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Wednesday January 19, 2022

When students march

November 28, 2021

When hundreds of peaceful students gather in the second largest city of Pakistan to voice their concerns and demands, the government must listen. On Nov 26, 2021, the Students’ Solidarity March saw throngs of students emerging from various educational institutions in Lahore and walking from Nasser Bagh to Charing Cross on the Mall. Their main demand was the immediate restoration of student unions. This was a march that the Progressive Students Collective (PSC) had organised in which students from nearly all ethnicities of Pakistan participated. Civil society activists, young doctors, labourers, and lawyers were also conspicuous by their presence. Some political party representatives also joined the march to express solidarity with the marching students.

The right to assemble in student associations and unions is something that nearly all students’ bodies have been calling for. There was a time before the dark days of Gen Ziaul Haq that nearly all educational institutions – especially higher education ones – had a thriving culture of students’ associations which participated in activities and contested elections biennially or yearly. Such forums facilitated an environment in which debate and discussion was a regular feature. Such activities trained our youth in communication skills and negotiations. They cared about democratic institutions and had a feeling of being heard. They developed a sense of belonging to the political culture that needs responsible youth to make decisions that affect them and society at large. Then suddenly in the 1980s nearly everything changed for the worse. Gen Zia called it the ‘poison of politics, and wanted to remove it from society; so, he struck a severe blow to student unions by banning nearly all intellectual and political activities.

That ban on student unions is still in place, despite repeated promises from successive governments to lift it. The demand for restoration of student unions is long-standing and the government must lift that ban. Then there is the demand for reduction in fees and provision of missing facilities. With rising inflation, quality education is becoming increasingly unaffordable for most classes. In public-sector education institutions most modern facilities are missing, and even expensive private institutes keep conjuring up techniques to extort more money under various pretexts. There is also a serious issue of missing students from universities, especially in Balochistan. This is an injustice of draconian proportions and all those students who have been abducted must return home in safe and sound condition. These are just some of the serious concerns that the state must address – if we are to have any hope for a future worth saving.

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