Over the past few weeks, protests have been held in at least 36 Pakistani towns and cities as students have demanded that the federal government prevent universities from resuming academic sessions via online classes. On Wednesday, several students in Quetta were arrested for protesting the plan.

The country’s Higher Education Commission has maintained that going digital is the only way forward amidst the pandemic. But student leaders have said that the plan reflects the “state’s callous patronage of digital divide in the country”.

The most vociferous opposition against the online classes is coming from the students who live in the remote areas of the country – Gilgit Baltistan, Balochistan, and the region that bordersAfghanistan. They point out that their hometowns do not have electricity, let alone internet services. Online classes and examinations are not accessible for them, putting them at a disadvantage with students from larger cities.

“I am from Balochistan province of the country, sadly it is the most impoverished area of the country in terms of infrastructure,” said Saqib Khurshid, a student of Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University and leader of Democratic Student Federation. “People have to travel miles to certain towns just to make a Whatsapp call – and even in those towns we get poor internet signal. In a province where even electricity is limited, how can the policymakers think of going full digital?”

Nearly 30% of Pakistan’s population lives without electricity, The Global Economy in its 2017 survey revealed that. Another survey conducted by Sri Lankan thinktank LIRNEasia showed that that in December 2017, only 57% of Pakistanis had a mobile phone. Of them, only 22% had smartphones. The rest had sets with no internet connections.

The latest available figures from the official Pakistan Telecommunication Authority from a survey in November 2019 showed that only 36.2% of the country’s population has internet access – and that includes users who are using internet through 2.5 G or EDGE. According to the internet coverage map, severalparts of Balochistan, Gilgit Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa lack internet coverage.

The country’s Higher Education Commission has said that it is in discussions with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority and Federal Education Ministry to improve internet services and provide them to students cheaply..

“Any student who does not wish to study through online means should be allowed to withdraw and freeze his/ her semester,” said commission spokesperson Khaliq Dad. He said the authority has consistently taken the view that online classes should not be imposed unilaterally, but should be made available only for those who share the commitment to education and wish to continue to engage in the educational process.

But for students like Khurshid, statements like this don’t solve any problems. “With universities closed and online classes not an accessible option what should the student do then?” he asked. “The HEC doesn’t have answer to that question.”

Despite the protests, Pakistan’s biggest public sector university, Karachi University, has started its online classes.

The university is planning to accommodate students from remote areas, who are unable to attend online classes, by conducting on campus lectures in August-September,” said Karachi University Student Advisor Asim Ali. But he added that the plans depend on the government’s approval.

Professor Ammar Ali Jan, a Lahore-based academician who supports the ongoing students’ protest, noted that the purpose of education is to provide equal opportunities to students. But if it exacerbates divisions, it will produce discontent, he said.

The students belonging from the remote areas should be given relief, be it in the form of fees relaxation or e-classes,” Jan said. “Right now they have been left in the lurch.”

Human rights activist, Samar Abbas said that Pakistan is looking from a very important matter through a myopic lens. It is serving only privileged students, he said. He noted that the students who are holding protests are mainly from areas that are conflict-ridden or have insurgencies.

“The recent past suggests that Baloch students enrolled in mainstream universities chose to pick up weapons against the state as they felt that their genuine grievances were not being addressed,” Abbas said. “I think it’s better to lend an ear and resolve their issues like the one in hand of online education rather than wait for them to drift away from mainstream.”

He added: “It is an issue which can be resolved all the state needs is a little empathy towards those who are not privileged.”