Students are often the vanguard of social movements that seek to overthrow repressive and authoritarian regimes. In the current crisis in Pakistan—the imposition of Emergency rule (read Martial Law) by General Pervez Musharraf—students across a number of campuses have awakened, organized, rallied, and have made their opposition felt.. Although a nascent movement, the students’ systematic and consistent efforts and the level of domestic and international press coverage they have received have made both the military junta and other mainstream opposition parties sit up and take note.
The mainstay of the student political activity has been at a number of private universities located in Lahore and Islamabad. At the forefront has been Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), the premiere business and social science institution in the country. Other centers have been FAST-National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences, Beaconhouse National University, Islamia College and Hamdard University. Student political activity has also been mobilized in a number of public sector universities including Quaid-I-Azam University in Islamabad, Punjab University and the Government Science College. Most of the political activity has been campus based and has consisted of rallies denouncing Emergency rule and demanding the restoration of the constitution and pre-November 3rd status quo vis-à-vis the judiciary. Rallies have been accompanied by speeches of student, faculty and key activists; resounding singsongs; sit-ins; hunger strikes; as well as the establishment of an underground paper, The Emergency Times (http://pakistanmartiallaw.blogspot.com/). Students have come out in support of lawyers and journalists and have joined independent rallies held by these groups. Most spectacular, and perhaps not unexpectedly in this media and technological savvy age, has been the international coverage these student protests have received. A combination of YouTube, e-news, digital cameras and the internet have allowed the news of student activities to gain international attention (coverage in CNN, ABC, New York Times etc.) despite all attempts by the government to clamp down.
These student protests have hit the political nerve of the establishment. Political activities on campuses have been non-existent since the early 1980s, when the last military dictator who ruled Pakistan, Zia-ul-Haq clamped down on campuses. Nothing compares to the student mobilization during the General Ayub’s period in the 1960s when the movement contributed directly to the downfall of that military regime. A lot is made of who these students are and what they represent. The fact is that the core of these protests is happening at private universities which are attended by the upper middle and middle class of Pakistan. Students at these institutions are linked with the establishment and other elements of the elite. What does this mobilization indicate? Is this a generational rebellion against authoritarian figures or a more fundamental reflection of the malaise that permeates among this group regarding the current political status quo? As a Dawn editorial on the 11/11/2007 noted these “Poster-children of Pervez Musharraf’s enlightened moderation…were least expected to speak up against his policies”. Interestingly, the students are not fighting General Musharraf’s policies per se. Leading up the Emergency, there has been little if any debate among students on the war on terror, the policy in Baluchistan or the detention of individuals by security agencies. What has mobilized the students is the dismantling of the basic institutions of the state.
Yet these are the very young people who have most benefited from the rapid consumerism and the leniency of cultural norms that have blossomed under the Musharraf era. The opportunities to rebel against authoritarian structures are constant, and the judicial activism earlier this year provided an impetus which few students took up. The current protests suggest that this time Pervez Musharraf has gone too far and these protests reflect a genuine anger at his political manipulations and the establishment of the Emergency.
Projections in the international media of young men and women dressed in western clothes marching together and carrying banners have had another affect on international perceptions. In effect, it has allowed the middle and upper middle classes to claim back space from the images that otherwise permeate the international media of the “Talibization” of Pakistan– the bearded mullahs and the habitually covered women who walk ten steps behind and have no voice of any kind. It suggests that there are other political actors who are in the Pakistani mainstream—young men and women who are articulate, passionate and concerned about the de-institutionalization of their political and economic institutions and are willing to stand up to the systematic usurpation of political and economic power by the military. Moreover, at a time when human right activists, lawyers, educators and other members of civil society actors are being rounded up and arrested, the burgeoning student movement gives hope that this group can form the bulwark of the opposition against the Musharraf regime.
How viable is this? It is too early to tell. Only nine days have passed since the Emergency was declared and within that time these students have managed to achieve a phenomenal amount, specially if you consider the non-existent political organization on these campuses prior too 3/11/2007. Students have kept to a limited remit, protesting on campuses, in order to ensure that they are around to protest another day. Rules that limited the state’s access to private campuses prior to the Emergency no longer apply under the police state that currently exists. There is little guarantee that the violence extended to other opposition members of civil society will not be vented on these students within their own campuses. There are issues of organizational structure and sustainability. Should protesting students, who for the most part have been non-political, align themselves to existing mainstream parties to take advantage of their organizational depth and experience? Should these students take positions regarding the existing opposition parties? How strong is their organizational capacity to sustain long-term protest? Is there a need for a supra-student structure to manage this country-wide protest? These issues are only beginning to challenge these inexperienced political protesters and decisions on these issues will determine their long term viability and their ability to sustain opposition. For now, those who watch salute their actions and have faith that the best of this country’s human capital will meet these challenges with intelligence, sound strategy and bravery to ensure a sustained assault again the Emergency.