Students for a Free Pakistan

30 Nov

ON Thursday, November 29, Pervez Musharraf was sworn in for a new five-year term as the President of Pakistan. The day before, the general tearfully handed over command of the army to his handpicked successor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Musharraf now claims he will also end the state of emergency on December 16.

These gestures may hold out some hope for the restoration of true democracy in Pakistan, but on the ground not much has changed. For the moment, the state is under martial law. The curbs imposed on the media since November 3 have not been lifted, and the judiciary and the constitution have not been restored. Even if Musharraf fulfills his promise to lift the state of emergency, he is not stepping down from his position as dealmaker in Pakistan any time soon.

Little wonder, then, that the growing student movement in Pakistan held its biggest protest to date the day after Musharraf’s swearing-in ceremony. In cities around the world—from Oslo to London to New York to Lahore—students rallied at roughly 2 pm and called for all political parties to boycott the January elections in order to expose them for the sham they will likely be.

In the weeks since Musharraf imposed a state of emergency, students in cities across the country have awakened from their political slumber. They have come a long way since 1999, when the general seized power in a bloodless coup. Then, the only people out on the streets were supporters of Nawaz Sharif, the ousted, democratically elected Prime Minister. This time, they are out in throngs—the lawyers, the journalists, the civil society activists and importantly, the students.

“If not now, WHEN? If not us, WHO?

“There is no neutrality anymore; SILENCE IS CONSENT. SPEAK!”

These words are part of a call to action issued by the newly formed Student Action Committee of Lahore, a coalition of students from fifteen universities and colleges in that city. It was created to organize the student body in their protests against Musharraf’s state of emergency and consolidation of power.

The last time that students rose so powerfully in protest was in 1968, and they were instrumental in toppling General Ayub Khan (one of Musharraf’s dictatorial predecessors). But when Musharraf claimed power in 1999, many breathed a sigh of relief. From 1988-99, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif both came to power twice. During this period—what Musharraf in his autobiography calls the “dreadful decade of democracy”—Pakistan became one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Unemployment soared and cynicism held sway in the minds of ordinary Pakistanis. Musharraf promised change. He promised to get rid of corruption, to tackle economic reforms, and he was a moderate. It seemed like a promising recipe at the time. But in the eight years that he has been in power, he has broken his word countless times. The elections he held were nowhere near free and fair, and according to Transparency International, Pakistan’s corruption rating has actually gotten worse by three percentage points since 1998, the year before Musharraf took power.

The Pakistani police face off with Pakistani protesters

The Pakistani police face off with Pakistani protesters

LIVING under a state of emergency, it’s not surprising that many who once welcomed the general now agitate for his removal. And standing in the frontlines—but not the spotlight—of those protests are the students of Pakistan.

Ammar, 21, is a student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), one of the most prestigious institutions in Pakistan. An economics and political science major, he was one of a handful of LUMS students who started a blog, The Emergency Times, two days after the imposition of martial law. At first, it began as a forum for discussion and a means to educate people, especially students, about the legal ramifications of the emergency. In the face of the media blackouts imposed after November 3, students starved of news reportage turned to blogs such as this one for their daily dose. The Emergency Times alone gets roughly 25,000 hits a day. (Not bad for a country where only 7.2 percent of 160 million people have access to the Internet.) Its printed version, a pamphlet that’s photocopied and distributed by student volunteers in dozens of campuses across the major cities every other day, reaches as many as 200,000 pairs of eyes.

“Right now we’re running on adrenalin,” says Ammar over the phone. He only gives his first name. The police have been watching the more politically active students. They even seem to be tapping telephone lines. So the students try to take some precautions. Some have changed their cell phone numbers. When organizing protests and rallies, they use a separate number that cannot be traced. Only three to four people have a list of all the students who are involved in the Student Action Committee. These twenty-somethings have to dodge not just the police gaze but also parental concern. Ammar’s parents, for instance, are only partly aware of their son’s activities. They know about the blogging, but not that he has attended protests, the kind where people get arrested and taken to undisclosed jails.

Ammar was at one such rally three weeks ago. He was among the mass of lawyers who protested outside the Lahore High Court on November 5, and says that the brutality he saw shook him to his core. “It was unbearable to watch,” he says. “It’s very difficult to stay quiet. If you don’t speak out now, it might be too late.”

Matters came to a head when three LUMS faculty members were arrested. They had attended a meeting of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a highly respected body. They were released a week later, but the LUMS students decided they had to do something. The Emergency Times was the result.

They were not the only ones. The students at FAST-NU, the Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Technology, a technical university with a campus in Lahore, followed suit with their “Fast Rising” blog and newsletter. A wave of similar websites and blogs followed, from the commentary of academics to coverage of the media blackout to legal analysis. Alumni of Pakistani universities scattered in places from Berlin to Boston contributed their stories, poems and their support to a movement that has galvanized a previously complacent student body.

Student protests in Pakistan

Student protests in Pakistan

Pakistani student societies in American universities such as Columbia and Harvard have organized seminars, written letters to newspapers editors and congressmen and even published articles about it. And everywhere, on the street corners in Pakistan, in classrooms all over the world, people are talking, debating, engaging with the political process.

Zeeshan Suhail, 26, a recent graduate of the City University of New York, and the author of one of those articles, was one of many who initially welcomed the dictator. After two decades of democracy, he says, people were fed up with crooked politicians.

“No one was concerned about the fact that the country had changed from a democracy to a dictatorship,” he says. “Musharraf came to power talking of moderation, foreign policy imperatives and bringing the good side of Pakistan to the world. It took years for me to realize that the place of an army officer is in the barracks, not in the president’s house.”

Samar Abbas, 23, who graduated from Yale University earlier this year and has been in Pakistan for the last month, is another of the converted. For him, as for most of his generation, it’s the first time he’s ever been politically active. “There is definitely the feeling that we are living at a very critical juncture,” he writes. “For this generation, this is our first shot at impacting Pakistan, and we have a very good chance.”

Ali Almani, 26, a Harvard law student who will graduate this December and plans to return to Pakistan to practice law, is an exception. He opposed Musharraf from the very beginning. “Each time you have a military regime,” he explains, “it exacerbates the conditions that requires the military to intervene, it weakens political institutions. And when politicians get a chance to rule, it’s a big question whether they’ll be able to make something of it.” Almani doesn’t approve of the way Musharraf is pitted against the opposition candidates in much of the mainstream media. It’s reductive, he says. “Instead,” he argues, “what the debate should be is whether you want to make the politicians accountable to the military or to the people.”

THE student movement in Pakistan is divided on many points, chief among them the question of who should succeed Musharraf. But the one thing they all realize is that Pakistani society has become intolerably repressed under Musharraf’s reign. The army has penetrated every nook and cranny of society, to the point that virtually every NGO, business or civil society organization has a retired general sitting on its board. It controls 11.5 million acres, or 12 percent, of state land.

Although there is much cooperation with the protesting lawyers, journalists and civil society activists, the student movement is a youth initiative. It uses technology in a way that would not have been possible in earlier decades. Virtually all students who have access to it use the Internet. Some use it to voice their protests in the form of websites and blog posts; others use it to watch reportage from the private television channel, the Urdu-language GEO TV, which is now being broadcast from Dubai. There are multiple Facebook groups that connect students in different parts of the world and list upcoming protests. And cell phones are used to organize “flash protests.” A text message is sent out to a relatively small group of people, who gather at a crowded area, shout slogans and hand out pamphlets, then disperse as quickly as they arrived, before they can be arrested.

The movement has spread like an Internet virus. Although it began in campuses of elite institutions such as FAST-NU and LUMS, the baton has been passed to the lesser-known, public colleges with larger student bodies. LUMS students, for instance, number only 2,500. Punjab University—which attained notoriety in the international press when opposition leader Imran Khan was apprehended there—is one of the new leaders of the movement, with roughly 25,000 students.

In the history of student politics, Ammar explains, this is quite common. “The 1968 student movement began in Government College and Gordon College, which were then as prestigious as LUMS is now. That didn’t reflect class interests, but the quality of the education and the academic environment.” Now other universities—among them the Quaid-i-Azam University, Punjab University, Hamdard University and Government College, Lahore—are taking the lead.

But there are some who still believe in Musharraf. Of these, some hail from the business community that has always supported Musharraf and has benefited from his economic reforms. Many others have lived abroad for several years. Abbas disagrees with their stance but understands it. “Many of my good friends and family,” he writes via e-mail, “especially those living abroad and working for the government, still think he is doing a good job and seems to be the only option.” Indeed, Musharraf has been good for them. The GDP has been growing at a robust 7-8 percent per year in the past two years, and a former banker and non-resident citizen, Shaukat Aziz, was, until recently, the Prime Minister. “However, for people who live here in Pakistan,” continues Abbas, “issues that are likely to matter more are security, inflation, social equality, community empowerment and access to justice—areas that this government has completely failed to tackle.”

Now the students of Pakistan are calling their government to task about it. They are scared of possible retaliation by the police, but, as Ammar says ruefully, “We’re too far into it to be scared.”

This article was published on The Nation‘s website on 30 November 2007.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: