New Delhi: In November, when the words of Faiz Ahmed Faiz were etched on the steps of the JNU administrative block, similar revolutionary sentiments found resonance in chants of Ram Prasad ‘Bismil’s ‘sarfaroshi ki tamanna’ that rung out on the streets of Lahore.
“Surkh hoga, surkh hoga – Asia surkh hoga! (It will turn red, it will turn red – Asia will turn red),” boomed a student, promising the spread of a Left-leaning progressive students’ movements across Asia.
The words and the moment, captured in a viral video, proved to be prophetic, as massive students’ movements – replete with dramatic confrontations – erupting in India, Pakistan and Hong Kong grabbed headlines all week.
Even as students of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University poured over the streets in protest against a steep fee hike that puts JNU out of reach for most of them, similar Left-leaning student groups across the border, too, have been busy making preparations to launch a massive agitation.
The ‘Student Solidarity March’ organised by the Lahore-based Progressive Students’ Federation (PRSF) will be held on Friday at over 50 locations across Pakistan. When the first such demonstration was organised last year, the confrontation had a limited impact.
But much has changed since then.
In September, Dr. Nimrita Kumari, a Hindu dental student was murdered under mysterious circumstances in Sindh. Then, a massive harassment scandal rocked Balochistan University, forcing the Vice Chancellor to step down. Students were evicted and their hostels were sealed in Islamabad, the nation’s capital.
But the most recent and perhaps, the most catalytic case comes from Sindh University, where 17 students were booked for sedition for staging a protest against the water shortage on campus.
Fraught with the alleged government interference in colleges, fee hike and lack of student housing, the march comes at an extremely sensitive moment for students’ politics in Pakistan.
“We are marching against the system which labels us as ‘Terrorists’ for demanding clean water on campus. Puts us behind bars for opposing the dictatorship of administration on campus. We demand our right to exist with dignity,” PRSF said in a tweet.
“When we talk of Faiz, Bismil, Habib Jalib or Fehmida Riaz – hum unke asli waaris hain (We are their true inheritors.),” says Haider Kaleem, central organiser of PSRF and Progressive Students Collective (PSC), the organisation leading the protest march in Pakistan.
From ‘Lal Salaam’ slogans to chants of ‘Sarfaroshi ki tamanna’, the fact that the students uprising in Pakistan has so much in common with protests in JNU is no coincidence – not even to the students across border.
“Humein JNU mein apni jhalak nazar aati hai (We see reflections of ourselves in JNU),” says Kaleem.
“JNU is the spark that has given hope to students' movements across south Asia to stand and fight against powerful governments,” he adds.
In Pakistan, students’ anger boiled to tip over only in the second half of 2019. But Haider Kaleem believes that this has been a long time coming.
“We are hitting the streets because there have been crippling fee hikes, budget cuts and massive cases of harassment. These issues may have come to the fore now, but have been rampant for years,” Kaleem says. “In Sindh, students were charged with sedition. Their only crime was to demand clean water.”
Speaking about the parallel protests in JNU, Kaleem says, “The fee in JNU is low because there is solidarity in the union, even their government has to listen to them. The question, though, is why can’t the fee be low everywhere?”
“If we stand like JNU has stood, we can also achieve affordable education in Pakistan,” he adds.
There are several issues that make up the students’ collective anger with the state. The root cause, however, as Kaleem explains is the government’s systematic crackdown on student unions in Pakistan.
“Our demand is very clear – restore our student unions,” he says.
In 1984, Pakistan’s military dictator General Zia Ul Haq had cracked a whip on students union and banned political activity on campuses, crushing with it all public opinion, discussion and scope for dissent. This was believed to have changed in 1989, with late former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto taking charge and “restored” unions.
“Bhutto’s claim of reinstating unions was an eyewash,” says Kaleem.
“Apart from a few places in Sindh -- Bhutto’s home province -- student politics was not allowed anywhere else,” he explains.
When a court order in 1993 upheld that student unions were constitutional and should be restored, there was much hope for a resurgence in student politics. However, 26 years later, political parties in Pakistan are yet to act on the landmark court-ruling.
The key, Kaleem says, lies in an affidavit that is signed by each and every college student in Pakistan.
“When a student enters college in Pakistan, he or she is required to sign an affidavit swearing that they will not participate in any political activity on campus. They don’t want to allow genuine democracy on our campuses,” Kaleem says.
PSRF and PSC now demand for this affidavit to be struck down.
The Pakistan government’s argument has been that student unions would lead to violence on campus but Kaleem argues, “If that were the case then Dr. Nimrita would not be killed and (Pashtun student) Mashal Khan would not be lynched. The truth is that while the government has cracked down on socialist organisations, fascist and religious student bodies have been allowed to flourish.”
For him, the only solution to end the violence in the country is by restoring student unions.
Kaleem still remembers watching the drama unfold in JNU not long ago, when then JNSU president Kanhaiya Kumar, emerged at the restive campus to deliver his speech in 2016.
“We were watching closely. We followed Kanhaiya’s speech. It was an inspiring moment for all of us. JNU made us realize that if we stand together, we can win,” he says.
Looking back at the first Students’ Solidarity March organised by PSC in 2018, Kaleem says, “Our issues were so big that we had to hit the streets. We really had to no choice.”
The first march was organised in 16 cities, although the highest impact was seen in Lahore.
“This year, we are hoping for a much bigger response. We will not only be joined by other student outfits, but also by doctors, working class professionals and even brick kiln workers.”
The days leading up to the November 29 protests have seen increased police presence on Pakistan’s educational campuses.
Amid this, another less drawn out of JNU’s book: “All our demands are in line with the Constitution of Pakistan, the police cannot attack us,” Kaleem says.