funds gathered by other communities like Deobandi, Salafis both internally (State, Army, ISI, private support) and externally (aided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar). For simplification, one can understand that Salafi/Wahabi, Deobandi, Barelvi represent descending order in the magnitude of hardliner ideology respectively.

Also, Barelvi have been against Salafi hardliners like Hafiz Saeed who is now entering political establishment of Pakistan through a political party named Milli Muslim League. Since the army, the ISI reportedly consider Hafiz Saeed as their “strategic asset”, Hafiz Saeed entry into mainstream politics will help him legitimise his position on the world scale. Barelvi parties will hence be directly pitted against Saeed’s party, and since latter is reportedly said to have the backing of the deep state, Barelvi parties feel further alienated.

Moreover, this event has also deepened civil government-military distrust which was already widening after Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from the post of Prime Minister. It is now reported that when the civilian government asked the military to help in removing the blockade, the military is reported to have said no, and said that it could not risk the “love and trust” of the people for “small gains”. Later, Army acted as mediator and helped in resolving the crisis thereby delegitimising the civil administration.

Further, since General Bajwa is said to have few family members of Ahmadiyya community, army possibly believed that these protests were castigated by the civilian administration to make religious parties go against the army. This made the situation worse and widened the trust deficit.

The current condition in Pakistan is no less than anarchy. The GHQ Rawalpindi (army headquarters) remains at a sweet spot with the consolidation of power. The power tussle within PML (Nawaz) is ongoing, the PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) is devoid of resurgence, and the infamous 10-year cycle of the military rule-civilian rule is knocking the door of Islamabad. Though military coup is highly unlikely, as it is said in Pakistani politics “never say never”

The impact of hardliners rising in Pakistan have a broader message to the Indian subcontinent. Since Jihadi elements have begun to rise in domestic politics, their ideas are expected to spread in neighbouring nations especially where democracy is still fragile namely Maldives, Bangladesh. Due to the deep integration of India with both these nations, New Delhi must remain conscious of the change. Also, Jihadi elements have anti-India propaganda which could spur violence, and militancy in Kashmir, owing to rising tensions with India domestically. Further, Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation, and irresponsible use of nuclear weapons could ultimately lead to nuclear terrorism if such hardline forces continue to gain ground.

Also, Pakistan’s relationship with other nations could be in jeopardy in the future. Hafiz Saeed had slammed Pakistan’s all weather friend China for the violence done by Beijing against Xinjiang Muslims or Uyghurs. If the radicalism continues to gain ground in Pakistan, China may begin to alienate Pakistan as Chinese need stability in the nations to conduct its operations in CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) peacefully. CPEC is a crucial part of ambitious BRI (Belt and Road initiative) of Beijing, and any turbulence in domestic politics by Islamist hardliners could result in the creation of cracks in China-Pakistan partnership.

Likewise, Iran would be greatly concerned if hardliner Sunni parties gain prominence in Islamabad. Similarly, Afghanistan could further alienate from Pakistan as the tendency of creating a “strategic edge” in Afghanistan will further resonate with the minds of hardliners.

Hence, New Delhi must remain cautious and monitor the situation closely. The game between several actors within Pakistan has begun and its unfolding will gradually determine the trajectory of future stability in South Asia.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

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With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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Find out more about the campaign here.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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