One week after General Pervez Musharraf declared emergency in Pakistan, college students in Lahore are filling the shoes of the city’s detained professionals in protest against the second “martial law” their generation has seen.
November 9th, 2007
(see North Gate News Online, with photos)
(Students’ names have been changed on request)
It’s the week before finals at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and, similar to any college campus in the United States, the labs are chock-full of tousled students glued to computer screens and guzzling coffee as the night ticks on.
But these students are not just cramming for exams or writing term papers. They’re coordinating a city-wide campus movement against General Musharraf’s imposition of emergency, the dissolution of the judiciary, clampdown of the independent media and the detention of over 3,000 lawyers, human rights activists and other civilians on the pre-text of anti-terrorism.
“The students have awoken,” reads the blog The Emergency Times, penned by a group of LUMS seniors who go by the alias Neem Revolution. “No longer are we going to be conformist to our government’s policies, as if we have no choice, no longer are we going to be scared to question or raise our voice because we are intimidated by the state’s power and what may be done to us.”
LUMS, a red-bricked, ivy-creepered, English-speaking institution known as the “Harvard of Pakistan” is located in one of Lahore’s most affluent neighborhoods. Long considered an elitist, apolitical university, LUMS was propelled into action against General Musharraf’s declaration of emergency when Dr. Ali Cheema, Head of the Economics Department, and Bilal Minto, adjunct faculty in the Law Department, were arrested from a meeting within the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s headquarters in Lahore on Sunday, along with 55 other civil society members.
The same day, left-wing activist and lecturer of history Aasim Sajjad was almost arrested at a peaceful rally in Islamabad, saved only by the presence of his wife – students say there is now a manhunt out for him.
On Monday, Dr. Pervez Hassan, a senior member of the LUMS Management Committee, was among the 700 lawyers detained at a protest at the Lahore High Court. The 30-odd students present at the protest eluded arrest by virtue of being students – but there was no way of eluding a 10,000-strong storm of baton-charging tear-gassing riot police.
The Emergency Times, however, had prepared them for it.
“Keep a wet cloth handy to cover your mouth, nose and eyes during possible tear-gassing,” wrote the authors in a posting titled Thing to Keep in Mind for Upcoming Protests; adding, almost nonchalantly, “And, of course, a pair of good running shoes”.
They sound like veteran revolutionaries from the 1960’s, the last time Pakistani students surged through city streets to oppose martial law, then imposed by President General Ayub Khan, a close ally of the U.S. during the Cold War.
But this is the 21st century, and these students are well-born jean-clad tech-savvy urban 21-year olds with I-pods in their pockets, A-grades in history class and Che posters on their bedroom walls. And the streets they surged through this past week are within campus precincts, because as of Wednesday, November 7th, a contingent of state police has been stationed smack outside the LUMS gates. According to Zarina, a student organizer who was interviewed by CNN “I-Report”, fifteen student “leaders” have been identified and placed on the police’s black list.
“If we take the protests outside, we’ll definitely be arrested,” she says. “The police have orders.”
Students involved with the movement are wary of releasing any protest photographs online without blurring out the faces, or of sharing their real names and details over phone conversations.
“They’ve tapped our cell phones, we know that,” says Nosheen, a Social Sciences major and protestor who was also present at the Lahore High Court rally. “Everything’s under the radar.”
Why would a military junta need to keep constant surveillance at one university campus? According to the Emergency Times, that it is “proof enough of the fear that this unexpected uprising, this wave of protest, is instilling within the government.”
At LUMS’ first anti-emergency demonstration on Monday, 500 students dressed in black marched through the campus filling the air with cries of “Lathi goli ki sarkar nahi chalegi” (“Rule with sticks and guns won’t work anymore”).
On Wednesday, over 1,000 students participated in the largest on-campus protest in the university’s history, in spite of dire police warnings and the surreptitious presence of plainclothes intelligence officials who tried to stir up confusion. The protests continued through Friday, when hundreds of students sat in the Sports Complex bearing placards like “Enough Musharraf” and “Judiciary Awaits Justice”, cheering loudly to motivating speeches by faculty, alumni, and the university’s Vice Chancellor Syed Zahoor Hassan. All the while, LUMS security guards and baton-wielding state police stared each other down at the front gates.
Other colleges in Lahore – Punjab University, Lahore School of Economics, University College Lahore, Beaconhouse National University and FAST, to name a few – followed the LUMS example, staging protests and discussions on their campuses throughout the week.
Some, however, fared worse at the hands of state surveillance. Students at FAST, a private computer sciences university, were held hostage on their campus for several hours on Wednesday – Dawn newspaper reports that a police contingent forced its way inside and physically attacked four male student protestors.
LUMS student activist Sharmeen admits that the police presence is intimidating – but that hasn’t stopped the students from expressing their anger at what they view as “state brutality”.
“People are being picked up from their homes and thrown into jails – journalists, lawyers, judges,” she says. “Their families have no clue about their condition, or what they’ve been charged with.”
Some detained lawyers are also facing torture, according to an alarming report by chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Asma Jehangir. Jehangir, under house arrest herself since Sunday, posted on the The Emergency Times blog and on the HRCP website that four senior lawyers, including Aitzaz Ahsan, President of the Supreme Court Bar, had been shifted to “notorious” prisons or unidentified cells, where they were being tortured or kept in solitary confinement.
An article in the Washington Post said that Shakilur Rehman, owner of the largest media group in Pakistan “Jang” and CEO of the Geo TV Network, was recently picked up by Pakistan’s infamous state intelligence the I.S.I., with threats against his family if his group were to publish anything criticizing the army. And in Karachi, three political activists were arrested Thursday on sedition charges for criticizing General Musharraf in speeches at the local press club, reported private news channel Aaj TV. Sedition carries a maximum sentence of death.
Crisis of Leadership
Though students make it amply clear, through their signs and slogans, that they want General Musharraf to “go”, that doesn’t mean, contrary to popular perception, that they want Benazir Bhutto to take his place.
“She’s looted the nation,” said Zarina on her CNN I-report interview. “We don’t want her to come back.”
Bhutto, 55, has served two terms as Pakistan’s Prime Minister – both times, she was dismissed on corruption charges, not by the military but by civilian presidents.
On October 18th, Bhutto returned to Pakistan after nine years of self-imposed exile, under a controversial amnesty granted by long-time rival Musharraf and brokered by her friends in Washington.
Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari also face allegations of money laundering from the French, Swiss and Polish governments. These governments have provided Pakistani authorities with hundreds of pages of documentary evidence, which Bhutto claims are fabrications.
“But just because she has a Harvard degree and talks good English doesn’t mean she’s right,” writes a student on an anti-Benazir Facebook Group, in the mildest of several vehement posts.
Other students criticize the Western media for glossing over much of Bhutto’s shady past, which includes her pro-Taliban policy when the group came to power in Kabul in 1996, “wanted” notices issued against her by Interpol, and the fact that she owes the Pakistan government over $12 million, according to Geneva magistrate Daniel Devaud.
“It’s been Benazir’s campaign during her exile to build a messiah’s image with the West by flaunting her Harvard degree,” writes Amin, a Pakistani student at Georgia Tech, citing Bhutto’s recent column in the New York Times as proof. “And it has worked wonders for her.”
Students also feel that Bhutto is manipulating the current unrest in the country to reinforce that image at home and abroad.
So the question becomes – who next?
“There is definitely a crisis of leadership,” says Jahanzeb, a LUMS senior and supposedly one of the fifteen student leaders the police have black-listed.
Zarina adds that many students want to see “new faces” at the helm of their embattled country – new faces like Imran Khan, the dashing cricket legend-turned-politician-turned-superhero who escaped from house arrest on November 3rd by scaling two 10-feet high walls.
Coincidentally, Khan, chairman of the novice party Tehreek-e-Insaaf, was at LUMS for a political talk the night emergency was declared.
Now gone “underground”, Khan is regularly posting videos on YouTube exhorting people to take to the streets and stressing the role of the youth in the movement to bring about “true democracy”.
“Imran is the only hope for Pakistan,” writes Asif on the blog Pakistan Politics, echoing the comments of countless others bloggers.
In a passionate interview with Geo TV, one of the news channels blacked out by General Musharraf’s media curbs to have gone on the Web, Khan said on Friday that this was “a turning point in Pakistan’s history.”
“And I believe,” he continued in firm tones, “that until the youth come out and stand up for their rights, there won’t be a change.”
LUMS student leader Jahanzeb concurs. “Right now, we’re just gathering strength on the campuses.”
When the students do hit the streets, the plan is to shock the government with their sheer number.
And if they face reprisal, Jahanzeb says that they will do what students in Iran did during the Revolution of 1979 – “shower them with flowers”.
Other Pakistani students are not so sure of where they stand.
“These kids go on about how their rights are being violated,” says Hamza, native of Lahore and an undergraduate at Purdue University. “But there are people in the country who haven’t had basic rights like food, water and shelter for years. Why don’t they ever protest that?”
Though Hamza concedes that the imposition of emergency by General Musharraf was an “extreme” measure, a group on Facebook actually supports it.
“We believe that it is time that the silent majority have their voices heard in support of a leader who is the only ray of light Pakistan has to fight terrorism and corruption for a prosperous future,” writes Azlan Tariq, the creator of the group, from Chicago.
However, the discussion on the group seems to revolve more around the lack of leadership alternatives to Musharraf than the merits or efficacy of emergency rule.
“If they dismantle Pervez, who is going to come in – Benazir, Sharif?” asks a student from Brandeis University. “Anyone bidding for power is a potential lapdog. I would cast my lot with Pervez.”
Hussain adds that he would rather see Musharraf rule as dictator from Islamabad than “the crazy head-choppers from Waziristan” take over the country.
Yet, as he spoke, militants of firebrand religious leader Malauna Fazlullah hoisted their flag at a third town in northwest Pakistan, where 37 paramilitary soldiers surrendered without fight.
On the ground
But it is the young people on Pakistani soil, not abroad, who can feel the uncertainty, the fear, and the palpable sense of change in the air.
Students like Jahangir, Nosheen, Sharmeen and Zarina, who emphasize that theirs is a “moral struggle” that won’t suddenly end as soon as the emergency is lifted.
“It doesn’t matter if this one fails!” The Emergency Times responds to critics and naysayers.
“It will become a symbol and a teacher for the next movement. It will be a thorn in the side of corrupt politicians and generals for a long, long time. The Pakistani political landscape has been changed forever.”
And even though the three detained LUMS personnel were bailed out Tuesday night (though criminal charges against them have not been dropped), not everybody has been that fortunate.
For instance, Sakina’s father.
A well-respected corporate lawyer, he was arrested at the Lahore High Court rally on Monday and sent to Kot Lakhpat jail with dozens of his colleagues. Sakina, a recent LUMS graduate, says that her grandparents are so worried about him that they’ve stopped eating.
“We’re not allowed to meet him or speak to him,” Sakina’s buoyant voice is tinged with sadness. “But we get people to check on him. He seems to be in high spirits,” she chuckles over the phone, then sighs. It is not known how long Pakistan’s lawyers will be kept in custody, or what legal battles they will have to fight once released. Many of them, including Sakina’s father, have been charged with anti-terrorism offenses ranging from property damage to attempted murder.
“But they [the lawyers] are the ones doing something for this country,” says Sakina confidently. “I’m proud of my father.”
The Next Target?
Meanwhile, General Musharraf responded swiftly to an intimating phone call from President Bush three days ago, promising to hold parliamentary elections in January. Musharraf also said he would quit his post as Army Chief and rule as a civilian once the Supreme Court – now purged of its independent-minded judges – had confirmed his re-election as President, according to an AP report.
At the same time, Musharraf has made an amendment to the constitution that allows military courts to try civilians accused of treason, sedition, or “giving statements conducive to public mischief”, the report said. When President Bush attempted to get military courts to try suspected terrorists, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled him.
LUMS protestor Sharmeen is of the view that now that the junta has “taken all the lawyers and political party workers, the next target will be the students.”
Already, rumors abound in Lahore about the suspicious “disappearance” of four students from FAST University. “I don’t know if it’s true,” says Zarina, “but we’re all very disturbed.” Zarina, who lives in on-campus dorms, hasn’t left LUMS precincts even once in the past week because she feels “unsafe”.
As Benazir Bhutto prepares for a 185-mile “long march” from Lahore to the capital Islamabad on Tuesday, November 13th, in defiance of General Musharraf’s ban, the world waits to see if history will repeat itself in Pakistan.
Whether there will be bloodshed, more violence, more military dictatorships and sham democracies, or whether there will be revolution.
But the students of LUMS, the students in Pakistan, New York, London, San Francisco, wherever young people have raised their voice against the goings-on in their homeland, the youth of the nation, the leaders of tomorrow, stand firm on one point:
“We want democracy, and we want it now.”
A democracy untainted by machinations, untainted by behind-the-door deals, double-talk and double standards, untainted by bribery and obsequiousness; a democracy, not propped up by the powers-that-be, but by the people; a democracy with “dignity”.
“It begins, nay, it began here,” writes Neem Revolution on The Emergency Times. “And we are the focus, the originators, and the center. We are making history.”