LAHORE: The Student Action Committee (SAC) will lead the “Student Solidarity March” on Friday (tomorrow) simultaneously in 50 cities of the country to present a charter of demands including restoration of the student unions.
Lahore’s march will begin from Nasser Bagh at 2pm and end at Charing Cross outside the Punjab Assembly. The main demand is the restoration of student unions so that the student body can represent itself on campuses. Other demands include a reversal in cuts in the Higher Education Commission (HEC) budget, formation of effective sexual harassment committees and ending all forms of discrimination based on ethnicity, gender and religion.
On Nov 5 last, the Progressive Students Collective (PSC) and other organisations from all over the country had formed the committee at the national level to demand revival of student unions and other issues. Representatives of student organisations from Sindh, Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab are part of the SAC.
The SAC office-bearers have conducted corner meetings in the public and private educational institutions to hold the march in their respective areas in the last three weeks. They said the PTI government had left students dejected and directionless and reduced the higher education budget to almost half, bringing Pakistan into the list of countries that spend very less on education.
The university campuses in Punjab, they said, were becoming unwelcoming of students from outside and campuses such as the University of Balochistan were becoming centres of sexual harassment and agony. They said there was no public sector educational infrastructure in Fata and Gilgit-Baltistan and all educational institutions had increased tuition fee by 100 per cent across Pakistan.
PAC member Haider Kaleem told Dawn that the progressive and nationalist student organisations of around 50 cities of the country including Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan would organise rallies to conduct the march to press the government for restoration of students unions. He said the students were reporting that the administrations of their educational institutions were threatening them and asking them not to participate in the march.
The SAC office-barriers had written a letter to their chancellors/ governors stating, “The students in over 50 cities across Pakistan will march for their rights. Our main demand is the restoration of student unions so that the student body can represent itself on campuses. Our demands also include a reversal in cuts to HEC, formation of effective sexual harassment committees and the end to all forms of discrimination based on ethnicity, gender and religion.”
The students demanded that the chancellors attend their solidarity march and ensure their constitutional and democratic rights on campuses.
“We will not end peaceful protest unless the government responds to the gravity of the situation and is willing to listen to the youth of our country,” they said.
Activists of the major political parties and civil society besides representatives of bar associations, labour organisations and minorities expressing their support for the march on the social media.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has taken exception to the government’s response to the march.
“The commission is alarmed by reports that students supporting the march are being harassed, facing rustication or being dislodged from their hostels in an effort to restrain them from participating in violation of their right to peaceful assembly” it said.
The HRCP stated that it was also concerned to learn that the Governor’s Secretariat in Quetta had issued a notification to the University of Balochistan, banning all political activities and gatherings and giving security personnel the authority to prevent these. It urged the government to take the legitimate demands of the solidarity march seriously including their right to oppose fee hikes, budget cuts to higher education and to call for an end to unnecessary interference by security forces on campus, for functional anti-harassment committees with student representation, and for the restoration of student unions.
The AGHS also showed concern that the government and universities’ administrations had started taking punitive measures against the students only for demanding their constitutionally guaranteed ‘right to association’ and form student unions in their respective institutions.
Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2019