Student Solidarity March held countrywide to demand restoration of unions, better education facilities
Students, activists and supporters across Pakistan came out on Friday to join the Student Solidarity March, led by the Student Action Committee (SAC), to present a charter of demands including the restoration of student unions and better education facilities.
In a series of tweets, the Progressive Students' Collective (PSC) shared the final locations for the march taking place in 50 cities of Pakistan. While in some cities the march started in the morning, in others it was expected in the afternoon.
The march kicked off early evening in Karachi, with students, parents, lawyers as well as prominent civil society members — such as Mohammad Hanif and Jibran Nasir — gathering at Regal Chowk and then marching on to Atrium Mall with the aim of reaching Karachi Press Club.
As the demonstration started marching on Fatima Jinnah Road opposite Atrium Mall, shopkeepers started bringing down their shutters.
The rally then reached Karachi Press Club where an estimated 400 participants gathered outside the premises, chanted slogans, and delivered speeches.
Echoes of "Hum kya chaahte? Aazaadi!" (What do we want? Freedom!) resounded frequently in the area.
Jibran Nasir, while speaking to the media, said: "I have come to support our country's future. Students are our future. We must realise that our future will never be bright if we keep on lighting monuments of the past."
"Any real and new leadership that comes forth in the country, will not cross through the corridors of Aabpaara and Pindi. It will come from colleges and universities," said Nasir.
A transgender student of medicine said she had come to protest the lack of safety for females and transgenders on campus.
"Females and transgender students are increasingly becoming unsafe on campuses. Throughout Pakistan, there are many professors who ask for irrelevant favours from them. The fees are so high. What are they trying to do? Do they think they will provoke us this way? Should girls get into illegal, unethical activities to obtain an education?" she said, demanding answers from the government.
Students from Balochistan also participated in the march in Karachi demanding the arrest of the vice-chancellor of Balochistan University for his alleged involvement in the harassment of the varsity's students.
Additionally, students from Gilgit-Baltistan also took part to protest the lack of facilities to pursue higher education in the region. "There is only one university in GB and it is substandard. We can't study there, so we moved to Karachi," said one participant.
The city's students belonging to private universities said they are protesting because of the "price hike, dress code and harassment on campus".
A woman, who had been active in student politics before student unions were banned, recalled how student activities had formed a crucial part of the political landscape in the 80s.
"A student is part of [a country's] political struggle. Society has now been depoliticised. In Zia's time, we were the last political students. Our badges were taken away and restrictions on student unions were enforced.
"We have witnessed society's regression [since then]. We saw Mashal die. We saw Taliban attacks on universities. All this happened because students were depoliticised and the whole society was depoliticised. As a result, our society has witnessed a decline. So, political struggle is very necessary," she said.
Similarly, an elderly man, who had been active in student politics and is now part of a trade union, recalled how society used to be "free-minded" despite Islamisation. "Ever since lingual bias took root, societal decline began," he said.
Chanting slogans of "Surkh hai, surkh hai, Asia surkh hai" (Communist, communist, Asia is communist), young students staged a march from old campus to the local press club on the call of SAC.
Charged students also shouted slogans of "Hum le ke rahein ge aazaadi. Tumhe deni paray gi aazaadi." (We will get our freedom. You will have to give us our freedom) to the beat of a drum.
Speakers delivered speeches to emotionally charged students, calling for an end to the ban on student unions and a reduction in education fees.
As a mark of solidarity, Comrade Imdad Qazi of Communist Party Pakistan (CPP), Awami Workers Party’s Dr Bukhshal Thallu, Amar Sindhu, Ali Bukshal Thalu, Aneel Hub Ali and others participated in the protest.
Members of Progressive Students Federation (PSF), Sindhi Shagird Tehrik, Pakistan Trade Union Defence Council (PTDC) and Women Democratic Front also joined the SAC-sponsored protest.
Kazi, Thallu, Pardeep Kumar, Mehrun Nisa Channa, and Inayat Khaskheli addressed the gathering.
They rejected the administration's claim that unions vitiate the atmosphere in educational institutions. They argued that if this was true "then names of universities which had become paradise must be disclosed".
They said that students were booked under sedition charges for demanding the provision of water and basic amenities and that the vice-chancellor of Sindh University should be ashamed of himself. They added that while teachers and staff have the right to form unions, students are denied the same right.
They said that a ban on unions "was imposed by a dictator to suppress the voice of students". They maintained that those who had kept students away from politics were themselves involved in it.
They demanded that the ban be lifted so that able and competent politicians could be produced for the country.
In Lahore, protesters gathered early afternoon at Nasser Bagh and began their march towards Punjab Assembly. Outside the Assembly building on The Mall at Chairing Cross square, a stage was prepared to offer speakers a platform to address the gathering.
The student participants said they have 13 demands from the government. The turnout, as reported by LUMS Associate Professor of Sociology Nida Kirmani, was quite large.
The protest concluded peacefully close to 8pm.
In Islamabad, protesters gathered at D-Chowk, demanding that parliament restore student unions immediately.
A protest rally against the ban on student unions in Balochistan University as well as other universities was also taken out in Quetta. Participants included members of various student organisations who gathered at Baldia Lawn and marched across various thoroughfares and back to the point of origin.
Hundreds of people were estimated to have taken part in the rally, which was escorted across the various points by police officers.
In Peshawar students and civil society members held a protest rally from Peshawar Press Club to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly.
Scenes from the march in Peshawar showed a vibrant gathering sloganeering to the beat of a drum. "Students live for the sake of truth," they chanted.
Awami National Party KP President Aimal Wali Khan, took to Twitter to announce the party's support for the march.
"ANP supports #StudentsSolidarityMarch. Students must have the right to assemble and speak for their rights. I urge all members of Pakhtun Students Federation to actively take part in the march," he said.
The protest dispersed peacefully after a few hours.
PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari also lent his support to marchers across the nation.
In a tweet, he said: "The PPP has always supported student unions. The restoration of student unions by SMBB was purposely undone to depoliticise society.
"Today students are marching in the #StudentSolidarityMarch for the restoration of unions, implementation of right to education, end to privatisation of public universities, implementation of sexual harassment legislation, right to student housing & the demilitarisation of campuses. The spirit of activism and yearning for a peaceful democratic process from a new generation of students is truly inspiring."
Earlier, the PSC and other organisations from all over Pakistan had formed the committee (SAC) at a national level to demand the 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.
Over the last three weeks, SAC office-bearers have conducted corner meetings in the public and private educational institutions to hold the march in their respective areas. They said the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (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 reason we are forced to do this on the roads is [because of] an affidavit that every student has to sign before they get admission. Basically there is no ban on student unions but, through certain orders, restrictions are imposed so students will not take part in politics or hold protests on campus," explained Haider Kaleem, a journalism graduate from Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, who is among those organising the event.
Kaleem, who is also the organiser of the Progressive Students' Federation (PRSF) and PSC — groups that advocate an open environment for students in order to promote critical thinking — had said that one of the several demands of the march's participants is to lift restrictions that bar students from forming unions.
He said that the affidavit was also being challenged in the Lahore High Court but expressed little hope of the matter being resolved there.
Political science student Waqas Aalam said he will march at around 3pm from Karachi's Regal Chowk to the press club. He told Dawn that there were 10 basic demands but every province or unit had added more to the list as per its needs.
Ahead of the march, scores of Pakistani student leaders studying at international universities had also voiced their support for the march.
In an open letter addressed to the government, students have come together under the banner of the Pakistan International Students Alliance and registered opposition to the current ban on student unions in Pakistan.