December Issue 2019

By | Newsbeat National | Published 3 months ago

On the front page of Dawn on Monday December 2, the lead headline said: “Imran hints at revival of student unions.” This was in response to a rising demand across the country for the restoration of student unions in public universities, banned during the martial law of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. A Students Solidarity March was held in Lahore and other cities on November 29.

Now, if you turned the page you would see this headline on page three: “Sedition cases registered against organisers and participants of the student march.” This story was datelined Lahore.

Considering the waywardness of this government, this resort to doublespeak is not exceptional. There is much that is laughable. But one detail in the registration of the sedition cases would break your heart. It boggles the mind.

Among those who are named, apart from about 300 unidentified participants, is one person named Iqbal Lala, an old man with a sad face. Those of us who had seen glimpses of that inspiring march on television would recognise him as the father of Mishal Khan, who was lynched by his fellow students on the campus of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan in April 2017. Iqbal Lala’s courage and forbearance in pursuit of justice for his martyred son is the stuff of a Greek tragedy.

And someone in the administration, possibly on the direction from somewhere across the dark corridors of power, had the gall to include his name in the FIR which claimed that “the speakers incited the students against the state and its institutions.” Iqbal Lala’s suffering is over. He died at  the Combined Military Hospital on December 2. He had been battling cancer for the last few years.

However, it is very likely, that these charges of sedition would not be seriously pursued, particularly when many leaders of the ruling PTI had spoken in support of the protesting students. Still, the registration of the cases in itself is evidence of how the rulers have suppressed open and rational debate on our campuses. They show no tolerance for progressive ideas and meaningful academic freedom.

Historically, student activism and the revolutionary aspirations of the educated youth against the status quo have moderated national politics in most developing countries. Social and political movements are often kicked off on campuses. This is how it should be, since institutes of higher education are bound to be reservoirs of talent and expertise in otherwise deprived societies.

A look back at Pakistan’s own experience can be very instructive. I am old enough to retain some memories of the student movement of 1953 as a school student. It laid the foundation of an intellectual fervour of a socialistic hue. In the later years of the next decade, students were in the forefront of the popular protest against Ayub Khan.

This was the current that served the game-changing politics of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He inspired the students with his progressive slogans in the then West Pakistan and his initial team was bolstered by student leaders such as Mairaj Mohammad Khan. In the other wing of the country, students of the Dhaka University provided an edge to the politics of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.

A new era of repression and containment of all democratic values began with the Martial Law of Gen Zia-ul-Haq and eventually, unions were banned. What consequently happened on the campuses was not just the blockage of students’ participation in political or socially progressive activities but the counter-growth of Islamist antagonism. Passions aroused by the Afghan jihad were injected into the hearts and minds of youth in a wider context.

We have to contend with a history of the radicalisation of youth with the infusion of religious extremism and prejudice against progressive and modern ideas. Waves of young men educated in madrassahs that multiplied in number were mobilised into social action.

At another level, in the absence of elected unions that would bring the students together, the divisive trend of political parties planting their own factions on campuses led to violence that was prompted by ideological or ethnic or linguistic divisions. The very spirit of education as a civilised discourse was severely undermined.

Coming back to Iqbal Lala, the ultimate expression of depravity and savagery that the rulers’ policies had cultivated on our campuses was available in the lynching of Mishal Khan only because he had liberal views and was critical of corruption among the university officials. The allegation was that he had posted blasphemous content online.

In any case, this happened on the campus and the video coverage of that brutal killing showed that scores of students participated in that vile act. In some ways, it was more satanic an expression of our degenerated society than, perhaps, the massacre of our schoolchildren in the Army Public School of Peshawar. It seemed to have shaken the country. But nothing much has changed in the context of  the policies and practices that govern our universities.

It is against this backdrop that student activists have regrouped to demand elected unions and democratic freedoms on our campuses. Their enthusiasm is encouraging and, to some extent, there is a whiff of revolt in the air. One would have expected Imran Khan to celebrate this awakening because he looks at the youth as his exclusive constituency.

Alas, he has shown no inclination to counter the ruling ideas of orthodoxy and intolerance of liberal and progressive values. When he hints at lifting the ban on unions, he first wants to prescribe a comprehensive code of conduct for the university students.

Besides, it is under his watch that cases of sedition have been registered against leaders as well as the participants of a peaceful protest by students. His Punjab government is guilty of a crackdown on student protest, inviting a statement by Amnesty International that called the action a brazen violation of the students’ right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly

On the front page of Dawn on Monday December 2, the lead headline said: “Imran hints at revival of student unions.” This was in response to a rising demand across the country for the restoration of student unions in public universities, banned during the martial law of Gen Zia-ul-Haq. A Students Solidarity March was held in Lahore and other cities on November 29.

Now, if you turned the page you would see this headline on page three: “Sedition cases registered against organisers and participants of the student march.” This story was datelined Lahore.

Considering the waywardness of this government, this resort to doublespeak is not exceptional. There is much that is laughable. But one detail in the registration of the sedition cases would break your heart. It boggles the mind.

Among those who are named, apart from about 300 unidentified participants, is one person named Iqbal Lala, an old man with a sad face. Those of us who had seen glimpses of that inspiring march on television would recognise him as the father of Mishal Khan, who was lynched by his fellow students on the campus of Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan in April 2017. Iqbal Lala’s courage and forbearance in pursuit of justice for his martyred son is the stuff of a Greek tragedy.

And someone in the administration, possibly on the direction from somewhere across the dark corridors of power, had the gall to include his name in the FIR which claimed that “the speakers incited the students against the state and its institutions.” Iqbal Lala’s suffering is over. He died at  the Combined Military Hospital on December 2. He had been battling cancer for the last few years.

However, it is very likely, that these charges of sedition would not be seriously pursued, particularly when many leaders of the ruling PTI had spoken in support of the protesting students. Still, the registration of the cases in itself is evidence of how the rulers have suppressed open and rational debate on our campuses. They show no tolerance for progressive ideas and meaningful academic freedom.

Historically, student activism and the revolutionary aspirations of the educated youth against the status quo have moderated national politics in most developing countries. Social and political movements are often kicked off on campuses. This is how it should be, since institutes of higher education are bound to be reservoirs of talent and expertise in otherwise deprived societies.

A look back at Pakistan’s own experience can be very instructive. I am old enough to retain some memories of the student movement of 1953 as a school student. It laid the foundation of an intellectual fervour of a socialistic hue. In the later years of the next decade, students were in the forefront of the popular protest against Ayub Khan.

This was the current that served the game-changing politics of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He inspired the students with his progressive slogans in the then West Pakistan and his initial team was bolstered by student leaders such as Mairaj Mohammad Khan. In the other wing of the country, students of the Dhaka University provided an edge to the politics of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.

A new era of repression and containment of all democratic values began with the Martial Law of Gen Zia-ul-Haq and eventually, unions were banned. What consequently happened on the campuses was not just the blockage of students’ participation in political or socially progressive activities but the counter-growth of Islamist antagonism. Passions aroused by the Afghan jihad were injected into the hearts and minds of youth in a wider context.

We have to contend with a history of the radicalisation of youth with the infusion of religious extremism and prejudice against progressive and modern ideas. Waves of young men educated in madrassahs that multiplied in number were mobilised into social action.

At another level, in the absence of elected unions that would bring the students together, the divisive trend of political parties planting their own factions on campuses led to violence that was prompted by ideological or ethnic or linguistic divisions. The very spirit of education as a civilised discourse was severely undermined.

Coming back to Iqbal Lala, the ultimate expression of depravity and savagery that the rulers’ policies had cultivated on our campuses was available in the lynching of Mishal Khan only because he had liberal views and was critical of corruption among the university officials. The allegation was that he had posted blasphemous content online.

In any case, this happened on the campus and the video coverage of that brutal killing showed that scores of students participated in that vile act. In some ways, it was more satanic an expression of our degenerated society than, perhaps, the massacre of our schoolchildren in the Army Public School of Peshawar. It seemed to have shaken the country. But nothing much has changed in the context of  the policies and practices that govern our universities.

It is against this backdrop that student activists have regrouped to demand elected unions and democratic freedoms on our campuses. Their enthusiasm is encouraging and, to some extent, there is a whiff of revolt in the air. One would have expected Imran Khan to celebrate this awakening because he looks at the youth as his exclusive constituency.

Alas, he has shown no inclination to counter the ruling ideas of orthodoxy and intolerance of liberal and progressive values. When he hints at lifting the ban on unions, he first wants to prescribe a comprehensive code of conduct for the university students.

Besides, it is under his watch that cases of sedition have been registered against leaders as well as the participants of a peaceful protest by students. His Punjab government is guilty of a crackdown on student protest, inviting a statement by Amnesty International that called the action a brazen violation of the students’ right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.