Why did the Students march on the 29th?

Abid Ali explains the perspective and demands of the young people who are demanding restoration of student unions across the country

Why did the Students march on the 29th?
Pakistan is a post-colonial state where doing politics is not an easy job, especially when we speak of the future generation. Here, the future generation means the youth comprising 60% of the country’s population, but one relegated to an entirely apolitical role. After reaching 18 years of age, we are asked by family, society and the media to vote for democracy. And we do. But does it bring about real change in how we relate to our society? Does their future truly belong to Pakistan’s young people? Is the youth really voting for democracy? Such are the questions that many Pakistani students have been asking for a while now.

In order to answer these questions, one must keep in the mind that those who claim that the future belongs to the youth will have to truly be willing to allow the youth to take control of their lives. We cannot decide our future if we cannot take control of our present. The first step to becoming active politically conscious citizens is to exercise power in spaces that belong to the youth. It is reasonable to argue that such empowerment is a right of students beyond divides of religion, caste, race and ethnicity. This is only possible when student union elections are held on a regular basis and students through a democratic process elect their leaders – and then hold them accountable.

The hurdle to student unions does not come from students themselves, but from the wild speculation associated with such unions in the country. Some Pakistanis express their fear that allowing the functioning of student unions will mean that student organizations backed by the mainstream political parties in the country will serve only the interests of these parties. Closely linked to this idea of students being “used” is the idea that they will resort to violence over political disputes.

This speculation must be addressed while looking into the history of student unions in the country.

Student unions were banned by the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq when some violent activities were recorded in the campuses. As a result, the activities of students unions in campuses were banned, their offices were locked and they were expelled from the colleges and universities with various tactics. The objective at that time was not to improve the law and order situation but to stop the rising voices of students against the dictatorial regime itself.

Student unions, after all, were once the nursery of democrats and progressive people in country. Earlier, in the 1960s, Ayub Khan’s dictatorial regime had been challenged by politically aware students who had joined student unions in various regions of the country.

In General Zia-ul-Haq’s time, when student unions were banned in campuses, it did not mean an end to student politics. It simply led to a more violent, authoritarian and religious fundamentalist turn. The Islami Jamiat e Talaba (IJT), student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) was allowed to penetrate into the campuses and fill the vacuum left by the student unions. The state machinery fully supported the Jamiat and its students wing in main universities – in an ideological and economic sense. Meanwhile, from the state-controlled media, the message was given out that student unions were banned because they were involved in subversive activities. For context, the reader must note that at this time Benazir Bhutto, Wali Khan, Asma Jahangir and Habib Jalib were leading lights of the struggle against the dictatorial regime of Zia-ul-Haq and were included – as far as the regime was concerned – in the category of people who were involved in “anti-state” activities. A pattern that is today familiar to us had already been consolidated at that time. Again and again the accusation of being “anti-state” was used against those who stood for democracy and freedom of expression. It would be a useful thing for critics of today’s student movement to consider, since much of their discourse is lifted straight from the playbook of the Zia-ul-Haq regime.

After a gap of perhaps 35 years, students are marching for their rights and demanding democracy at campuses. Their demand for restoring democracy on campus, by restoring student unions, appears very simple. But the matter has become fairly complex in terms of how it fits into current power relations in Pakistan.

The march is already being attacked for being vaguely “subversive” and somehow “dangerous” by hordes of pro-government accounts on social media, as well as some of the more docile sections of the mainstream media. This is all very unfortunate.

Student unions used to be opinion-making bodies in the country back at one time. State policies were discussed, authorities’ behaviour towards students could be judged and the students’ relations with state authorities could be made the central points discussion. The state even needed to maintain a working relationship with such unions, if its administrative machinery was to function.

The de-politicization from banning student unions has already had disastrous results for our educational system. This year, the current government cut the higher education budget by half. But even with such a brutal slashing of the educational expenditure, there was little agitation from students across the country. The few students who tried to raise their voice found themselves charged with false allegations. Students today are picked up from hostels and many are missing even right now. But there is no voice to speak for them. Secret cameras were installed in the Baluchistan University, ostensibly to “protect” students but with the actual result that the dignity and privacy of female students was compromised. Suicide cases among students are on the rise. The quality of education is plummeting. And yet, those who are in power in Pakistan seem to prefer that students put up with all of this in meek silence.

As a response, students from various student organizations from all over the country met at Lahore and formed the Student Action Committee (SAC). The committee comprises of different student organizations from Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, Sindh, KP and Punjab. Their aim is to restore student unions in the country and thus bring back campus democracy. Along with these central issues there are other demands like halting the cuts in education budgets, preventing fee hikes, providing basic facilities at colleges and universities and freedom for students from FATA and Balochistan who have run afoul of law enforcement for expressing their legitimate grievances.

Students from across the country marched on the 29th of November, 2019, across the country and demanded some basics rights from the state. They have argued that democracy is a mindset which must be inculcated from the very earliest stages of life – in our institutions of higher learning. Universities and colleges are not factories to distribute degrees but institutions that train citizens for life in a democracy.

It would be appropriate to dedicate some famous verses by Faiz Ahmed Faiz to the students who are speaking for their rights.

Speak, for your lips are free,
Speak, your tongue is still yours,
Your upright body is yours-
speak, your life is still yours.

See how in the blacksmith’s shop
The flames are hot, the iron is red,
Mouths of locks have begun to open,
Each chain’s skirt has spread wide.

Speak, this little time is plenty
Before the death of body and tongue;
Speak, for truth is still alive-
Speak, say whatever must be said.

The author is an Mphil scholar at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies at QAU and is associated with the Progressive Students Association based in Islamabad. He is an organizing member of the Students’ Solidarity March