By DAVID KIELY
Today students face austerity, cuts to education, and poor learning conditions. In places like the U.S., that means students going into massive debt, and graduate students barely making the minimum wage. In France it means there are continuous threats to education access, and elsewhere such as the United Kingdom it means fighting against rising university fees. In places such as India at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) or Pakistan, much of the demands are against these same concerns as well as repression from the police on campus. In many of these struggles, students from across the world are demonstrating how to fight back.
The Student Action Committee (SAC) is a coalition of student organizations of over 20 different student organizations demanding improvements to their universities, for free education, for protection against sexual harassment, and the end of repression against students. The SAC has called a nationwide Student Solidarity March in Pakistan on Nov. 29.
The Progressive Students Coalition organized a national march in 2018 calling for many of the same demands. The 2018 march took place in eight major cities in the country. This year’s march has grown from last year and includes demonstrations in over 50 different locations—in major cities as well as smaller towns and universities.
The main demands include lifting the ban on student unions in all educational institutions, and to overturn all university affidavits that prevent students from participating in political activity. Student unions were banned in Pakistan since 1984, when General Zia ul Haq attempted to stamp out student organizing on the campuses in Pakistan. Since then, there have been a number of attempts to restore the student unions, but they have been blocked either by courts or laws claiming that banning student unions will prevent violence on campus.
Further attempts have been made to curtail student organizing, such as universities requiring students to sign affidavits pledging that they won’t engage in political activity while attending the university, with the penalty of expulsion for breaking the agreement. These kinds of documents are required throughout universities in Pakistan and often require two government officials to be present during the signing.
In cases in which students are politically active, the state will sometimes intervene. On Oct. 31, students at the Sindh university in the Punjab province were protesting water shortages at a university hostel. The police arrested 17 students and charged them with sedition. The sedition laws in Pakistan come from the time of British rule and are used broadly to silence political dissidents. They can include a sentence of life in prison. In other instances, police have become a more common sight on campus. Some campuses even have military style bag checks for students.
In other cases, right-wing fundamentalist mobs have terrorized students on campus. In 2017, Mashal Khan, a journalism student active in the student movement, was accused of blasphemy and lynched by a right-wing mob. In the aftermath of this tragic act against progressive students, SAC is demanding that the 13th of April be used to commemorate Khan with a public holiday.
Pakistan has had several well-publicized examples of sexual harassment that have raised consciousness around the problems of sexual harassment on campus. In one instance, Namrita Chandani (Kumari), a dental student at Bibi Asifa Dental College, was found murdered and assaulted in her hostel. In another, the faculty of Balochistan installed cameras in bathrooms and smoking areas to spy and blackmail students. Along with this, student hostels have created sexist curfew policies applying only to women. The SAC is demanding a campus free from sexual harassment, with the establishment of anti-harassment committees formed by women, and a lifting of the hostel curfews.
For students in Pakistan who can afford university, the learning conditions can be poor. Finding housing is extremely difficult for students. Many private universities have no housing on campus at all, or provide housing almost 10 miles from campus. In these cases, students are forced into overcrowded and poorly maintained private hostels where sometimes six students are crammed into a single room. SAC is demanding that university administrations provide all students with housing facilities for the period of their study—with free education for all.
Even after graduation, the job market for graduates is difficult. There are currently over 500,000 university graduates unemployed, which explains why many leave for Europe or elsewhere to find work. The current depreciation of the rupee and rising inflation has made the minimum wage in Pakistan completely inadequate for anyone to meet basic needs. The SAC students are calling for employment for graduate students and an unemployment allowance that can meet people’s basic needs.
Much of the issues dealt with by students in Pakistan are similar to those in the U.S. Students in high school and on college campuses are facing increased militarization on campus. Many students face poor housing, homelessness, or massive debt. They are forced to work in minimum-wage jobs to meet their basic needs, and often must continue to work those jobs after graduation. Even when they do find jobs, they often don’t pay nearly enough to overcome the massive amounts of debt they have.
Students in the U.S. also face an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault on campus, with many universities not properly reporting or covering up incidents of sexual assault. When students in the U.S protest they too are often met with a hostile administration that attempts to co-opt any student movement under the wing of the administration.
The student movements in Pakistan and throughout the world are demonstrating the way forward for the student movement. They are demonstrating the possibilities that students have to organize themselves and take control over their own universities and learning conditions. They also are showing the importance of students to organize beyond their own campuses and instead to put the politics on the national stage. They have organized with more than just students, but have also gotten support from local unions and worker associations.
To conclude, we will include part of the statement written by the SAC on the motivations behind the march:
“It has been 51 years since students, workers, and farmers revolted against the tyranny of Ayub Khan’s dictatorship. For almost 139 days, students stood firm as the revolt marked the consequent end to Ayub’s regime…
“At the start of November 2019, more than 20 students’ organisations from all over Pakistan and its administered areas joined to form a Student Action Committee, under whose banner students will march together on November 29, 2019, to demand what is rightfully theirs and has been brutally taken away from them.
“On this 29th, we will march for the revival of student unions in Pakistan, for an end to all forms of harassment on campuses, for new universities in all marginalised and administered areas of Pakistan, for an end to securitised and militarised campuses, for an end to enforced disappearances of students, for cleaner climate for students, and for a life of dignity! The voices of ’68 will echo again!”
We call for solidarity with the Pakistani students against the intimidation from the administration and the state! We in Socialist Resurgence hope to learn from these students’ heroic struggles, and ask people to share the #studentssolidaritymarch with words of encouragement for the students in their struggle.
Photo: REUTERS / Akhtar Soomro