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New faces, old demands as Pakistan’s students march for unions

A review of what has changed in two years

SAMAA | - Posted: Nov 27, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago
Posted: Nov 27, 2021 | Last Updated: 2 months ago

In 2019, after a long and difficult 35 years, thousands of students across Pakistan took to the streets demanding the government permit student unions once again on campuses. The protesters are back on the streets again. The faces may be new—it is an entirely fresh generation—but what they want is just the same.

On Friday, they gathered in Multan, Quetta, Hyderabad, Pakpattan, Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Faisalabad with the same slogans. The red flags were out and the banners were up. “Hum le k rahen gain azadi… Tera baap bhi de ga azadi,” the students chanted as they marched from Karachi’s Regal Chowk to the Press Club.

Arooj Aurangzaib, the leather jacket woman, who put Twitter in a frenzy two years ago, was at the protest. To people, her enthusiasm at the previous march was something else. There was excitement, patriotism, and a little bit of rage inside her back then. This year, however, Arooj was seen sitting on a pavement outside the Karachi Press Club, quiet and observant.

“You ask me about the development in these two years. But I have nothing to say,” the University of Punjab graduate told SAMAA Digital. “When we first talked about unions, the administration and government said they had no problem with the idea. They supported us.”

But if there’s no problem, why haven’t unions been restored yet, she asked.

Students started the march at 2pm Friday. Photo: Online

After the protest in 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan promised that he will allow student unions. But his leaders’ response was rather dictatorial. In these two years, the government has booked numerous students under treason or for “inciting violence on campus”. Students were harassed and even expelled for organizing peaceful protests. 

“They [the government] treat the system’s problems when it’s profitable for them,” Arooj said. “But they won’t change the system because the government wants to distract people with newer problems.”

In these two years, the government has booked numerous students under treason or for “inciting violence on campus”.

There has, however, been one change in these two years: the students. They are out there. They are talking. They are fighting for their rights.

“The consciousness of students and young people has increased without doubt,” Arooj said. “They are more aware of their problems. In the sense of struggle and determination, students are more united now.”

What are students demanding this year?

Inclusive policy-making for anything concerning students, a majority of the marchers said.

“Let’s say there’s a harassment case at a university and a committee is formed to investigate it. Isn’t it necessary for it to have minimum student representation?” Amjad Hussain from the University of Karachi said.

“A student can tell you what their fellows like. Someone who comes with first-hand experience. How can you solve a problem you don’t understand?”

Women at the march demanded better facilities at hostels.

The women at the march, on the other hand, highlighted the dismal conditions of hostels. Asma Batool, 25, from Azad Jammu and Kashmir, told SAMAA Digital that she had to miss her first semester because she couldn’t find a room at her university’s hostel.

“We are students, not terrorists”

Maria from Balochistan’s Hub faced a similar situation. “So many women I know have had to abandon their studies because of hostel issues.”At the University of Karachi, the condition of hostels is the worst. “All we have is a roof. The rest [water, food, sanitation] we have to figure out on our own. What’s the point of paying so much money for this?”

A law student at the protest demanded the government launches an investigation into the recent deaths reported at varsities.

Talking about fees, Maria pointed out that in the last year, a semester’s fee at the varsity has increased from Rs13,000 to Rs25,000. “If we had that much money, we would have had just taken admission at a private university. Aren’t government-run institutions supposed to help students?”

Another important demand made by the students included the demilitarization of campuses. “We are students, not terrorists,” the marchers said.

Baloch students

This year, several Balochistan students attended the march. This year, their chants were the loudest.

“Earlier this month, two students from the University of Balochistan went missing,” Rabia, a member of the Raji Baloch Women’s Forum, said. She was especially visiting Karachi for the protest.

It has been 21 days but there’s no news of the boys. Students have boycotted classes and closed the university. “The [administration] doesn’t even acknowledge that there’s a problem.”

According to reports, the two students went missing from the hostel. She said that she is especially attending the march in Karachi because in her hometown it would not be easy.

“Balochistan is the province with the largest number of security forces. We have FC officers even inside our campuses. But what are they doing? How difficult is it to ensure the safety to university students?”


One Comment

  1. Zahra  November 28, 2021 4:31 am/ Reply

    These students have made a mockery of higher education in Pakistan. No unions should be allowed. All student organizations and associations should also be banned. Are these students going to Universities to study or become “activists”? They don’t need unions to fix hostels (housing provided and owned by Universities is the University’s responsibility, if it’s bad then rent outside campus; get a part-time job instead of complaining) or representation on committees for harassment investigations, that’s for police to investigate. That is how it is done everywhere else. These students are wasting too much time of professors and University management, who should be using that time for improving quality of education, instead they spend all that time catering to the whims of these brats. I’ve had opportunity to compare education across various Universities around the world, and I find it extremely concerning that these students who are constantly protesting are overall unemployable.

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