Students’ activism around the world has had a huge impact on governments, politics, and policies. From issues like desegregation in universities and colleges, gun control policies, economy, anti-discrimination policies, gender equality laws, freedom marches, etc., organized students’ participation throughout history has been pivotal.
In countries like India and Pakistan, students’ contribution to the freedom movement was crucial. Therefore, the present scenario of student politics comes as a shock.
Recently Pakistan saw a countrywide protest, ‘The Students Solidarity March’ in 50 cities across the country, to demand the restoration of student unions in Pakistan, after 35 years of an effective ban on them. The march was also aimed to raise awareness and discussions on multiple student concerns ranging from Higher Education Commission’s budget cuts to fee hikes and the administration of hostels, etc.
The effective ban of students’ unions was attributed to the violence back in 1984 when resistance posed a viable threat to the regime of Zia ul Haq. Subsequent to the fall of his regime, the courts and the government bodies placed such restrictions that the ban effectively continues to date.
According to the New York Post, ‘The Students Solidarity March’ although gathered thousands of peaceful supporters, the Lahore Police charged hundreds of protesters with treason for chanting insulting remarks against its military. The police detained Alamgir Wazir from the Punjab University campus in Lahore on 30th November 2019, whose whereabouts were unknown till 1st December 2019. Amnesty International has condemned the detentions and asked for the release of those detained and the dropping of charges against the protestors.
While the opposing parties supported the restoration of ban from students’ unions, Prime Minister Imran Khan suggested lifting the ban on students’ unions subject to “the establishment of a comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct.”
Meanwhile, in India, although there is no ban on students’ union, the charged political environment, an increasing job-gap, weakened economy, hazardous environmental conditions, etc. is resulting in a lot of vocal criticism across the country, including from students.
On 11th November, hundreds of students and alumni from the country’s prominent university Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, had marched towards the Parliament seeking the rollback of a hike in annual fees they say would make education unaffordable for many. The students have found support throughout the country from other universities and old students.
According to reports under the new proposed fees, students will have to pay between 1,800 rupees ($25; £20) and 3,600 rupees ($50; £40) every year for housing on campus. They were previously paying between 120 rupees ($1.60) and 240 rupees ($3). They will also have to pay for other services – such as electricity and sanitation – which they say they have never had to do before.
JNU is a highly coveted government-run university, which has produced some of the prominent bureaucrats, journalists, police officers, private and public sector officials, and is known for teaching and research, and inclusiveness (due to its affordable fees). Its’ students have been vocal critics of the government in the past and have organized protests and marches for various social causes.
But the students were stopped midway by baton-wielding policemen who pushed them back. One student had blood pouring down his face after a scuffle. Hundreds of students were detained briefly by the police when alleged clashes broke out. Subsequently, the government announced to set up a review panel to address the issues.
Surprisingly, the two South-Asian countries with a tense history, have more in common than they would admit. Their issues – social, political, economic, etc. are way too similar. And now the students in both countries are demanding accountability, answers, and implementation of fair checks and balances.
These students, whom the governments consider volatile or to be controlled, are actually responsible and organized enough to talk about the issues, which the working class or the privileged classes are too busy to talk about. They are not some politician or bureaucrat or celebrity sitting behind a screen and tweeting or appearing on news shows and debates to just gain some screen time.
They are exercising their right to free speech to demand their governments to do their job.
They are calling out their elected representatives, whom they have placed in positions of power, to do their job- for the country and its’ people.
These students are not just marching; they are walking the talk, literally! Something maybe the governments, politicians, and bureaucrats might have forgotten.