An unprecedented in recent times countrywide mobilisation of students across the state-run and private elite institutions of higher education was witnessed on November 29, 2019. Some 60 cities and towns all over the country became the site of protest rallies by students demanding the revival of student unions, lowering fees to provide better access to education for poor students, enhancing the education budget to six percent of GDP, etc. Prime Minister Imran Khan, Federal Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry and some other worthies of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government made sympathetic noises, particularly on the demand for revival of student unions, with Imran Khan going so far as to hint at their revival, but with a comprehensive code of conduct to prevent campuses turning into ‘battlefields’ as had happened in the past.
Ironically, while the top leadership was displaying these stances, the authorities were instituting sedition cases against the organisers and participants of this historic Students March, with one former student of Punjab University whisked away from the university’s campus and the arrest of some 300 others on the cards. What was the fault of the organisers and participants in this wholly peaceful demonstration asking for what are the fundamental rights of any section of society, particularly students? Only that they were guilty of peacefully raising their collective voice for demands that do not violate any laws. It is claimed by the authorities that these cases have been instituted because speeches were made at the rallies that fell within the purview of being anti-state and anti-institutions. ‘Anti-state’ is a stretch, a catch-all appellation for whatever is critical or dissident in our controlled democracy. ‘Anti-institutions’ is the euphemism currently in use for anything critical of the military establishment. The fault lies not with the critics but with the military establishment’s constant intervention and interference in politics. That terrain then inevitably attracts criticism.
The historical context bears keeping in mind. Students in developing countries such as Pakistan (previously dubbed the Third World) have been in the forefront of struggles against authoritarianism, military coups and martial laws, and now the not-so-covert control of national politics and narrative by the military establishment. Notable student mobilisations in the past include the 1961 assassination by the CIA of Congo’s independence leader Patrice Lumumba, the agitation against Ayub Khan’s University Ordinance in 1964, and the 1968-69 countrywide seven-month long agitation (in which the students were incrementally joined by the working class and political opposition parties).
The 1968-69 struggle managed to make the continuation of the Ayub Khan regime impossible but the movement had no answer to the imposition of martial law and the takeover by Army Commander-in-Chief General Yahya Khan. There followed a brutal repression against students, the working class, peasantry, journalists and political leaders and workers by the Yahya regime. In the obtaining circumstances of a countrywide (East and West Pakistan at the time) agitation however, the regime was forced to announce general elections to be held in 1970. These were arguably the freest and fairest elections in Pakistan’s chequered history. However, when the surprising result gave Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and his Awami League the majority, the Yahya regime drowned this democratic expression of the people in blood, losing half the country in the process because of Indian intervention in support of the rebellion in East Pakistan that broke out against the genocide of their people.
Broken Pakistan was now sought to be put together again by the military handing over power to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as the party with the largest number of seats in the remaining Pakistan. No fresh elections were held to reflect the new reality of the country having shrunk to just what was West Pakistan. Bhutto’s mandate garnered in a general election in a larger Pakistan as the second largest party was used as justification for handing over the reins of power to him.
Bhutto’s political fortunes owed a great deal to the student-led 1968-69 agitation. The overwhelming character of that movement was left-wing. The promises Bhutto had made before attaining power now troubled his government, particularly the ‘threat’ from radical left wing students and workers. Hence the latter were ‘put in their place’ by repression beginning in Karachi in 1972, while the former were not so subtly defanged by supporting the Jamaat-i-Islami’s student wing (Jamiat). By 1974, the Jamiat had gained almost exclusive control of Punjab University and many other colleges and institutions of higher learning, first and foremost in Punjab, but extending throughout the country.
Resistance continued to the fascist violence through which the Jamiat silenced all dissent on campus, and this resistance threatened General Ziaul Haq’s military regime. After the 1983 Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) was crushed, Zia followed up by banning student unions in 1984 to pre-empt any student agitation. These unions were restored by Benazir Bhutto’s first government in 1988, but did not survive the demise of her government two years later. In 1993, the ban on student unions was challenged legally and ended up with the Supreme Court upholding the ban but qualifiedly in principle advocating the revival of student unions, provided a proper mechanism was devised to prevent the recurrence of violence on the campuses.
Of course all these events and developments never pinned the blame on organisations like the Jamiat as the authors of importing violence into institutions of higher learning. If there was countervailing violence from their victims, it was defensive in nature (Imran Khan please note). Successive governments ever since the ban have been pussyfooting around the issue without taking a clear-cut position and implementing a revival of the student unions.
Now, 50 years after the 1968-69 student-led uprising and 35 years after the ban on student unions, the young have taken matters into their own hands. The leading role of young women students in this upsurge can only be appreciated and lauded. After the Aurat March earlier this year, this is the second demonstration of the undeniable truth that without women’s participation and coming forward to lead, no progressive change is possible.
Having said that, the real test for the students now looms. How they come together to combat the repression being loosed against them by this hypocritical government may well determine the direction and pace of the inevitable change on the agenda against an unjust, cruel, repressive and exploitative system that offers everything to the power and wealth elite and has nothing for the young, women, working class, peasantry, oppressed nationalities, religious minorities and the ordinary citizen finding it difficult now to make two ends meet or afford three meals a day. If this government had any sense (a commodity they have been at pains to prove is absent), they would embrace this upsurge by the students and youth, not seek to strangle it. But in that anomaly lie new battles ahead.
rashed-rahman.blogspot.comRashed Rahman, "Students’ mobilization," Business Recorder. 2019-12-03.
Keywords: Education , Peaceful demonstration , Education-Budget , Fundamental rights , Students rallies , Punjab University , University Ordinance , Student unions , Exploitative system , Politics , Jamiat , Violence , Zulfikar Ali Bhutto , Yahya Khan , GDP , PTI