This time of year, the student solidarity march has been organized again by many progressive student organisations. The nationwide student solidarity marches started in November 2018 and represented a coming together of student organisations on the political left. The resulting Student Action Committee (SAC) comprised 28 organisations whose principal goal was the restoration of student unions, which had been prohibited on university campuses since the reign of General Zia ul Haq. Around this central demand, students voiced several grievances, including the security and militarisation of campuses, the stifling of academic freedoms, the criminalization of cultural expression, and sexual harassment. It also became outspoken on the withdrawal of quotas and subsidies for students from marginalised ethnic backgrounds.
But the governmental repression is likely to divert campaigners’ energy, diminishing their capacity to sustain spectacular mobilisations. In the November 2020 marches, the organisers faced retaliation in the form of sedition charges (colonial-era legislation) and termination from academic teaching positions (an example of how neoliberal techniques like contractual hiring can be used to stifle constitutional freedoms). One of the organisers arrested for sedition was released after a four-month-long media and legal defense battle that lasted until April 2020.
Two factors primarily influence the evolution of student politics in Pakistan, oppression by the state and co-option by the political parties. These two factors have ignited increasing violence in student politics and decreased student movements’ impact on national politics at large. The populism politics in Pakistan also have molded the political consciousness of current youth in Pakistan.
Today, we see even populist parties like Tehreek-e-Insaaf Pakistan also came into power from the tangible support of young Pakistanis. Putting all hope in political development by populist parties like the PTI, on the other hand, has proven risky. Political apathy has become more prevalent among middle-class youth, which has developed over several decades because of demographic changes. The student organisations come under the clutch of patronage by political parties, which only give students a ‘token representation’ in the national policies or the campus.
As a result, these student organisations quickly devolve into violence and cronyism. These could be the consequences of the ban on student unions. This has given inception to a Kalashnikov culture among students on the campuses as well. It would be a superficially generalized perception to claim that students are currently depoliticised. The students may not be depoliticized, but the campuses may perpetuate the narrative-building that conforms to populist ideals and military-bureaucratic structure. Many students who are marginalised or those who can institute reforms and structural changes are otherized more.
Students in Balochistan also been at the forefront on many occasions, leading to fruitful results. Understanding the mechanisms of violence and insurgency in Balochistan can be aided by the thinking patterns of educated youth. In the past four decades, the state has exerted considerable effort to develop apolitical students in the university. It has achieved chiefly its objective, but a critical albeit small, non-apolitical minority persists.
After nearly four decades, the Sindh government has attempted to reverse the trend by lifting the prohibition on student unions in the province, and one can anticipate student politics to contribute to a more robust social and political awareness among the youth. The impact of the neocolonial political system is still most pronounced among minority ethnicities in remote regions beyond the core districts of Punjab. The state has divided student politics, yet numerous student organisations have survived.
In Pakistan, these social and economic changes have transpired alongside the continuity of a neo-colonial political system. Instead, it has strengthened the neo-colonial system in the peripheries since the inception of Pakistan. The real reason for the political apathy among many students is the commercialization and commodification of education, which has now become the most profitable business.
After the ban on students’ unions, the most controlled process started by dividing students on different regional, religious, sectarian, ethnic, and linguistic bases. In the majority of educational institutions student organisations rose against tyranny in the 60s, 70s, and 80s but today the suppression and ideological insecurities may not have materialised the collective will always, yet the struggle never ceased.
The politics of dissent and Islamization for the hegemony have predominantly redefined the political realities of Pakistan. In the case of Pakistan, undemocratic military regimes also had given momentum to contentious politics that erupted from middle-class students. Today in Pakistan, many young Progressives are on the frontlines of resistance movements—imperialist wars, state repression, dispossession, class/caste exploitation, violence, climate change, patriarchal norms, privatisation of the public sphere, land-grabbing, and so much more.
Revolutionary politics also have given a great appeal to the majority of people, but in the long run, it has remained conspicuous by its absence because many middle-class young people are imbued with a hegemonic aspiration. In the increasingly digitalized world, political realities and the political imagination are rapidly changing more than ever. Between the politics of fear and desire, there are burgeoning contradictions. However, it is evident that the collective struggle of students in Pakistan has evolved as well. The non-institutionalized form of politics in which students have historically played vital roles has also shaped the intellectual history of student politics.