LAHORE: Students sit on a hunger strike in front of the Governor House as a volunteer medical worker checks a student's vitals.

LAHORE: Students from erstwhile-FATA have been protesting in front of the Governor House in Lahore for 27 days against the reduction in quotas and scholarships afforded to students from the border region. After a 3-day hunger strike, two students have been admitted to Services Hospital as their health deteriorated. The two students are named Hamza and Mohsin, as identified by fellow protesting students. 

The students, who belong to Islamia University Bahawalpur (IUC), are protesting against the university for constantly changing its policy, even after giving reassurances in writing. 

Background

Back in 2014, when the Pakistani state launched the operation against terror outfits in FATA which displaced thousands of families, the Chief Minister of Punjab Shehbaz Sharif announced a quota for students from FATA; two seats in each department of public universities across the province. This quota was increased to 4 seats in each department after the merger of the region with the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018. 

In addition to these reserved seats, the students were to be on a 100 percent scholarship in every public university, including boarding/hostel and tuition fee. These policies were part of the 10-year effort to integrate and assimilate the legally recognised Newly Merged Tribal Areas by providing education and economic upliftment. The notification issued clearly states that the policy is to remain in effect till 2027. 

However, universities have started revoking the quotas and taking away scholarships. Speaking to The Correspondent, Aftab Wazir, a student of IUB, said that the university administration refused to accommodate students and give them hostels in the university. In response to this treatment, students protested and were subsequently reprimanded by the university administration for protesting against their negligence. 

Furthermore, the university revoked their full-ride scholarships and reduced those to 50 percent while reducing the number of seats in each department down to 2. 

For the 123 departments in the university, the students from FATA ought to have 492 seats; however, the university wants to reduce the total numbers of seats down to 63, with 21 seats reserved for women from FATA. 

Negotiations

This is not the first time these students are protesting; similar protests were staged back in October, after which they were given full assurances by the registrar of the university and the focal person appointed by the Vice-Chancellor that the policy would not be revoked. On December 31 2020, a notification was issued to guarantee the students that the policy would continue till 2027. 

Notification dated 31st December 2020 that assured students that the policy would not be changed till 2027.

But even after assurances in writing, the university’s official notification in February of 2021 reduced the number of seats down to two while also demanding that in-coming and enrolled students availing these quotas must pay 50% of their tuition fee and hostel accommodations. This not only restricts access to education for students from FATA, given the area has high rates of poverty due to the region being ignored by the state, but also puts the future of already enrolled students at risk, who planned their academics and finances on the information that they would not have to pay for the degree. 

A recent notification by IUB that reduces the scholarship to 50% and reduces number of seats in the quota to 63.

Current Situation

Students also recalled instances of harassment and intimidation by Punjab Police, who threatened to shoot at students unless they ended their protest. “SHO Babar told us to either end the protest or the police would shoot us,” said Aftab Wazir. 

As of now, the protest continues as Governor Punjab, who is the acting Chancellor of the University, has refused to help students as he said his hands are tied, and he cannot be of much help to the protesting students. 

The Correspondent was informed that Ijaz Wazir, chairperson of the FATA student collective in IUB, was assured by PML-N Ahsan Iqbal that he and former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi would visit the protesting students to show solidarity. Previously, PML-N leader Saad Rafiq also visited the protest camp. 

Students from Punjab University and Progressive Students Collective (PSC) have also been present at the protest camp to show solidarity with the protesting students, which study circles and other activities being organised by the PSC to bring journalists and other professionals in contact with the protesting students.

PML-N’s member of Provincial Assembly, Hina Pervez Butt, also moved a resolution in Punjab Assembly to ratify the 2018 policy to grant all students from FATA 100 percent scholarships. If the assembly approves the bill, individual universities will not have the power to amend or revoke the policy.

The author works as a sub-editor at The Correspondent, focusing on Student Politics, Social issues and International Relations.

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