Student awakening

04 Dec 2019


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

WHEN campuses are devoid of student activism it spells the decline of a nation. This observation, attributed to Nelson Mandela, is so true for Pakistan. The legacy of a military dictator, the curbs on student unions has turned campuses into vast intellectual deserts where the space for rational thinking has shrunk.

Imposed some four decades ago, the ‘ban’ has mainly targeted progressive forces. Consequently, we have seen a marked rise in violence and the culture of intolerance in educational institutions. The presence of security agencies makes campuses look more like prisons than centres of learning, demonstrating a sharp regression in the academic atmosphere.

Two incidents — the lynching of Mashal Khan by his fellow students at Mardan University campus in 2017 and now the reports of harassment of girl students allegedly by the administration in the University of Balochistan have shaken the student community across the country and have become a catalyst for action.

Thousands of people including members of civil society, teachers and political workers came out last week in a show of solidarity with students who were demanding the restoration of their fundamental right to form unions and for better education facilities. The demands also included the removal of security agencies from campuses. It was the most significant student protest in recent years, with huge political implications.

The solidarity march staged by students has given a huge impetus to progressive democratic voices.

This awakening of the young generation and the struggle for their rights is indeed a silver lining in an otherwise very depressing political scenario. It has given a huge impetus to progressive democratic voices. Instead of heeding the students’ demands, the administration has reportedly filed sedition cases against those who participated in the solidarity march.

Nothing could be more shortsighted for a rudderless administration than taking action against peaceful protesters. Surely, there is nothing new about such a reaction from ruling establishments afraid of the voices of reason. It may be a long-drawn struggle but the student solidarity march has already made a strong impact, forcing the main political parties to endorse their demands. That in itself is a victory for the movement.

Students have played a vanguard role in the democratic struggle in this country. In fact, progressive student organisations have been in the forefront in resisting authoritarian rules. And that was perhaps the main reason for Gen Zia to ban student unions. The student solidarity march takes me back to the historic 1968 student movement of which I was one of the leaders. The movement brought down Ayub Khan’s rule.

It all started with protests against the celebration of 10 years of military rule declared by the regime as the ‘decade of development’. Gen Ayub Khan who later gave himself the title of field marshal had imposed martial law on Oct 7, 1958. The celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of the military takeover were aimed at projecting the ‘achievements’ of the regime and boosting its faltering political standing.

There was growing unrest among students and industrial workers whose wages had declined in real terms despite impressive economic growth. The National Students Federation, the most powerful leftist student organisation at that time, decided to organise protests against the military regime from Oct 7, 1968, to counter the anniversary celebrations. It started from the institutions where the NSF dominated the unions.

It soon spread to other cities. Many NSF leaders were arrested or forced to go underground. I was then a student at Karachi University and central joint secretary of the NSF. By November 1968, the protests had turned into a popular uprising with trade unions and political parties also joining in.

The year 1968 was also when leftist movements had swept across Western Europe and South America. The anti-Vietnam War campaign and the civil rights movement had gained momentum in the United States and swept across university campuses. The revolutionary movements in several African countries still under the yoke of colonialism had inspired the working-class movements.

The protest of 1968 was a manifestation of the increasing social conflicts across the world. It was an uprising against dictatorships, state repression, and colonisation. Mass socialist movements swept across most European countries. The most spectacular manifestation of this included the May 1968 protests in France, in which students linked up with 10 million workers staging wildcat strikes. Indeed, for a few days the movement seemed capable of overthrowing the government.

In many countries, including Pakistan, these movements turned into popular rebellions against military regimes. It was the most powerful mass movement the country had witnessed. Students and the working class were in the vanguard, but other sections of society also became part of it. From protests for students’ rights it turned into a pro-democracy movement.

The main objective of the NSF movement was to mobilise public opinion against the authoritarian regime and for democratic change. But no one expected it to turn into a nationwide uprising. The country imploded, bringing out various contradictions. Ten years of military-led rule had generated an unprecedented backlash.

Although the protests started from Karachi, a firing incident in which a student was killed ignited widespread agitation in Rawalpindi and other major towns of Punjab. While Karachi has traditionally been in the vanguard of democratic and progressive movements, Punjab for the first time witnessed powerful anti-authoritarian mass protests.

Meanwhile, student protests spread to former East Pakistan where the political situation was already volatile. Trade unions that were under the control of leftist groups also joined the protests. Initially, the movement was entirely led by the left, but soon, Bengali nationalists got into the lead. The military regime had underestimated the intensity of the movement. The situation was soon out of control. In February 1969, more than 25,000 rail workers carrying red flags marched along the main streets in Lahore.

For the first time in Pakistan’s history, socialism became the rallying cry for workers and students. Ayub’s hold over the military had weakened, with senior commanders seeing him as a liability. What started off as student protests turned into a mass uprising that brought down a powerful military dictator.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2019