January 3, 2020

By Ayesha Nazar & Xari Jalil


In India, massive crowds of young people took to the streets to join protest against their Government’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants citizenship on the basis of religion to non-Muslim communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered the country on or before December 31, 2014. It has sparked violent protests across India, and while there is anger that the legislation is discriminatory against Muslims, there are also fears of an influx of non-Muslim settlers.

Protests against India's new citizenship law include a "mega rally" in Kolkata
Protests against India’s new citizenship law include a “mega rally” in Kolkata

The students of India have found themselves to be at the forefront of these protests against the Modi government, calling it undemocratic and discriminatory against the Muslims. Young activist and former student of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Umar Khalid compares the student protests in both countries and how the demands are similar on both sides of the border because both nations’ youth are going through the same perils.

Scenes from Student Solidarity March in Lahore

“Students have finally come out in large numbers and called out the bluff on this new liberal common sense that was tried to be created. One common thing they both have showed are is the set of demands. These demands are inherently secular and for democracy. They demand the right to education and they call out the anti-education policies of both governments which show weak capitalist forces. Even the expressions, slogans and poetry recited are similar. What happens in India, influences the young in Pakistan and vice versa. Opinions are influenced by what happens on the other side of the border.”

In Pakistan, on the other hand, the countrywide student solidarity march was held on the 29th of November. The students demanded that military check posts around campuses should be promptly removed, committees against sexual harassment in educational institutions should be introduced and there should be no unpredictable hike in tuition fee. They demanded their constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression and marched with resilience to uphold Pakistan’s democratic values. The student movement asking for democratic rights in Pakistan is led by progressive students collective and their ideology is leaning towards the left.

Award winning journalist and playwright, Shahid Nadeem comments on the growing divide between the left and right in Pakistan and India, “There is more of a divide now. Not all of the youth represents the political left, but they are connected with the world and they want to express themselves. Their practice is more secular. However, the state – often using national security, religion or ideology as an excuse to curtail students’ space. It seems as if there might be a more pronounced conflict between the two in 2020.”

However, the response of both countries’ governments has been to charge students under British made laws – section 144 and  maintenance of public order. The notorious Section 144 is a colonial holdover in the Criminal Procedure Code of both India and Pakistan. It has been frequently employed since the Raj as a ruthless power move to enforce the state’s authoritarian writ against democratic rights. Maintenance of Public Order also originated from the colonial legal system which is used to quash protests for freedom from British rule.

In India, the Modi government has been more brutal. Students protesting against the notorious Citizenship Amendment Act have been beaten, arrested and charged for murder across the country. The protests have been put down with brute force and police has stormed into universities and indiscriminately baton charged students. More than 1,500 have been arrested in the first 10 days of protest, and police say another 4,000 were detained and then released. In Uttar Pradesh alone, more than 600 people were detained (but not arrested) as part of what law enforcement officials called a “preventive action.” Despite this, the waves of protests continued and nearly 300,000 people held a march in the northern city of Jaipur along with several other locations. As a result, 110 notices were issued for property damages due to stone-pelting and arson in the state capital, Lucknow; 34 were issued in Gorakhpur and 29 in Firozabad.

Ayesha Renna, Ladeeda Sakhaloon rescue their friend from baton charges in Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi
Ayesha Renna, Ladeeda Sakhaloon rescue their friend from baton charges in Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

Ayesha Kidwai, award winning linguist and professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University discusses what was truly shocking about the treatment of students protesting against the CAA,

“This represents a point in the change of repression. I can speak with knowledge of India where the fact that people are being beaten repeatedly, they are also being repeatedly beaten in their campuses which we had never seen in India before. In the heart of Delhi, in uni campuses, libraries would be vandalized, universities would be shut down and students evicted – all because the held a protest march.”

In Pakistan, the government did not overtly interfere with the students’ march, but police arbitrarily detained one of the protesters Alamgir Wazir, the nephew of PTM’s MNA Ali Wazir, on various charges including sedition which carries a sentence for life imprisonment. Sedition charges were slapped on at least 6 other organizers of the student march, including Professor Ammar Jan, Iqbal Lala, the father of the late Mashal Khan and labour leader Farooq Tariq. Around 250 FIRs were lodged against students under Maintenance of Public Order and Sound System Act 2016 for taking part in protests.

“The tradition of student unions, resistance and freedom for students in our country has been crushed and trampled, from one end to another,” says Salima Hashmi, renowned educationist and artist, criticizing both governments and says that they have become insensitive to students’ plights. “The people who dared speak out for their rights and fought against oppression have been silenced in the most painful and excruciating of ways and the reaction of the government to this situation seemed almost laughable – as if their foundations had been threatened simply because a few thousand young students came out and demanded their rights. One starts to ask what kind of governments are these who refuse to even listen to the youth’s voice and valid concerns. Have they become insensitive? Or do they fear the dangers of people’s voices rising?”

Women united under one banner at the Student Solidarity March, Lahore
Women united under one banner at the Student Solidarity March, Lahore

Despite this, the student march was successful and the provincial government of Sindh announced that it will take the lead in restoring student unions. Perhaps the biggest success of the march was the young bringing together oppressed minorities from all walks of life – united under one red banner. The youth of Pakistan provided women, bonded laborers, transgender community and religious minorities, a common platform to raise their voice for their democratic rights.

In India the government arrested historians, journalists, political workers and students, even charging some protesters with murder of security agents and violence. Historian Ramchandar Guha who was part of a peaceful protest was arrested by the police in Karnataka. Prominent social activist in Lucknow, Sadaf Jafar was kicked in the stomach and was bleeding after she was hit with a baton by the police.

The government clampdown on students in both countries has alienated its youth. On both sides, student came out chanting versus from Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib’s revolutionary poetry and the states came down with British made laws to quash dissent of the young. Hashmi points out the importance of these poetic figures and why it is not surprising that students on both sides have come out chanting revolutionary verses, “It’s not surprising that the youth on both sides has used poetry to resist. Faiz is being recited on both sides. Habib Jalib’s voice has risen with such fervor, as if he has resurrected. It reminds me of when we were younger and we have seen how the youth has overturned oppressive thrones.”

The Students’ Solidarity March in Pakistan was held for reinstatement of student unions on campuses, but it became about marching for democratic principles for all those who have been deprived of their basic rights by the state. Students in India on the other hand, became part of the movement against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act, seen as the biggest challenge now to the right wing Modi government which has lost a recent election in Jharkhand, further weakening a previously strong BJP.

Journalist, Najam Sethi talks to Voicepk.net and explains the right-wing history of Pakistan and the hold on politics of its establishment. He says that previous left-wing political parties have also been tamed and dragged to the centre eventually and while these students are the face of the progressive left, Pakistan’s right-wing history may continue to be a challenge for the young.

“At the moment, it’s the right wing dictatorships that are operating under the garb of democracy. In our case, it’s not the political parties that practice politics, it’s the establishment, and resisting our establishment is very difficult,” he says. “Our establishment is solidly right-wing. They have no soft spot for socialism or liberalism. They have a fixed world view and that’s why they support right wing parties and remain suspicious of left wing parties. Benazir Bhutto’s party was always left wing but was eventually tamed by the establishment and brought to the center. And similar observations can be made of Imran Khan whose party has made several U-turns and was eventually brought to the center and has become establishment’s puppet. This country is run by the establishment and the establishment is predominantly the civil military bureaucracy. This civil military bureaucracy is part of the colonial hangover and it’s very right-wing, always resisting democratic impulse because if democracy comes and the constitution is implemented, their power is jeopardized, so they resist.”

As the young rise for democracy in both countries, Voicepk.net with inputs from The Wire in India, pay tribute to the young of India and Pakistan for standing up for fundamental rights of the citizens on both sides. They are the heroes of 2019 and we salute their struggle.