The youth of Pakistan make up 60% of the population, and if the voices at Friday’s Student Solidarity March are to be believed, they are frustrated.
On a crisp, sunny afternoon, hundreds of students from the capital gathered in the ground outside the National Press Club to demand the restoration of student unions.
They were among thousands of students who rallied in cities all over the country on November 29.
The students also demanded the allocation of 5% of the GDP to education, an end to privatisation of educational institutions, provision of basic facilities for students, and the constitution of sexual harassment committees in educational institutions.
Islamabad’s protest included a theatrical performance by the group Lal Hartal, rousing speeches and sloganeering, and a march to D-Chowk.
It was led by an alliance of leftist student organisations called the Student Action Committee (SAC), and included students from the Progressive Students Federation (PrSF), the Progressive Students Collective, the Revolutionary Students Federation, the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO), and the Pashtun Student Federation.
“They initially launched an education campaign that went on for six months or so, post-budget,” Tooba Syed from the Awami Workers Party said.
“They also organised a Student Solidarity March last year, so this is the second. One of their main demands is about the restoration of student unions,” she added.
The students’ frustration was palpable, borne of the decades since student unions were banned in 1984, as well as a string of local and national incidents that have left students asking, as former PrSF Islamabad-Rawalpindi president Hasrat Ali Turi said: “What is being done to us?”
“Now students are thinking that the problem is structural,” he said, adding: “We are voiceless, even though we are the main stakeholders.”
Over and over, students and speakers at the protest spoke about the “youth bulge”.
Pakistan’s youth makes up between 60% and 65% of the population.
“Out of 220mn, 120mn to 140mn are the frustrated youth,” one of the speakers, Minhajul Arfeen, said, adding: “The real cause of our frustration is that for 35 years, we have been told to keep quiet and study.
“‘Politics isn’t your job’. If politics is so bad for us that we were kept from it for 35 years, why isn’t a single Pakistani university one of the top 200 in the world?”
“There are no jobs out there, the government is not doing anything considering the youth bulge in the country.”
“So [students] know there is no future, they are very sure about this by now, and that’s why they are out now, because they have nothing to lose at this point,” the Awami Workers Party’s Syed said.
“Every government says very proudly that the youth are an asset,” Turi, an SAC member, said, adding: “But they have no programmes for them. There is no job market for them.
“And before jobs, you have to give them quality education, but already you are heading towards privatisation. [For quality education] you have to invest in it, give scholarships.
“It is the government’s responsibility to provide quality education and free education to the people. Instead of doing that, we get beaten and jailed and booked under 7-ATA [section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act] for speaking for ourselves.”
As far as the quality of education is concerned, Faryal Rashid, an undergraduate from Comsats University, said: “All over Pakistan you’ll notice that the books that we are still studying are the books that our great grandparents were studying.
“Our education system has not been changed or updated. By the time students graduate, they feel that they are far behind the rest of the world.”
The cuts to the Higher Education Commission (HEC) budget have only compounded the students’ problems.
“The direct impact [of the cuts] is that university fees are increasing. The people who could afford to provide their children a university education can no longer do so,” Rashid said.
At the same time, students on campus face harassment and surveillance.
The case of the University of Baluchistan (UOB), where surveillance footage of thousands of women was collected and used to blackmail and harass them, came up repeatedly.
A student from Quetta who said she was affiliated with the BSO said that students are treated like criminals in universities.
Criticising the military presence in educational institutions, she said those responsible for the UOB harassment scandal should be exposed.
Haris, a student from the National University of Science and Technology, said that although he is not affiliated with any organisation, he believes that students should be able to express themselves and have their voices heard.
Student organisations played a major role during the independence movement and the creation of Pakistan, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan secretary-general Harris Khalique said.
“If you look at the movement in Pakistan, in East Pakistan and in West Pakistan between 1947 and 1971, it was student organisations which were heralding this struggle for democratic freedoms and democratic rights, students’ rights and rights to education and for fundamental freedoms,” he added.
“There were a number of student organisations from the centre, left and right, and those organisations would negotiate with each other through an election process in the educational institutions.
“Elections are fundamentally a process of negotiation between different ideologies and different interests.
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