Dawn.com’s Huma Yusuf speaks to students across the country who are planning to participate in the sit-in in Islamabad on Monday.
“I got involved with the Long March because if I stay silent right now, then I’m tacitly consenting to the status quo. I’m betraying my indifference. But I’m not indifferent – you get involved just to make yourself heard.” These are not the words of a High Court advocate or PML-N party worker. These are the words of Humna Bhojani, a high school student at the Frobels International School in Islamabad. She, like hundreds of other high school and university students across the country, is enjoying a political awakening thanks to the lawyers’ Long March. The fact is, Pervez Musharraf’s imposition of emergency rule on November 3, 2007, gave rise to a new beast: politically engaged students from private institutions. While Pakistan has a rich – often complicated, often violent – history of student politics, it has long been restricted to public universities where political parties establish student wings. Since 2007, however, students at private institutions have also thrown their cards into the political game, particularly in the effort to restore former Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to the Supreme Court.
Groups such as the Student Action Committee (SAC) – which is active in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi – the Pakistan Youth Alliance, and the Concerned Citizens of Pakistan (which binds students with civil society activists) have mushroomed. These organizations, all of which have a strong online presence, have helped bring together students from different institutions and cities to join hands with the lawyers and political activists.
What’s interesting about these student activists is that they’re managing to interact with the Pakistani political landscape without establishing affiliations with particular political parties, the way public university students inevitably do. On Saturday afternoon, I spoke with Amna Mawaz, an Islamabad-based student at Bahria University, while she was participating in a rally outside Jinnah Super Market. Sounds of protest shook the air, but Amna remained focused. She was able to identify which political parties had representatives at the rally: “People from the Mazdoor Kisan Party are here, PML-N people are here, and Awami Jamhoori Ittehad guys are here. To be honest, though,” she continued, “the MKP people were much more organized last year.” Such political savvy would normally be surprising in a young university student.
Part of the students’ success as an activist body stems from their connectivity. Before November 2007, most of these youngsters had never met each other and would not have known where to find like-minded students with whom they could become politically active. Enter, the internet.
“After emergency was imposed [in Nov. 2007], I didn’t know anyone, but I wanted to do something. Then I got online and met all these students and now we have a movement,” explains Abeer Hamid, a student at Lahore’s FAST University who helps manage SAC’s online presence. “We stay connected through the internet, through Facebook and blogs. This way, we also stay in touch with Karachi and Islamabad,” he says. Abeer manages online mailing lists and sends out mass SMS text messages informing students of political developments and upcoming events such as talks, rallies or vigils. He also maintains SAC’s Facebook group page and uploads relevant videos to YouTube.
For example, the day before the Long March arrived in Lahore, Abeer circulated a YouTube video showing a song in support of the lawyers’ movement that had been broadcast on a private television channel. “I found the clip online, separated it, and uploaded it as a stand alone because I thought our community [of students] would enjoy it,” he says. Earlier, Abeer helped distribute an official ‘Long March Tarana’.
Today, on Sunday, March 15, many of these students are planning to join the lawyers’ movement and participate in the sit-in scheduled for Monday in Islamabad. About 300 students in Lahore are planning to congregate at Zaman Park before heading to Mall Road to join the lawyers. Ahmed Saleemi, a student at the Lahore School of Economics, is one of them. “My family isn’t involved in politics and most of my friends are not active,” he says. “But I got involved during the emergency  and now I will continue. It’s just awareness.” Even as he gathers some food and a wet towel (in case of tear gassing in Islamabad) to prepare for departure, Ahmed is disappointed at the way things are going this year. “This time, they’re trying to stop us. That’s why the civil society is getting scared – there’s a bit less participation.”
But students seem more determined than ever. Sundas Hurain, a law student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and a member of the SAC convening body, says that more LUMS students are participating this year than last. “This time, the clash is more fundamental and crucial – the state machinery is blatantly curbing the right of the people to protest,” she says. “That’s why more people are on board, even if we don’t make it all the way to Islamabad.”
That said, there are some students who have not been able to sustain their political commitments. An SAC member who was involved in last year’s Long March, Maham Ali, is not participating this year. “I’m so busy with university right now that I don’t have time for the lawyers’ movement,” she says.