She has been hailed as a Pakistani revolutionary and a leader of change by many, but Punjab University student protester Arooj Aurangzeb isn’t spared in her own country.
‘Dartay hain bandooko wale aik nihati ladki se’ was a poem that Habib Jalib wrote for Benazir Bhutto and the military men who were scared of a young girl in a dupatta. Decades later, who would have thought that a leather jacket would become a symbol of change and reclaiming space for student politics in Pakistan?
The viral video of a charged Arooj Aurangzeb singing Bismil Azimabadi’s ‘Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab humare dil mein hai’ was a breather from the crises that the PTI government, which promised hope and change, finds itself on a daily basis.
The foreign agent barb
Arooj and several other students, who came together at the Faiz Festival in the run-up to the Student Solidarity March across Pakistan, gave hope in an otherwise murky political landscape. However, where there is hope, there is despair. First, they came for her leather jacket: only an elite and a liberal wearing a leather jacket could chant such slogans, they said. Then, another section had issues with her being a woman and singing on top of her voice – it only shows, they said, she doesn’t belong to this society, because good girls don’t shout and ask for azadi.
The myth was busted when Arooj, a regular public university student hailing from a middle-class family, didn’t feel ashamed to speak in Punjabi. Not all students are burger kids like Zohair Toru, an Imran Khan supporter, who became famous after his rant about how could he bring revolution if the police would beat him went viral in 2011.
Since the elite liberal-bashing didn’t work much, the trolls started villainising Arooj as a foreign agent. To prove her support for Pashtun rights, a fake Twitter account was created. And, that’s how her foreign agenda was established. Of course, foreign agents of Pakistani origin fight for human rights, demand to be heard in political discourse and want to reclaim their space in society.
Heroes and villains
Given the polarisation in our society, it is hardly surprising that a student solidarity march is being painted as a CIA and RAW campaign.
Why is everyone scared of a bunch of students? Or, do they fear the ideals and principles they represent?
The way they want to challenge the status quo makes people jittery. The way they talk of freedom or revolution is considered treacherous. Speaking truth to power, unabashedly calling out the who’s who of the country should be no reason to disown them. Instead, they should be made heroes for exactly these reasons.
But Pakistan’s recent history is all about making villains out of indigenous leaders – Manzoor Pashteen is just one such example.
Finding the root cause
In Pakistan, an entire generation has grown up without ever being affiliated to a student union – General Zia-ul Haq had banned student unions in 1984 and the ban has not been lifted to date.
In contrast, radical Jamaat-e-Islami’s youth wing has thrived and has been associated with violence on campuses in Punjab.
In the last three decades, youth wings of other mainstream parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the Pakistan Peoples Party have hardly groomed any young leaders, given the feudal and dynastic nature of their politics.
The lack of space for critical thinking has led to incidents like Mashal Khan’s lynching on the campus over false allegation of blasphemy in 2017.
A student who dares to think differently will not be tolerated and may even be killed for that. The blasphemy case against professor Junaid Hafeez stems from this lack of acceptance among the powers that run campuses.
The students’ harassment scandal at the University of Balochistan and the alleged involvement of the vice-chancellor, which is now being investigated by the Federal Investigation Agency, show why there is a pressing need for a students’ group that can hear out the youngsters.
Instead, the University of Balochistan has banned all political activities on the campus days before the student march. This is meant to “avoid disruption in the conductive environment of teaching and learning,” it says.
Last week, 17 students of the University of Sindh were charged with sedition for allegedly chanting ‘anti-Pakistan’ slogans. The students, however, said they were protesting against water shortage on campus.
Earlier this month, two students were rusticated by the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore for organising a protest against fee hike and better hostel facilities.
It is not just the state, the government, or the educational institutions, the entire Pakistani society looks at student protests with suspicion. So, when a young woman like Arooj Aurangzeb raises her voice, everyone assumes she has vested interest. But this vested interest will only benefit the future generations of Pakistan.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.