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December 5, 2019

Killing growth


December 5, 2019

The sizeable gatherings and rallies of students carrying red banners which took place in most major cities in the country last Friday are a reminder of the 1970s and times before this when students were the catalysts for progressive change in the country.

This ended abruptly with the bar placed by General Ziaul Haq on student groups in 1984, on the pretext that it was intended to maintain discipline on campuses.

Campuses are of course a place for academic pursuit. But they are also a place where debate, discussion and the exchange of different ideas is essential in order to allow young minds to develop and to learn. A multitude of bodies which actively encourage debate exist at almost every major university in the world. It is sad that they have been banished from our institutes of higher learning.

It is important to remember that by student unions the meaning should not be interpreted as the student wings of political parties. This is a distortion of what student unions are all about. Unions are intended to voice the rights and feelings of students and, through a process of leadership and movements begun on campuses and taken to the street, platforms from which leaders for the future can develop.

It is no accident that many of the politicians who today form a part of our major political parties began their careers as student leaders. One of the reasons dynastic politics has been encouraged is the lack of new leaders emerging and challenging the right of Bilawal Bhutto or Mariam Nawaz to take over the party of their parents or grandparents simply on the basis of their second names.

Friday’s rallies offered hope. This was quickly smothered by FIRs, some for treason, brought against at least 250 students including key leaders and even the father of slain student Mashal Khan. It seems any hope is to be destroyed.

In this context it would have been good to see Bilawal, Mariam and other young leaders join the huge mass of students who walked down Mall Road in Lahore and smaller numbers who staged vibrant rallies in other cities including Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and Rawalpindi. Students form the backbone of any society and represent its future. While naturally they should not be permitted to create havoc on campus as has happened in the case of the right-wing IJT, their activities should be promoted and the ban placed on them and then reinstituted by the courts after it was lifted by former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani lifted immediately.

The gap of many years that has existed since the time when student unions played an active role in the country’s social, political and economic movements was visible on Friday. The students, both young men and women, gathered for these rallies generally emulated what they had seen and heard about from many decades ago in the form of short video clips or black and white pictures. They spoke of staging hunger strikes, raised slogans which have not changed over the years and used left-wing terminology, which essentially has become redundant in the modern world.

There are many few left-wing movements which continue to refer to each other as ‘comrade’ on every occasion. It is even stranger when alongside slogans demanding equal rights for all under socialist system, essentially religious slogans are also raised. There appears to be a great deal of ideological confusion, a lack of development and also a tendency to revert to slogans that have been heard over and over again and are familiar to all.

The students in their speeches and on their banners did bring up issues of extreme significance. They raised the matter of the high fees charged by many private institutions, the decline in the quality of public-sector institutions and the incidents of the harassment of female students on campuses leading in some cases to suicide or a constant sense of threat.

These are central issues, and it is a tragedy that they have been ignored by political leaders. Higher education should not be restricted to just the wealthy and we should look back at times when men and women with huge literary or academic standing taught at top government-run universities. Their students still remember their contributions and their ideas.

The question for us today is whether the fledgling student movement we are seeing will continue to prosper. Within government confusion seems to exist. We hear contradictory statements. The march in Lahore, seen after a long time with its banners and the sheer number of students, suggested that young people have reached a point where they were desperate for change. We have also seen this at rallies organized to highlight the need for climate change and rights for women and girls.

But the students of today will need to move beyond the past. They need to develop their own vocabulary, their own slogans and their own agendas. Simply replicating what has happened before is not enough in a changed country and in a changed world. The task for the students of today is an admittedly difficult one. There are very few lecturers and professors who support them on campus, unlike the past when teachers were willing to act as guides and moderators. The mere mention of student unions has become almost taboo in many circles. It is forgotten that students as an organized group can do much that is good and initiate change.

Signs of this did come in Lahore where the father of Mashal Khan, bludgeoned, beaten and shot to death at his university in Mardan, was invited as an honoured guest. Salutes were presented to Mashal who had brought up the issue of administrative corruption and fee increases at his own university and encouraged debate on a variety of subjects. The fact that he was recognized by hundreds of students suggests that many would like to see fathers like him appear on the scene at all our universities. His tragic death turns him into a martyr for many students.

But things will need to move forward. Students need to find ways to ensure their movement does not fizzle out or break up into factions as happened in 2007 when students, with lawyers and journalists, led the campaign against then dictator Pervez Musharraf and the emergency rule he had put in place. It is important that unity be created and the process of dialogue carried on at all levels to avoid petty matters pulling students apart.

This was one of the factors which prevented liberal movements from developing in the country in the decades after Partition. Too often their leaders broke into separate groups over relatively minor matters. It is the wider picture and the wider vision that has to be kept in mind. In the country we live in today this must include ideas of social justice for all including those who lack wealth or influence. They must have the same opportunities as their peers.

The student leaders of today have been bringing up these issues to some degree. It is important they emphasize this message and keep themselves away from exploitation by political parties so that they can offer genuine change and a chance for the country to develop in a manner that allows every citizen to grow and discover the opportunities they need to demonstrate their talents.

The writer is a freelance columnist and formernewspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]