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CWA # 638, 10 January 2022
The state officials must address long-standing student issues because the Student Solidarity March is only the beginning.
On 26 November, Pakistan witnessed yet another historic Student’s Solidarity March marking the fourth year of its inception. Hundreds of students flocked to the streets in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, and other cities, reiterating their demands to be addressed. The Progressive Students Collective (PSC) organized the event, including representatives from the Peoples Students Federation (PSF), the Baloch Council, the Pukhtun Council, the Seriaki Council, and the Punjabi Council. Additionally, Students from Gilgit and Hazara and civil society activists joined the students in showing their support.
Though various provinces are protesting for different causes, for instance, students from North Waziristan protested against the shortfall of teachers. In contrast, students from the University of Balochistan have been staging protests against the suspected abduction of two of their university students. However, the voice of the students echoes for restoration of student unions, reduction in fees, representation of women in anti-harassment committees, allocation of funds, and further strengthening education systems in Pakistan.
Context of the Protest: Past to Present
The march was kickstarted in ten cities across the country in 2018. At the national level, several progressive student organizations from across the country founded the Student Action Committee (SAC), pledging to demand equal and better education for all until achieved. The second rally in 2019 brought a massive success in student turnout, which happened in 53 cities of Pakistan. Following the pandemic in 2020, the march had lost its momentum. However, it is relevant today to remind ourselves about the vibrant student politics that swept the country not once but many a time.
Young Pakistanis and Students have shaped political dissent through student activism, be it the struggle for independence in the 1940s through successive battles for democracy against dictatorships. Nonetheless, the high-spirited activism came to a halt under General Ziaul Haq, considering student unions “poison of politics.” Meanwhile, national political party wings infiltrated educational institutions, particularly government colleges and universities, transforming student politics into a “militant” expression of these major political parties.
Former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani pledged in 2008 to restore student unions, but he was dismissed from office due to corruption charges. Further, students alleged that neither PML-N, PPP, nor PTI altered their decisions. Following the protests in 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan stated that student unions would be restored. Ironically, the same year several students were charged with treason, and some students were expelled out of universities for demanding what is rightfully theirs.
Unsettled Demands and Agitated Consciousness:
The Economic Survey 2020-21 says, “Education being the fundamental human right, stands the most important element in the evolution of human progress and national development.” Clearly, this is only an abstract idea that has not taken any shape in the last few years. The students have been protesting for exact demands proposed in 2018, and the administration has turned its back on it.
On the plus side, several politicians and ministries have backed the students and have taken to social media to voice their support. The Minister for Human Rights, Shireen Mazari tweeted that she has long been a proponent of student unions, claiming that the university must oversee their efficient functioning. As anticipated, few authorities have labelled the protests a conspiracy against the state, a very familiar approach used by governments when they refuse to accept the root causes of widespread resentment. Nevertheless, the students have been protesting for five significant demands.
First, the restoration of Student unions. This particular demand intends to improve the country’s grassroots politics and involve the nation’s youth in the political arena. Pakistan’s youth account for more than 60% of the population, but the number of people in command of the country’s affairs is insignificant. This prohibition is in blatant breach of Article 17 of the constitution, which grants every person the right to form groups or unions.
Second, the representation of women in the anti-harassment committees. The students have been rightly demanding the establishment of anti-harassment committees at educational institutions. Sexual harassment in universities and discrimination against Baloch and Pashtun students have recently surfaced, highlighting systemic flaws that indicate broader challenges confronting Pakistan’s university administrations and educational sector.
Third, the overall development of educational infrastructures. The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of the educational sector and brought in new challenges. The PTI government, in 2019, imposed a 45 per cent cut on the higher education budget, and the federal and provincial governments invested 1.5 percent of GDP on education in the fiscal year 2020, which is only meager. Apart from this, the students have called for a reduction in fees, strengthening digital infrastructure in the universities, an immediate release of two Baloch students who have been missing for 21 days, and steps to free educational institutions from militarization.
In conclusion, the consciousness embedded in young minds due to these protests is indeed an evident outcome. The ability of young people and young people-led organizations contributes heavily to sustainable human development, which can only be viewed as a positive investment for a country. At the same time, the state authorities must address students’ grievances that have been long-standing because Student Solidarity March is just the beginning.
Shriya Singh, “Solidarity march shows rising strength of student movement in Pakistan,” Peoples dispatch, 7 December 2021
“When the Students March,” Dawn, 5 December 2021
“Pakistan Economic Survey 2020-21,” Ministry of Finance, Government of Pakistan
Ammar Ali Jan, “Students on the March,” The News, 27 November 2020
*Note: The note was first published in http://www.pakistanreader.org/
Abigail Miriam Fernandez
D. Suba Chandran
Abigail Miriam Fernandez
D. Suba Chandran
D. Suba Chandran