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Imprisoned for protesting: the missing students of Pakistan

Rights groups express grave concern that the whereabouts of several students remains unknown

Imprisoned for protesting: the missing students of Pakistan

Students protest in front of Punjab Assembly in Lahore on Jan. 29 for the release of detained students. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry/UCA News)

Salman Sikandar and his friends were blindfolded while being shifted to three police stations in the Pakistani city of Lahore.

“We were sleeping when policemen banged on the door and forcefully entered. They slapped a student who asked about the arrest warrant. We were handcuffed and confused,” Sikandar, 23, told UCA News.

“They collected our smartphones in a black plastic bag. Only the tap water of dirty toilets was available in lockups. The trauma has changed me forever. I only witnessed injustice in police captivity.”

He was among five student members of the Progressive Students’ Collective (PSC) who went missing on Jan. 28, two days after more than 300 students from private universities protested outside the University of Central Punjab demanding online exams.

Several students were baton-charged and injured by security guards and police personnel. Two were hospitalized. A case was registered against more than 500 students for vandalism and arson and 41 were arrested.

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In the first information report registered after his arrest, Sikandar was accused of resorting to violence through hate speech. He claimed to be in Jehlum, another city in Punjab, on the day of the clash.

“I later arrived in Lahore to apply for a job at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan [HRCP]. I was victimized for being the information secretary of the PSC. Police stations in Lahore refused to share our information with human rights activists and our families,” he said.

“Students from six private universities were attacked last month for protesting against physical examinations and demanding a reduction in fees.”

Amnesty International South Asia expressed grave concern that the whereabouts of some students remained unknown.

“Peaceful protest is a human right. #JusticeForStudents. Their location must be disclosed followed by their immediate and unconditional release,” it stated in a Jan. 28 tweet.

The HRCP also condemned the mass arrest of students and said the cases against them, including terrorism, should be dismissed.

“The government should also note that such situations are precisely why student unions need to be restored to resolve students' concerns peacefully and pragmatically,” the commission stated in a Jan. 27 tweet.

The same day, the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan allowed universities to conduct “exams either on campus or online” with adequate safeguards as policy guidance on Covid-19. All educational institutions in the country were resuming classes at primary, middle and university levels on Feb. 1.

The PSC observed a black day on Jan. 29 at the nationwide “Students Day of Action: Against the increasing oppression.” Celebrities, human rights activists and parliamentarians joined the protesting students in front of Punjab Assembly. “We reject attacks on campus” and “Free the students,” they chanted.

Sikandar was among four students released at the weekend over a lack of incriminating material. The hearing of 37 imprisoned students was scheduled for Feb. 1 at the session court of Lahore.

The struggle

Since 2019, students and human rights activists have been holding annual protests in Pakistan’s cities demanding major reforms to the country’s education system.

Following the closure of educational institutes due to the pandemic last year, they demanded a reduction in fees by 70 percent, no hostel dues and improving the quality of online education.

Tech influencer Waqar Zaka joined the latest protest by the PSC in Lahore.

“The ruling government is ruining its vote bank. Federal government should negotiate with the young protesters. Those arrested even include street hawkers and rickshaw drivers,” he said.

“The whole dispute is about attaining marks. The rote system should be ended. Degrees during the pandemic should be awarded with average numbers on the basis of projects and yearlong performance.” 

In a video message, Professor Taimur Rehman of Lahore University of Management Sciences called for a sincere dialogue between university administrators and students.

“Many teachers in our country never used WhatsApp, let alone online classes. They complain that students turn off their cameras or attend lectures in bed. The students blame weak internet connections for poor audio and video. There was no training for such a transition,” he said.

“We should accept that our education system isn’t of international level. Examinations can be delayed to cover the gaps and discover alternative methods. A blanket demand for online exams isn’t a workable solution. Fees and semesters should be adjusted to meet the standard.”

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