Pakistan’s Democratic Insurgents: Inside the Awakening Youth Movement

Talk of armed insurgents and Taliban hideouts near the Afghanistan border used to dominate the scant US media coverage of Pakistan affairs. These days, it’s Pakistan’s de-facto martial law, media blackouts, and court-martials for civilians that fill the newspapers, accompanied by images of police battling lawyers, journalists, and students.

On November 20th, USA President George W. Bush reiterated support for President Pervez Musharraf, stating that he “truly is somebody who believes in democracy,” and insisting that he hadn’t yet “crossed the line.” Following on the heels of Musharraf’s suspension of the constitution and zealous detention not of terrorists, but of Pakistan’s most fervent proponents of democracy and justice, Bush’s statement could only be understood as Orwellian doublespeak. After being spoon-fed shallow analysis of Pakistan’s political situation for several years vis-à-vis the War on Terror (it’s either Musharraf or the terrorists), Americans are finally waking up to a more complex reality.

The current constitutional crisis is alerting the world to other segments of Pakistani society worth paying attention to. They are lawyers, judges, journalists, students and human rights activists. Day after day they risk violence and arrest to protest the mockery that has been made of their constitution and judiciary. These are Pakistan’s new democratic insurgents.

A New Generation

While the valiant resistance staged by Pakistan’s lawyers was expected, given their mobilization earlier this year, the development of a student and youth movement has taken many by surprise.

On Monday November 5, two days after the de facto martial law was declared, hundreds of students at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) held a protest, breaking a nearly three decade drought on political activism by students in Pakistan. In the days and weeks following, many public and private universities throughout the country followed suit and pictures of the protesting students spilled across newspapers and blogs worldwide.

Three weeks later, I sat surrounded by twenty or so students in a room littered with paper cups of sugary chai and placards scribbled with slogans in Urdu and English. The group consisted mostly of young men in jeans and T-shirts, along with a handful of outspoken women. They energetically debated the phrasing of a bilingual press release while a quieter student diligently lettered a placard reading: “Students of Pakistan, Unite!” These are the faces of Pakistan’s youngest agitators for democracy.

The meeting was the fifth of its kind in two weeks, including student representatives from over a dozen universities in Lahore, and usually draw around 50 attendees. Together, they are working to consolidate the momentum of protests from their respective campuses into a more unified student resistance.

Most of the students are new at political organizing and come from diverse backgrounds in Pakistan’s class-stratified society. Before martial law was declared, they may have had little reason to meet up. Now, they’re getting a crash-course in coalition building. What they do agree on is their opposition to martial law and demands for the restoration of an independent judiciary and free press.


Most students consider ‘politics’ a dirty word.
— Rahim, youth organizer

Pakistanis have come to expect an aversion to politics from this generation, a sentiment which helps explain why the youth protests have surprised not only Musharraf’s regime but Pakistani society. Newspapers editorials proclaimed a long-overdue revival of student power, recalling a history when students were involved in every major political movement, most notably leading to the toppling of General Ayub Khan’s authoritarian regime in 1969.

In the early 80s, things began to change. Under the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, student unions were banned and only the Islamist IJT (a student wing of the conservative Jamaat-i-Islami political party) was permitted on campus. The United States turned a blind eye to his repressive tactics and cozied up to the dictator in exchange for his participation battling the Soviets in neighboring Afghanistan. Over the years, the IJT earned a reputation for brutally suppressing other student political groups. At first, some attempted to defy Zia’s repressive regime and IJT dominance, but gradually, activism was was beaten down and a new generation of Pakistanis grew up associating student politics with IJT thuggery, something best avoided.

This time, however, the first protesters were not the institutionally-backed IJT cadres, but the sons and daughters of the country’s elite. If there was anywhere Musharraf might have expected tacit support, many thought, it was among these children, many of whose families are closely connected to his regime. What, then, has driven them to speak out?

The First To Act

They [students] are patriotic and they want to see their country have an identity which is very modern, civilized and governed under universal norms of law and justice. Pakistan’s image and international prestige has suffered and that really creates a problem of identity for young people… And the best way to change that is that Pakistan must be brought back to the rails of constitutionalism and democracy.
— LUMS Political Science Professor, Rasul Bakhsh Rais

During the first week of martial law, I met with three student activists at LUMS, a private university in Lahore. It was the night before final exam week and it had taken a bit of wrangling to get in touch with them due to the fear many students had that ISI agents (Pakistan’s equivalent of a FBI and CIA merged into one agency) might be posing as journalists. To protect their identities, the students decided to adopt pseudonyms when talking to the media: All the men would go by Imran and the women by Amina.

We huddled into a study-room on the newly constructed campus, and I asked them if there was any history of student organizing on their campus. They quickly replied no. Why, then, had chosen to get involved? One young man, who I’ll call “Ardent Imran” responded decisively and passionately. “I remember something my parents used to tell me when I was young… if one generation doesn’t resist martial law, the next generation will curse them.” Some students are from families with a history of organizing against government repression. For these students, participating in the protests was the reawakening of a family legacy.

However, Amina noted, in general the upper classes do not want their children involved in the corrupt and messy realm of politics. Her family was among this group, worried more about her safety and the completion of her studies than the current political situation. But Amina is determined to participate and since she lives on campus, instead of with her family, she’s been able to join protests without their knowledge.

Recent political events have played a significant role in awakening Pakistan’s youth. Both Ardent Imran and Amina agreed that many students started paying attention to politics “since March 9th,” a phrase which they repeated several times. It was then that Musharraf dismissed the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mohammad Iftikhar Chaudhry, on what most believe to be politically-motivated corruption charges. Shortly thereafter, Pakistani lawyers mobilized en masse against the perceived attack on the independence of the judiciary and students began to take notice. These days heroes are few and far between in Pakistani politics and most, including young people, are jaded by the corruption of political parties. However, the students noticed something different in the lawyers struggle. They weren’t fighting for petty power, they were fighting for a democratic ideal.

In his declaration of emergency rule, Musharraf did not attempt to conceal that the increasingly independent judiciary was a primary reason for his crackdown, imprisoning all those who refused to bow to his will. While international players such as the U.S. simply call for emergency to be rolled back and elections to proceed, they remain quieter on the restoration of the judiciary and free media. The youth resistance in Pakistan, however, is keenly aware that without the restoration of the pre-emergency judiciary and a free press, elections will be a joke and future of Pakistan’s judiciary as an independent institution will be crippled.

While Amina and Ardent Imran burst with excitement and analysis, the third LUMS student, who I’ll call “Reluctant Imran” looked exhausted. After dutifully answering questions about student organizing with poise, he confessed that personally, he was rather indifferent to the political situation. Reluctant Imran, it turns out, had been inadvertently sucked into the center of organizing when the LUMS administration had identified him to be a liaison with students. Ironically, as the least enthusiastic among them, he has found his name on an arrest list drawn up by police.

As thousands of students have taken to the streets, Reluctant Imran’s sentiments may be representative of the of thousands more who have remained inside, many stricken with the cynicism born of living in a country that has spent 31 of its 60 year history under military rule. However, others believe that for every Ardent Imran and Amina waving placards, there are dozens more Pakistanis sitting quietly at home, fearful of taking to the streets, but supportive of the youth from their living rooms. Indeed, my neighbor, a successful, upper middle-class business owner and father of three remarked hopefully, “If the students come out on the streets, only then might the government fall.”

Unexpected Insurgents

This was a blind spot for them, they didn’t see it coming, but neither did we. People like us who have encouraged students to organize before — we had hoped something like this would happen. But we didn’t necessarily see this much of a response.
— LUMS Professor Aasiam Sajjad Akhtar

Privileged students at private universities like LUMS have a reputation for caring more about careers, clothes and cars than politics. However, Salima Hashmi, a Dean at another private school, Beaconhouse National University where students also held protests, believes that one reason LUMS mobilized first was due to the rigorous academic environment at the elite institution. LUMS is, she remarked, unusual in that it challenges students to think critically, after most have undergone years of nationalist indoctrination at the primary and secondary school level. But part of LUMS’ rapid response may also have been due to the serendipity of timing.

On Nov. 3rd, at 5 p.m., celebrity cricket star turned one-man-political-party, Imran Khan was scheduled to speak on campus about youth’s role in Pakistani politics (and in his political party). The students joked that out of the huge turnout, most people were more interested in merely catching a glimpse of the famous cricket star and teenage heartthrob than in listening to his politics. In an unexpected turn, half an hour into the speech a professor came on stage to announce that martial law had been declared. It was as if Imran Khan had held a perfectly-timed a pep rally just before the declaration of martial law. A large number of energized students stayed afterwards to discuss how they would address the situation.

The government also helped fuel student rage by arresting several professors who attended a meeting at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan the next day (Nov. 4th), quickly transforming the impacts of martial law from an abstract concept to a personal one for previously apolitical students. The released professors gave speeches at rallies, helping students cultivate a political analysis and sense of personal engagement.

Professor Sajjad notes that the elite LUMS students have grown up wired, unlike their public-university counterparts, many of whom have never used a computer before university. Their tech-savvyness also enabled the mass dissemination of information to organize protests. Amina described how a professor quickly composed an e-mail via Blackberry as he was arrested. Following the arrest, sms messages spread across the campus faster than wildfire, coordinating meetings and rallies, while e-mail manifestos from LUMS inspired students at other campuses to join the fray. Facebook helped wired Pakistani students get the word out to friends and relatives abroad who organized solidarity protests, keeping the spirit of resisting Pakistanis high.


I was not surprised. Because I [knew that] the last three or four years, we have been penetrating and trying to knock on doors, but for the masses it was a great surprise.
— Diep Saeeda, Institute for Peace and Secularism

Herself the mother of three students, Diep Saeeda has spent many years mobilizing youth with her organization, the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies. Over the years, she says, the youth have become increasingly engaged in dialogue about social and political problems. After Diep’s organization tried for years to unify Pakistan’s liberal left unsuccessfully, they realized what others are now awakening to, that the hope for a just and democratic Pakistan lies in the hands of its youth. These days, she’s one of the few faces over the age of 25 at the all-student meetings, providing support to the young people as they teethe on their first real political struggle.

It’s not only students, but recent graduates working in fields such as law and the media who have been instrumental in organizing protests of journalists and lawyers. Unlike their parents who grew up on state-sponsored news and programming, this generation has come to age in the last eight years of Musharraf’s tenure during which the media has enjoyed unprecedented freedom. With a taste of such freedom, these young people aren’t willing to give it up easily. Ali, a 26 year old investment banker in Karachi, graduated from LUMS 3 years ago and comments that the media has been key in demystifying politics and giving him diverse perspectives needed to make informed decisions. Away from the heady action of the campuses, he, like many young graduates, was hungry to get involved. After November third, he joined a large coalition opposing martial law and is currently developing workshops on democracy and political involvement for local schools and colleges.

But it’s not only the elite who are organizing. Students at a large public institution, Punjab University, have mobilized as well. Many, including Diep and LUMS Professor Sajjad believe that in the long-term, institutions like Punjab University (PU) are likely to be more influential than the smaller private schools. With a student body 30,000 strong, it is demographically more representative of Pakistan’s population which largely consists of working and lower class families.

At the all-student meeting, I interviewed a second-year law student from PU. Unlike his compatriots at LUMS, Tariq (a pseudonym) wore a handsome traditional kurta and spoke English with a bit more effort, yet with no less eloquence, than the others. When asked why he decided to get involved, unlike other students who waxed on about the illegality of Musharraf’s regime and actions, he started with a different story.

“I have been a student of Punjab University for the last 1 1/2 years. Several times we have faced threats and physical violence by a so-called students’ organization which is led by a pro-Islamic militant organization named IJT.” He proceeded to recount the history of the harsh repression meted out by the IJT to students who would not join their ranks or follow their strict interpretation of Islamic morality.

Under Zia’s rule, and before the era of private universities, government-funded schools, like PU, expelled many liberal and progressive teachers and students who attempted to organize, leading to an IJT stranglehold on campus, although they were a numerical minority (no more than 10% of the campus). For Tariq (pseudonym), the struggle is as much about reclaiming public and political spaces for all students from the monopoly of the IJT, as it is about opposing martial law.

As fate would have it, the tide at Punjab U. turned against the IJT on Nov 14th. Thousands of students gathered for a rally at which Imran Khan was scheduled to speak and then publicly give himself up for arrest. But before he could address the crowds, a group of IJT students roughly manhandled him into a police van. The outcry was tremendous and even the IJT’s parent political party denounced the actions. However, the damage was done. Professor Sajjad remarked, “In a matter of days, their basis to exist on campus has been wiped out, popular opinion has been swept away from them. It seems that before people were begrudgingly accepting their presence on campus, but clearly now there’s a space for new forms to emerge.” Since then, students at Punjab University have continued to come out in large numbers and without fear of IJT backlash.

Cautious Optimism

Certainly, the young men and women behind the rallies have shown a way, given a direction, to their elders to follow. They have ignited a spark of light amidst oppressive darkness, and it can now only be hoped this light is not allowed to fade out and die in the difficult days that lie ahead.
— Nov 9th Editorial, The International News (Pakistan newspaper)

Thus far the state has been more lenient on students than other groups, not arresting them by the thousands as with lawyers and political party workers. In part, this leniency may be because the government fears the increased publicity and international outrage that coercive measures against students would likely bring to what has already been a public relations nightmare for the regime. As the emergency enters its second month and student organizing shows no sign of fizzling out, the state has slowly begun to ratchet up pressure. Recently, fourteen professors from Punjab University were charged with sedition and four professors at LUMS (including the two I interviewed) charged under the Maintenance of Public Order Act while this week, police surrounded the LUMS campus attempting to block students from attending an all-student protest.

The professors and student organizers I spoke to were uncertain about whether the mobilizations would become a mass movement and warned against direct comparisons to the movement of 1968-69. At that time, the popular politician Zulfikar Ali Bhutto backed the student movement, leading it to explode in strength and popularity across the nation. This time around, though, students have been quick to avoid direct association with any political party. Almost all are disillusioned with the major parties although many expressed growing admiration for Imran Khan’s tiny Tehrik-i-Insaaf party (it won only 1 seat in the 2002 National Assembly elections).

They have good historical reason to be wary of co-optation. Decades earlier, after the groundswell of student power led to the toppling of Ayub Khan’s regime, the political parties recognized and coopted the movement. LUMS Professor Rasul Bakhsh Rais explains, “They carved out their own constituencies of influence, supplied them money, sometimes weapons and the battles of the political parties were fought on the campuses. There was a lot bloodshed and violence among student groups.” Bakhsh Rais hopes that today’s students will remain autonomous, noting that “If they come under the control of any political party… that will be the end of that social movement. [T]heir power, their strength, would become fragmented.”

Aasim Sajjad says that he is “cautiously optimistic,” noting that the students’ impact will likely be greater in the long-term, observing that, “It takes time for the infrastructure of a movement to develop. But an organization that comes from a movement will be more vibrant and long-lasting than one that comes from a few people getting together.” The question remains as to whether Pakistani youth, awakened to the potentials of their own power, will be able to harness their energy and idealism past the immediate crisis.

A November 19th report in the New York Times indicated that America is considering funding and training tribal leaders as well as the Frontier Corps, a group that has been blamed for aiding and abetting Taliban insurgents, in order to combat militant insurgency. One can’t help but have a sense of déjà-vu to the tried and failed funding of the 80s which created today’s Taliban. As America continues to focus its financial aid and military training on dictators and frontier tribes, another insurgency lies neglected.

America’s short-sighted endorsement of repressive and unconstitutional tactics may have a less visible but no less devastating result — the stillborn hopes of Pakistan’s growing movement for the supremacy of democracy and the rule of law. Armed with civil disobedience, patriotism and the ideals of justice and democracy, this insurgency of lawyers, students, human rights activists and journalists is the one America and the world must support if we truly value the development of a stable, moderate and democratic Pakistan

Amber Vora is currently based in Lahore, Pakistan where she is researching and writing on issues of gender and sexuality as well as the current political situation. Previously, she worked advocating for the rights of South Asian immigrant women in Seattle, WA. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Amber, or visit Amber's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. joed said on December 5th, 2007 at 7:39am #

    Who the hell knows what to believe!? the more I agree with an article the more skeptical I am of that atrticle! Is this article written by the CIA or DoD? Following is a link to an article that says something very different about the motives of “students” and others in Pakistan.
    I sure would like to get ahold of bush/cheney and their gang!

  2. Ron Horn said on December 5th, 2007 at 12:17pm #

    Great observation, joed! The Asia Times article looks much more discerning. It’s possible that Amber is deceived by appearances. But time will tell.

  3. devin said on December 5th, 2007 at 12:41pm #

    Hmmmmm… instead of jumping to conclusions, why don’t we take a look at the background of the writer of the Asia Times Article, starting with his bio (from the last page of the Asia Times):

    “Ahmed Quraishi is an investigative reporter, currently hosting a weekly political talk show titled Worldview From Islamabad, which he created for state-run PTV News, Pakistan’s largest television network. See

    The key part of this is state-run PTV News – PTV is a government mouthpiece and the only station that was not shut down during the emergency. Unlike, say, BBC, which is government-funded but (relatively) objective, PTV is completely one-sided. This fact is well-known by Pakistanis and even acknowledged in this interview with former PTV-chair Aslam Azhar who stated that PTV journalists and producers are “more inhibited in exercising their journalistic judgements” due to the fact that the government has the power to hire and fire.

    A quick look at his website will show that Ahmed so-called articles are about as trustworthy as the USA’s pre-war “intelligence” on WMD in Iraq.

  4. altaf said on December 6th, 2007 at 11:45pm #

    Pakistan does not need some liberal democracy that LUMS students are pushing for… it needs a challenge to the way the state is structured, that has 82% of the population living under $2 a day —

    Why have LUMS students not addressed these issues? Because they and their families are part of the problem — read more on movements and elite higher education with respect to Pakistan, on this website

    I agree that Ahmed Qureshi guy sounds more like a Busharraf plant than anything else…

  5. amber said on December 7th, 2007 at 11:31am #


    I think you’re right that any movement which endeavors to be truely transformative must not be lead soley or even primarily by the elite. Like you said, the elite profits from the current status quo in which a tiny minority controls a massive percentage of the nation’s wealth. I think it is hopeful that the current student mobilizations include students from approximately 2 dozen universities in Lahore representing those from different class backgrounds, not to mention many others institutions in Islamabad, Karachi and beyond. While the current efforts are focused on the PCO and restoration of an independent judiciary, at one meeting I attended some were brainstorming a platform of issues to address after the immediate crisis passes, for example: advocating for education reforms and funding that would enable all segments of society, especially the poor, to receive a decent education.

    The question that remains is whether these youth can form an effective, enduring and inclusive coalition or movement which includes people and issues of the working and lower classes who, of course, represent a majority of Pakistan’s population.

  6. altaf said on December 7th, 2007 at 3:03pm #

    A coallition that is inclusive of the elite (with their current mindset) will fail to address the issues of working classes – because of the elites’ power, and their own self-interest. If, however, you have members of the elite who have questioned their own class background, acknowledge their own complicity in the debacle – then yes, those types of people can be very useful because they have the inside working knowledge of how the elites operate. (Imran Khan still needs to be further radicalized, but he is an example of someone (of elite background) who would be very useful in such a coallition if he did a bit more of questioning… he’s getting there… not there yet.).

    It is possible to have a coallition of different ideas, so it is possible to have people of Islamic movements sit down with more labor union oriented working class peoples — But a coallition of elite class with the working class won’t work – because of the kind of issues that have to be addressed.

    Can there be a coallition of racist whites with people of color to fight racism? Of-course not. Can there be a coalltion of abusive men with abused women to fight violence against women? That would be absurd – but that exactly is the class dynamics of Pakistan.

    But yes, there can be a coalltion of anti-racist whites with people of color in the lead.

    The example of elite students who did build coalltions with others in the 60s in the US can serve as an example. What happened after the end of the Vietnam war? A few continued with the struggle. But most white students (men and women) disappeared to the suburbs – with only fond memories of the “60s”. The same will happen in Pakistan – unless the issues change from “liberal democracy” to addressing real bread and butter issues.

  7. S.A.Durrani said on December 25th, 2007 at 2:36pm #

    In 1999 under a DEMOCRATIC DICTATOR, PAK economy was $75 billion @ 3.5% growth. Foreign reserves below $1 billion. Our Exports $7 billion. KHI stock worth $5 billion at 700 points. Revenue Rs.308 billion. Debt servicing 65% of our GDP and Development program Rs.80 billion. Pakistan was DEFAULTED & BANKRUPT!

    Now in 2007 under a Military Dictator, our Economy is $160 billion @ 6% growth. Foreign reserves $16 billion. Exports $17.5 billion. KHI stock exchange worth $65 billion at 14,000 points. Revenue above Rs.800 billion. Debt servicing reduced to 26% of GDP. Development programs RS.520 billion. WE ARE STABLE NOW !!!

    Is Constitution a GOD send book that cannot be changed or altered to suit our grond realities? Or our corrupt politicians GOD send prophets….that we cannot choose other then them? SUPPORT HONEST PEOPLE !! Choose yourself… who is better for Pakistan?

  8. Linah said on December 25th, 2007 at 2:43pm #

    LUMS students belong to posh families, who take words like democracy & dictatorship as something in fashion. The discussions elite like to show-off in public. e.g discusing Harry potter book sales. Though what is interesting to note is, that no-where did the Public come out on streets to protest!

    1000 – 1500 protesting in Pakistan, is nothing compared to France where 350,000 protested!

    Ahmad Qureshi may belong to PTV, but what he writes is in accordance with the regional politics taking place. And, the majority of educated people support similar views!

  9. hasan said on December 27th, 2007 at 12:21am #

    wow, looks like this article got forwarded to a list of Musharraf supporters… a slender minority in pakistan these days who, i suppose are desparate enough to believe amhed qureshi’s undisguised propaganda and conspiracy theories. for those who have been following student organizing in pakistan, LUMS is only 1 of dozens of schools participating, and students from other schools are not uniformly from the elite. and although there has been overall economic growth, few of the poor (majority of the population) have seen any benefit from it. but i guess it’s convenient to ignore those facts that don’t support your attempts to dismiss widespread opposition to musharraf. it’s not just students but the Islamist Jamaat and dozens of other political parties and hundreds of civil society groups (secular and religious) that were active in opposing martial law and are now worried about sham elections trying to legitimize an extension of the dictator’s rule.