Listening to the young

December 10, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE room itself had little to offer as most such places in public buildings don’t: a nondescript conference table, ugly chairs, square frames on the wall masquerading as art, and endless cups of milky tea accompanied by patties.

But the composition of the people at the table had changed by the afternoon. Accompanying the senators and the police officers were four young men with messy hair, a stubble or full beard though not of the religious kind, and dressed casually in sweaters and winter jackets. A young teacher stood out more for his wiry hair than his appearance which was indistinguishable from those he taught.

The young men had travelled here from Lahore to tell their side of the story of how their participation in the student march led to an FIR being registered against them all while one of their own had been whisked away and arrested.

The police began with their side of the tale; journalistically this is how stories are often told in Islamabad, with the official version first. It was no different this Friday afternoon in Parliament House.

Despite the dissatisfaction of it all, it was not a wasted afternoon.

There was some mention of roads being blocked and ambulances inconvenienced and then a speech which was unpalatable. It was incendiary; sedition was mentioned. The state could not ignore it. Using the video footage, a few people were identified and the state registered an FIR.

Read: Sedition cases registered against organisers and participants of student march

The young professor then spoke up to give the unofficial side of events, which is rarely ever heard in the buildings on Constitution Avenue.

The protest was peaceful; not a single potted plant had been damaged — the phrase has been used often but rarely by someone this sincere. He cited the government officials who tweeted in favour of the march, from the prime minister to cabinet ministers. A day-long event, in multiple cities, but two minutes of one speech by one young student led to an FIR against that student; a father who had been invited to the march in memory of his brutally murdered young son); and even the young professor who had not spoken at the march.

The young professor who was there spoke passionately yet with much restraint. He agreed that his student had perhaps crossed a line in his speech but there was a context. The young scholar was angry for he had lost loved ones in the violence in former Fata. He was hurting and he needed help and guidance — along with some form of reprimand for he added that the youngster may not be allowed to speak again publicly at such events. He was picked up from the university campus and one day later, the FIR was registered. The rest, who were lucky enough not to be picked up, went to court but were given bail though for a mere 10 days.

If the speech was the problem, then why was the grieving father named in the FIR?

The academic also asked why — if the police had to pick someone up for the transgression — only the Pakhtun student, Alamgir Wazir, was picked up. How would this help heal the existing divisions? Ammar Jan’s questions went unanswered. The room felt rather silent, despite being full of people.

According to the police, the FIR was merely an allegation. Nothing was conclusive. The investigations were still to be completed, an official argued, as if the FIR did little damage to the dignity of an elderly man hurt so deeply by society already and the young men who had their lives ahead of them.

The young students, as passionately as their teacher though with less restraint, spoke of the harassment they were suffering, of how they felt targeted, how it affected their studies. Yet again, they got few answers. The tension in the room seemed to have been replaced with a sense of helplessness.

The government officials as well as the senators who had called the meeting had few answers. Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar asked that the name of Iqbal Lala, the father of Mashal Khan, be removed from the FIR. Barrister Saif waxed lyrical about the importance of student organisations but ended with emphasising the necessity of not crossing red lines. Who else would know more about this?

But despite the dissatisfaction of it all, it was not a wasted afternoon.

Parliament is full of those who represent the citizens of Pakistan. They claim to speak for every Pakistani, including its youth, which by some accounts is over 50 per cent of the country. The prime minister of this country is from a party which is said to enjoy the support of youth. An opposition figure is young enough to claim that he can speak for the young. And yet, parliament rarely speaks for or to the youth.

The Human Rights Senate committee has at least made an effort. The invitation to the Punjab University students was not their first. A few weeks ago, they also provided a platform to young women from Balochistan University who were articulate about the harassment scandal at their place of education. They spoke of how the efforts to provide security and ensure safety at universities ended up intimidating them. One teacher from a university in Sindh spoke of how hostel administrations used CCTV footage to report students’ harmless behaviour to the parents.

But it is not enough to hear the young voices only when there is a scandal or a story in the press. More should be done to hear young voices, especially by those who represent us.

And it is also a moment of reflection that when young people speak up they do not do so to highlight the poor education facilities, poor sports facilities or the absence of jobs once they graduate. They turn up to speak about violence, harassment, secret cameras, blackmail and being treated as criminals. We have failed our youth; and this failure is more evident in what are not even the immediate concerns of our students.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2019