This is our politics By Ahsan Kamal
“This must be a first for the Quaid-i-Azam Hall in Faisalabad,” I quipped, looking over my shoulder at Hashim who was busy taking pictures.
“This is exactly what I came to hear,” said Hashim.
Almost 2,000 students and activists marched on the streets of Faisalabad with the distinctive red and black NSF flags
He is a young journalist and activist, and he spoke with a marked excitement in his voice. “Students from Punjab need to hear about the problems faced by the students from other parts of Pakistan.”
On stage, a student leader of the Baluch Student Organization (BSO) was delivering a fiery speech about Baluch pride, the state-led oppression and killings of students and activists, and the apathy and ignorance of fellow Pakistanis. “It saddens me to say that you, the people of Punjab, have not been a part of our struggle. I invite you on behalf of Baluch students and people to take your place next to us.”
A seasoned political activist stood up in mild protest: “We have been with you all the time. We are few in number, but we always raise our voice against the brutal killings and disappearances of Baluch youth.”
NSF chapters mobilize students on issues such as increasing fees, lack of quality education, and problems with hostels or transport
Giving unheard voices a few ears. Such were the scenes during the open session of the annual convention of the National Student Federations – Punjab (NSF), the first convention to be held in Punjab in over two decades. An exchange between the young and the old. No false assumptions regarding our collective identity as “Pakistani”, a trope used to divert attention from pressing matters. Passions ran high and the audience responded with loud applause and shouted slogans of resistance and solidarity.
‘ HaathoN mein dale haath chalo, Aao hamare saath chalo’
‘ Hum badleN ge haalaat chalo, Aao hamare saath chalo ‘
Hand in hand, walk with us; Come walk with us
We’ll change things, come; come walk with us
During the 60s and the 70s, the most fertile period of progressive and mass-based politics in Pakistan, student activists of NSF played a key role in the agitations against Ayub and then later against Z A Bhutto
The day began with a rally, with almost 2,000 students and activists marching on the streets of Faisalabad with the distinctive red and black NSF flags. The procession was loud but disciplined, cheerful but determined. Young and old, women and men, marched together shouting slogans against the class-based education system, the privatization and commercialization of educational institutions, and the economic and political oppression of the poor and working classes by the military, landed and moneyed elites of the country.
“I used to think that politics was all about manipulating people for personal gains,” one young college student told me between chanting slogans. “But here [in this rally] we are talking about my problems and nobody is controlling or leading us. This is ‘our’ rally.”
The rebirth of NSF in 2008 was triggered by the political mobilization against the military dictatorship of General Musharraf, also known as the Lawyers’ Movement
The participants carried this energy into the hall, but it understandably dropped a few notches as the day progressed. A less-than-pefect sound system didn’t help. These minor glitches didn’t matter, for it was time for NSF to celebrate the three years of hard work and to demonstrate its resolve to remain steadfast on the long and demanding path for positive social change.
NSF President Irfan Chaudhry spoke with passion and resolve. “We want to send a message through this Assembly to all those who think that radical, independent student politics had been crushed forever in the 1980s, and to those who think that Leftist ideals have become obsolete. The only thing that is obsolete is our imagination. We were literally a handful of students who began rebuilding the NSF three years ago. Our experience has taught us that there is nothing which prevents us from making our politics of social and economic justice a reality once more. All we need is hard word and commitment.”
This unveiling of the future of progressive politics in Pakistan was fittingly done by sharing the stage with student activists belonging to Pakthunkhwa Student’s Organization, Baluch Students Organization Pajjar, NSF Sindh, and Jammu Kashmir NSF. Fiery speeches and passionate pleas for solidarity in action ensued. What better way to learn about the issues of this country then to hear them from these students.
I stepped out to get some fresh air and saw some student delegates from Islamabad, Lahore and Muzaffarabad. Chatting idly over tea, we were joined by Ismat Shahjehan, an NSF alum and activist. “In our days, students had a romance with politics. No doubt it was the difficult Zia era, when groups like IJT dominated the political scene and violently shut down any space for positive political action. But we were in love, what else could’ve been done.”
NSF now has chapters in 15 different districts of Punjab. It is also works closely with its sister organization, NSF Sindh, and other student bodies
NSF first appeared on the scene in 1955 on the heels of the very successful Democratic Students Federation (DSF) and took the reins of progressive and left student politics. During the 60s and the 70s, the most fertile period of progressive and mass-based politics in Pakistan, student activists of NSF played a key role in the agitations against Ayub and then later against Z A Bhutto as he began purging socialists from PPP ranks. Oppressive measures taken by the military dictator Zia destroyed the culture of mass-based politics in Pakistan. Student unions were banned. Fragmented and effectively dismantled, NSF virtually disappeared from the scene in the early 90s, holding its last annual convention in 1991.
“Right-wing extremists have been given a free hand on our campuses. We need to recapture public space from these thugs,” said Sohaib Bodla, a student from Islamabad. “NSF gives us a platform to counter these reactionary and extremist elements.”
We were interrupted by a group of lawyers who wanted to know what all the fuss was about. They seemed unconvinced when told that NSF was an independent progressive, leftist student organization – for the student and for the sake of broader social change. “But who is backing all of this?”
The irony is that the rebirth of NSF in 2008 was triggered by the political mobilization against the military dictatorship of General Musharraf, also known as the Lawyers’ Movement. When will we start listening to our youth? Why is it so hard to believe that the youth and students are capable of organizing themselves and articulating their views on our pressing political, social and economic issues?
“It saddens me to say that you, the people of Punjab, have not been a part of our struggle…”
The day before the rally and open session, around 140 student delegates from 14 different districts of Punjab and 55 observers attended the “closed session” where NSF’s new manifesto and constitution were presented and discussed, and a new central executive committee was elected from the delegates. As an observer, this was a lesson in politics for me.
The outgoing and re-elected General Secretary, Alia Amirali gave an account of the formation and the organizational developments of NSF since 2008.
“We realized that the spontaneity of this movement could not be sustained. Many of the most energetic student activists were gradually becoming inactive, especially since the movement seemed to be hijacked by certain political groups,” Alia said, referring tostudent participation in the 2007-08 movement. “This is when we decided that an organizational structure wholly independent of external political influences was necessary.”
Almost all the chapters hold weekly or bimonthly study circles and discuss current issues and classical Leftist texts
Thus began the long and hard task of laying down the organizational foundations of a lasting struggle. First of all, it was decided that instead of taking up the mantle of student politics for all of Pakistan, students from Punjab should organize under the banner of NSF Punjab, signifying geographical rather than ethnic loyalties. After two years of hard work, NSF now has chapters in 15 different districts of Punjab. It is also works closely with its sister organization, NSF Sindh, and other student bodies.
As Alia listed the activities by the various chapters, it was striking to note the emphasis on education in politics and critical thinking. Almost all the chapters hold weekly or bimonthly study circles and discuss current issues and classical Leftist texts. Political schools are regularly organized where academics and activists lecture on contemporary problems and theories of participation and resistance. A student journal, aptly named “Talib-i-Ilm”, is also published thrice every year.
NSF chapters mobilize students on issues such as increasing fees, lack of quality education, and problems with hostels or transport. They also participate in broader social movements, for instance in protests against the killings of Baluch activists, Hazara Shi’a in Baluchistan, and for minority groups, the cancellation of foreign debts, and increased spending on education and health while reducing our military expenses.
The outgoing office bearers read out the constitution and the manifesto, article by article, to the convention. After each document was read out, the floor was opened for comments and discussion. Many pointed out shortcomings and gave suggestions. “The old left discourse must be updated to suit our current problems,” said one student. Another pointed to the need to distance NSF from the legacy of the left, with its internal divisions and fragmentation. One observer pointed out that the gender issue needed to be explicitly addressed, something quite evident from the fact that less than 5% of the participants were women. Others wanted the manifesto to be concise and clearly state the links between imperialism and capitalism and the current plight of students and oppressed classes.
The most interesting exchange was when some participants challenged the outgoing Vice President Ali Naqvi, and demanded that he explain his relative absence and inactivity for the past year or so. This challenge was met with loud applause, and it was heartening to see Ali, who was sitting on the stage, also applauding the question.
“We must congratulate ourselves for setting this precedent,” Ali noted, after apologizing for the lack of active involvement in organizational matters. “You can and must hold everyone accountable. No one, not even our elected leaders, get a free pass.”
If this is the sign of things to come, then our future is in good hands. For me, attending this convention was a lesson in politics. As one participant eloquently stated: “This is what politics looks like.”
TFT CURRENT ISSUE| December 16-22, 2011 – Vol. XXIII, No. 44