On November 29, hundreds of thousands of students marched in 50 cities of Pakistan. Their main demand was that the ban on student unions be lifted; other demands included right to free education, better education facilities, etc.
Any civilised country would have celebrated that the country’s youth came out on the streets to ask for their rights. In a country where more than 64 per cent of its population is under the age of 30, Students’ Solidarity March should have been a moment of pride for Pakistan. Instead, we saw that the top trend on Twitter the following day (November 30) was #StudentsMarchExposed.
From calling these students ‘foreign agents’ to ‘traitors’, this and many other comments on social media portrayed this march in a negative colour. This isn’t entirely a Pakistani phenomenon. In our neighbouring India, the same card has been used against students. The sedition case against Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students comes to mind. A sedition case was registered against JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and eight others for allegedly raising ‘anti-national slogans’ during an event at JNU in February 2016.
This is not to say that all comments pertaining to the Students’ Solidarity March in Pakistan were negative – our mainstream media and many on social media praised the students for organising such a successful march on the streets of Pakistan. But we must question this negativity regarding an indigenous movement that should be lauded for its efforts.
On December 1, an FIR pertaining to sedition charges was registered against the organisers of the march in Lahore as well as some of the participants, including Iqbal Lala who is the father of Mashal Khan, a student lynched on allegations of blasphemy, academic Ammar Ali Jan, labour rights activist Farooq Tariq, Alamgir Wazir Mohammad Shabbir and Kamil Khan. One can only wonder why sedition charges were brought against peaceful protestors.
Well, if there is one thing common since Pakistan came into being, it is how the state hands out certificates of who is a ‘traitor’/‘anti-national’/‘anti-state’ to whosoever challenges the status quo. What to talk of others if someone like Māder-e-Millat (Mother of the Nation) Fatima Jinnah – who fought for Pakistan’s independence alongside her brother Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah – couldn’t escape the tag of being a ‘foreign agent’ by the then military dictator Ayub Khan. Nationalist leaders were also dubbed anti-state. From Bacha Khan to Baloch nationalists, from G.M. Syed to mainstream leaders like Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, all have been labelled ‘anti-national’ at one point of time or another.
Dissenting voices that challenge how the state has failed its citizens or those who question the flawed policies of the Pakistani state are dubbed as ‘foreign agents’ working on the agendas of some foreign powers. Patriotism of politicians, students, human rights activists, civil society, NGOs, lawyers, social media activists, media groups, journalists and anyone who has crossed a ‘red line’ or gone against the status quo has been called into question. Just recently, Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa lamented how the three judges including the CJP were being called Indian agents, CIA agents, etc., for questioning the government’s notification regarding the army chief’s extension.
Pakistanis should realise that dissenting voices are the conscience of a country and that freedom of expression is a fundamental right. We must not go down this dangerous path of silencing dissent for if we do, there will no one to speak for the rights of the marginalised, the rights of minorities, the rights of any human being. Let us not go down a disastrous path from where there is no turning back.