True dissent might change politics

December 6, 2020

The recently concluded Students Solidarity March which took place across multiple cities demonstrated students’ potential to come together and create new, democratic spaces for themselves

When students march, they teach us that our current models of education and politics are inadequate and, in the process of walking, speaking, meeting, chanting and singing, they transform those models into what they need and want. They create a democratic space on the streets where they can learn from one another and teach one another, forming pedagogical as well as political spaces for the demands that official channels refuse to acknowledge.

In doing so, they transform the proper function of the streets from a connective, capitalist tool to another vision — a disruptive, dissenting and revolutionary vision of what a classroom or a parliament might look like if it truly represented the people it claims to serve.

The recently concluded Students Solidarity March, which took place across multiple cities, demonstrated this potential of students to come together and create new, democratic spaces for themselves. It is abundantly clear that our current educational departments and institutions are unable to meet the demands of these students, which include the restoration of student unions, an increase in the education budget, proper controls on rising fees, and an end to discrimination on the basis of class, gender, and ethnicity. These key demands have become the focus of the students’ movement over the past few years as the students have held marches, protests and hunger strikes across the country.

Instead of listening and responding to the students, the government and educational institutions have reacted with increased policing, surveillance and neo-liberalisation. They treat our creative, intelligent and ambitious students as vagrants who need to be controlled, disciplined, and turned into ‘profit’ instead of encouraging and supporting them. Students are treated as a problem for law and order to fix — locked inside campuses and hostels like criminals, interrogated like miscreants, and harassed and assaulted on the basis of class, gender and ethnicity. This reflects a colonial mindset that seeks to control the population and capitalise on its potential rather than celebrating it and assisting it in building a new future for the country.

The orders to arrest the academic and activist, Ammar Ali Jan, after the conclusion of the Students Solidarity March, are an example of this policy of disciplining and ordering dissent instead of productively engaging its non-violent demands and desires. Jan has faced such tactics of intimidation before. From sedition charges to abductors appearing at his door in the middle of the night, he has bravely faced the oppressive tactics of a dying colonial world. The arrest orders were rightfully suspended by the Lahore High Court on Monday last. I hope this decision will teach the authorities a lesson about the limits of their disciplinary apparatus.

But something else is happening here, something that Jan has helped build, that is worth noticing. When students, doctors, lawyers, women workers and people from all walks of life take to the street, they remind us that they are unable to perform their functions. They play out the failure of our political order to provide for their roles and demands. Hundreds of thousands of people have been transformed over the past years as they have taken part in various forms of organising — Students Solidarity March, Aurat March, Climate March, Pashtun Tahafuzz Movement, Shehri Tahafuzz March — small protests in front of press clubs, on military farms, against real estate developments and climate catastrophes to huge mobilisation campaigns that have touched the whole country.

These people fight simply for the right to breathe, the right to create their own world, to name their own names. They gather their forces from the silences of the disappeared, from the public theatre that topples statues, from the tractors that stand against the flow of water, from the rocks that fly beyond boundaries.

Pay attention to the students marching under a flag that is not yet named. Pay attention to the people demanding a better world. They give us a glimpse of how true dissent might yet change politics — a glimpse of a world where universities are for students, factories are for workers, farms are for farmers, streets are for women and life is for the missing.

As I watched students, academics and other oppressed classes come together to voice their demands in Lahore, I was reminded that this city doesn’t belong to any one person — whether a chancellor or a politician or a bureaucrat. It belongs to students. It belongs to workers and farmers. It belongs to women and sexual minorities. It belongs to its Pashtun and Baloch and Sindhi guests. It belongs to the dancers and poets of its shrines. It belongs to the people pushed to its margins and confined to its jails. It belongs to the ghost of Bhagat Singh. And it will rise up against every colonial and neocolonial master — as it has done time and again.

The writer is doing a PhD in comparative literature at UCLA. He is the translator of Mirza Athar Baig’s Hassan’s State of Affairs, and a member of Progressive Academics Collective

True dissent might change politics