“The future belongs to us”: Students’ solidarity march in Pakistan

In 1984, Pakistan’s military dictator Zia-Ul-Haq banned student unions in an attempt to suppress students resistance against the dictatorship. Today Pakistani students seek to overturn this ban

November 28, 2019 by V. Arun Kumar, Umer Beigh
Pakistan students' solidairty march_PRSF
(Illustration: V. Arun Kumar/ Peoples Dispatch Multimedia)

On November 29, students across Pakistan will hit the streets in a historic students’ solidarity march. With the clarion call – the future belongs to us- students are fighting for the future of the country.

In 1984, Pakistan’s military dictator Zia-Ul-Haq banned student unions in an attempt to suppress students resistance against dictatorship. The ban on student unions was briefly lifted in 1988 by prime minister Benazir Bhutto before the Supreme court then re-imposed the ban in 1993. The successive governments, used this ban to repress students’ voices demanding education for all. But, today, students are rising up.

In this regard, Haider Kaleem, central organizer of Progressive Students Collective (PSC) and Progressive Students Federation (PRSF), in an interview with People Dispatch, talks about why are thousands of students across Pakistan are participating in the students’ solidarity march.

Peoples Dispatch (PD): Students in Pakistan are organizing a national march on November 29. Can you tell us about what this march is about and what are the demands? 

Haider Kaleem (HK): We believe the Students Solidarity March will play a central role in filling the existing political vacuum in the country because our main demand is immediate restoration of Student Unions in Pakistan. Only through student unions can any nation produce new leadership that is progressive and democratic which can take up the responsibilities in the decision making process of their lives.

Left leaning PSC, PRSF and Revolutionary Students Front (RSF) are the pioneers of the students solidarity march. We organized the march last year for the first time with the same charter of demands. This year we invited all progressive student organizations to for a nation wide students action committee and now the same is being organized in more than 50 locations.

Our main demand is the restoration student unions and hold elections of student unions immediately. We are also demanding abandoning Privatization of educational institutions immediately, take back the recent decision to increase fees, and pledge free education at every level as promised in the constitution. The recent Budget Cuts of Higher Education Commission (HEC) and lay off of academics must end immediately and allocate at least 5% of total GDP for education.

We are also calling for the abolition of the semester system and adopt annual education system, furthermore we demand lifting of ban on political activities in educational institutions that is implemented by making students sign an affidavit at the time of the admission because that affidavit is a violation of article 17 in the constitution.

The intervention (in the name of national security) by the police and other law agencies in educational institutions must end, and all the political student-prisoners should be released immediately. The hostel curfew timings for male and female students should be completely ended and committees according to Higher Education Commission’s harassment policy should be established on each campus and ensure the representation of students in these committees.

The government should provide access to students about the information of university budget and audit report, and ensure the free availability of basic facilities like library, internet, transport, hostels and mess on all campuses. The education system should be equipped in accordance to the modern scientific requirements and abolish class-based education system to ensure every student gets equal opportunities of learning. The government should take initiatives to expand the number of educational institutions to remotest corners of the country and ensure the use of renewable energy in campuses. Universities should provide students with options to choose other genders and not just male and female.

We are calling for providing of minimum wage as the unemployment allowance till they get a proper job. Also, April 13 should be declared a public holiday as a tribute to Mashal Khan who was killed [by right wing Islamic fundamentalists].

PD: Your main demand is to restore student unions in Pakistan. Can you explain the role of student politics and unions in universities and why it’s important? 

HK: Student politics and unions are the basic platforms which produce new leadership from the youth and it gives a voice to the youth of the country in the decision making process. More than 60% of the population in Pakistan is considered as youth but why is that there is no platform for them which ensures their representation in deciding what is their future going to be like? It’s very important today because all the political parties have been tried and tested and failed. There is a situation of crisis in the education system and the health care system. The youth are demanding a new social contract with the government now.

Thousands of Pakistani students will march on November 29. Photo: Progressive Students Collective

PD: What is response from the students to this march and what are the challenges you have faced during the organizing of this march?

HK: The response is enormous, full of love and support not just where we’re organizing the march but from everywhere else. All the students and other citizens who have messaged or called us to say that we were literally waiting for someone to bring this up. The only challenge was that we’re organizing it in a very deliberately depoliticized environment but I think we have almost overcome this challenge.

PD: Can you tell us about the situation of university education in the country, are students from poor economic backgrounds have access to affordable education? How is the economic policies of the government affecting the right to affordable education?

HK: Our campuses are like jails where students are treated like slaves by university administration. There is no space for critical thinking on our campuses. The curriculum hasn’t been updated since ages. The students are not even allowed to question why are they being taught what they’re being taught. Higher education was always a luxury in Pakistan but after Imran Khan became the prime minister, his policies reduced the education budget even more which resulted in massive fee hikes. Around 22.8 million children are already out of schools and the ones who were somehow managing to get education have also been discouraged by these policies. Divide between the private and public sector universities is huge, only the students of private educational institutions used to get jobs and now even they are struggling for employment. Students have been protesting on these policies since years now.

PD: What is the response from larger sections of the society, including working class to the students march?

HK: As usual, the status quo, the rich and powerful are opposed to it but the march will be joined by academics, workers, trade unionists, young doctors, healthcare workers, nurses, lawyers, poets and the civil society in great numbers on the 29th November.

The students across the world are rising up for affordable education and against the privatization of education. What is your message to the student movements across the world? Lots of love and power to all students. Keep resisting because we have nothing to lose but our existing rotten education system!