Groups of outraged Baloch students are marching to Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad, demanding that the government roll back its decisions to curb annual scholarships and allocated reserved seats in universities of Punjab for students of Balochistan. This march started on October 10 from the city of Multan, around 302 miles away from the federal capital.
With banners and posters in hands, the students marched through the roads of Punjab on their way to the capital. They shouted slogans like “Restore reserved seats and scholarship in universities of Punjab,” and “Anti-education policies, unacceptable!” Others took to social media to voice support for the protest, with the hashtag #BalochStudentsMarch4Edu.
Long before their march to protest the government decision, the students set up a peaceful demonstration camp at the entrance of Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan. This camp continued for at least 40 days.
The protesters claim that government has always neglected issues concerning education. With a few universities in Balochistan offering limited courses, many students head to other provinces for higher education.
At the same time, the provision of education in Pakistan for the last two decades has been heavily and increasingly consigned to the private sector, making it unaffordable for many students (especially for those from Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest province). Most of the students choose public universities due to their lower tuition, but even those have had fee hikes in the last few years making it unaffordable for the majority. So many deserving students rely on government scholarships to continue their higher education.
This was made possible through a mutual agreement between the government of Balochistan and Punjab in 2013. According to the agreement, places with scholarships for students of Balochistan were reserved in different universities of Punjab. Hundreds of students since then have benefitted from these scholarships and went back to Balochistan with degrees in different educational fields.
But for the last three years, these reserved seats were slowly withdrawn, with a few cut every year. In 2017, half of the reserved seats for students of Balochistan were withdrawn and finally, in 2020, all the scholarships in Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University for student of Balochistan were suspended.
To protest this decision, the students camped at the entrance gate of the university from September 1 to October 9. When that protest failed to rouse the government to address the issue, the students then decided to go with a long march to the federal capital to draw attention.
The students have drafted a charter of demands. They want: the fee collection notification for students of Balochistan to be withdrawn and scholarships of reserved seats to be restored; scholarships to be issued on reserved seats for students from DG Khan and Rajanpur tribal areas to attend Bahauddin Zakariya University; and the decision to curb reserved seats for the students of Balochistan in different universities of Punjab –including Punjab University, Islamia University Bahawalpur, Agriculture University Faisalabad, and Gomel University DI Khan – to be overturned and the seats restored.
On October 12, the spokesperson of the government of Balochistan, Liaquat Shahwani, said in a tweet that the chief minister of Balochistan has directed the province’s secretary of higher education to ensure financial assistance for the students of Balochistan studying in Punjab and promised to ensure that students from Balochistan can continue their education without any turbulence.
The spokesperson of the provincial government has also reached out to the students, pledging to solve all their issues by October 14. For the moment, however, the students plan to continue their protest and continue their march toward the capital until all their demands are met.
Mariyam Suleman is a writer from Gwadar. She is currently a student in University of Sussex and Institute for Development Studies (IDS-UK). She tweets at @mariyamsuleman