PARANOIA followed by overreaction — that best describes how the Pakistani state views and responds to any form of independent thought. The latest instance veers into the realm of the farcical. On Friday, hundreds of youth in various cities took part in the ‘Student Solidarity March’ to voice their demands for free education, committees against sexual harassment on campus, provision of internet facilities and the restoration of student unions. The rallies were peaceful: the speakers did not incite violence and participants were ‘armed’ with little more than placards and flags. In Lahore, a few of them even stayed back to clean up the venue after the rally dispersed. And yet, the Lahore deputy commissioner issued arrest orders for Prof Ammar Ali Jan, one of the rally organisers and president of the Haqooq-i-Khalq Movement, under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance. According to the order, Prof Jan “if not checked will give rise to a situation prejudicial to public safety and maintenance of public order”. The document further describes him as being “in the habit … to harass the general public and symbol of frightens [sic]”.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate turn of phrase, the attempt to paint Mr Jan as some notorious thug wishing to provoke an insurrection is ridiculous and makes the authorities look rather foolish. At the rally, the young professor assailed university administrations for promoting a fascist culture where critical thinking was stifled and teachers who encouraged their students to voice independent views were shown the door. According to him, students, farmers, labourers and civil society would have to work for a socialist revolution to take back the rights that capitalism had snatched from them. This scarcely catapults him into the ranks of those wishing to dismantle the state through violent means like a latter-day Guy Fawkes. Prof Jan and the rally participants were simply exercising their right to peaceful protest in what increasingly appears to be a nominal democracy, judging by the orders to arrest him. The fact is, there is in Pakistan today little tolerance for progressive ideas, because they make for a ‘troublesome’ populace that refuses to sacrifice its rights and freedoms at the altar of narratives that serve only a select few. Many decades ago, a student movement changed the course of history in Pakistan. Are the authorities afraid this is a nascent march on the same path? Such heavy-handed tactics are the shortest route to that end.

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2020

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