Friday, November 23, 2007

Pakistan students fight emergency

By Amber Rahim Shamsi

"We want to be active participants in the political process," says 22-year-old Ali Jan.

Students in Lahore protest against emergency rule
Ali is an undergraduate at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), an elite university best known for churning out business management graduates.
Part of Pakistan's new 'consumer generation', its students have in recent years been more interested in mobile phones, bipods, the latest DVDs of Bollywood films and American TV shows rather than politics.
But are they becoming more politically conscious during Pakistan's long-drawn out crisis of government?
The pundits answer has generally been negative.
They say the new student generation is too anesthetized by decades of political cynicism.
But the students at LUMS would beg to differ.
Surprise protests
Since Gen Musharraf imposed emergency rule, the LUMS students and campus have been at the forefront of anti-emergency protests.

Students had been assumed to be disillusioned with democracy
The fervour with which they have launched their protests has surprised many.
Several universities in Islamabad and Lahore have been holding daily rallies since 3 November, the day emergency rule was announced.
The protests have largely been tidy affairs and there have been a minimum of police baton-charges or detentions on campus.
These student protests have taken most people by surprise.
They were largely unexpected from what is seen as a young apolitical milieu.
Active politics
It was not always so in Pakistan. The student demonstrations during Pakistan's first military dictatorship played a major role in its eventual demise.
I think for young people there is a feeling of finally doing something
Aasim Sajjad Akhtaracademic
But by the end of the 1980s, however, student politics had degenerated into little more than gangs and turf wars.
The process of political desensitisation was begun by Pakistan's longest ruling dictator, General Ziaul Haq.
Gen Zia dismantled student union structures in the 1980s.
The present generation of students were born during that time and grew up under the wobbly democracy of the 1990s.
That was a merry-go-round of prime minsters and presidents overseen by an omnipotent military.
It led to an aggravated sense of political disempowerment.
Ali Jan says that this is the first time that private colleges are taking the initiative in student action.
But government universities, where the ghosts of student unions past still haunt the campuses, are not far behind.

The clampdown on lawyers galvanised many students
"I think for young people, there is a feeling of finally doing something," says Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, an academic and activist.
"After eight years of military rule, things had finally reached their peak."
There are two threads that seem to have galvanized the students.
The first was the lawyer's movement launched in March 2007 to have Pakistan's top judge - Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry - re-instated.
The movement was seen to be based on principles rather than the power-grabbing agenda of the political parties.
"We see in the lawyers the anti-thesis to the political leaders like Maulana Fazlur Rahman or Benazir Bhutto," says Phd student Salman Haider.
"The students are taking up the example of the lawyers."
In this regard, the role of the media coverage of the protests has been important.
Then there is what Salman Haider calls "the effects of Zia's repression" which seem to be wearing off this generation.
Emergency newsletters
Protest in Pakistan has taken many forms.

The appeal of leaders such as Benazir Bhutto is questionable
The web is increasingly a podium for such activities. Online petitions, an 'emergency newsletter' and blogs are the norm.
There are also several 'anti-emergency' groups on networking sites such as Facebook and Orkut.
So far, students have avoided bloodshed and arrest by two methods.
One is the 'guerrilla' or spot demos. Participants are informed of place and time via cell phone SMS.
After a round of sloganeering, they quickly disperse to avoid getting caught by the police.
The other are on-campus rallies held with the acceptance of administrations.
But some administrations have threatened students with expulsion if they participate in protests.
With careers to think of and exams to study for, will the demos last?
Fading out
There are a small but core group of activist-students who are prepared for this eventuality.
"We don't know how long university administrations will tolerate this," says Salman Haider.
"We might have to take to the streets."
The plan is to politicize students and then brave the police when it has taken firm root.
Accounting student Usman Kiyani and his group are knocking on doors to raise political awareness among students.
Ali Jan, meanwhile, wants to organize internally as a union before going public, as it were.
This likely to result in the student protests losing some steam.
But not, the students say, before pushing this generation out of the fog of political disengagement.