September 26th, 2020
By Hamid Riaz
Baloch and Pashtun students have set-up a protest camp not far from the main gate of the Bahauddin-Zakriya University (BZU) for the past 25 days; these students are demanding the restoration of scholarships for students from peripheral areas.
Soon after coming to power, in 2008, the Pakistan People’s Party-led government started hinting towards a plan designed for the uplift of Balochistan; the plan materialized in 2009 as the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan package. Along with several other key areas, the plan laid special emphasis on the need to educated the Baloch youth; a scholarship scheme was born in 2012. Universities in Punjab were to set up reserved seats for Baloch students. 600 students were to be selected based on an aptitude test and those selected were awarded a complete fee waiver, free boarding facilities, and even a monthly grant; paid for by the federal government and the government of Balochistan. Apart from a few initial hitches the plan was largely successful and is lauded by students even today.
Later in 2013, after Shehbaz Sharif’s (then CM Punjab) meeting with Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch (then CM Balochistan) the scholarship scheme was further expanded. According to the new scheme, in addition to the reserved seats, “if any student from Balochistan was successful in securing admission in any University in Punjab on open merit he or she will not be charged”.
In addition, the Punjab Higher Education Department asked all universities under its direct or indirect jurisdiction “not to charge ‘any fee’ from the students from Balochistan province”.
Like the first scholarship program, this move too was widely lauded and aided the education of thousands of deserving students from Pakistan’s peripheral areas.
The government of Punjab announced a similar scheme for the children of IDPs in particular and broadly for the students of FATA moreover in 2018 after FATA’s merger with KPK reserved seats for ex-FATA were doubled.
Currently, there are two reserved seats for Baloch students and four for ex-FATA students in every program at BZU, and over 350 students from FATA and 1000 students from Balochistan are enrolled in BZU on these reserved seats.
Scholarships for Baloch and Pashtun students were slashed twice. “In 2018 the university announced that owing to a lack of funding from the government of Punjab the scholarship scheme for ‘open merit’ students will be suspended,” says Jiand Baloch, one of the key organizers of the camp. “This essentially means that if a student from Balochistan or the tribal areas overcomes all the barriers and succeeds in securing admission at BZU he will have to pay between Rs 200,000 and Rs 500,000 for a degree, including hostel expenses. Anyone who has been to Balochistan can tell you that a vast majority of the population cannot even imagine raising this much money”, says Jiand Baloch one of the key organizers of the camp.
Regarding the recent camp, Jiand explains that “this year the university has decided to end scholarships for “reserved seats” students as well”.
According to Amjad Mehdi, another organizer “the recent cuts essentially mean that BZU has closed its doors to students from peripheral areas”. “There are not enough avenues of quality higher education in Balochistan hence these scholarships are essential ending them will further alienate the Baloch youth”, says Jiand.
In addition to the camp, the students staged a fiery protest to push for their demands on the 15th of September; students from all ethnicities participated in the march in solidarity with their Pashtun and Baloch fellows.
“We have not ended the reserved seats we have just ended the scholarships of the students on these reserved seats. Because we simply do not have the funds”, says Tahir Mehmud, BZU focal person. “Since the inception of these scholarships, we have not been paid anything by any government. The onus is on the Government of Punjab and the Government of Balochistan. We recently wrote a letter to the government of Balochistan informing them that we are owed a total of Rs. 40 crores for the education of these students. If the government pays up today, we’ll reinstate the scholarships”, says Tahir.
On the 25th of September students, primarily from the Punjab University (PU), staged a protest in solidarity with their fellow students at BZU. Students decried what they termed as “a systemic campaign to limit the number of Baloch and Pashtun students coming to universities in the Punjab”.
“The Punjab University has already cut our reserved seats in half. In the past students were awarded 100-106 seats while the recent administration cut down the seats into half, 53. After we protested they added another 17 female exclusive seats to the quota taking the number up to 70”, says Muzamil a Pashtun Student from Balochistan. “And now there are reports that the Punjab University might decide to end scholarships on these reserved seats just like BZU which would be disastrous”, he continues.
Khurram, Press Relations Officer (PRO) Punjab university denied having made any cuts at all. “We have not made any cuts to the reserved seats and scholarships. Though we will not automatically give out scholarships to students just because they are from ex-FATA or Balochistan, these students can apply for fee concession and need-based scholarship programs, just like everyone else”.
He claims that the previous administration was involved in corrupt practices but the current administration has made things ‘systematic’. “There were always 70 reserved seats. The past administration gave admission to more students because of political reasons and are illegal under the regulations of Punjab university”.
“The PRO is a shameless human being and a liar.”, says Mujahid Kamran, ex-VC PU. “We gave quotas to the students from Balochistan and ex-FATA on directions of the Punjab Government and unlike other universities, PU did not even demand finds from the government. It is the responsibility of this university to work for the benefit of all of Pakistan. We had exactly 100 reserved seats during my tenure which have been reduced by the current administration”, continues Mujahid, in line with the stance of the protesting students.
“If the university cuts these scholarship programs we will be forced to do exactly what the students of BZU are doing right now”, says a Baloch student from PU.
In addition to BZU and PU other universities in Punjab have or all planning on ending these special scholarship programs owing to the recent cuts in the higher education budget. “We have met with several high ranking government officials including the governor and Punjab and quite a few senators and have informed them of the importance of these scholarships. But no one has paid heed to our plight. All we are asking for is the right to quality education. Baloch and Pashtun students will suffer immensely if these scholarships are not re-introduced”, says Nasir a Pashtun student from the Bahawalpur University, which also recently choose to make cuts to the scholarships of Pashtun and Baloch students