In the season of right wing, all-men politics, a video of a young woman enthusiastically singing a famous poem written against the British Raj at the Faiz Festival 2019 became viral. Arooj Aurangzeb unwillingly found herself to be the poster girl of the student movement.
“People are calling me part of the bourgeois,” she said, responding to the reactions to the media’s focus on her leather jacket. “I don’t think this question is even worth addressing because whoever is getting education in this society, whoever can type or speak two sentences in English is privileged.
“We are at the bottom of that privileged class and our fight is with the ones on the very top,” Aurangzeb continued. “They are the ones who control everything and we are only fighting amongst us. The concept of rule and divide is still relevant. The goray have left but someone else has taken their place.”
When asked if the media storm around her viral video hurt the movement, Aurangzeb rather saw it as an opportunity.
“We only went for a pamphleteering campaign to Faiz Festival because that is all what we can do. We have no platform, we have no representation and that is exactly why we demand that the ban on student unions be lifted,” she explained. “We are trying to use this moment of outburst as a tool to pose our demands but our struggle has been ongoing since long, we have had study circles and we have had many campaigns before.”
Aurangzeb is part of a nationwide student movement that is gearing up for a student solidarity march on the 29th of November. One of the main demands is lifting the defacto ban on student unions, which is upheld in educational institutions by having enrolling students sign an affidavit that that waives their right to participate in political activities. Tossing out the affidavit is also another main demand.
They are also calling for stronger, proactive harassment committees in campuses with greater female representation, the removal of security forces from campus premises as is the case in Karachi and Balochistan. They further demand for the allocation of 5% of the GDP to education, the construction of universities in developing areas of the country and to officially declare April 13th as Mashal Khan day.
It was 35 years ago, in 1983, that the last student union elections in Pakistan were held. In 1984, General Zia ul Haq imposed a strict ban, fearing anti-government student activity. His justification was to avoid clashes between students on the left and the right of ideological divide.
“There are misconceptions that student unions are violent. They are mistaken for student movements that act violently, such as in the case of Mashal Khan or the clashes that occur between groups in Punjab University,” said Dr. Ammar Ali Jan, an Assistant Professor at Forman Christian College standing in solidarity with the student movement. “We currently only have student movements, not unions as elections are a criteria for the existence of unions.”
In 1988, democratically elected Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto lifted the ban but this action was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1990. In 1993 the Supreme Court reinstated the ban.
“The oft-cited 1993 judgment instructed the government to produce a framework so that student unions may not be politically misused – a ban cannot be instated because the right to association is a constitutional right,” Dr. Ammar Ali Jan clarified. “The current ban on student unions is a defacto ban.”
In 2008, the newly elected Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani of the Pakistan People’s Party, in his maiden speech to the parliament, pledged to restore student unions. Despite this the ban remained. In August 2017, the PPP made another attempt to restore student unions by passing a resolution in the Senate, but the bill could not be pushed through.
Then again on the 4th of November 2019, the Sindh Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling upon the provincial government to lift the ban on the student unions.
Nida Khuhro, a PPP lawmaker, tabled the resolution along with other opposition parties in the Sindh Assembly who supported it. But this is not a binding resolution and may never result in reviving student unions. What needs to be done is to present a bill in the National Assembly.
“The reason why we have been deprived of student unions is because they don’t want us to talk about our rights, they don’t want us to ask uncomfortable questions to those in power,” says Ali Aftab, who is currently doing a Masters in Sociology at Punjab University, and is one of the students at the forefront of the movement along with Aurangzeb. “Even Imran Khan who came into power with the slogan of youth empowerment has done nothing about it.”
“Every politician is addressing us to play our part in politics and yet we are deprived of the very basic right. We are made to sign an affidavit to keep us away from any and all forms of politics, we are above 18 years of age and we have the right to vote, how can we not speak up for our rights?” questioned Aftab.
“This is why we want the ban to be lifted so that we can ensure that students should have their say in the policies about them.”
As these students sing Sarfaroshi ki Tammana, a poem written in 1921 by Bismil Azimabadi of Patna, symbolizing a war cry for freedom against the British Raj in India, their battle for their fundamental freedoms against a defacto ban has only begun.
Authored by Asra Haque and Ayesha Nazar