Student anger

Updated October 21, 2019

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

OVER the past several months, students from both private and public-sector universities have held protests and demonstrations over a wide variety of issues.

Among the issues highlighted, notable ones include on-campus intimidation and violence by entrenched groups, such as the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) in Punjab University, the lack of residential facilities on (Quaid-i-Azam University) and off campus (Sector E-11 in Islamabad), the absence of a secure campus environment, which in one case led to the tragic death of a student (Bahria University), and, most recently, the brazen violation of privacy rights and student dignity through the use of secret CCTV footage by administrators at the University of Balochistan.

In each instance, the protests and outbreak of anger was triggered by a particular incident, which acted as the proverbial straw. But as existing theory on protest and contentious mobilisation tells us, triggers often align with a range of structural and institutional factors that help convert latent disaffection into active anger. In other words, grievances can accumulate over a long period of time, and protest once possible, can act as a powerful contagion to other sites.

While remaining cautious of reading too much into what is still a relatively recent occurrence, this fresh wave of resentment needs to be understood particularly because student politics beyond ethnic or partisan frames have remained relatively dormant these past two decades. Barring some notable attempts by progressive student organisations (NSF and PSC), the wider student body in higher education has remained fragmented and isolated across public-private and regional lines, generally rendering it unable to act collectively for its broader occupational needs.

Grievances can accumulate over a long period of time.

Several factors from the recent past may yet change this scenario. As documented lucidly two weeks ago by Dr Ammar Jan in a piece titled ‘Who’s afraid of the youth?’, the fiscal crunch induced by macroeconomic stabilisation has introduced an unprecedented level of precarity among students, especially those in large public-sector universities. The most direct form this has taken is a reduction in scholarship amounts and reduced spending on campus infrastructure. These reported cutbacks in government spending on higher education have been to the tune of nearly 30 per cent, and given the scale of the numbers involved, it has made it extremely hard for students (and even faculty) to cope in quiet acquiescence.

The second factor of relevance, especially with regards to contagion and diffusion of resentment, has been the role of social media platforms such as Twitter. The case of the recent private college students evicted from their residences in Islamabad is quite instructive: As soon as the students were made victims of archaic and arcane laws at the hands of the municipal administration, they were able to furnish a detailed video account online. This enabled local activists from the Awami Workers Party to publicise the issue further, and bring it to the attention of progressive lawyers who have, reportedly, been able to secure a stay order against the evictions.

While the temporary respite is welcome, what remains worthy of note through the unfolding of this incident is the wide variety of solidarity it elicited from students in other universities and cities, who have been similarly subjected to such arbitrary regulations from local bureaucrats and administrators. In essence, such incidents when reported or shared widely help build resonance across spatial and institutional lines that the problems are pervasive and that public mobilisation can prove to be a remedy.

Finally, the third, and probably the most deep lying, has to do with the increasing disjunct between how society treats young adults, and the value frameworks and expectations of these young adults: Pakistani society, like that in several other countries in the Global South, places a high premium on ‘cultural’ reproduction across generations in order to maintain social stability and order.

What this means is that adults in general are less willing to provide young people with intellectual and physical autonomy, out of fear of ‘cultural loss’ and the (mythical) ensuing breakdown in social order. While the phenomenon itself is not unique by any means to Pakistani society, this paternalism (to put it kindly) casts a particularly long shadow on institutional spaces occupied by young people like schools and universities.

In essence, deference to authority and unreciprocated obligation are built into how administrators manage such spaces, without due consideration to the fact that in universities at least, they are dealing with adult citizens. This formula may have worked in maintaining hierarchy and order (both intellectual and physical) till the recent past, but it cannot be expected to have the same impact in an era when students are increasingly aware of their material and emotional maltreatment, are increasingly sceptical of the order-driven value framework of previous generations, and are increasingly disenchanted with the lack of platforms to voice their discontent.

To those pontificating and advocating on this issue, it is worth pointing out that resentments, especially among young adults, can often take various ideological/ideational forms.

But what that makes even more clear is that university administrators, bureaucrats, and all other types of decision-makers are currently woefully unequipped to understand and deal with such resentment. Their responses normally fall on the disciplinarian and coercive end of the spectrum, exhibiting their preference for temporary calm over a sustainable resolution to the matter.

Additionally, what decision-makers in general now need to realise is that the problem is not just one of material resources and enforcement of rules; it is also of the value frameworks and intellectual/cultural expectations of young people within institutes of higher education. Addressing these will require a fundamental alteration in the way such institutions are run so as to incorporate the students’ voice in decision-making, providing them with a sense of empowerment, and finally treating them like the adults that they are.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2019