Pakistan’s university students may have their JNU moment today (Nov. 29).
Thousands of them are expected to march across cities, demanding a rollback of education budget cuts and the reinstatement of student elections—student unions were banned in that country over three decades ago. The protesters are evidently inspired by the many agitations at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the past few years, most recently over a similar fee hike.
The protest in Pakistan, like those in India, is being spearheaded by left-wing student groups.
“Left-wing politics (in Pakistan) was different. But we have now started doing music and street theatre,” Awais Qarni, a former MPhil scholar and representative of the Revolutionary Students Front, one of the 30 groups organising the march, told Quartz over the phone.
They plan on using some of the methods popularised by JNU over the years: street theatre performances, azadi (freedom) slogans, and effective use of social media. But that’s not all. “We will also be singing Bollywood songs like ‘Itne baazu itne sar’ from Amitabh Bachchan’s Main Azaad Hoon,” Qarni said.
Like in the case of the JNU students, the Pakistani protesters are being branded “anti-national.” While left-wing JNU students have been accused of working for Pakistan, the solidarity march in Pakistan has been called an Indian conspiracy.
Mohiba Ahmed, a teacher at Government College University, Lahore, and a founding member of city-based Progressive Students Collective, said she received a call from the deputy commissioner of police, who asked her if she was anti-Pakistan.
Most universities in the country get new students to sign affidavits pledging not to engage in political activity. Some have even threatened rustication if students attend today’s march.
In parts of Lahore, the government has imposed section 144, the curfew law passed down to both India and Pakistan from British colonialists.
Students in Quetta, Balochistan, face far graver threats. “Whenever we have done any political activity, some students go missing,” a female law student of the University of Balochistan said on the condition of anonymity. Restive Balochistan has seen a decades-long separatist insurgency against the Pakistani state.
Meanwhile, even if at great personal risk, today’s student march could firmly put the spotlight on the tensions building up in Pakistan’s campuses.
Prime minister Imran Khan was elected in August last year at the end of a campaign against the erstwhile government. He rode on his image as a youth leader, promising to raise education spending.
“Most of us voted for Imran Khan, but now we are done,” said Salman Sikandar, an English literature student at Government College University.
However, Pakistan’s economy has only fallen deeper into Chinese debt since then even as the country’s current account deficit has worsened. Despite opposing it earlier, Khan signed a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund last year, whose terms included cuts in welfare spending.
The cash-strapped government has slashed the higher education budget, forcing universities to raise fees and cut down research grants. “This is dismantling of an education system that was already on ventilator,” said Ammar Ali Jan, who teaches at Forman Christian College in Lahore. At the same time, “they have raised military spending. This is a political choice.”
India’s JNU has often become the flashpoint for the police and protesters since Narendra Modi was first sworn in as Indian prime minister in May 2014.
Student activists in Pakistan say the 2016 JNU protest, when the police arrested the university’s student leaders on sedition charges for raising the azadi slogan, turned into a moment of reckoning for them, too.
“When Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, and the other comrades won their case and were able to tell the world that they were fighting for the right thing, it created a spark,” said Haider Kaleem, a representative of the Progressive Students Federation.