Pakistani students march for ‘azadi’

Taking a cue from their JNU counterparts, Pakistani students are to protest the abysmal condition of higher education

pakistani students

The fight for affordable education has crossed borders. From India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the fight against steep fee hikes is now erupting in neighbouring Pakistan where students are holding demonstrations against the ruling government’s interference in colleges, fee hikes, budget cuts and lack of student housing.

Last week, students of the leftist Progressive Student Collectivein Pakistan chanted ‘azadi’ slogans at the Faiz Literary Festival in Lahore demanding the restoration of student unions, “de-securitisation” of campuses and an end to harassment, The Print reported.


A #StudentSolidarityMarch has been planned on November 29 by the Progressive Students’ Federation (PRSF) for students’ right to unionization and free and quality education for all.


“We are marching against the system which labels us as ‘Terrorists’ for demanding clean water on campus. Puts us behind bars for opposing the dictatorship of administration on campus. We demand our right to exist with dignity,” PRSF tweeted.

Last week, 17 students of Sindh University, Jamshoro, were booked under sedition charges for allegedly raising anti-Pakistan slogans. Supporting the students, Sindh University Vice Chancellor Prof Dr. Fateh Mohammed Burfat had said that he was not consulted before the FIR was filed against the students and that they had been protesting a water shortage in the university, but they were neither carrying Jeay Sindh flags nor raising anti-Pakistan slogans.


The University of Engineering and Technology (UET) in Lahore, rusticated two students and cancelled hotel allotment of four for leading a campus protest against the 20 percent fee hike for undergraduate programmes and 100 percent fee hike for the current academic year.

Students protesting at the Faiz Literary Festival too had to face similar criticism like their counterparts back home in JNU. They were dismissed for being elites, with naysayers particularly obsessing over the leather jacket worn by Arooj Aurangzeb who was leading the chants in the video.



Fighting for fundamental rights

Writing for The News (International), Ammar Ali Jan explained why the student protests in Pakistan have been escalating. He writes that for years, academics and concerned citizens have been complaining about the decrepit conditions of higher education in Pakistan.

The News reported that Pakistan’s expenditure on higher education for the financial year 2018-19 was earmarked at 2.4 percent of the GDP, the lowest in the region. The government has slashed the overall budget on education by around 20 percent and allocated Rs 20.64 billion for the higher education commission against its demand of Rs 55 billion which is a more than 50 percent cut.This has been viewed as the ‘unkindest cut’ of all, for the students who supported the current regime led by Imran Khan who promised the status quo feel betrayed.

The lack of quality teaching, prohibition on asking questions and the breakdown of infrastructure, such as water and housing, Ammar writes, have enraged the younger generation. On top of these dismal conditions, the lack of employment opportunities is further fueling the resentment, with the ‘youth bulge’ often cited as a possible cause for social and political disturbances in the near future.

The frequent incidents of violence on campuses, including the tragic case of Mashal Khan, are indicative of the close nexus between the state, conniving administrators and certain student groups. The recent news of allegations of a seven-million dollar fraud at one of the premiere universities of Lahore is an example of the unbridled powers of these university administrations.

The unionization problem

The journey of student unions in Pakistan has been an eventful one. During the 1950’s progressive student unions such as the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and National Student Federation (NSF), were inspired by Marxism and socialism. After the military coup of 1958, CPP was banned while NSF along with PSF (Peoples Student Federation), started peaceful protests against military dictator General Ayub Khan.

Since the 1960s, nationalist student unions such as All Pakistan Muttahida Students Organization (APSMO), Baloch Student Organization (BSO) and Pashtun Student Organization (PSO) have campaigned for equal rights and provincial autonomy.

However, a ban on student unions was imposed in 1984 by the regime of General Zia ul Haq through Martial Law Orders. This was later rescinded by Benazir Bhutto in 1988. Three years later, the unions were challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan on grounds that they were contributors of on-campus violence.

In 1993, a three-member SC bench headed by the then Chief Justice, Afzal Zulla, imposed a ban on the political nature of student unions. This ban has led to a concentration of power in the hands of a tiny, myopic set of university administrators.

The demand

Like their JNU comrades, the students in Pakistan, apart from the restoration of student unions,  have the same ask – budget cuts on higher education, a safe environment on campuses and most important of all – the furtherance of critical thinking among students.

The current government, whether in India or Pakistan, seems to have taken a similar stance on higher education. Students have been protesting against fee hikes for decades, with their pleas falling on deaf ears. Instead, the political machinery has taken every measure to ensure that the most dis-empowered are left out of the educational system, thus trying to ensure that the hurdles of inequality, poverty and regressive thoughts stop them from achieving their true potential.

But, the uprising, whether in Pakistan or in India, has shown that the youth will not be oppressed into accepting the formation of an autocratic state. They are revolutionaries finding the courage to rise up against calculated endeavors trying to shut them down and their zeal shows that they will not be giving up any time soon.


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