New Internationalist

Pakistan’s students push for democracy

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Issue 407

Amber Vora reports from Pakistan on the country’s rapidly growing student movement.

Devin Theriot-Orr
Students from nearly twenty universities gathered to protest in Lahore on 30 November. Devin Theriot-Orr

After being spoon-fed shallow analysis of Pakistan’s political situation for several years vis-à-vis the War on Terror (it’s either Musharraf or the terrorists) – Western allies are finally waking up to a more complex reality.

The current constitutional crisis is alerting the world to other segments of Pakistani society worth paying attention to. They are lawyers, judges, journalists, students and human rights activists. Day after day they risk violence and arrest to protest the mockery that has been made of their constitution and judiciary. These are Pakistan’s new democratic insurgents.

While the valiant resistance staged by Pakistan’s lawyers was expected, given their mobilization earlier this year, the development of a student and youth movement has taken many by surprise.

On Monday, 5 November, two days after the de facto martial law was declared, hundreds of students at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) held a protest, breaking a nearly three-decade drought on political activism by students in Pakistan. In the weeks following, many public and private universities throughout the country followed suit and pictures of the protesting students spilled across newspapers and blogs worldwide.

Three weeks later, I sat surrounded by more than 20 students in a room littered with paper cups of sugary chai and placards scribbled with slogans in Urdu and English. The group consisted mostly of young men in jeans and t-shirts, along with a handful of outspoken women. They energetically debated the content of a bilingual press release while a quieter student diligently lettered a placard: ‘Students of Pakistan, Unite!’

The meeting was the fifth of its kind in two weeks, including student representatives from nearly 20 universities in Lahore. Together, they have been working to consolidate the momentum of protests from their respective campuses into a more unified student resistance.

Most of the students are new at political organizing and come from diverse backgrounds in Pakistan’s class-stratified society. Before martial law was declared, they may have had little reason to meet. Now they’re getting a crash-course in coalition building. What they do agree on is their opposition to martial law and demands for the restoration of an independent judiciary and free press.

‘Most students consider ‘politics’ a dirty word.’ – Rahim, youth organizer

Pakistanis have come to expect an aversion to politics from this generation, a sentiment that helps explain why the youth protests have surprised not only Musharraf’s regime but also Pakistani society. Newspaper editorials proclaimed a long-overdue revival of student power, recalling a history when students were involved in every major political movement, most notably leading to the toppling of General Ayub Khan’s authoritarian regime in 1969.

In the early 80s, things began to change. Under the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, student unions were banned and only the Islamist IJT (a student wing of the conservative Jamaat-e-Islami political party) was permitted on campus. The United States turned a blind eye to his repressive tactics and cozied up to the dictator in exchange for his participation battling the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan. Over the years, the IJT earned a reputation for brutally suppressing other student political groups. At first, some attempted to defy Zia’s repressive regime and IJT dominance. But gradually activism was beaten down and a new generation of Pakistanis grew up associating student politics with IJT thuggery, something best avoided.

This time, however, the first student protesters were not IJT cadres, but the sons and daughters of the country’s elite. If there was anywhere Musharraf might have expected tacit support, many thought, it was among these children, many of whose families are closely connected to his regime. What, then, has driven them to speak out?

‘They [students] are patriotic and they want to see their country have an identity which is very modern, civilized and governed under universal norms of law and justice. Pakistan’s image and international prestige has suffered and that really creates a problem of identity for young people… And the best way to change that is for Pakistan to be brought back to the rails of constitutionalism and democracy.’ – LUMS Political Science Professor, Rasul Bakhsh Rais

During the first week of martial law, I met with three student activists at LUMS, a private university in Lahore. It was the night before final exam week and it had taken a bit of wrangling to get in touch with them due to the fear many students had that ISI (intelligence) agents might be posing as journalists. To protect their identities, the students decided to adopt pseudonyms when talking to the media.

We huddled into a study-room on the newly constructed campus, and I asked them if there was any history of student organizing on their campus. They quickly replied no. Why, then, had chosen to get involved? One young man responded decisively and passionately. ‘I remember something my parents used to tell me when I was young… if one generation doesn’t resist martial law, the next generation will curse them.’ Some students are from prominent families with a history of organizing against government repression. For these students, participating in the protests was the reawakening of a family legacy.

However, a female student noted that the upper classes do not want their children involved in the corrupt and messy realm of politics. Her family was among this group, worried more about her safety and the completion of her studies than the current political situation. But she is determined to participate and since she lives on campus, she’s been able to join protests without their knowledge.

Recent political events have played a significant role in awakening Pakistan’s youth. Both young people agreed that many students started paying attention to politics ‘since March 9’, a phrase which they repeated several times. It was then that Musharraf dismissed the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, on politically motivated corruption charges. Shortly thereafter, Pakistani lawyers mobilized en masse against the perceived attack on the independence of the judiciary. Most Pakistani young people are jaded by the corruption of political parties. However, the students noticed something different in the lawyers struggle. They weren’t fighting for power; they were fighting for a democratic ideal.

In his declaration of emergency rule, Musharraf did not attempt to conceal that the increasingly independent judiciary was a primary reason for his crackdown. While international players such as the US simply call for emergency to be rolled back and elections to proceed, most remain quieter on the restoration of the judiciary and free media. The youth resistance in Pakistan, however, is keenly aware that without the restoration of the pre-emergency judiciary and a free press, elections will be a joke and future of Pakistan’s judiciary as an independent institution will be crippled.

However, thousands of other students remain indifferent to the political situation. Many are stricken with the cynicism born of living in a country that has spent 31 of its 60-year history ruled by the military or corrupt and inept civilian leaders. However, others believe there are thousands more Pakistanis sitting quietly at home, fearful of taking to the streets, but supportive of the youthful protesters. Indeed, my neighbor, a successful, upper middle-class business owner and father of three remarked hopefully: ‘If the students come out on the streets, only then might the government fall.’

‘This was a blind spot for them, they didn’t see it coming, but neither did we. People like us who have encouraged students to organize before — we had hoped something like this would happen. But we didn’t necessarily see this much of a response.’ – LUMS Professor Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Privileged students at private universities like LUMS have a reputation for caring more about careers, clothes and cars than politics. However, Salima Hashmi, a Dean at another private school, Beaconhouse National University, believes that one reason LUMS mobilized first was due to the rigorous academic environment at the elite institution. LUMS, she remarked, is unusual in that it challenges students to think critically, after most have undergone years of nationalist indoctrination at the primary and secondary school level.

But timing was critical. On November 3 celebrity cricket star turned one-man-political-party, Imran Khan was scheduled to speak on the LUMS campus. The students joked that most people were more interested in catching a glimpse of the famous cricket star and teenage heartthrob than in listening to his politics. In an unexpected turn, half an hour into the speech a professor came on stage to announce that martial law had been declared. It was as if Imran Khan had held a perfectly-timed a pep rally just before the declaration of martial law. A large number of energized students stayed afterwards to discuss how they would address the situation.

The government also helped fuel student rage by arresting several professors who attended a meeting at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan the next day, quickly transforming the impact of martial law from an abstract concept to a personal one for previously apolitical students. Once released, the professors gave speeches at rallies, helping students cultivate a political analysis and sense of personal engagement.

Professor Sajjad notes that the LUMS students have grown up ‘wired’, unlike their public-university counterparts, many of who have never used a computer before university. Their tech-savvy also enabled the mass dissemination of information to organize protests quickly. One professor quickly composed an e-mail via Blackberry as he was arrested. Following the arrest, sms messages spread across the campus faster than wildfire, coordinating meetings and rallies, while e-mail manifestos encouraged students at other campuses to join the fray. Facebook helped Pakistani students get the word out to friends and relatives abroad who organized solidarity protests, keeping the spirit of resistance high.

‘I was not surprised. Because I [knew that] the last three or four years, we have been penetrating and trying to knock on doors, but for the masses it was a great surprise.’ – Diep Saeeda, Institute for Peace and Secular Studies

Diep Saeeda has spent many years mobilizing youth with her organization, the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies. She says that youth have become increasingly engaged in dialogue about social and political problems. After Diep’s organization tried for years to unify Pakistan’s liberal Left unsuccessfully they realized that the hope for a just and democratic Pakistan lies in the hands of its youth. These days, she’s one of the few faces over the age of 25 at the all-student meetings, providing support to the young people in their first real political struggle.

It’s not only students but also recent graduates working in fields such as law and the media who have been instrumental in organizing protests of journalists and lawyers. Unlike their parents who grew up on state-sponsored news and programming, this generation has come to age in the last eight years of Musharraf’s tenure during which the media has enjoyed unprecedented freedom. With a taste of such freedom, they aren’t willing to give it up easily. Ali, a 26 year old investment banker in Karachi, graduated from LUMS three years ago and comments that the media has been key in demystifying politics and giving him diverse perspectives needed to make informed decisions. He was hungry to get involved and joined a large coalition opposing martial law. He is currently developing workshops on democracy and political involvement for local schools and colleges.

But it’s not only the elite who are organizing. Students at a large public institution, Punjab University, have mobilized as well. Many, including Diep and LUMS Professor Sajjad believe that in the long-term, institutions like Punjab University (PU) will be more influential than the smaller private schools. With a student body 30,000 it is demographically more representative of Pakistan’s population, which largely consists of working and lower class families.

At the all-student meeting, I interviewed a second-year law student from PU. Unlike his compatriots at LUMS, Tariq (a pseudonym) wore a handsome traditional kurta and spoke English with a bit more effort, yet with no less eloquence. When asked why he decided to get involved he started with a different story.

‘I have been a student of Punjab University for the last 18 months. Several times we have faced threats and physical violence by a pro-Islamic militant organization called IJT.’ He proceeded to recount the history of the harsh repression meted out by the IJT to students who would not join their ranks or follow their strict interpretation of Islamic morality.

Under Zia’s rule, and before the era of private universities, government-funded schools like PU expelled many liberal and progressive teachers and students who attempted to organize, leading to an IJT stranglehold on campus, even though they were no more than 10 per cent of the student population. According to Tariq the struggle is as much about reclaiming public and political spaces from the monopoly of the IJT as it is about opposing martial law.

Devin Theriot-Orr
Students such as this woman formed a chain around a large traffic circle in Lahore on 30 November. Devin Theriot-Orr

As fate would have it the tide at Punjab University turned against the IJT on November 14. Thousands of students gathered for a rally at which Imran Khan was scheduled to speak and then publicly give himself up for arrest. But before he could address the crowds, a group of IJT students manhandled him into a police van. The outcry was tremendous and even the IJT’s parent political party denounced the actions. However, the damage was done. Professor Sajjad remarked: ‘In a matter of days, their basis to exist on campus has been wiped out, popular opinion has been swept away from them. It seems that before people were begrudgingly accepting their presence on campus, but clearly now there’s a space for new forms to emerge.’

Since then students at Punjab University have continued to come out in large numbers and without fear of IJT backlash. At one recent rally I attended, students interrupted the popular chants of ‘Go Musharraf, Go!’ with impassioned cries of ‘Go Jamiat (IJT), Go!’

Thus far the state has been more lenient on students than other groups, not arresting them by the thousands as with lawyers and political party workers. This leniency may be because the government fears the increased publicity and international outrage that coercive measures against students would likely bring to what has already been a public relations nightmare.

But as the emergency enters its second month and student organizing shows no sign of fizzling out, the state has slowly begun to ratchet up the pressure. In Islamabad, police have baton-charged student rallies and in Lahore, 14 professors from Punjab University were charged with sedition. At LUMS four professors and one student were charged under the ‘Maintenance of Public Order Act’ and police began surrounding the campus to block students from leaving to attend protests.

The professors and student organizers I spoke to were uncertain about whether the mobilizations would become a mass movement and warned against direct comparisons to the movement of 1968-69. At that time, the popular politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto backed the student movement, which grew in strength and popularity across the nation. This time around students have been quick to avoid direct association with any political party.

They have good reason to be wary. Decades earlier, after the groundswell of student power led to the toppling of Ayub Khan’s regime, the political parties were quick to co-opt the movement. LUMS Professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais explains: ‘They carved out their own constituencies of influence, supplied money, sometimes weapons and the battles of the political parties were fought on the campuses. There was a lot bloodshed and violence among student groups. If [students today] come under the control of any political party… that will be the end of the social movement. Their power, their strength, would become fragmented.’

Aasim Sajjad believes the students’ impact will be greater in the long-term. ‘It takes time for the infrastructure of a movement to develop. But an organization that comes from a movement will be more vibrant and long-lasting than one that comes from a few people getting together.’

The students I spoke with are already thinking in the longer-term – discussing disappearances that have happened under Musharraf’s rule as part of the American lead war on terror, disparities in education, and how to begin creating new options in Pakistan’s limited political landscape.

But the big question is whether Pakistani youth, awakened to the potentials of their own power, will be able to harness their energy and idealism past the immediate crisis. Many students are disappointed with recent announcements that major opposition parties are abandoning plans for an election boycott. However, most believe that their movement will continue, even after the emergency is withdrawn and elections take place.

Amber Vora is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. She previously lived in Seattle, Washington where she advocated for the rights of immigrant women.

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