November 27th, 2021
By Asra Haque & Ahmad Saeed
Hundreds of students on Friday participated in the #StudentsSolidarityMarch2021 across major cities to call for the restoration of student unions, reduction in fees, and provision of missing facilities in educational institutions of the country.
In Lahore, StudentsSolidarityMarch2021 kicked off from Istanbul Chowk with students holding red flags, placards, and banners with various slogans inscribed on them. The demonstrators chanted slogans in unison with drum beats and music to highlight their demands.
The StudentsSolidarityMarch2021 was organised by the Progressive Students Collective (PSC) in several cities in the country. The PSC began the movement for restoration of student unions in 2016, Qaiser Javed, a representative of the PSC, told Voicepk.net. He said the first Students Solidarity March was held in 2018, adding that his organisation had worked the year around with students to successfully hold the annual march every year.
“We were able to bring out students in sizeable numbers for the Solidarity March last year despite the COVID restrictions,” Javed said. He said the PSC had been actively motivating students in all institutions to participate in the march in support of the restoration of student unions and against fee hikes and missing facilities in institutions.
Rubbishing claims that the Solidarity March was merely an elitist protest of students from private universities, Javed pointed out thousands of students from public universities like the Punjab University and the Government College University were participating alongside fellow students in the march. “You hear students chanting slogans from within the rally instead of the stage as this proves all students are here to bring about a change in society by calling for the restoration of student unions,” he said.
Javed said the charter of demands of the solidarity march was drawn by the Joint Action Committee of the students, which had a representation of students from all provinces and regions in the country. “The problems faced by students were incorporated in the charter of demands but these problems mostly occur because of the non-existence of student unions in the educational institutions,” Javed added.
He said students did not have representation and a voice to air their grievances which can be rectified only by the restoration of student unions.
A host of civil society organisations also marched with students in support of the restoration of student unions in the country. Representatives from the Bhatta Mazdoor Union, Kissan Rabita Committee and the Haqooq Khalq Movement were some of the organisations participating in the solidarity march.
“The provincial governments despite promises are not restoring student unions in institutions,” said Farooq Tariq, member of the Haqooq Khalq Movement. Besides, another grave issue is the enforced disappearance of young students on university campuses in Balochistan.
“Recently, two students were abducted from a campus in Balochistan,” he told Voicepk.net while participating in the #StudentsSolidarityMarch2021.
Similarly, he said another issue faced by students was the massive hike in fees. “There has been an exorbitant increase in fees by educational institutions in Lahore,” Tariq pointed out. He said the students should have the right of representation, a point that was also recently highlighted at the Asma Jahangir Conference 2021. “People spoke out against authoritarianism at the conference as well as in the march here,” he said.
Farooq Tariq said red flags and banners depicted the presence of progressive forces in the country which has been gripped with extremist and reactionary elements. Asked whether the government would institute cases of sedition against participants of the march as it did in the last year’s gathering, Tariq said the government had filed a sedition case against him but the participants were ready to face any such threats.
Muqadas Afzal, spokesperson of the PSC, said the ban on student unions was imposed by a dictator and it has no place in a democracy.
“The student unions will get representation on the syndicate of universities where representatives of students would try to redress problems faced by their fellows,” she explained in response to a question on why the students were demanding revival of student unions.
“Apart from the revival of unions, we are demanding inclusion of female students in the anti-harassment committees in educational institutions to make campuses a safe place for female students,” Afzal told Voicepk.net. She said harassment from teachers and administration staff discouraged female students from continuing their education. Presently, the anti-harassment committees under the policy of the Higher Education Commission did not have representation of students, she added.
In her address to participants of the solidarity march, Munizae Jahangir, senior journalist and council member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, lauded students for coming out on the streets to demand their rights despite pressure and oppression.
She said the ban on student unions was in contradiction with a call for ending the culture of dynastic politics in the country. “Those who talk against dynastic politics are the ones who ban student unions,” she pointed out. “If the ban on student unions is not lifted that would mean they support the continuation of dynastic politics in the country,” she said.
Jahangir said the students must be appreciated for talking about the most suppressed sections of society. “Students of Gilgit-Baltistan spoke up for Baba Jan while those in Balochistan stood up for late Usman Kakar,” she said.
Similarly, students raised their voices for the missing persons in Balochistan, Jahangir said. “The government is holding talks with the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan but the students here have told them that there would be no talks with the Taliban and murderers of children,” Jahangir said.
Munizae Jahangir said the students wanted peace and no further bloodshed in the region, adding that she fully supported them in their struggle for their rights.
Dr Alia Haider from the Haqooq Khalq Movement said authorities have always used coercive measures against protesting students. “The National Licensing Exam (NLE) was imposed on medical students’ through a presidential ordinance without any consultation and when students’ came out in protest they were baton-charged by the police,” said Dr Alia Haider.
The participants rallied on the roads of the city to reach the Charing Cross in front of the Punjab Assembly. Physically-challenged students also participated in the solidarity march to demand missing facilities in the educational institutions.
“My campus doesn’t have wheelchair ramps or even special washrooms for the physically-challenged students,” said Awais who participated in a wheelchair in the march. “I’ve complained to the university administration multiple times about the missing facilities but no one listened,” he added.
Umar Abdullah, Punjab representative of Students Revolutionary Front, spoke about how the revival of student unions can help resolve many issues faced by students in the country. When the student unions were functional, the union president had a veto right in the syndicate, he explained. “The universities could not hike fees until the student union president agreed with the decision in the syndicate,” he said. The student unions had a role in the syllabus as well as other administrative matters concerning pupils, he said. He pointed out that a research paper has shown that ethnic violence on campuses has increased in campuses following the ban on student unions, he added.
Students recited poems to highlight the injustices done to them. Besides, female students also addressed the march participants about problems faced by them. Speakers also condemned the eviction of students from the hostels of Punjab University. They reiterated their resolve to continue their struggle for the restoration of student union, representation of female students on anti-harassment committees, reduction in fees, and missing facilities in the educational institutions.
Hundreds of students also participated in the Students Solidarity March held across major cities like Islamabad, Multan, Peshawar, and Karachi.