In less than 48 hours, graduates, all across Pakistan, students, their parents and professors, workers, farmers, and trade unionists will take a stand, to march against fee hike, surveillance and harassment of students on campus, and the students' right to a form or partake in union activity.
The Students Solidarity March, set to take place on Nov 29 (Friday) in 40 locations across the country, including Karachi, Quetta, Lahore, and Peshawar, has managed to gather sufficient momentum, with renewed calls for restoration of student unions across university campuses as its singular most important demand.
“The idea for this march developed last year…to unite students who were basically scattered in separate pockets and groups, and to march together on one issue," political science student Waqas Aalam, who will march at around 3pm Friday from Karachi's Regal Chowk to the press club.
"We had a solidarity march last year as well but the format this year is a bit different. We held meetings, and then on Nov 2 we set up an alliance by the name of Students Action Committee (SAC) in Lahore. At that time, we decided that different groups will merge together and hold the students solidarity march,” Aalam says, adding that this is how the idea for the Nov 29 march was developed.
Regarding the students' demands, he said there were 10 basic demands but every province or unit did add more to the list as per its needs.
Aside from the restoration of student unions, some of the key demands of the SAC include restoring adequate budget for the Higher Education Commission (HEC), stopping the laying off of academics, and allocate at least 5% of total GDP for education.
The demands include abandoning the privatisation of educational institutions, and taking back recent decision to increase fee.
Moreover, the SAC also calls on universities to establish committees to investigate cases of sexual harassment as well as ensure representation of students on these committees.
A former graduate of the University of Karachi, who requested anonymity, says she will be marching too.
"I am taking part because I think it is important that we empower students," she tells Dawn.com, adding that she is also marching because there were things that happened while she was a student that impacted her deeply.
She then goes on to recall the day Professor Shakeel Auj was murdered in 2014.
“I was in class the day Professor Auj was shot dead. The news spread fast and I got a call from home to return immediately. The atmosphere at the varsity was extremely tense and all classes were called off as Professor Auj was dean of the faculty of Islamic Studies department,” she recalls.
“It was a terrible day. We were stranded in the department and people were scared to step outside because it was so chaotic. Everyone just wanted to rush to the pickup points and go home,” she says.
"No one knows why he was killed. There were rumours about a book and its content. Some said some students were involved or that some extremists did it,” she adds.
For Ziaullah Hamdard, a former lecturer at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan, it is all about the rights of the students, including their right to partake in political activity.
“Mashal Khan was my student and he used to take part in student politics and used to speak for the rights of students. Now here the interesting thing is that since there are no unions or organised systems, student politics does exist but in a distorted, if not violent, form. This needs to be institutionalised and organised,” he says, talking to Dawn.com from the United Kingdom, where he is pursuing a degree in media.
“In Mashal’s case, the university turned his words and other students against him...I saw it happen with my own eyes," he says, adding: "Over the years, university administrations have used students against each other to get their own way."
Speaking about the importance of students' representation, Hamdard says, like a country, a university also has a Senate with representatives for lecturers, professors, clerks — basically, everybody except students for whom this Senate takes a collective decision.
“A student union is therefore necessary for student representation,” he adds.
“In a democracy, the first thing is mobilisation, and then you have free speech. But these institutions try to shut down students and their voices. I have seen students and even teachers shaking at the thought of taking an issue up with the administration. It is high time to take matters into our own hands and I think this march will have a positive impact on students — this way we can have an important say, we must have an important say,” he explains, adding “you can’t stop the students. Look at what happened to Gen Ayub Khan.”
From Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Qaiser Javed, a student of Chartered Accountancy, plans to march as well so that students can exercise their right to form a union on campus. He explained that students held a similar march last year too and a large turnout is expected on Friday.
“I’m marching in order to raise my voice against the cuts in HEC's budget. Education should be accessible to everyone and not just the rich," Javed says, adding that "we want the government to take notice of our issues. How much longer will they ignore us?"
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"I am also marching against the harassment of female students on campuses. There are laws and committees to deal with these issues but there is no implementation. We just want these issues and other issues to be taken seriously,” he says.
“It is time for students to ask for their rights. Parents are also taking part in this protest as university fees are so high that it is becoming difficult for anyone to send their children to higher education institutions."
Speaking to Dawn.com, Haider Kaleem, central organiser of the Progressive Students Collective and Progressive Students Federation, explains that the students solidarity march is based on a very simple idea.
“Our lives and experiences as students are not good, so we all need to come together and change it through the power of the street because any other power in the country will never talk about us and our future. We must become a part of the decision-making process,” says the Beaconhouse National University (BNU) journalism graduate.
“It is important to march now because we have exhausted all other means to get these rights guaranteed by the Constitution. So if the powers in our country do not understand why all these demands need to be fulfilled, we will have to come out and tell them why."
"We are not doing this for fun. This is about our lives and everyone’s future,” adds Kaleem.
Sadia Baloch from the University of Balochistan says she is marching on Nov 29 to claim women's space in politics.
Also speaking on behalf of the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO), she says Baloch students want the restoration of unions as well as no increase in fees for the next five years.
"We also do not want education to be based on class differences. All students should have access to the same systems and quality of education," she says, adding that Baloch students also want to see Balochi and Brahvi languages made compulsory at the primary education level.
Baloch says the students want the privatisation of educational institutions to stop, adding that the government should rebuild destroyed educational institutions on emergency basis in the province's heavily neglected areas.
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She also said that Baloch students want the intervention of security forces in educational institutions to stop.
"We want basic facilities to be provided in all educational institutions...5% of the total GDP should be allocated for education," she says.
She further said that Baloch students who are victims of enforced disappearances must be given fair trials.
"These are our regional demands, other demands are mentioned in the main SAC demands," she adds.
Public health researcher Inayatullah Baig from Gilgit-Baltistan says he is marching for his right to free and quality education which he says he should be able to get at his doorstep.
“I am also marching for Mashal Khan, and to connect with the struggle of marginalised students across Pakistan," says Baig, adding that "it is important for all the student in our country to march on Friday because this organic gathering of students is being witnessed by Pakistan after nearly five decades."
"Is it not strange that the youth, which is 60% of the population, has no representation or decision-making role in its development, education, and employment?," Baig asks, concluding that "to reclaim this power, we need to march".