Students for a Free Pakistan
The student movement in Pakistan is divided on many points, chief among them the question of who should succeed Musharraf. But the one thing they all realize is that Pakistani society has become intolerably repressed under Musharraf's reign. The army has penetrated every nook and cranny of society, to the point that virtually every NGO, business or civil society organization has a retired general sitting on its board. It controls 11.5 million acres, or 12 percent, of state land.
Although there is much cooperation with the protesting lawyers, journalists and civil society activists, the student movement is a youth initiative. It uses technology in a way that would not have been possible in earlier decades. Virtually all students who have access to it use the Internet. Some use it to voice their protests in the form of websites and blog posts; others use it to watch reportage from the private television channel, the Urdu-language GEO TV, which is now being broadcast from Dubai. There are multiple Facebook groups that connect students in different parts of the world and list upcoming protests. And cell phones are used to organize "flash protests." A text message is sent out to a relatively small group of people, who gather at a crowded area, shout slogans and hand out pamphlets, then disperse as quickly as they arrived, before they can be arrested.
The movement has spread like an Internet virus. Although it began in campuses of elite institutions such as FAST-NU and LUMS, the baton has been passed to the lesser-known, public colleges with larger student bodies. LUMS students, for instance, number only 2,500. Punjab University--which attained notoriety in the international press when opposition leader Imran Khan was apprehended there--is one of the new leaders of the movement, with roughly 25,000 students.
In the history of student politics, Ammar explains, this is quite common. "The 1968 student movement began in Government College and Gordon College, which were then as prestigious as LUMS is now. That didn't reflect class interests, but the quality of the education and the academic environment." Now other universities--among them the Quaid-i-Azam University, Punjab University, Hamdard University and Government College, Lahore--are taking the lead.
But there are some who still believe in Musharraf. Of these, some hail from the business community that has always supported Musharraf and has benefited from his economic reforms. Many others have lived abroad for several years. Abbas disagrees with their stance but understands it. "Many of my good friends and family," he writes via e-mail, "especially those living abroad and working for the government, still think he is doing a good job and seems to be the only option." Indeed, Musharraf has been good for them. The GDP has been growing at a robust 7-8 percent per year in the past two years, and a former banker and non-resident citizen, Shaukat Aziz, was, until recently, the Prime Minister. "However, for people who live here in Pakistan," continues Abbas, "issues that are likely to matter more are security, inflation, social equality, community empowerment and access to justice--areas that this government has completely failed to tackle."
Now the students of Pakistan are calling their government to task about it. They are scared of possible retaliation by the police, but, as Ammar says ruefully, "We're too far into it to be scared."