Solidarity march shows rising strength of student movement in Pakistan

The annual Student Solidarity March, which was held on November 26, sought the withdrawal of the ban against student unions, as well as the reversal of fee hikes and an increase in the education budget

December 07, 2021 by Shriya Singh
Protesters at the Students Solidarity March in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: PSC Lahore

University students in Pakistan from several universities participated in the Student Solidarity March 2021 on November 26.

Since 2018, students have been demanding the removal of bans on student unions in Pakistan’s universities. The annual rallies by students began as an initiative by the Left-wing students organizations like Progressive Students Collective (PSC), Revolutionary Students Front (RSF) and Progressive Students Federation (PRSF), among other groups.

Student politics has always played a vibrant role in the country’s politics in its post-independence period. However, in 1984, during Zia ul Haq’s dictatorship, the state banned unions on university campuses, forbidding young students from engaging in political activity, or even discussing issues relevant to the social, cultural, economic and political problems facing Pakistan.

According to Aunil Muntazir. former president of the Progressive Students Federation (PrSF), “Political figures who have governed in the past and also the ones in the current government ministers have given statements favoring the Student Solidarity March and Student Unions. This goes out to show that they are scared of the student power and political workers and activities working for the students at the grass root level. However, despite the support, I can see that the government has absolutely no interest in unbanning the Student Unions.”

Nonetheless, in the past four years, Student Solidarity Marches have been successful in drawing global attention to the issues plaguing Pakistan’s universities.

Restoration of their democratic right to form unions is only one of the many issues raised by these students. Other issues include allowing student representation in decision-making departments of institutions, taking action against recent fee hikes in several public sector institutions, and  increasing the education budget to at least 5% of the total GDP.

Recent cases of sexual harassment on campuses and discrimination against Baloch and Pashtun students have highlighted systemic problems that point towards larger issues facing Pakistan’s university administrations and education sector.

These countrywide marches first shot to fame in 2019 owing to the massive participation from students across the country in over 50 districts. Several progressive student organizations from all over the country had formed the Student Action Committee (SAC) at the national level which launched a struggle the same year vowing to demand fair and better education for all.

Like several other countries in the Global South, in Pakistan too the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the reality of its educational infrastructure and severely impacted the youth.

Aunil Muntazir pointed out that “students, especially from peripheral and marginalized areas had no access to the internet for online classes. Due to this reason, they were forced to come to the big cities, pay for the hostel and internet charges along with full tuition fees including other resource charges. Students are demanding an explanation for why they were being pressured to pay the full fee structure when they were not using any facilities at the university during the online semester.”

A positive outcome of organizing these marches has been the revival of student politics in the country.

This is demonstrated in the wider participant base of these marches, “…We saw participants even from Jamiat [a right-wing organization] even though they have been critical of us in the past and even now. They have started realizing that students all over Pakistan are facing similar problems. Despite being ideologically very different from them, we believe we need a collective struggle against the problems students are facing,” Muntazir said.