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Here’s how a small political movement like the Student March became a mainstream player

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Here’s how a small political movement like the Student March became a mainstream player

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Pakistan is set to witness its third consecutive student solidarity march today, on the 27th of November. The march is taking place across multiple major cities, and if last year’s turnout is to relied upon for prediction then thousands will be in attendance. The resurgence of student politics in the last three to five years is astounding, because not only are student unions banned, but universities themselves are committed to staying apolitical and prohibit political activity on campuses. This begs the question of how the revival of student politics, particularly in the last year, has taken place in the face of opposition from both the state and educational institutions. 

Student politics isn’t the only movement that has gained ground in the last few years, other political movements like the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), the Aurat March and even the Climate Change March have all grown and become political forces in their own right. Movements like these used to be considered fringe movements in Pakistan, but the number of people they are now able to mobilise illustrates that is no longer the case. It appears that these movements have overlapping concerns and aims that have allowed them to grow together and boost each other’s reach. The core demands of all these movements stem from the desire to be seen and heard. All of them are built on the feeling of being ignored, policed and persecuted by the state. Ammar Ali Jan, activist, historian and one of those helping to organise the student solidarity march said, “These movements grew out of similar feelings of anger and isolation.”. 

The Aurat March is demanding rights for women, the PTM Is demanding an end to enforced disappearances and the Student Solidarity March is demanding a better educational environment, opportunities and facilities. Although these are separate movements they have a lot of overlapping concerns, for instance, sexual harassment is a concern for both the Aurat March and the Student Solidarity March.

For many people the problems that these movements are fighting against are a daily reality. To make an extremely simple analogy imagine there is Pashtun woman who is a university student, she would face multiple forms of oppression. She might have family members or friends who may have been disappeared or live under the constant threat of being forcefully disappeared. She might also face ethnic discrimination and sexual harassment in university. During this pandemic, if this woman hails from the parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) where there is barely any internet access then her education would also be compromised through no fault of her own. This example illustrates, in an extremely simple manner, how the concerns and aims of these previously fringe movements frequently intertwine and overlap.

It appears that these movements have overlapping concerns and aims that have allowed them to grow together and boost each other’s reach. The core demands of all these movements stem from the desire to be seen and heard. All of them are built on the feeling of being ignored, policed and persecuted by the state.

Salman Sikander, student organiser and information secretary of the Progressive Students Collective (PSC) said, “There is overlap between the concerns of all these movements, but they have grown organically too. The Student Solidarity March grew out of specific problems that students face like increasing fees or harassment on campus.”. Salman Sikander believes that while these movements may have similar interests they did not grow together as a part of a coordinated effort. “We invited those affiliated with the Aurat March to ours and vice versa because we have some common interests.” In this way these movements attracted large followings, particularly among the youth who find different parts of their problems voiced by each of these movements.

Although there is a segment of society that spreads and believes conspiracy theories about these movements being interconnected, foreign funded tools being used to destabilize Pakistan. But Ammar Ali Jan explains that people, especially young adults, are drawn to these movements because they highlight the real concerns of the day, and that “No enemy would ever want better education or rights for people like we do.”. This sentiment is echoed by Salman Sikander, who stated that they focus on local problems and keep their message simple, “for example, we just try to tell people that you also deserve the same education and opportunities as the son of a politician or bureaucrat”.

The messaging of these movements which simply and directly addresses the difficulties of ordinary people has made them very popular, particularly the Student Solidarity March. Whose message was amplified to great effect by social media. “Social media has a lot to do with mobilising people. When the video of students singing ‘Jab Laal Laal Lehraey Ga’ went viral we were suddenly everywhere on news channels and such. Old student activists and organisers, who were active decades ago when unions weren’t banned, even reached out to us saying they’re amazed that student politics is having a resurgence in the country.”, said Salman Sikander. Just like the Student Solidarity March was thrust into the mainstream by a viral video, the other ex-fringe movements also gained space and influence in the mainstream discourse in the country through grassroots mobilisation and, in large part, social media.

The Aurat March’s posters go viral every year, and make it and its message one of the most talked about topics of the year. And the PTM has used social media to not only document the stories of those who have lost family and friends to enforced disappearances, but made them visible to the rest of the country in a way they were unable to do before the advent of social media. “People are not scared of doing hashtag activism”, according to Salman Sikander. This virtual support cannot replace the impact of in person activism like protests and sit-ins but it does help create a conversation that previously was not being had, which helps in holding the State responsible for its failures.

The State seems to have a colonial hangover, wherein it views its citizens through the same lens that a colonial power views its subjects.

All these movements, in a way, highlight the myriad of ways in which the State has failed its people. The absence of security, safety and opportunity is at the heart of all these movements. But unfortunately the State has historically not been inclined to have an open dialogue with these movements and the people they represent. Several organisers of last year’s Student Solidarity March were charged with sedition, including participating PTM leader Alamgir Wazir, for allegedly “raising insulting remarks against the state institutes”. Alamgir Wazir was arrested, denied bail and kept in jail for four months. The State seems to have a colonial hangover, wherein it views its citizens through the same lens that a colonial power views its subjects. Pakistan’s sedition laws are a relic the British left behind, used to quash the criticism coming from the people of this soil, both now and then. Ammar Ali Jan believes that, “the State does not understand the concerns of the people thus it uses borrowed language to frame its dealings with its people”. He goes on to add that, “this logic should be challenged and not just the rulers of the time”.

Student unions and by extension student politics was banned by dictator Zia-ul-Haq’s government in 1984. Ostensibly, they were banned due to the violence resulting from the clash between Islamist and socialist student unions. But actually, Zia-ul-Haq feared that he would lose his seat as many left wing student unions were actively pro-democracy, and there were reports that anti-government student unions would sweep the union elections so he banned student unions. Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan war saw to the arming of the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), a right wing student organisation, a legacy that has unfortunately carried through to this day. Punjab university has been the scene of many a fight between armed IJT students and other student groups. This violence has made many critical of the Student Solidarity March’s demand to restore student unions.

But on the ground student organisers and activists believe that this violence is not endemic to student unions, rather it can be prevented from occurring through proper rules and regulations of new student unions. Ammar Ali Jan and Salman Sikander are both of the view that if student unions are restored they can be kept from being used for violents ends through proper rules and regulations. After all, it is an open secret in Pakistan that the IJT in the 70s-80s was armed by the government at the time to further its own agenda, both at home and in Afghanistan. If the State and political parties are kept out of student politics, for example no student wings of political parties are allowed on campus then it is likely that student unions can be a force for good solving the legitimate problems of students by holding the administration responsible.

The demands of political movements like the Student Solidarity March, the Aurat March and the PTM have their basis in the legitimate grievances of the people, and are frequently intertwined which is why these movements have become popular political forces in their own right.

Ammar Ali Jan pointed out that violence still occurs regularly on campuses even with the ban on political activities and unions on campus. “The lynching of Mashal Khan happened on a university campus, sexual harassment, ethnic discrimination and bigotry are all rife in universities”, he said. There is a misconception that campus are no longer violent places with the absence of unions. “Elite campuses have just secured themselves through militarisation”, according to Ammar Ali Jan.

The restoration of unions might not be akin to opening a pandora’s box, and could be a possible avenue to nurturing the democracy of Pakistan. Student politics in the rest of the world and in Pakistan, in the past, has nurtured grassroots politicians and leaders. And students have long been at the vanguard of pro-democracy movements like in Hong Kong or even during the Zia-ul-Haq regime.

The demands of political movements like the Student Solidarity March, the Aurat March and the PTM have their basis in the legitimate grievances of the people, and are frequently intertwined which is why these movements have become popular political forces in their own right. The State must engage with them, and through them their own citizens, in good faith and work out a way to solve the problems these movements have highlighted.

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