South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

GENERAL election time is considered the best period for the people’s education in democratic norms. But Pakistan’s political parties are generally so afraid of a conscious and assertive electorate that they tend to avoid any debate on critical issues. Any civil society initiative to overcome this deficiency in national politics is therefore welcome.

Despite the administration’s efforts to strangulate civil society organisations, a few of them have been drawing political parties’ attention to the issues they should include in their election manifestos. Several associations working on women’s rights have made a series of practical suggestions for women’s uplift and empowerment. Now there are signs of students’ awakening to their responsibility to make the people aware of their rights and persuade the political parties, particularly the candidates, to adopt a rights-based approach to the establishment of a democratic order.

It was heartening to learn that students from various universities of Lahore have formed groups called People’s Solidarity Forum, Progressive Students’ Collective and Women’s Collective and that they have launched the Huqooq-i-Khalq (citizens’ rights) Movement. Their inaugural function was quite impressive not only because of the number of participating groups but also in terms of the range of their concerns and the quality of their narratives. 

A young student from the Seraiki region offered a critique of the latest call for a south Punjab province that was expected from veteran politicos. The waderas behind the new agitation, he said, were interested only in replacing the present anti-people satraps with another set of equally unwelcome oppressors. Recalling the history of the Seraiki Suba movement launched by Taj Mohammad Langah in the 1960s, he declared that only a popularly backed movement could lead to the establishment of a new province in the people’s interest.

A youth-led movement aims to persuade election candidates to adopt a pro-people approach.

Another young student, this one from central Punjab who has set up an agricultural forum, spoke of the degradation of natural resources, the drying up of rivers and canals, and the hazards posed to the people’s health by the dumping of tons and tons of urban waste and sewage in the shallow waters of whatever is left of Punjab’s rivers.

The students belonged to all the four provinces and Fata and Gilgit-Baltistan, and they raised issues relating to the entire body of Pakistan’s citizens. Most of them spoke briefly, in measured tones and without a trace of rancour. The only one who burst out in anger was a Lahore student who questioned the ability of the main contenders for power to bring about a pro-people change, in view of the interests of the company their leaders kept. 

Some problems faced by the student community at Lahore’s universities also surfaced. A lawyer-teacher stressed the need to not exclude women’s rights while calling for citizens’ entitlements, and two female students from leading public sector universities vigorously complained of a lack of mechanisms for protection against sexual harassment. This, they argued, was contrary to HEC directives and betrayed a general attitude of indifference to girl students’ grievances.  

A Pakhtun student complained of discrimination on ethnic grounds, sometimes under the cover of national ideology and on other occasions in the name of religion.

A young activist from GB recalled his people’s successful struggle against unacceptable taxation proposals and regretted that through the proposed framework for G-B’s governance Islamabad had again compelled them to fight for their rights.

On the sidelines one learnt of protest against an antediluvian provision of the income tax law under which each student whose annual fees exceeded Rs200,000 is asked to pay a 5pc withholding tax. The GB students were eventually exempted from paying this tax but quite a few of them, like all other students, continued to be charged even after the exemption. Is it possible to imagine a more preposterous rule than asking the students to pay a tax on a tuition fee that already exceeds the minimum wage? Tuition fees are not like betting at races that they should be taxed.

The matter must be probed at an appropriately high level. In view of Article 25-A of the Constitution, the state must try to reduce the cost of education instead of increasing it. If the idea is that very rich people should pay more for the education of their wards than less privileged parents, a proper way may be found. The present levy imposes an unwarranted burden on all parents, many of whom cannot afford to pay even the relatively low fees charged by public sector universities.

It is easy to be carried away by any stirring among the youth. One cannot say how far the students’ movement for citizens’ rights will go, or will be allowed to proceed, but the undertaking is wholly laudable. Something like this is badly needed today. If the educated and conscious youth, especially the students in higher classes, from across the land, go out to talk to fellow citizens about the significance of their rights to freedom of expression, information, assembly and association, their right to vote and to take part in governance, Pakistan’s politics could become better and start getting truly democratic.

The students too will learn about their fellow citizens what they do not find in textbooks or media reports. Under their citizen’s awareness programme they will be expected to convince their audiences that they should engage with candidates to solicit their support about their commitment to uphold the people’s basic rights, and they themselves should vote only for the rights-minded candidates. Of course they must not become partisans of any particular party or candidate for that will undermine the sanctity of their mission besides provoking the none-too-liberal government functionaries and university authorities.

The government and the Election Commission ought to support citizens’ awareness programmes because their interests will be served by any contribution to the emergence of an informed electorate.

Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2018