The lead Opposition in Bangladesh strategizes its policies following a Harvard’s research on nonviolence


Why nonviolent resistance beats violent force in effecting social,  political change – Harvard Gazette

History testifies that a threshold 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change.

For Awami League high ups, increasingly it seems, the choice is either to save the party or the Prime Minister and her family. They can’t have both.


by Banamali Poddar   29, 2022

Nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts – and those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change. This is the basis of BNP’s new strategies to orchestrate a people’s revolution to unseat the incumbent regime. Taking help from a select group of academics and political strategists form home and abroad, BNP worked out a plan that is vastly different than anything they did in the past.

The following is piece draws mostly from  what Mr  David Robson, a senior journalist, published in the BCC website on May 14, 2019 tilted ‘The ‘3.5   %  Rule: How a  small  minority can change the world”[i]. BNP policy makers examined and debated extensively on historical precedents where civil resistance by ordinary members of the public trumped the political elite to achieve radical change.

BNP is some way was forced by the violent oppression from the regime to opt for a nonviolent strategy so that they cannot be blamed for violence like it was done in the past. Surely, the sentiment of general people and their ethical choices are  also a precursor for BNP to go for nonviolent choice. For last one decade, BNP activists were either in the government-controlled court, almost daily to fight their allegation of violence against them, or already in the prison. So, the lesson learnt is that keep away from violence so that government’s repeated attempt to implicate will prove increasingly hollow in the eyes of the electorates.

There are compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, confirms that civil disobedience is not only the moral choice; it is also the most powerful way of shaping world politics – by a long way. Her 2012 book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict” , which she co-authored with Chief Organizer of Horizon Project  Ms Maria J. Stephan of USA, chronicles historical precedents from 1900 to 2006.

Looking at hundreds of campaigns over the last century, Chenoweth and Stephan found that nonviolent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. And although the exact dynamics will depend on many factors, she has shown it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.

The book chronicled historical precedents for more than a century, from 1900 to 2006,  of nonviolent resistance campaigns were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. By attracting impressive support from citizens, whose activism takes the form of protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, and other forms of nonviolent noncooperation, these efforts help separate regimes from their main sources of power and produce remarkable results, even in Iran, Myanmar, the Philippines, and the Palestinian Territories.

In fact, of the 25 largest campaigns that the book presented, 20 were nonviolent, and 14 of these were outright successes. Overall, the nonviolent campaigns attracted around four times as many participants (200,000) as the average violent campaign (50,000). The People Power campaign against the Marcos regime in the Philippines, for instance, attracted two million participants at its height, while the Brazilian uprising in 1984 and 1985 attracted one million, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 attracted 500,000 participants. In 2019, the presidents of Sudan and Algeria both announced they would step aside after decades in office, thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance by millions of people.

Being aware of huge decay in the sociopolitical landscape in Bangladesh and  unhesitant use of brutal power of the police, army and civil bureaucrats, BNP was initially rather cynical of the idea that nonviolent actions could be more powerful than armed conflict in most situations. However, their leader resolved to go for the nonviolent menace.  To do this, Tarique Rahman alias Tariq Zia (TZia) mostly followed his father , Shaheed President Ziaur Rahman’s penchant for working with the grassroots. TZ almost singlehandedly, begun the process of rebuilding the grassroots with young and dedicated forces of his party loyal from his exile in London.

This drive for a regenerated grassroot came out spectacularly visible during BNP’s month long division wide public gatherings. The essence of nonviolence hold up as BNP restrained itself from any violent response although they sacrificed as many as twelve lives in last two months. The number would be astonishingly high if one adds up all that they lost in last one decade of present regime’s rule.

Once around 3.5% of the whole population has begun to participate actively, success appears to be inevitable. “There weren’t any campaigns that had failed after they had achieved 3.5% participation during a peak event,” says Chenoweth – a phenomenon she has called the “3.5% rule”. Besides the People Power movement, that included the Singing Revolution in Estonia in the late 1980s and the Rose Revolution in Georgia in the early 2003.

BNP drew from similar researches as they convinced themselves that nonviolent protests can garner such high levels of support. Perhaps most obviously, violent protests necessarily exclude people who abhor and fear bloodshed, whereas peaceful protesters maintain the moral high ground. Researches showed that nonviolent protests also have fewer physical barriers to participation. You do not need to be fit and healthy to engage in a strike, whereas violent campaigns tend to lean on the support of physically fit young men.

The downside is while many forms of nonviolent protests also carry serious risks – just think of China’s response in Tiananmen Square in 1989 or Egypt’s Arab spring. However, it also a fact that nonviolent campaigns are generally easier to discuss openly, which means that news of their occurrence can reach a wider audience. Violent movements, on the other hand, require a supply of weapons, and tend to rely on more secretive underground operations that might struggle to reach the general population.

Overall, nonviolent campaigns were twice as likely to succeed as violent campaigns: they led to political change 53% of the time compared to 26% for the violent protests. Harvard research also provides BNP with historical precedents where they can find a way to deal with the seemingly impervious bloc of pro-government civil military bureaucrats. By engaging broad support across the population, nonviolent campaigns are also more likely to win support among the police and the military – the very groups that the government should be leaning on to bring about order.

During a peaceful street protest of millions of people, the members of the security forces may also be more likely to fear that their family members or friends are in the crowd – meaning that they fail to crack down on the movement. “Or when they’re looking at the [sheer] numbers of people involved, they may just come to the conclusion the ship has sailed, and they don’t want to go down with the ship,” Chenoweth says.

In terms of the specific strategies that are used, general strikes “are probably one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, single method of nonviolent resistance”, Chenoweth says. But they do come at a personal cost, whereas other forms of protest can be completely anonymous. She points to the consumer boycotts in apartheid-era South Africa, in which many black citizens refused to buy products from companies with white owners. The result was an economic crisis among the country’s white elite that contributed to the end of segregation in the early 1990s. The recent call for government not to bring cash from bank to home or shrinking flow of remittances seems a ploy that BNP wish to see getting further traction.

3.5 % is the magic number?

In Chenoweth’s data set, it was only once the nonviolent protests had achieved that 3.5% threshold of active engagement that success seemed to be guaranteed – and raising even that level of support is no mean feat. In Bangladesh, it would amount to 6.3 million people actively engaging in a movement ( in other words only half million people in twelve large cities across the countries at a time). The fact remains, however, that nonviolent campaigns are the only reliable way of maintaining that kind of engagement.

Isabel Bramsen, who studies international conflict at the University of Copenhagen agrees that Chenoweth and Stephan’s results are compelling. “It’s [now] an established truth within the field that the nonviolent approaches are much more likely to succeed than violent ones,” she says. Regarding the “3.5% rule”, she points out that while 3.5% is a small minority, such a level of active participation probably means many more people tacitly agree with the cause.

These researchers are now looking to further untangle the factors that may lead to a movement’s success or failure. Bramsen and Chandler, for instance, both emphasise the importance of unity among demonstrators. As an example, Bramsen points to the failed uprising in Bahrain in 2011. The campaign initially engaged many protestors, but quickly split into competing factions. The resulting loss of cohesion, Bramsen thinks, ultimately prevented the movement from gaining enough momentum to bring about change.

Cohesion is known to be a major headache of BNP. As they are trying to build a coalition of the willing. As their partners come from both the political right and the left, they would have to work extra hard to keep the cohesion tight. Government, on her effort, will do all she can to break in and make a mess of this cohesion. However, BNP is hopeful on the ground that there are so many victims among their coalition partners, they may not betray the spirit of restoring the dignity of those victims. BNP while keeping the likes of Jamat or Hefazot at arms length, they expect that neither Jamat nor Hefazat will ever become serious partner of the Awami League because of their spirit of victimhood.

Academic euphoria aside, the good news is that BNP also worked out a set of strategies where their protest movement remained on course despite imprisonment of a sizable faction of senior leadership. What makes this new movement unique is its extension and simultaneous snowballing into many parties representing political parties of all shades and hues. This is as much a challenge as it is an opportunity to deal with a hard nut to crack type regime.

BNP is steering many oars at the same time. While keeping a multifront option of broader coalition building using anti-incumbency sentiments, it is also showing a nonviolent political culture hitherto unseen in Bangladesh. There is not a single incident where BNP  could be pleaded guilty of being trapped into governments unprecedented oppression. Even on 7 December 2022 when a Hefazat style cleansing operation was enforced Infront of their political headquarter in Noyapaltan, BNP activists , barring a handful, mostly remained non violent.

BNP is also decidedly following this policy of nonviolence as they also need to reassure their immediate neighbor and seemingly only blindfolded supporter of Hasina regime, India that a future BNP government would not be a threat to India in any form.  India, it is reported in some media, is increasingly uncomfortable to tolerate with an adulterated democracy while they pride themselves as world’s largest democracy. In any case, India is bound to review its support whether it is for the regime or the people as the incumbent government is in the power not because of people’s vote, but without. For two successive elections in 2014 and 2018, people of Bangladesh were deprived from their right to franchise using civil military bureaucrats by the Hasina regime.

BNP is also increasingly using digital means to record excesses and the masterminds of those behind such incidents of atrocity crimes so that they could be brought to justice once the revolution is over. More importantly, it is known from a unconfirmed source, they are profiling those masterminds with their antecedents and ill-gotten wealth so that their attempt for future asylum could be overturned into an act of repatriation. BNP legal wing now busy in studying the clauses of crimes against humanity and other crimes of aggressions as recorded by the Rome Statute which gave birth to the Hague based International Criminal Court (ICC). As Bangladesh is already a member of the ICC, so BNP’s move to make those cases of atrocity crimes is well within their jurisdiction. Surely an offer of clemency will also follow once they near their goal as they truly wish to keep this movement nonviolent.

To their advantage, the Biden government in the United States, who is not a member of the ICC yet, is following a policy of silent cooperation with the ICC in order pursue their new policy of democracy worldwide. Taking advantage of this, BNP also taking service from a group of ex -diplomats and friends of the willing to make their cases in the Senate and Congressional committees on Foreign Relations. To their successes, the BNP sympathizers drew a good number of Congressmen and Senators from both the isles. While the same drive by the Awami League supporters showed some success initially, but ebbed significantly following the impositions of those sanctions and some hard hitting media reports by  foreign media like Aljazeera, BBC, DW etc.

Such exercises are not without failure either. Their recent drive to enforce new sanction suffered a mishap mostly due to government’s successful lobbying with the Washington. BNP ,however, pursuing a relentless drive to take advantage of the USA’s new emphasis on democracy and human rights. The recent mauling of present US Ambassador by the government aligned faction is perhaps a boost to their otherwise successful bid to draw more sanctions.

BNP also drew on a policy of putting in place a secondary cadre when the former was either imprisoned or on the run. The ground swell of grassroot afforded BNP to do many things that they were not capable of doing in the past. This policy of “layer after layer” is a tested tactical ploy that worked both in the battlefield as well as in the field of politics.

One senior leadership disclosed to this writer that they have few more cards in the sleeves which they will put into motion when time is right. Their strategy is more focused on the means, not merely to their haste for a rush to the end. They believe that  Awami League also has intelligent people who at some point in the movement will have to face with the option of  either to save the party or the regime. The pandemic and the Ukrainian war also seem to work in favor of BNP. Not only because of inflationary pressures, also the increasing aloofness of Prime Minister from her party stalwarts is a deep cause of concern. It takes only few high ups to ask the obvious question of whether they should try to save the party or the Prime Minister and her family? History is replete with precedents where many parties were lost forever along with the their political masters when unforgiving people take their movement past the threshold of 3.5 per cent.

Asif Raihan (he), a political analyst based in the United States. The writer could be reached at [email protected] for comment or question.

[i] The ‘3.5% rule’: How a small minority can change the world. (Accessed on December 21, 2022).