Eight years of the so-called “national cohesion“* efforts, started in 2012 by then Chief Minister Punjab Shehbaz Sharif, near an end as universities of Punjab follow each other’s lead to shut their doors to Baloch students. The anti-student atmosphere building up in the public sector universities across the country coupled with Imran Khan’s privatization regime is having its immediate fall outs on the most marginalized strata mainly the formerly patronized students from Balochistan and erstwhile-FATA.
The rollback was initiated in Lahore’s Punjab University in 2018 when the number of reserved seats for Baloch students was cut half from 100 to 53. The decision was revised in the following year after protests but instead of a full restoration the number was increased only by 17 seats from 53 to 70. The unwilling restoration of 17 seats was also made on conditional bases – only for women applicants. The intentions of the varsity establishment are clear, the old policy of patronizing Baloch students under scholarship programs is no more in effect.
The lead set by Punjab University is now followed by Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan and Islamia University, Bahawalpur. Both public sector universities suspended their scholarship programs overnight after initially announcing admissions and accepting applications on reserve seats. The future of hundreds of students, mostly from middle and working classes, have been put in jeopardy by a politically motivated scholarship program that has lost its raison d’etre in the changing political relationships between Balochistan and the core.
Colonial-style Pacification of Baloch Youth
Unlike ordinary financial assistance offered by any welfare club, charity or university independently, the scholarships Baloch students availing since 2012 have been a part of larger political program, the so-called Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan package. The reconciliation package was presented before a joint setting of the Parliament on November 25, 2009 and was aimed at addressing province’s “sense of deprivation, in political and economic structures of the federation.” The original package was to address matters relating to constitution, politics, administration and economy.
The clause on education that suggests “special quota of scholarships” for the students of the province is the last among the 21 ‘Politically-related matters’ that needed to be addressed. The designers of the draft must have had a strong logic to put education among the politically related matters. Clearly, here education was used as a tool to address not just the political issues, but the Balochistan conflict in general. The Baloch students who have availed these scholarships since 2012 were looked in the campuses in Punjab as the personification of the conflict.
Punjab, dominating the core in the core-periphery relationship between the state and the provinces has created general resentment among the people at both ends. The more so in the ‘peripheral’ regions. This retrograde order of things has been fostered by the forces dominating the state structures that include the Punjabi bourgeoisie as well as their counterpart in the smaller provinces such as Balochistan. The aim has been to divide the masses on the base of their identity so that their resentment can serve the hegemonic order in Pakistan. As a result alienation has developed among the youth in peripheries, and a superior air exists among the Punjabi middle class and top bourgeoisie alike that has resulted into stereotypes about various sections of the populace.
There has been a number of relatively less politicized incentives given to the students of Balochistan through the package, such as the aid provided through the Higher Education Commission. But the Punjab centred initiative of implementing the same has been driven mainly by the objective of giving the marginalized Baloch youth exposure of life in Punjab. This exposure instead of building a positive image of Punjab among Baloch youth proved unproductive as the identity based organizations of Baloch youth in those campuses not just disappointed the policy makers but also threatened them with a presence of new and organised student political force that might turn troublesome in future if allowed to foster further – as seen time and again in the Punjab University where Baloch–Pashtun–GB students alliances quickly occupied socio–political space within the campus and posed seriously challenges to right wing student groups.
The Balochistan package was thrown to dustbin within a couple of years. The political forces behind the package withdrew their authority in the matters of Balochistan in order to save their hold in the centre. For example, Pakistan People’s Party which was politically empowered to introduce and implement such a reconciliatory package, by the popular support it garnered after the killing of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December, 2007. Butto’s party although itself a part of the so-called establishment could not sustain that empowerment in the matters such as Balochistan that have been under the influence of the military establishment.
The colonial-style exposure of Baloch youth to the life in the core under the package was supposed to bear fruit only with its implementation in letter and spirit. Failing to do so, Punjab universities gathered a crowd of Baloch students while the political and economic conditions kept deteriorating in Balochistan. As an ultimate result instead of pacifying the Baloch youth it has contributed into further marginalization. The idea that the youth can be incubated in de–politicised space of campus did not work.
Baloch students in the campuses of Punjab have grown into a political force organized under various bodies named ‘Councils’. The Baloch Councils have been an important part in the new students uprising in the urban centres of the country demanding restoration of the student’s unions and also entering into issue-based short term alliances with other student groups. The new opportunities created by the initiatives such as Balochistan package have contributed majorly into the creation of the new political force that is being dealt with through scholarship cuts.
Implicit Privatization of Higher Education
The International Monitory Fund program for Pakistan under Imran Khan’s Tehreek-E-Insaf government necessitates privatization through explicit and implicit means. Pakistan Steel Mills is one of such big names that is facing an explicit privatization attempt, a number of other public sector entities are listed to follow the suit. Behind this the real privatization regime exists in governments attempts to discourage public sector activities in order to create space for the private sector. The general attitude of the PTI government towards education may not suggest massive privatization plans but it is discouraging the growth of public sector institutions while the private bodies thrive with no regulations in the name of the ease of business.
These underhanded tactics have provided not just the federal government but also the provinces an excuse to get away with anti-student and anti-working class policies in the name of fiscal constraints. The Punjab institutes are trying to hide behind shortage of fund and demanding an hefty amount from Balochistan government to finance the program. Knowing the unwillingness of the provincial government to provide funds, the Punjab universities have crafted a perfect excuse to get away with scholarship cuts.
Balochistan government is already pursuing its own similar plans with the privatization of the Bolan Medical Collage, the leading medical college in the province. The other public sector universities are not declaring explicit privatization plans as of yet but are put in a perpetual state of funds shortage and a governance crisis. The biggest public sector institute in the province, the University of Balochistan, operates under a strict regime that can’t even be changed after issues such as UoB harassment scandals. In recent attempts to discourage students political and academic space the university has opted to a covert policy of minimum admissions. During the academic year 2019-20 out of over 600 applicants in English literature department over 50 students were awarded admissions while the universities can easily accommodate over 100 students with its existing teaching staff and infrastructure. The same has been the case with other social sciences departments which are considered as dens of politicized students who can raise voice against harassment scandals and anti-student policies of the campus establishments.
Reclaiming The Campuses
One of the major concerns of the students protesting BZU and Islamia university scholarship withdrawal is that the policy will trickle down to other campuses providing scholarships to Baloch students in Punjab. There are around 700 students who have applied for admission on scholarships this year alone who can fall victim of this attack on educational rights. Most of the affectees having no other means to sustain their costly studies in Punjab campuses without an aid, will be forced to abandon their studies or return to universities at home. In Balochistan, they have but a few options, UoB need no further description, University of Turbat while a growing university in an ‘education-loving’ environ has grown its own corrupt campus establishment. The UoT establishment runs the campus with the sheer force of nepotism negatively impacting its administrative matters, hiring of academic staff and admission policies alike. The same could be observed in the Lasbela University of Agriculture, Water and Marine Sciences, Uthal.
Students are yet again pushed to streets to fight against the curb on their right to quality education. The camp in front of BZU Multan is led by Baloch council the students body of Baloch students in Punjab universities. The hopes for restoration of scholarships through these protests are already depressed given the past records of the university establishment and their dealing with such student’s protests. As witnessed in the campaign against the BMC Act where despite rounds of talks the students and employees are yet again forced to sit-ins as there is no indication of policy change from government’s end. The only achievement such token strikes have had is the partial restoration of incentives that are once withdrawn. Such partial restorations as Punjab University did last year are aimed only to reduce the impacts while the policy drive remains effective with the threat of further curbs at any moment.
The protests that have been restricted so far to Baloch students and their demand for restoration of scholarship program need to connect with other campus issues such as the privatization of BMC and the general anti-student policies being followed in almost all public sector universities. Through the ban on students union the campus establishment across the country have maintained coherent policies of condemning the progressive student forces while allowing regressive forces to flourish and maintain their control over the campus life. In the face of privatization and depoliticization of campuses all the progressive student tendencies as well the lower staff of the universities are hit alike. The capitalist encroachment over the basic rights can only be stopped through the unity of students and their joint struggle alongside the working class for whom the privatization is a question of bread and butter.
Note: This article is a collective effort by Balochistan Marxist Review team.
* The University of Punjab, Lahore announced its free education program for Baloch Students on April 17, 2012. The varsity allocated 100 reserve seats in its all departments for free education up to PhD with free hostel and a stipend of rupees three thousands per month. Then Vice Chancellor Prof. Dr. Mujahid Kamran while announcing the program was quoted saying that the initiative aimed to strengthen “national cohesion” and to promote bonds of brotherhood between the Baloch youth and the people of Punjab.