Outrage as police assault lecturers protesting against deep pay cuts

Condemnation is pouring in from academics, civil society and politicians against disproportionate and heavy-handed action by Pakistani police against protesting university teachers, including beating them as they demonstrated this week in front of a provincial legislature.

University staff were protesting against government-imposed pay cuts due to the country’s economic crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19 related shutdowns.

Police in Pakistan’s north western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa resorted to baton charges, firing teargas and arresting university teachers from government-funded institutions when they gathered in front of the provincial legislative assembly in Peshawar on 31 May to raise their voices against the provincial government’s decision to reduce salaries of university employees.

The reductions are a response to the financial crunch faced by universities. The province is one of the worst affected economically.

Universities across the province have shut down all academic and non-academic activities since 1 June to protest against the beatings of lecturers, and academic staff associations demanded immediate action against police officers who ordered the baton charge.

At least eight teachers sustained injuries while 24 were arrested as the police cracked down, surrounding the protesting teachers on three sides to disperse them. Cases were registered against University of Peshawar employees who organised the protest.

Many universities in the province stopped paying allowances, which make up to 40% of basic pay, and reduced pension payments by 50% due to the financial crisis. Salary cuts were announced in January 2021 by the University of Peshawar administration, citing economic pressure.

Last month Peshawar’s Islamia College University issued a notification informing its employees of pay cuts, saying: “We apologise to our staff for being unable to pay salaries in full due to financial constraints.”

However, the teaching staff association rejected the apology, blaming the provincial government for causing financial problems for universities.

Pakistan came under economic pressure in 2019 due to negative macro-economic indicators, including depleting foreign exchange reserves, a current account deficit, low exports and massive debt paybacks to the extent that the country had to get fresh loans from the International Monetary Fund to avoid default. Coronavirus shutdowns added to the economic woes as revenue collection fell, unemployment increased and remittances from abroad were reduced.

Hamayoon Khan, a professor of agronomy at Peshawar’s University of Agriculture, told University World News: “Pay cuts are unacceptable and why should only university teachers be burdened for the financial crunch facing government? Why is government not cutting back the salaries of its huge bureaucracy? Why not cut salaries of the police who were used to beat university teachers?”

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chair of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, strongly criticised the provincial government for pay cuts and condemned the beating of university teachers. In a media statement Zardari said: “On one hand the government is making claims of economic development, while on the other hand it is cutting salaries of university staff. That shows that economic development claims are false.”

Zardari criticised the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, which currently rules nationally and also in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, for slashing university budgets. “You have reduced university budgets, increased fees of the students and slashed salaries of the teachers. Is this your higher education vision?”

Academics at universities in other provinces also condemned “police brutality” in Peshawar as protests against the beatings were held at university campuses across the country organised by the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA). A ‘black day’ was observed on 3 June, when protesters wore black armbands.

Abdul Sattar Malik, president of the Punjab chapter of FAPUASA, told University World News: “It is highly shameful on the part of the KP’s provincial government [to be] thrashing and beating university staff who were demanding a reversal of pay cuts.

“We will continue to protest until all arrested teachers are released and all criminal cases made against protesting teachers are withdrawn and the decision [on] pay cuts is reversed.”

Justice Gulzar Ahmed, chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, remarked in another case on 1 June that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government was borrowing from international lenders to pay government employee salaries, which he described as “dangerous”.

In February this year the Peshawar High Court had taken note of the financial crisis facing universities in the province and had directed the authorities to immediately resolve the issue of university funding “to avoid a crisis in future”.