The Pakistan People’s Party led government in 2009 announced the much hyped-up Aghaz-e-Haqooq e Balochistan project to “address the longstanding grievances” of the area. The package included political, administrative, economic and educational initiatives for people of the poor region engulfed in a bloody turmoil. However, many called it just another counter-insurgency tactic that will meet the fate of many others of the similar nature. Along with many other promises, special quote scholarships by Higher Education Commission for students of Balochistan to pursue studies in local and foreign institutions were also announced.
It took nearly three year for the promises to materialise and a scholarship scheme was formally announced in 2012 and universities of Punjab were ordered to set up reserved seats for Baloch students. Initially these seats were numbered at 600 but the plan was further expanded in 2013 after Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch (then CM Balochistan) and his counterpart from Punjab Shehbaz Sharif had a meeting. The rules were simple: any student to secure admission in universities of Punjab on open merit shall not be charged any fees including the hostel expenses.
The plan was famous amongst the students of Balochistan, who otherwise have almost non-existent venues of quality education in Balochistan. Thousands worked hard and secured admissions in several universities of Punjab. But like many other promises this whole plan was short-lived too.
Since last two years these students have been subject to reduced benefits. Initially the free of cost hostel accommodations were slashed and the students were ordered to pay their hostel expenses. However, the university administration, like that of Bahauddin Zakaria University, have now gone a step further and have announced to suspend all scholarships from 2020. University administrations cite lack of funds from government of Punjab and Balochistan, who in turn blame each other about the issue.
The Baloch and Pashtun students of these universities have been protesting against the issue for nearly two months now. In the first phase of their protest, the students set up a demonstration camp in the entrance of Bahauddin Zakria University that continued for more than a month. However, as demands were not met, the students are currently undertaking a perilous long march of 800km to walk from Multan to Lahore and then to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.
They allege that their scholarships were abolished in continuity of the discriminatory behaviour directed at them. This allegation carries weight as Baloch students from Punjab University, Quaid-e-Azad University Islamabad, Bahauddin Zakaria University and others have been victims of violence on multiple instances from student wings of Pakistani political parties.
There is an urgent need for restoration of these scholarships so that the students from one of the poorest regions of the world can attain quality education and play a positive role in the development of their areas. This is not much of an ask as Balochistan has been providing majority of resources for the factories and commercial infrastructure of Punjab. These students only demand educational rights and they should not be condemned with discriminatory behaviour.