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Editorial | Students Solidarity March: About Time Ban On Unions Is Lifted

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The Students Solidarity March that took place across the country today indicates the changing dynamics of Pakistan’s society. It was reported that the administrations of various universities tried to prevent the students from mobilizing for the march. The way the protesting students defied all administrative hurdles and marched for what they believe in is admirable.

Restoration of student unions was the main demand of the marchers. Other demands include withdrawal of fee hikes, formation of committees to hear sexual harassment complaints at universities and increase in budget allocations to HEC.

The student unions were banned in 1984 by the brutal regime of General Zia ul Haq, and since then all efforts to revive them have failed due to state’s flawed policies and its unstated fear of confronting what the young men and women have to say about the dismal performance of state institutions in upholding citizens’ rights and services.

It is a pity that the current ruling party that claims to be youth-oriented has done next to nothing to revive democracy on academic campuses or even give due space to its supposedly large following in party structures.The PTI government is mainly composed of turncoats and there are not enough youth representatives in the policy-making structures.

The state of other mainstream parties is no different. Take the case of PPP, with a young, progressive leader. Ideally, the PPP was poised as the most appropriate platform for youth politics. Sadly, the party is in a state of disarray and continues to be in the tight grip of uncles and aunties. Other than Bilawal Bhutto and his sisters, one rarely finds a young leader at the party meetings. The PPP, however, does deserve credit for taking some initial steps to restore student unions in Sindh. But nothing has moved beyond lip service.

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The PML-N remains oblivious to democratizing its party structures and in its last tenure, treated the youth as no more than potential voters that could be bought off through goodies such as laptops, loans and internships. The only positive outcome of PML-N’s recent posturing has been energizing a large number of young men and women on social media and Maryam Nawaz deserves acknowledgment for making it happen.

Given the sad state of affairs, the non-partisan student movements across the country are pushing the boundaries of conventional politics. They are asking for quality education, more investment in education sector, academic freedom and an end to discrimination on university campuses. We endorse these demands and urge the political parties to back these energetic and contumacious students.

In the current neoliberal environment, where education has become a commodity to be purchased in the marketplace, the Students Solidarity March has opened a window for the future shape of political mobilization. Until the critical questions raised by students who marched today are not duly addressed, democracy and development in Pakistan will remain unachievable.

For the courageous students, we have a little piece of advice: Build coalitions of support, work with mainstream political parties especially the ones which are committed to the principles of constitutional democracy and find ways to create a sustainable movement that is not beholden to charismatic individuals, but is inclusive and open to engaging with a variety of youth networks.

Lastly, the state should immediately lift the ban on student unions. The arguments that the unions cause violence is bogus and self-serving. The sources of violence are created by the state itself: through the repression of dissent, denying voice to the marginalised and patronage of groups that implement official policies through use of wanton force.

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