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Political Parties Should Join Hands To Revive Student Unions

There was something quite striking about the recent Students Solidarity March. It challenged the government’s austerity policies, the stagnant political discourse and the hold of right wing over the public domain. It was a blow dealt with grace. It was song of peace. A song against oppression.

Student participation in politics is vital for any democratic country. While the old elites of Pakistan have preferred to retain the curbs placed on student unions, the youth are unwilling to accept the status quo. The history of student unions in the country goes back to the Pakistan Movement with the formation of the Muslim Students Federation (MSF) that acknowledged the role of students in the newly-formed country. With the passage of time, more political parties with different agendas and ideologies came to the fore. New student unions sprang up, such as the Democratic Students Federation (DSF), National Student Federation (NSF), Peoples Students Federation (PSF), the Islami Jamiat Taliba (IJT), and more recently, the Insaf Students Federation.

The 1970s were the high point in student politics as Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promoted and patronized student unions and passed the Student Union Ordinance 1974. This legislation formalised and encouraged political activities on campus.

General Zia ul Haq’s coup in 1977 changed everything. As a starter, Zia regime was fiercely resisted by the Punjab Progressive Students Alliance (PPSA) at Punjab University, Gordon College and the newly-built Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. Students started demonstrating against the military dictatorship. Student groups were perceived as a threat by the junta and by 1984 it decided to outlaw them and eliminate a major threat to the unrepresentative rule.

In 1989, Shaheed Benazir Bhutto lifted the ban on student unions and it was during her time that union elections were held in all state-owned colleges of Punjab. In early 1990s, during the first Nawaz Sharif regime, the Supreme Court of Pakistan re-imposed restrictions on student politics. The court did not ban them but its verdict as conveniently interpreted as a ban.

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Organised propaganda has been used over the past three decades to drown the voices of students. Public opinion has been distorted by popularising the narrative that student politics impeded academic activities on campuses. That student unions divert the attention of students away from what should be their primary concern: to study. This is plainly false.

A study by cultural commentator Nadeem Farooq Paracha shows that violence in educational institutes was lower during the 1970s when student union activity was at its peak. It also suggests that those who served in executive councils of different unions were competent and talented students who did well in their studies too, thus debunking the myth that student unions were little more than a rag tag army of bullies.

The ban on student unions was also disproportionate and discriminatory. Religious and right-wing organizations have been free to organise and propagate their message. This policy has stifled freedom of speech and the development of a healthy environment where students can debate and organize themselves to take collective action on subjects that fall outside the purview of the right wing. The depoliticisation of universities has also fuelled intolerance and extremism that have sharply divided our country along religious and sectarian lines.

Student unions are nurseries of democracy. Serving in a student union develops a sense of responsibility among students — a responsibility that is then extended to the political arena. A myriad of challenges confronts students today: rising fees and cost of hostel accommodation, lack of facilities at universities, increasing cases of harassment and ethnic profiling. All these have led to a growing sense of being marginalized and feeling betrayed by the state.

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In such times, it is imperative that all progressive parties support and sustain the call for restoration of student unions. For the youth hold the key to Pakistan’s future.

The youth and student wings of political parties, too, have a lot to benefit from the restoration of student unions. It will help them connect with the grassroots and also provide opportunities for incorporating the concerns of the youth in party agendas. In the long term, this will change the internal structures within political parties that currently are influenced and shaped by the powerful elites.

Student voices are missing in discourse and policies related to higher education. The result is that despite the de-politicization of campuses, our quality of education has been steadily dwindling and campuses have become unsafe spaces rife with discrimination, harassment and nepotism. The privatisation of education has also fostered commodification where education is no longer a service or a means to learning but a commodity to be bought. The richer sections of society therefore can ‘buy’ education for their children while the less privileged receive low quality education in a depoliticised environment thereby producing a generation of sub-optimal human resources as well as young men and women deprived of critical thinking skills.

Progressive and moderate political parties need to set aside their differences and unite to restore student unions.

To hear the song of freedom, we must let the songbirds sing.

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