Students across Pakistan have been protesting against the online classes organised by colleges and universities in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown. It's not that they don't want to learn, but that they lack access: many areas in Pakistan do not have reliable internet service and most students can't afford to buy devices that facilitate online learning.
Nationwide protests on June 23 featured slogans advocating for justice and free internet for all. However, in Quetta, Balochistan, a number of students — many of them female — were manhandled, baton-charged and arrested, with many being dragged into police vans:
Pandemic increases inequity
As a result of the spread of COVID-19, Pakistan's Higher Education Commission asked educational institutions to shift to online classes from June 1. The countrywide closure of schools forced students living in hostels back to their homes, many of which are located in remote areas where 3G/4G internet connection are not available.
The lack of access had students coming out in their numbers to protest in every province, roundly rejecting the introduction of online classes:
Arrests, however, only took place in Balochistan where human rights violations have drawn concern in the international community. For years, several thousands of people were subjected to enforced disappearances and their fate is unknown. The news soon went viral on social media, with the hashtag #ReleaseAllStudents trending, resulting in widespread condemnation of these incidents:
Mahrang Baloch, a medical student actively involved in student politics, posted videos of her being arrested by the police:
According to police reports, the students were charged with organising a rally during a lockdown. Section 144 of Pakistan's Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) has allowed for a complete ban on gatherings as a result of COVID-19.
The spokesperson for the Government of Balochistan, Liaqat Shahwani, stated, “Students have temporarily been detained for their own safety against COVID-19 and will be released soon.” The Chief Minister of Balochistan, Jam Kamal Khan, however, tweeted that government did not order the police to arrest the students and that they should all be released immediately. All students were released subsequently.
Amnesty International South Asia also condemned the arrests.
No proper internet for online classes
In fact, 3G/4G services are not available in many parts of Pakistan, including tribal areas, nor can everyone afford a laptop or smartphone. The divide is also gender-based: compared to men, fewer numbers of women have internet access.
Nighat Daad from Digital Rights Foundation tweeted about the importance of “internet for all”: