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PANDEMIC UNVEILS A WIDENING DIGITAL DIVIDE

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How student movements continue to fight for their right to Internet access.

Pakistan has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world. With an estimated 22.8 million out-of-school children, Pakistan faces crucial challenges in ensuring education for all as the digital divide further deepens class inequalities. Students without access to laptops or satisfactory Internet connections are now deprived of dedicated learning. The pandemic has unveiled intrinsic levels of inequalities lying within the education system.

Research conducted by ISPAP (Internet Service Providers Association of Pakistan) reported that approximately one million students have access to the Internet through fixed or mobile broadband. However, 35 per cent of the Pakistani population, which mainly occupied rural areas, was left without Internet infrastructure such as 3G/ 4G towers, fibre optics or even DSL transmission lines. A research conducted by Media Matters for Democracy on women’s access to the internet titled “Women Disconnected: Feminist Case Studies on the Gender Digital Divide amidst Covid-19”, reported that six out of ten women face some form of restriction from their families when accessing the Internet. Furthermore, taking into account the socio-economic barriers at play, the report included interviews from women from tribal districts, of which the women, who did not use the Internet at all, came from families that earned less than PKR 30,000 per month. More than 75 per cent of interviewees said that the Internet was expensive and out of reach.

Pakistan’s digital divide has revealed severe implications caused by the shift towards online education after the government announced closure of educational institutes during the lockdown in March 2020. Several private universities have been criticized for the massive fee hikes, inability to address the issue of Internet connections for students and their non-compliance with the SOPs.

Last year, private universities like LUMS and IBA came under immense criticism for announcing a 30 per cent increase in the fee structures. Moreover, students’ concerns about adapting to online learning due to limited Internet and technological devices were out-rightly neglected.

In November 2020, the government officials sealed University of Lahore after some damaging footage emerged, revealing that the campus was not complying with the SOPs.

Student movements have been playing a significant role in raising awareness about the structural inequalities reinforced by private educational institutes.

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Image by The Academia Magazine

General Zia ul Haq’s regime had banned student unions since 1984. The campuses were barred from encouraging student politics. These drastic measures had led to several incidents of harassment and arrests of student activists by police officials.

Student movements had started to gain attention again with the organization of the Student Solidarity March in 2018, created by progressive groups in Pakistan. Some of their demands included: ensuring education systems were designed according to modern scientific requirements and providing students with libraries, hostels and Internet services.

The student movements like the Progressive Students Collective continue to face threats and the fear of arrests from police officials. Academic instructors who have advocated for free speech and lifting the ban over on-campus student politics have faced repercussions including removal from their positions and alleged mistreatment and abductions. 

Recent examples include the removal of Zaigham Abbas, a Political Science instructor from GCU. His contract was terminated by the administration without a prior notice. In a video posted by the “Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement”, Mr. Abbas pointed out that he was verbally informed that his support for groups like Aurat March and the Student Solidarity March was a cause of concern and he was removed for being too “political”.

Similarly, Ammar Ali Jan was forced to quit as a visiting professor from Forman Christian (FC) College. The institution pushed him to either abandon supporting the student movements or to withdraw his position, of which he chose the latter option.

In November 2020 after attending the Student Solidarity March, a video surfaced on Twitter that disclosed Ammar Ali Jan being stopped by a police van near Gulberg Main Boulevard in Lahore. He was allowed to leave upon reassuring his appearance before the station house officer of the Civil Lines police station. A warrant for Mr. Jan’s arrest was issued under Section three (power to arrest and detain suspected persons) of the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, under which Jan was to remain under house arrest for thirty days.

The shift towards online education in Pakistan during pandemic has been the focus of criticism by students and activists alike. They have been mainly concerned about the digital divide that is restraining students from working class families from continuing their education. The working class families have not been able to afford the education fee since the private universities announced fee hikes.

Student movements have used social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter to draw attention to the protests held by students in different provinces against the private universities through use of hashtags such as #studentskoinsaafdo and #ReleaseAllStudents. The hashtags were also used to share clips of student protests outside private institutions like Bahria University or NUST after they had refused to allow online examinations. The hashtags also directly addressed politicians such as Shafqat Mahmood, the Minister of Federal Education, to bring his attention to the conditions of campuses such as University of Lahore, which were not following SOP guidelines.

Social media has also helped in raising awareness on the alarming cases of police violence directed at student movements. Documented pictures and videos were posted across social media that revealed peaceful protests being violently intervened by police authorities. Students were brutally charged with batons and tear gas was used to disperse crowds. Several university administrations also filed FIRs against protesters and suspended them immediately.

The most recent example of the violence inflicted upon student movements was seen during the campus protests against University of Central Punjab held on 26th January 2021. The students protesting against on-campus examinations had shared videos of policemen responding with violence.  Moreover, video footage from the protest also showed students being picked up by private security guards.

Four students were arrested from their homes on January 28th without their families being notified. The Progressive Students Collective had announced a “Students Day of Action”, a protest held on January 29, 2021 that demanded the release of all the arrested students. One of the students, Haris Ahmed Khan, had published an article titled “Story of my abduction” on Students Herald about his kidnapping experience.

Academia Magazine reached out to Salman Sikandar, Information Secretary of PSC, and one of the five students picked up by the police officials after the UCP protests. He had also discussed his experience in an article for the Friday Times titled “Who is afraid of the students”. Discussing how the pandemic has made student movements more relevant in Pakistan, he speaks about how government universities had responded to the pandemic by calling off classes to cater to the problem of Internet connections and had been flexible about fee payments. Private universities, on the other hand, used the pandemic as an opportunity to further exploit their students by increasing the fee rate and conducting online examinations despite poor Internet connectivity.

Moreover, on discussing how private institutions have used surveillance to suppress dissent or protests by students, Sikandar talks about the increase in surveillance in the past two years, quoting an example of Karachi University where protesting students were arrested.

Sikandar also expresses his concern over the arrests of activists and the gratuitous labelling of students as “terrorists” for demanding better educational facilities within private institutions. He claims that Zia’s authoritative regime was the point of extreme surveillance and assault over student movements. “Zia created the law that banned student unions, and arrested and killed countless critics. The emergence of Student Solidarity March, is now leading to enforcement of censorship and threats by private universities.”

In some universities of Balochistan and KPK, such as Gomal University, police forces are present on campuses to scrutinize the students. Some government universities like GCU, also repeatedly warn professors and students on speaking against the institution. Professors are called upon by the administration if they are recorded supporting student movements or Aurat March. In addition, police officials closely monitor study circles.

In Balochistan, Progressive Students Federation had reported the injustice of educational institutions towards Baloch students. On 9 February 2021, they reported that the Pakistan Medical Commission had reduced seats for students from Balochistan and FATA from 264 to 26.

An article published by the Digital Rights Monitor “The ones we’re leaving behind: how remote learning is accentuating inequalities at a provincial level” highlights experience of students like Wazir, whose district did not have any broadband internet facilities or mobile data options and therefore, he was one of the many students who had to move to Peshawar to pursue higher education through online classes. “If we haven’t been able to attend classes and don’t know the course material, then how will we take our exams?” asks Wazir.

Students who had led protests against the shortcomings of online classes and demanded proper access to the Internet were arrested by law enforcement agencies. More than 70 students were allegedly baton-charged and arrested by police authorities for violating Section 144. 

Kalsoom Baloch, a student activist from the Baloch Student Movement, participated in protests against private institutions and their refusal to help students cope with online classes. Speaking to the Academia Magazine on the growing surveillance on campuses, she asserts how both private and public universities have become deeply infiltrated by police authorities. She narrates the experience of Baloch students at the University of Karachi, who have been subjected to continuous harassment at the hands of police officials, who snatch their mobile phones, question their whereabouts and force them to crouch in the position of a hen in order to humiliate them.

She believes that students living in places like Balochistan and interior Sindh have suffered immensely because of the lack of Internet connections. Since the shift to online classes, laptops were not provided to students to access online classes or complete their assignment. The students would occupy university libraries to spend their time researching to catch up on their lectures.” She also expressed concern about Baloch students, who had to resort to trekking for miles and to climb over mountains simply in order to be able to access the Internet and attend their classes. “But for Baloch women, this is not a proper solution as they cannot travel to other cities and their grades have greatly suffered”.

Chairman HEC, Dr Tariq Banuri, had reportedly said that Internet access was a basic right and every student deserved access to it. However, HEC has not recognized the same demands by the student movements.

Turning a blind eye to the growing control of private educational institutes that continues to eradicate free speech and campus politics among students and teachers, will consistently deepen the digital divide and exploitation of students. Student movements have repeatedly highlighted several issues pertaining to education. However, it took a pandemic to expose the deep levels of inequalities that have existed for long and are now rapidly alienating a vast majority of students

The role of student movements has now become central in ensuring that the majority of the population, suddenly left behind with the shift towards digital mediums, is able to receive the representation they deserve.

Mahnoor Jalal is a student of liberal arts. She likes to write on gender, politics and cultural issues.

Image by macrovector via freepik

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