A female student wearing a mask showing the face of Mashal Khan, who was murdered over fake blasphemy allegations in 2017, attends the Students’ Solidarity March in Lahore on Nov. 29. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)
A sea of students and human rights activists flooded the roads of Pakistan’s major cities in peaceful demonstrations demanding major reforms to the country’s education system.
Organizers said the Nov. 29 Students’ Solidarity March was the biggest-ever educational protest Pakistan had seen, with more than 30,000 taking part, including about 800 in Lahore and tens of thousands more in provincial capitals from seaport city Karachi to federal capital Islamabad. There were more than 50 demonstrations across the country.
In Lahore, protesters streamed through the central Mall Road toward the Punjab Assembly holding red banners with the image of Argentine revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Other banners read “Stop militarizing education campuses” and "Drop smog levels, not the education budget.” Brick kiln workers carrying red flags also joined the protest.
Some wore masks showing the face of Mashal Khan, a journalism student in the northwestern city of Mardan who was killed by an angry mob on the campus of Abdul Wali Khan University in 2017 over allegations of blasphemy, a crime that carries a potential death sentence in Pakistan. Critics say the blasphemy law has been used to persecute religious minorities.
An official investigation later determined the killing was instigated by a group who felt threatened by Khan's growing prominence as a critic of rising fees and alleged corruption at the university. Young protesters chanted “Red salute to Iqbal Lala” to the beat of drums as his father spoke at the march. “It was injustice and abuse by the corrupt mafia. My son is a martyr. He will win,” said Lala.
Sajad Ali Shah, who campaigns for the Progressive Students' Collective, which co-organized the event, said the protest marked a turning point in the fight to tackle the prevalent academic atmosphere. One of the demands included announcing April 13 as a national holiday to honor Mashal Khan.
“We demand modern education, an end to racial, religious and gender-based profiling of students, allocation of at least 5 percent of GDP for education and the constitution of legal committees for sexual harassment cases with students’ representation. The restoration of student unions is the only solution,” Shah told ucanews.
“The state should also end the intervention of security forces in educational institutions in the name of national security. We also demand the release of all captive students and an end to spreading fear among them. The use of force will not silence us.”
Other student leaders demanded imposing an education emergency. Private educational institutes have become money-making factories, they said.
Students carry placards at the Lahore rally. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)
Former military ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq banned student unions in colleges and universities through a martial law order in 1984. Students seeking admission to higher education institutes have to sign an affidavit that prohibits any participation in political activity on campus.
In its maiden budget announced in June, the federal government curtailed the allocation of funds to the Higher Education Commission by 40 percent from the previous 2018-19 budget. Pakistan's public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP was estimated at 2.4 percent in the 2018-19 fiscal year, the lowest in the region.
In October, Balochistan High Court directed the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to investigate reports of students being harassed at the University of Balochistan. The FIA later discovered that male and female students were being blackmailed by some staff members using videos of them recorded through hidden CCTV cameras in places including washrooms.
In August, students from Islamia College University moved Peshawar High Court against the administration’s decision to increase class fees by 10 percent.
Meanwhile, a government offensive against Students’ Solidarity March participants has already begun. Lahore police arrested a student speaker from Punjab University at the end of the protest.
“The rally participants forcefully blocked traffic on both sides and made speeches on a loudspeaker. The speakers made hate speeches against the state and its institutes. They didn’t stop despite repeated calls on a megaphone,” states a first information report that named six people including the elderly Iqbal Lala.
Prime Minister Imran Khan took to Twitter on Dec. 1 to address the situation.
“Universities groom future leaders of the country and student unions form an integral part of this grooming. Unfortunately, in Pakistan universities' student unions became violent battlegrounds and completely destroyed the intellectual atmosphere on campuses,” he tweeted.
“We will establish a comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct, learning from the best practices in internationally renowned universities, so that we can restore and enable student unions to play their part in positively grooming our youth as future leaders of the country.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) deplored the government’s response to the solidarity march.
“HRCP is alarmed by reports that students supporting the march are being harassed, facing rustication or being dislodged from their hostels in an effort to restrain them from participating. This is a flagrant violation of their right to peaceful assembly. Moreover, the propaganda that is being circulated on social media platforms to malign march supporters is not just repugnant, it could also put them at risk of harm,” it said in a statement.
“HRCP is also concerned to learn that the Governor’s Secretariat in Quetta has issued a notification to the University of Balochistan banning all political activity and gatherings and clearly giving security personnel the authority to prevent these. HRCP urges the government to take the legitimate demands of the solidarity march seriously.”
Farooq Tariq, general secretary of Kisan (farmer) Communication Committee, said the student march symbolized the unity of human rights defenders.
“It was the biggest gathering of socialists and revolutionaries after four decades. It was the victory of our stance, a fruit of our continuous struggle. Both students and laborers are founding the basis for a new revolutionary movement,” said Tariq.
The Catholic Church, which recently inaugurated the Year of Youth 2020, extended its support for students.
“Our educational institutes lack modern facilities. Students have a right to protest. We cannot progress as a welfare state without education. The state should invest in this most important sector,” said Bishop Samson Shukardin of Hyderabad, program coordinator of the Year of Youth.