By RUWAN MUNASINGHE
Nov. 2 and 3 saw the formation of a Student Action Committee (SAC) to organize around issues of higher education in Pakistan. This body, comprised of members of over 20 progressive and radical student groups across the country, immediately announced plans for organizing a nationwide day of student protest on Nov. 29.
Movement towards student action did not necessarily begin with the SAC, however. The movement for the march on the 29th is naturally forming around the momentum of the frustrations of youth emanating from both ongoing issues and several recent incidents. For example, in mid-September of this year, a young Hindu woman named Namrita Kumari, in her last year of medical school in Sindh Province, was raped and murdered. Also, at University of Punjab in Lahore, students have grown increasingly angry at violence of students in the right-wing group, Islami Jamiat-e Talaba (IJT).
Students are continually incensed by the rising cost of education, the deterioration of university facilities, rampant sexual assault, and lack of student autonomy at schools. A particularly salient demand from the SAC is that student unions, which are universal in countries in the region such as India and Sri Lanka, be restored and officially recognized.
Demands of the SAC include:
- Lifting the ban on Student Union and its immediate election in all educational institutes.
- Overturning of the so-called administrative rule that requires students to sign an affidavit that bars them from any kind of political activity.
- Formation of anti-harassment committees on campus with the representation of women students.
- Allocation of at least 5% of GDP as for education budget.
- End to all kinds of securitization and violence on campus.
- University administrations must provide all students with housing facilities for the period of their study.
- Free education for all.
- End curfew timings imposed on students in university administered and private hostels.
- Reasonable employment for graduate students or announced minimum wage as unemployment allowance.
- April 13 must be commemorated as Mashal Khan Day (commemorating a student who was lynched to death by fundamentalist and fascist mobs in the campus) with a public holiday.
Organizing meetings have taken place across Pakistan for planning, and there has been an explosion of propaganda and agitation work from student cadres and organizations.
The Student Solidarity March is occurring at a time when students across the world are in revolt. In neighboring India, students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have been mobilizing under the banner of #FeesMustFall (this title originating from the South African student movement). Facing police repression, students held a march to the national parliament building on Nov. 18, demanding the preservation and expansion of public education. Likewise, protest activity by students has developed in Greece, France, Latin America, and even the U.S. (where student anti-racism struggles are gripping Syracuse University and even the University of Connecticut, where Socialist Resurgence has a youth group).
Many youth in Pakistan who are building the Student Solidarity March are cognizant of the fact that they are part of a global surge in student activity and a wave of renewed class struggle and uprisings across continents.
In addition to it being an exciting time to stand in solidarity with contemporary uprisings and protests, it is also important to continue to be inspired by student movements of the past. This is particularly true for Pakistan. In 1968, a mass movement of students and workers overturned the regime of Ayub Kahn and threatened bourgeois rule in Pakistan.
Ruwan, a member of SR and a leader in UConn YSA (affiliated with Socialist Resurgence), conducted an interview with Omer Khan. Omer is a leader in the Revolutionary Students Front, a key member in the Student Action Committee, and organizes in the Rawalpindi/Islamabad branch of RSF. Omer is Kashmiri and a fervent Marxist.
RUWAN: Can you tell me about some of the lead up to the formation of the SAC?
OMER: Two months ago, there were some incidents that took place in different universities. A student died in Comsats University because the ambulance of the university was not available at that time. Later, another student died of hemorrhage in Quaid e Azam University and it turned out that she could have been saved but campus hospital facilities were not responsive enough to save her. Then, around the same week, a girl in Bahria University fell from an under-construction building, which triggered a spontaneous protest in one of the most non- political universities. In last two years, university students have been facing segregation, Islamization, fines on female students for wearing jeans, etc. So I believe it was not just a reaction to a fellow student’s death but to all that was happening for the last two years.
RUWAN: How are politicians and the media reacting to the coming march?
OMER: Well the right wing is in power. Since the left is mobilizing, the same old fear-mongering is going on. The mainstream parties and corporate media have not given us much attention yet, but social media outlets of the right wing are trying to connect it to PTM (Pashtoon Tahafuz Movement, another spontaneous movement that erupted in FATA) and are saying that this is some kind of a global conspiracy. Although PTM has inspired this student movement, as all other social justice movements, there is no connection. The ruling class is indeed paranoid because they know very well what happens when students come out on the streets. This movement does have the potential to turn into a mass movement, but right now the workers and the majority of students are not at all involved in politics.
RUWAN: Who initiated or first called for the march? At what point did Marxists begin to be heavily involved?
OMER: Last year, the Progressive Student Collective, the Revolutionary Student Front, and the Progressive Students Federation organized a student solidarity march. So this year, two weeks ago, RSF and PSC hosted a meeting in Lahore of more than 20 progressive organizations, and in that meeting the Student Action Committee was formed. Then, this year SAC gave the call for the march. Marxist organizations initiated it right from the beginning. The International Marxist Tendency is the only organization that is not a part of this alliance, accusing this march of reformism.
RUWAN: How are students relating to the legendary student uprisings in Pakistan decades ago? Is this march a continuation of 1968, in spirit at least?
OMER: The problem is that few in our generation know about it. The state has done an excellent job of hiding it. But yes, this is a continuation of 1968-’69. The activist layer of the students very much see themselves as part of the same movement. A lot of videos and literature is being published about 1968-’69 these days.
RUWAN: I recently saw that SFI endorsed the march. I know there is a frayed relationship between Pakistanis and Indians. Are students in Pakistan aware of the #FeesMustFall movement at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University)? What efforts are being made to link these struggles exploding at the same time?
OMER: JNU has really inspired Pakistani students and all those who are aware of student solidarity March are aware of the #FeesMustFall movement. PSC has written a letter of solidarity for JNU. Two Bangladeshi socialist student organizations have also written letters of solidarity to JNU. We are in contact with JNU and other progressive organizations of India and Bangladesh. We have received solidarity messages from Indian, Bangladeshi, Turkish, Brazilian, and Argentine socialist organizations.
RUWAN: Can you explain the history of how the current state of student unions came about?
OMER: They were banned by General Zia in 1984 after an incident of murder by Islami Jamiat-e Talaba—a right-wing fascist student group backed by the state. This incident was orchestrated to ban student unions, which at that time were 90% progressive. Later, the ban was lifted by Benazir Bhutto, but they were banned again by a Supreme Court order in 1993, citing violence. So technically, unions are not banned but turned into ethnic councils which—are not elected bodies.
RUWAN: In the lead-up to the march there has been a lot of mobilizing around issues regarding Kashmir. I have seen many protests of students in these past few days where people chant “Azaadi” (Freedom!). Can you explain the significance of this chant? Does the movement have a stance on the decades-long occupation of Kashmir?
OMER: The Azaadi slogan is now the slogan of all movements in Pakistan, Kashmir, and India. It has transcended borders and now it’s “Azaadi from occupation,” “Azaadi from inflation,” “Azaadi from joblessness,” “Azaadi for expression,” “Azaadi from patriarchy,” “Azaadi from capitalism,” and so on. JKNSF (Jammu Kashmir National Student Federation) and JKSLF (Jammu Kashmir Student Liberation Front) is a part of the Student Action Committee, and we accept the right of self-determination of all nationalities, but we reserve our right to raise the class question in all such movements.
RUWAN: Can you talk about how students from areas like Gilgit Baltistan and Kashmir are burdened as students?
OMER: The fundamental issue that Kashmiri and GB students face is economical. We don’t have colleges and universities for quality education in our area since we are extremely underdeveloped. For example, I was in grade 7 when I left home to go to boarding school. So we have to travel to the urban centers of Pakistan for education, and we have to face suppression of expression of identity. Ethnic profiling, hostel issues, economic restraints on families since traveling becomes very costly, etc.
And this true for Balochistan, Sindh, South Punjab, and Fata as well. Basically, uneven and combined development explains this situation perfectly. Invasion of capital in rural areas triggers mass migration towards urban centers where capital is concentrated, creating crisis in both areas.
RUWAN: Can you speak on organizing for women’s rights and against gender-based violence? Minorities? How has the recent killing of Namrita Kumari played into the movement?
OMER: Women’s Democratic Front is also part of this alliance. One major demand of our march is harassment committees in all educational institutions, with equal representation of all genders. Recent acts of harassment in Balochistan University and Namrita Kumari’s murder have triggered the collective consciousness of students in Sindh and then in the whole country. Minority students are part of the leadership of our movement.
RUWAN: How do the student activists organizing and taking part in the march plan to join hands with labor and workers across different industries? How do you plan to continue the movement beyond the 29th?
OMER: The Pakistan Trade-Union Defence Campaign, Peoples Unity of PIA, young doctors association YDA (recently in the streets against privatization of health care), PFUJ (Pakistan Union of Journalists), Rail Workers United Front, Wapda Hydro Union, Lahore Left Front, Bricks Workers Union, and many other local trade unions and workers’ associations are joining our March on 29th
After March, we are going into a signature campaign and the target is to gather signatures on restoration of student unions, then we will try to move a resolution in the National Assembly. Also, we will go into developing a cadre base and study circles in all universities and try to form a unit of SAC in every university and college. If we are able to build solid momentum, we will go on to strikes and shut downs of the universities.
RUWAN: Are you afraid that the movement will be co-opted by the capitalist parties and politicians?
OMER: This march is organized by independent student organizations from the grassroots, so right now we are not much concerned. Also, student rights are not on the agenda of any mainstream party. So they can support it but not intervene.
RUWAN: At my university (University of Connecticut), we are waging struggle as well. There have been multiple incidents of racism against Black students. We are building a movement for climate justice on campus. We are continually fighting for the rights of oppressed genders. And last week, we had a solidarity march of our own on campus.
However, here in the U.S. we are far behind. We don’t even have the idea of student unions. Many activist students even want to work with the university administration instead of struggling against it.
The most formidable forces of capital control our universities here in the U.S. Many of the important people running my school are Wall Street bankers and finance capitalists. The world’s largest weapons manufacturers have strong ties to my school. One such weapons manufacturer even has partnered with my school to have a whole day in which the university sponsors them to parade their weapons on our campus. Nonetheless, we are optimistic. What advice would you give to student activists—especially young Marxists—in the heart of capitalism and imperialism?
OMER: I’ll use Eqbal Ahmad’s words: “Organize, organize, organize.” RSF stands in solidarity with you and your fellow comrades in your university. We share a common enemy, and only a united effort of the workers with students as their vanguard can defeat capitalism. In Pakistan, we raise a slogan: “Azadi ke teen Nisshan tulba mazdoor aur kissan” (“Three symbols of freedom—students, workers, and peasants”). And a personal piece of advice would be to read and teach. Only a solid theoretical understanding can prepare us for the class war to come.