Looking Back for Inspiration: Student Politics in Pakistan

Written by Nirupama Subramanian, this piece appeared in The Hindu on January 21, 2010

In the absence of unions on campus, student activism in Pakistan sustains itself on the inspiration and nostalgia of events past.

On a January day more than five decades ago, hundreds of college students in Karachi took to the streets demanding that the government provide them with better educational facilities. The police fired at them, and there were deaths. This led to more protests over the next three days. As many as 27 students lost their lives, over 400 were injured and more than 1,000 jailed.

The event snowballed into a full-fledged students’ movement that would continue for nearly a year. It was the first protest of its kind in the new nation, reflecting both the early difficulties and material hardships faced by people, especially those who had migrated from India, as well as the hopes and aspirations of an entire new generation fired by the idealism and zeal of nation-building.

Earlier this month, hundreds of people gathered in Karachi to honour the legacy of the January 1953 movement, and the memory of its leader, Dr. Mohammed Sarwar, who died last year at the age of 79. Pulled together by his daughter, journalist-film maker Beena Sarwar, the commemoration included a riveting documentary of the movement and reminiscences by some of those who participated in it.

The title of the event, Looking Back to Look Forward, was a studied choice. Student unions have been banned in Pakistan since the Zia regime, and although a pledge to revive them was given pride of place in the 100-day roadmap unveiled by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in the National Assembly immediately upon taking office in March 2008, it did not happen.

The over two decades old suppression of student activism has been blamed for a number of ills that plague Pakistan today: the unchallenged rise of religious extremist ideologies among the youth, their “de-politicisation”, the apathy and disaffection among them, the lack of leadership, representational and negotiation skills among the present generation of politicians, and indeed, for the weak roots of democracy itself.

Despite the wide acknowledgement of the crucial role students can play in the body politic, there is still no sign that the government is planning to make good its promise to bring unions back into Pakistan’s campuses. The announcement by the Prime Minister did lead to the setting up of “tri-partite commission” under the auspices of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission consisting of administrators, faculty and students to discuss the modalities of restoring student unions.

But, according to those with knowledge of the proceedings, instead of talking about the modalities, many of them began by stating their opposition to the restoration. The entire project now seems to have been quietly shelved.

Education administrators and even large sections of students seem to fear student activism could lead to a repeat of the early 1980s when political parties, through their student wings, brought violent turf wars into campuses, the worst-hit among which was Karachi University.

Even so, the 1953 commemoration, the first time a students’ movement has been celebrated in this way in Pakistan, attracted a surprisingly large number of young people, and their calls for the PPP government to keep its promise to restore student unions gave the event an electric atmosphere.

“We may not have undergone the physical torture that the students who participated in the 1953 movement experienced,” said Alia Amirali, a student activist in Islamabad’s Qauid-e-Azam University, making a stirring speech at the event, “but students are now prey to a far worse kind of suppression, and that is the suppression of the mind”. The depoliticisation of students, she said, was responsible for causing hopelessness among youth.

The 1953 movement was spearheaded by the progressive Democratic Students’ Front under the leadership of Dr. Sarwar, then a student of Karachi’s Dow Medical College. The college lacked even basic facilities, as did other educational institutions across the city. The students joined hands to highlight their demands, which included one for setting up a university in Karachi. Before partition, the colleges in Karachi were affiliated to Bombay University.

After the incidents of January 7 and 8 that year, the movement spread countrywide. During that time, the students brought out a fortnightly called Student Herald, which used to be so popular that students used to requisition copies in advance. In 1954, as Pakistan joined U.S.-led Cold War military alliances, the government banned the Communist Party, and the DSF, which was thought to be affiliated with it. The Herald too was shut down. Many DSF activists joined the National Students’ Federation, and were inspiration for the next generation of NSF activists who spearheaded the 1969 protests against the Ayub regime, eventually leading to the ouster of the military ruler.

Pakistan’s next military regime would take no chances with student activism. The violence on the campus between student wings of various political parties gave General Zia ul Haq the excuse he was looking for and unions were banned in 1984.

But the regime continued to encourage on-campus activism by the Islami-Jamiat-e-Taleba, the student wing of the Jamat-e-Islami, categorising it as a religious organisation. As a major campus recruiter for volunteers to join the mujahideen in the first Afghan war against the Soviets, the IJT was a darling of the country’s security establishment and remains a powerful campus organisation to this day.

But 2006 saw the first stirrings of a student backlash against the monopoly of the IJT, triggered by its dress code for students and edicts against music shows and intermingling of the sexes in Lahore’s Punjab University campus. A year later, protests by students from a few universities and private colleges against the 2007 Musharraf emergency raised hopes that Pakistani youth still cared enough to believe they could make a difference.

“We can thank General Musharraf for bringing us out on the streets again. It is an exaggeration to describe what happened then as a students’ movement, but whatever it was, it restored life to our dead campus,” said Ms. Amirali, “not for one, two or three days, but for three whole months”.

Those three months briefly brought into focus the progressive role that students and youth could build a democratic culture in Pakistan. But the failure to restore student unions shows that Pakistan either still does not trust its youth to act responsibly or fears their power to bring change, Pervez Hoodbhoy, who teaches at the Qauid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, told The Hindu.

Going by past experience, there are also real concerns that political parties will turn campuses into violent battlefields. Another worry for many is that given the existing dominance of religious Right-wing organisations on campus, these would do everything to gain control of student bodies.

Still, said Dr. Hoodbhoy, the government must not shy away from helping to revive student activism, in order to restore “meaningful discussions on social, cultural and political issues” to campuses.

He advocated a cautious start: before a full restoration, the government should allow and encourage limited activities by students such as participation in disaster relief work, community work, and science popularisation by students.

Also, a clear code of ethics that specifically abjures physical violence, and that specifies immediate penalties, including immediate expulsion of students if these are violated by whoever is responsible, irrespective of political orientation.

But it does not seem as if student activism is going to be legitimised and allowed to flourish in Pakistan any time soon. Until then, students who want to make a difference through progressive campus politics may have to sustain themselves on the inspiration and nostalgia of events past, such as the 1953 movement.