Arrests, expulsions, sedition charges as students rise up for rights

Parliamentarians and international human rights groups have strongly condemned expulsions, arrests and charging of students in Pakistan who protested on 29 November demanding the restoration of student unions, which were banned in 1984. Student unrest has been rising in recent months, after massive cuts to university funding and incidents of sexual harassment.

Criminal cases have been registered by the police against some 300 students on charges of anti-state activities. Many students have been rusticated from universities and arrested by police, while a few have gone missing, allegedly detained by security agencies at unknown places.

Aside from restoring unions – outlawed by former military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in February 1984 – students are demanding protection from harassment, improved facilities, an increase in the education budget and a decline in tuition fees, among other things.

Zia-ul-Haq’s ban on student unions was ostensibly to end a growing divide and violence between Islamists and socialist students. But many believe the dictator acted to suppress the voice of students, who were challenging his rule. Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto lifted the ban in the late 1980s but the Supreme Court ordered it re-imposed in 1993.

Last weekend Amnesty International called on the Pakistani government to “immediately end their crackdown on peaceful student protests”.

Amnesty International’s South Asia researcher Rabia Mehmood said in a statement: “The crackdown on student protests is a brazen violation of their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The charges against the organisers must be dropped and anyone detained for their peaceful participation in protests must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

Students rise up for rights

Stirrings of protest followed a government budget, approved in June 2019, that slashed over 40% of funding from higher education. The Higher Education Commission asked universities to generate income and minimise dependence on government funding.

Universities raised student fees and reduced some services, such as transport and hostel facilities. Incidents of sexual harassment, especially at the University of Balochistan, added fuel to the fire as did the blackmailing and harassment of student activists.

On 17 November, 17 students at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro, who staged a small protest for the provision of water in hostels, were charged with sedition. Following a protest in Lahore, many students – mostly from the University of the Punjab – face cancellation of their degrees. A few are behind bars.

The students also raised their voices against tyranny and a rotten system, chanting slogans such as “we want freedom, we want justice”. With nobody speaking up for them, students felt they had no option but to rise up in support of their rights.

Large-scale student demonstrations were held on 29 November in 38 major cities under the banner ‘Students Solidarity March’, demanding the restoration of student unions, an end to harassment, an increase in the education budget and a reduction in fees.

The protests were led by the umbrella Progressive Students Collective (PRSF) and some 25 student organisations participated.

Students are seen in a video challenging the ‘system’ and calling for freedom. They changed verses of a revolutionary poem which says, in English: “We are now determined to sacrifice our heads, let's see how much power is in the hands of the executioner.”

They chanted: “Students are alive for the right to education, for the right to justice, we are now out to save the country, to save education, come along with us. We are now out to save freedom of thinking and expression, come along with us. We are fed up with atrocities, fed up with high-handedness, come along with us. We want freedom, we will snatch freedom.”

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

This week a sit-in outside the vice-chancellor’s office at Punjab University continued, with students condemning sedition charges and demanding the release of all arrested organisers of the marches.

Philosophical background

The first demonstrations revolved around the philosophy of the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz – a Marxist poet and celebrated writer of Urdu who was jailed for challenging the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq – and that of revolutionary Indian poet Bismil Azimabadi, whose verses were recited to drum rumbles.

Arooj Aurangzeb, a mass communications graduate from Punjab University who was filmed reciting a poem, told University World News that the “artistic demonstration” was held during a Faiz Ahmed Faiz festival, “to sensitise society for our planned Students Solidarity March”.

“No one was thinking for us. No one was raising [their] voice for the students. No one cared about our rights, nobody spoke for us and thus we decided to speak for ourselves.”

She added: “Our demands are restoration of student unions, protection from harassment, provision of facilities for students, increase in the education budget and decrease in exorbitant fees at universities and colleges.” Aurangzeb criticised the practice of a mandatory affidavit tied to admission in which a student must undertake not to participate in political activity.

Support growing

While university students are on the streets, in jails and facing treason charges, the voice for restoring student unions is growing.

Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted last Sunday that his government could consider allowing student unions after a code of conduct is developed.

“We will establish a comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct, learning from best practices in internationally renowned universities, so that we can restore and enable student unions to play their part in positive grooming of youth as future leaders of the country.”

However, in another tweet on the same day Khan declared that due to student unions in the past, “Pakistan's universities became violent battlegrounds and completely destroyed the intellectual atmosphere on campuses”.

Criticising the government, Senator Raza Rabbani, former chair of the Senate – the upper house of parliament – condemned registering cases against students and demanded dropping criminal charges against them.

Students were demanding fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, Rabbani was reported as saying by The News on 3 December. “All stakeholders passed a unanimous resolution in 2017 calling on the federal and provincial governments to lift the ban on student unions, with regulations to ensure zero tolerance for violent activities.”

Bilawal Bhutto, chair of the Pakistan Peoples Party and son of slain former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in a statement via Twitter, endorsed the student demands and called for the restoration of student unions, implementing anti-harassment laws and demilitarising higher education institutions.

“The spirit of activism and yearning for peaceful democratic process from a new generation of students is truly inspiring,” Bhutto tweeted on Saturday 30 November.

Although Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry, the Prime Minister's Special Assistant on Information and Broadcasting Firdous Ashiq Awan, and Federal Minister for Human Rights Shireen Mazari have also supported restoring student unions, sedition charges and police cases against the organisers of student marches have still not been dropped.

Historical roots of state's reaction

The reaction of law enforcement agencies to marching students was rapid and coercive, and has roots in history. Pakistan was a frontline state during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Soviet-inspired leftist parties were suppressed by Zia-ul-Haq, who sided with the US. Leftist parties were declared anti-state and hoisting a red flag became a punishable act.

The recent student marches are inspired by the philosophy of poets who were socialist and struggled against the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. Core slogans of the marches have been: “You will be taken aback when the red flag will wave everywhere” and “One day the entire Asian continent will become red.”

Murtaza Noor, the Higher Education Commission’s project manager for social sciences, told University World News: “The idea and demand of restoring student unions are welcome but linking it to communism is beyond comprehension. Strict reaction by law-enforcing agencies seems to be linked to such alien philosophies that the state does not accept.”

While a large number of social media users and followers supported the cause, some labelled student activists as “anti-Pakistan” or “Indian agents” or agents of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, which advocates for the protection of the human rights of Pashtuns.

The Progressive Students Collective has been reproached for furthering a foreign agenda. Organisers of the Students Solidarity March have been accused of having links with the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. Interestingly, progressive students at Jawaharlal Nehru are termed “Pakistani agents” and “anti-India”.

Fallout of the ban on student unions

Empirical data shows that banning student unions in Pakistan resulted in negative fallout and exactly the opposite of the desired outcome followed as students regrouped into religious, sectarian and ethnic organisations on campuses, which led to more clashes and bloodshed.

When I was doing a masters at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, no student union was allowed but there existed seven religious and ethnicity-based student groups that clashed violently on many occasions – and many times explosive weapons were involved.

It is the recent history of all public sector universities. All political and religious parties have a student wing active and operating freely at universities.

For example, the Pakistan Peoples Party has the Peoples Student Federation, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has the Insaf Student Federation, and the Pakistan Muslim League has the Muslim Students Federation. All ethnicity-based parties have student wings, alongside sectarian and linguistic student groups – clashes between them have been widely reported.

Actions such as the lynching of Mashal Khan by students at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan, and the brutal killing of a professor by a student belonging to a religious group at Government Sadiq Egerton College Bahawalpur, say loudly that banning student unions has given birth to unruly factions among students.

In November last year, a report by Diplomat magazine concluded: “Today, many universities in Pakistan have become breeding grounds for fundamentalism, extremism, linguistic hatred and violence.”

Zafarullah Khan, former executive director of the Pakistan Institute for Parliamentary Services, told University World News that banning student unions had “stopped fresh blood in mainstream politics, as healthy politics on campuses gives new and young leadership to political parties”.

“The banning of student unions in the universities has led to family-based party leadership in the country and caused more violence and clashes as student organisations patronised by different religious and sectarian groups are engaged in enforcing their own version of religious or political thought."

Zafarullah Khan said the restoration of unions would pave the way for more pluralist student groupings organised not on ethnic or religious lines but on the basis of real student issues. Unions with representation by students belonging to diverse linguistic, political and religious backgrounds would promote tolerance and harmony on campuses.

Although all political parties and even the prime minister have vocally supported restoring student unions, no practical step has so far been taken. Rather, arrests of students voicing their political rights is a step in the opposite direction.

* GEO News video link