Despatch from Lahore | International

Protesting for reform in education, getting charged with sedition

Pakistani students and civil society activists rallying against a ban on students’ unions in Lahore, on November 29.

Pakistani students and civil society activists rallying against a ban on students’ unions in Lahore, on November 29.   | Photo Credit: K.M Chaudary

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Students held rallies across 50 Pakistani cities seeking greater say in the running of universities

On November 29, thousands of students marched in 50 cities of Pakistan for their rights. Their main demands included calls to the authorities to lift the ban on student unions, increase the education budget, provide better facilities at educational institutions and take action against people involved in sexual harassment.

Student unions have been banned in Pakistan for 35 years. Taimur Rahman, an academic, musician and political activist, said student unions are nurseries for the future political leadership in a democratic society.

“[They] are the practical training grounds to groom students to understand consensus building, alliance building, canvassing for votes, running for office, and holding oneself and others to accountability.”

When asked why there was criticism against the march and why many universities were actively discouraging students from taking part in the march, Mr. Rahman said that successive martial law regimes had weakened the country’s institutions, generating a tendency among people occupying high posts in some of them to over-react to all manifestations of democratic activity.

“University administrations should embrace students who have broken the state of apathy and who care about their country and educational institutions. There is no reason whatsoever to repress those demanding their democratic rights of student representation, access to education, better facilities, better enactment of sexual harassment laws and so on. The reaction of certain investiture administrations has been perplexing and unwarranted. There is no need to fear an active and socially engaged student body.”

A young woman student wearing a leather jacket and chanting revolutionary slogans at Faiz Festival just days before the march became the most recognised face of the march. The student, Arooj Aurangzeb, told The Hindu that the students were simply tired of living a life that they did not want to live. “It is exhausting. We want the quality of education that we deserve, we want it for everyone, and we want it now,” she said.

No political will

Mr. Rahman believes that ideally, both the government and university administrations should examine student demands and do their best to provide quality services and education. “The reality, however, is that even where the powers accept these demands, they either don’t have the capacity to see them through or the will to see them enforced. A complete rehabilitation of the educational system is the need of the hour. What we see instead are budget cuts and falling academic standards. Perhaps this student march can be the impetus that pushes them to bring some progressive changes.”

Zahid Ali, student and a member of Progressive Students Collective that organised the march, told The Hindu that the rally was undertaken to seek institutional power for students in universities and create a way of them holding onto that power. “We are planning to file a petition for the restoration of student unions and renowned lawyers, including [those from the ] Punjab Bar Council, will support us in this legal battle. We will carry forward the legal battles and political battles simultaneously.”

Days after the march, police in Lahore registered a case against some of the organisers and participants of the march on sedition charges. What was most surprising was that Iqbal Lala had been named in the FIR.

Mr. Lala is the father of Mashal Khan, a student who was brutally lynched over allegations of blasphemy at the Abdul Wali Khan University, Mardan, where he studied, more than two years ago. The allegations later turned out to be false.

Mashal is seen as a student icon and his father’s courage has been lauded by many.

The Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights took note of these sedition charges and called a meeting on Friday. It directed the authorities to remove Mr. Lala’s name from the FIR and to hold discussions with students to resolve this issue.

Chair of the Senate’s Human Rights Committee Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar told The Hindu that it was quite disturbing to see that an FIR had been registered against young students, organisers of the Students’ Solidarity March and Mr. Lala on charges of sedition. “How can we allow our state to silence dissent this way? It was actually quite encouraging to see thousands of students across Pakistan on November 29. Instead of appreciating their spirit and engaging in a dialogue with them, our state slapped an FIR. This is against the principles of a civilised democracy,” he said.

Mehmal Sarfraz is a journalist based in Lahore

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2020 12:49:46 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/protesting-for-reform-in-education-getting-charged-with-sedition/article30232327.ece

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