A sit-in protest is a form of protest in which protesters sit at a place and insist on a particular demand(s). Protests by protesters usually continue until their demands are met. The demands of sit-ins are usually of practical nature, and they have been used throughout history for the purpose of stopping a particular action/policy or drawing the attention of the concerned authorities towards the same. In addition, the location of the sit-in is important; usually a place is chosen that disrupts daily-life activities and attracts the attention of the people and the authorities.
According to the perspective given by David S. Meyer, a professor of sociology at the University of California, in the early 1900s, the Industrial Workers of the World, a trade union, staged sit-ins to stop daily activities of businesses and to protect workers and show solidarity with them. United Auto Workers took the lead from the same in the Industrial Workers of the World sit-ins in the 1930s, and forced large factories to shut down. Their sit-in in 1937 forced General Motors to accept their demands. But the most important sit-ins in the history of the United States are those of the Greensboro.
Greensboro’s first sit-in protest was a civil rights protest that began in January 1960 when four African-American students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter, reserved for white Americans only, in Greensboro, North Carolina. When the employees at the counter refused to serve them lunch, they sat in protest until the counter was closed. The next day, the same four students went to the counter, while some other students also joined them, and they again staged a sit-in. The sit-in, with each passing day, took the form of a movement and gained momentum throughout American cities in the South. Although many protesters were arrested on the charges of misconduct or disturbing the peace, and were beaten by police, their actions had immediate and lasting impacts. By the end of March the same year, the movement had spread to 55 cities in 13 states, and many white Americans had also joined the movement. As a result of this movement, Woolworth and other organizations had to change their policies.
If we consider these historic sit-ins of the United States, it is clear that the biggest reason for their success was their practical demands. Their demands were very clear and concrete. Another highlight of these sit-ins was that they were purely civil and were not led by any religious or political party.
If we look at the history of sit-ins in Pakistan, we find that two types of sit-ins have been common here. The demands in the first type of sit-ins have been political and religious in nature. Attempts to overthrow the government have generally been at the forefront of such political demands, even religious political parties have taken part in such sit-ins. The 126-day sit-ins of Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan in 2013 and 2014 are examples of such sit-ins. Apart from this, religious demands have also been common in such sit-ins, such as the sit-ins of Allama Khadim Rizvi in 2017 and 2020 at Faizabad that connects Rawalpindi and Islamabad against changes in electoral forms, blasphemy and blasphemous sketches.
The second type of sit-ins in Pakistan have had civil demands. Such sit-ins were usually started by students and non-political groups. We find their examples in the students’ sit-ins that they started for their rights in the 1960s. In addition, the Pashtun Tahafooz Movement’s (PTM) sit-in in Islamabad and the sit-in of government employees in Islamabad in 2020, especially that of Lady Health Workers, were all for civil rights at the time of their birth. But these sit-ins, in one way or the other, became the tools of political groups. For example, the 1960 sit-ins were used by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto for political purposes. PTM, after the election of two of its members to National Assembly and the slogans of Lar-o-Bar, is no more a civil movement. While, the sit-in protests of government employees, if continued, can be used by Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to pressurize the government. There are a number of reasons why these sit-ins lost their basic character and turned into tools of the political parties, but the most important is the lack of awareness of the Pakistani people about their civil rights and the weakness of civil society in the country.
Now let’s turn to the sit-ins of the Hazara community in Quetta, Pakistan. There have been several sit-ins by the Hazaras of Quetta against the genocide of the community (in which about 3000 people have been killed or injured) for almost 22 years. (These sit-ins also include hunger strike camps, but they will not be discussed in this article because their nature and history are different). The prominent sit-ins in the Hazara community were in early 2013, when about 226 people were killed in January and February due to lethal blasts on Alamdar Road and in Hazara Town. People staged sit-in in the bitter cold with the bodies of the victims in front of them. But the leadership of the sit-in was soon hijacked by a religious group. The most important demand of the sit-in was to rid Balochistan of the provincial government which had not only failed to bring peace but was also making a mockery of the bereaved families. The demand was accepted and Governor Rule was imposed in Balochistan, but the Hazara genocide continued.
The history of sit-ins in Pakistan shows that such protests have always been used for political purposes. And these political objectives were not limited to the stakeholders within the country, rather they included the objectives of the ones outside the country as well. The 2013 sit-ins did not escape this effect, and the facts that emerged after the sit-ins show how the religious group that led the sit-ins used them for their own political ends. For example, after these sit-ins in 2013, the foundations of the Balochistan wing of the Majlis-e-Wahdat-ul-Muslimeen (MWM) were strengthened. They contested the July 2013 elections and won a seat in Balochistan Provincial Assembly. And in a recent article about 2013 sit-ins, the then-Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed he went to Iran on emergency basis to end the sit-ins and met with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, their Interior Minister, and Iran’s Supreme Leader; he called on the three leaders to talk to the Shia leadership in Pakistan and persuade them to end the sit-in. He added that they complied and when he returned to Pakistan the next day, he visited Quetta, where he met with the sit-in leadership, who later announced that the protest would end.
Besides, the role of senior Hazara political leader Tahir Khan Hazara in a few sit-ins is also debatable. After the Hazarganji incident in April 2019 in which 10 Hazara vegetable sellers were killed, Tahir Khan staged a sit-in on the Western Bypass. The demands of this sit-in were not concrete because perhaps their aim was not to achieve a particular demand but to use the sit-in to spread a particular political ideology. As per the ideology promulgated by Tahir Khan himself, the massacre of the Hazara community is the work of the state itself, and the state and its security agencies only protect the interests of a certain class, so exposing them is the actual goal, because he thinks that by doing so the path to a socialist revolution can be paved, and the solution to all the problems lies in a socialist system. Despite promulgating such ideology for years, Tahir Khan’s political objectives came to light in 2018 when he contested election and tried his best to win a seat in the provincial assembly.
Then in January 2021, 10 Hazara coal-miners were brutally killed in Mach, after which MWM staged a sit-in on the Western Bypass. To make the sit-in effective, victim’s bodies were also shifted to the place of the sit-in and the protest continued for 6 days. Demands of the sit-ins were not decided from day one and gradually began to emerge. The most important demand was that Prime Minister Imran Khan should come to the protesters and assure them that such incidents will not happen again. But Imran Khan, in one of his speeches, said that he would not be ‘blackmailed’ by the protestors. His statement came as a shock to Hazara community. And most of the people in the community who were not part of the sit-in due to the presence of MWM also started supporting it, and they also started insisting that Imran Khan should come to the sit-in. But on the sixth day of the protest, Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi from Iran said that the families of the victims should bury the dead bodies. Perhaps, it was as a response to this statement that the MWM leadership, contrary to its demand, and without the Prime Minister’s visit to Quetta, agreed to bury the bodies. With this move of MWM, the support that the sit-in had gained after the statement of Prime Minister Imran Khan vanished. On the other hand though, the remaining demands of the sit-in were accepted by the authorities.
The biggest shortcoming of this sit-in was that there was no concrete demand on the first day. Before staging a sit-in, the sit-in leadership should have done their homework on why they were staging it. But the demands came several days after the sit-in, and some of them had nothing to do with the incident. Therefore, many messages were dispersed from the stage of the sit-in which diverted the attention of the people from the real issue and which have the capacity to generate more problems for the Hazara community in Balochistan in future.
The other important thing that was seen in this sit-in was arrangement of a permanent stage, which was used by the people with different views, expressing their sympathy, but at the same time propagating their political and religious narratives which had nothing to do with the demands of the victims and their families. And all these proceedings were constantly telecasted on media. This made it difficult for the families of the victims to present their pain and demands to the entire Pakistani people in the right manner.
If we want to summarize all the facts and observations presented above, we can say that the history of sit-ins started in the United States for the attainment of civil demands, but sit-ins in Pakistan have generally been used for political purposes. The sit-ins of the Hazara community have been similar. Therefore, the demands of these sit-ins and the stage of these sit-ins have been used for political incentives. If these political objectives were to protect the rights of the families of the victims and the Hazara community, they would not create any difficulty; rather such political steps are the need of the time, but as stated above, the objectives of the sit-ins have been to protect the interests of the political parties and groups and even external stakeholders. So, instead of protecting the Hazara community, such sit-ins can put them in more trouble. Therefore, the people of the Hazara community, especially the youth, need to be more politically vigilant, gain more awareness about their rights and take a stand for their protection. Protection of their lives is their basic civil right and for that they can hold sit-ins, which do not necessarily require the inclusion of any religious political party or political group. This is also evident from the history of sit-ins in the United States mentioned above. In addition, by taking a stand on their civil rights, the Hazara community can attract the attention of entire Pakistani population who are connected to them as Pakistani citizens. At the same time, taking a stand on such basis can be helpful for them to gain support and sympathy at international level as well.