Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
On November 29, 2019, students all over Pakistan came out in the second edition of a Students Solidarity March. The first such march was held on November 30, 2018 in Lahore, Islamabad and eight other cities. This time, having learnt from their earlier experience, students were able to coordinate the march in 53 cities. The 2019 march was coordinated by the Students Action Committee and other progressive organisations. The main demands of the 2019 march were the restoration of student unions (banned since 1984 during the General Ziaul Haq dictatorship), increase in the education budget to five percent of GDP, lowering fees (if not declaring education free for all), freeing hostels and campuses of the control of paramilitary forces and the police, and taking action against sexual harassment on campuses.
The fervour and energy displayed by these young people during the march was a sight to be seen. Even more heartwarming was the leading role played by young women. The slogans that reverberated through the marching students’ ranks and were reflected in their banners and placards clearly enunciated the progressive and even revolutionary bent of the students. Despite the march having gone off peacefully and without any untoward incident, the authorities initiated sedition charges against the organisers and 300 other unnamed participants. One student was whisked away from Punjab University, Lahore. The main organisers have obtained bail before arrest.
The intriguing aspect of this response of the authorities is the fact that some of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf government’s luminaries from Prime Minister Imran Khan downwards supported the students’ march. Obviously then, the paranoid reaction came from elsewhere, arguably the deep state. And why should such a peaceful demonstration within the four corners of the law and democratic rights invite such a reaction? The answer lies in the history of student activism in Pakistan’s history. The spectre of a re-emerging students mobilisation appears to have sent shivers down the spine of the establishment.
To understand this seemingly irrational response, we need to briefly retrace the trajectory of student movements in Pakistan’s history. Students played a very important if not critical role in the independence movement. After independence in 1947, the main student bodies were the student fronts of the Left. The ban on the Communist Party of Pakistan in the wake of the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case in 1954 also led to the banning of its student wing, the Democratic Students Federation.
Subsequently, examples of student activism include Pakistani students’ robust protest against the assassination of Congo’s independence leader and hero Patrice Lumumba in 1961 (indicating their internationalist orientation), and coming out in droves against military dictator Ayub Khan’s University Ordinance in 1964.
But the real turn in the student resistance to military rule came in the late 1960s. In the 1968-69 countrywide agitation against the Ayub regime, left wing students groups such as the National Students Federation (NSF) played a leading role. After seven months of almost daily turmoil, the military dumped Ayub, declared martial law once again and the army chief General Yahya Khan took power. Yahya led the country into the genocidal military crackdown against East Pakistan after his regime refused to respect the mandate gained by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s Awami League in Pakistan’s first and freest general election in 1970. The guerrilla resistance of the Bengali people and later Indian military intervention ensured East Pakistan’s breakaway to re-emerge as independent Bangla Desh.
The 1968-69 movement was triggered spontaneously by disgruntled students but despite attracting incrementally the support of the opposition parties and the working class and peasantry, it had no organisational or programmatic capability to challenge the state when the military once more took over in 1969. During his mercifully brief reign, Yahya imposed harsh punishments, torture and imprisonment on all activists of the 1968-69 agitation, particularly those on the Left. The state was challenged, but the outcome was different from what the resistance aspired to.
After the 1971 debacle in East Pakistan, the military once again got rid of Yahya and installed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in power as the repository of the largest number of seats in the 1970 elections in what now remained of Pakistan, i.e. erstwhile West Pakistan. The student movement remained in hock to Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party’s left-oriented programme. But their hopes were dashed when Bhutto abandoned his own left wing incrementally and even cracked down on it. During Bhutto’s military crackdown in Balochistan in 1973-77 and the repression in (then) NWFP, the student wing of the National Awami Party-Wali could not play an effective role because of the extreme repression by Bhutto. The NSF remained sympathetic to the general resistance to Bhutto’s repression during this period but could not prove effective.
The overthrow of Bhutto by the military led by General Ziaul Haq proved the prelude to the decline of resistance by the democratic and progressive forces generally. The trend was also reflected in the decline of the left-oriented students movement. To add to their woes, they had already been rocked back on their heels by the Bhutto and later Zia regimes’ favouring the fascist goons of the Jamaat-i-Islami’s student wing, the Jamiat, on campuses. The much discussed violence on campuses was not the result of the existence of student unions but rather the import of the ‘Kalashnikov culture’ to institutions of higher education by the Jamiat. If violence followed from their rivals, it was in self-defence. Later, in the 1980s, the Jamiat example was followed by the student wing of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement.
The ban on student unions in 1984 followed the crushing by the Zia regime of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) in 1983 to scotch any revival of student resistance. The ban has stayed in place ever since, despite it being lifted by Benazir Bhutto’s first government (1988-90). However, the lifting of the ban did not lead to the revival of student unions. Later, in 1993, the Supreme Court upheld the ban with the caveat that if violence on campus could be controlled, the student unions could be revived.
In effect, the ban has deprived students of democratic participation in their institutions’ affairs. This has led to university administrations exercising repressive untrammelled powers over the liberal, democratic and progressive student body while allowing the fascists of the Jamiat full reign.
This is the ground situation of 35 years standing that the Students Solidarity March has challenged. The same military establishment’s paranoia regarding student mobilisation that led to the 1984 ban seems at work again in 2019. The emergence of a student movement holds within it the promise of a renewal of revolutionary politics and the resurrection of youth as a political force. The establishment has been particularly unnerved by the revolutionary speeches and slogans reverberating through the march. Such enlightened students are aware that whereas the demands they have put forward are a minimum programme, their struggle is against the system as a whole. What the Sindh government (and now other provincial governments) is prepared to offer is a devil’s bargain: the revival of student unions in exchange for the political passivity of students. That represents the graveyard of any hope of transforming state and society in a progressive direction.
Students are mobilising despite the fear and hatred it is arousing in the establishment because not only of no representation or voice in their education, but also because our education system has been reduced to rote learning, uncritical absorption, no questioning, etc. This has become a formidable conditioning process (a virtual lobotomy) that has produced two or three generations of ‘educated illiterates’. Education is subordinated to examinations, academic philistinism, and hostility towards ideas (especially new ideas). Despite this deadening imposed conformity, the lobotomy is not always successful, particularly in the case of students of the social sciences that require these trainees for managing the existing system to acquire some idea of how the system works and what is the expectation from them as future ideological and practical managers of this system. Such students tend to be in the forefront of the revolt against a system that seeks to impose passivity on them.
Whereas the Students Solidarity March 2019 proved a huge success, questions remain about the future of the student movement. Despite support from some trade unions, the students march essentially mobilised just students, that being in the nature of the enterprise. However, given the paranoid response of the authorities, it appears the student movement needs to go back to the drawing board to chalk out a strategy for meeting the challenge of looming repression and resisting the restoration of ‘formal but toothless’ student unions. This strategy requires the students to connect and struggle side-by-side with the working class, peasantry, women, religious minorities and oppressed nationalities. Only such a broad coalition of forces can help the students realise their immediate as well as long term goals.