April 5th, 2021
By Hamid Riaz
Students of the Islamiya University Bahawalpur (IUB) hailing from the now merged FATA region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) announced an end to their hunger strike After finally holding successful negotiations with Governor Punjab Chaudhry Sarwar.
The Governor announced 1,000 annual scholarships for students from erstwhile-FATA, of which 200 are reserved for women until 2027 in all universities of Punjab including the IUB.
In addition to announcing the scholarships, the Punjab Governor also announced the establishment of a sub-campus of the Punjab University in the tribal belt.
Ex-FATA students of the IUB had been staging a sit-in for the past 28 days, with students resorting to a hunger strike in the last five days outside the Governor House Lahore, with intermittent protests held outside the Lahore Press Club.
The protests were attended by progressive students and academics from Lahore, as well as key political figures like MNAs Mohsin Dawar, Khawaja Saad Rafique, and the leader of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) Manzoor Pashteen.
On Saturday, April 3, three of the protesting students on hunger strike were taken to Services Hospital after a field doctor declared they were in active danger of suffering a stroke due to dangerously low blood pressure.
“Our negotiations with the government continued for about six hours and it felt like the Governor was serious about finally finding a solution to this crisis. He was accompanied by some MNAs as well as the Deputy Speaker of the Senate Mirza Muhammad Afridi, who himself hails from ex-FATA,” explains Muzzamil Kakar, former Chair of the Pashtun Education Development Movement (PEDM) and a party to the negotiations.
Muzammil further elaborated that during the negotiations the Governor of Punjab made several phone calls to vice-chancellors of several public and private universities including the Punjab University, University of Management Sciences, University of Lahore, and Government College University. A phone call was also made to the KP Chief Minister Mehmood Khan, who personally gave the protesters guarantee that the government will stand by its word this time.
“Moreover, the Governor explained to us that previously out of the 1,000 promised scholarships offered to the students from ex-FATA, 400 were being hosted by the IUB which created an undue burden on a single university. The current scheme will distribute these seats between different campuses of Punjab and will make the scheme more viable,” he explains, however, he clarified that he is not aware of what this ‘mechanism’ is.
“Most of the educational infrastructure of former-FATA was destroyed in the war against terror,” explains Ijaz, Chair of the Pashtun Students’ Council at the IUB. Because of the tense security situation in the region, the PML-N government under the leadership of Shehbaz Sharif designated special quota seats in all public sector universities of Punjab. Under the scheme, every department in our university was bound to give admission to two students from former FATA.
“After the merger of the tribal areas, the KP government under Imran Khan’s PTI announced that these reserve seats would be doubled, but instead they were canceled altogether.”
The move was extremely unpopular not only amongst students of ex-FATA but also for students from Balochistan who saw their quota seats slashed as well. Following the announcement students from Balochistan announced a ‘long march’.
Baloch students conducted a sit-in outside the Punjab Assembly while ex-FATA students carried out sit-ins in Quetta and outside the Governor House Lahore. After weeks of struggle, the government finally conceded and all scholarships were re-instated.
Alll public sector universities abided by the governor’s notification except for the IUB, leading to the most recent wave of protests.
The current wave of protests
Ex-FATA students from the IUB began this fresh wave of agitation with a series of protests and sit-ins outside their university campus in Bahawalpur, but since the university administration refused to negotiate with them, the students had to come to Lahore where they set up a protest camp outside the Governor House in Lahore which would last for 28 days. The sit-in transformed into a hunger strike after several failed rounds of talks with the government. The hunger strike, which lasted for five days, saw at least three students in critical condition after they began experiencing rigors. Following the arrival of Manzoor Pashteen of the PTM, the Punjab government was pressured into holding fresh rounds of negotiations which proved to be successful.
At the time of the filing of this report, all protesting students of the IUB were reported to be in good health and had departed for their campus in Bahawalpur.
“This is the third time we have held negotiations with the government on this issue. The last two times, they went back on their promise. If they go back on their word again for the third time, we will gather Pashtun students and announce a long march to Islamabad. And we will no longer negotiate with provincial stakeholders. We will demand direct talks with the Prime Minister,” asserts Muzammil.