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Here’s Why Student Unions Should Be Revived

The rise and fall of Student Unions in Pakistan post-1947 is a classic case of state obliteration and a lack of political acumen on the part of political leadership. The indifference, with which this case has been dealt with by the successive military and civilian governments -federal as well as provincial – reeks of gross malafide on the part of otherwise so-called populist political leaders. The denial of the right of self-representation to the students across the country has seriously compromised their socio-political and academic wellbeing and left an irreparable vacuum in their campus life.

It’s a historic fact that the students of the then undivided subcontinent had played a very pivotal role in the Freedom Movement against the British Raj. And, specifically, the students of All India Muslin League were also equally instrumental in the ‘Pakistan Movement’ which was a very prominent political struggle for safeguarding the rights of the millions of Muslims living under the figurative ‘Hindu Raj’ that was autocratically administered by the Indian National Congress. The crucial role played by the students of Aligarh University in the ‘Freedom Movement’ stands testament to the efficacy of student politics, and proves how productive Student Unions could be in building our national life! Let’s try to delineate the rise and fall of Student Unions in Pakistan, and build a logical case for their revival.

Historically speaking, student unions were first banned in 1929 (in United India) and restored in 1959. At the time of Pakistan’s appearance on the map of this world in 1947, the only well-established student organization was the ‘Muslim Students Federation’ (MSF), the student arm of the ruling Muslim League. It was created to recruit the young Muslim students in undivided India to help achieve its goal of acquiring a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Post-independence, three years later, in 1950, the ‘Democratic Students Federation’ (DSF) was founded at Dow Medical College Karachi.

Its only agenda was to address the educational and academic issues of students like tuition fees, library facilities, better classrooms, and etcetera. By 1952 it had evolved into a dedicated left-wing student organization that had also started to exhibit support for various progressive causes through demonstrations, rallies, and protests. By 1953 it had demanded in its ‘Charter of Demands’ for the construction of a proper university in Karachi, which was soon materialized only because of its efforts.

Similarly, the pro-China factions of NSF were instrumental in garnering students’ support for Ayub Khan’s candidacy in the controversial 1965 presidential elections. Likewise, the student unions like NSF, MSF, and Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) had taken out protests against the ‘Tashkent Declaration’, in the aftermath of the country’s 1965 war with India, which, apparently, antagonized the then regime. In the meantime, the provincial government of Punjab had imposed a ban on the formation of student unions, which had negatively affected the culture of campus politics in the province. The role of IJT, Muslim Students Federation (MSF), Democratic Students Federation (DSF), National Students Federation (NSF), and other student unions has been prominent in the democratic history of the country.

The 1970’s is termed as the most democratic period in the history of student politics as the government promoted and patronized student unions and passed the ‘1974 Student Union Ordinance’. The ordinance appreciated and encouraged political activities on campuses. It is the same period when the IJT finally rose as a powerful electoral force.

It’s almost twenty-five years now that student unions were banned through a Supreme Court verdict in 1993. Although Article 17 (a) of the Constitution gives the right to every citizen to “form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality”, it is necessary that these unions are closely watched over.
The ban on student unions in Pakistan is almost three decades old — a residue of the General Zia ul Haq regime. However, even though Zia’s draconian era is now a thing of the past, even the successive democratic governments have shied away, or have been unable to lift the ban for their narrow, personal objectives.

It was precisely the year of 1983 when last student union elections were held in universities and colleges across Pakistan and on the eve of 1984 student union elections, the ruling junta of that time banned them. Zia-ul-Haq collected the reports that anti-government student unions will sweep elections and fear of losing the rule as Ayub Khan had lost, compelled him to sign the charter of erasing student unions. These unions will create a law and order situation, a widely cashed pretext that led to their ban.

The ban on student organizations brought all of the student organizations to one platform and they launched protests against Zia. IJT now started acting without considering any direction from JI, an alarm bell both for Zia and JI. JI at any cost couldn’t afford to annoy IJT, thus it withdrew open support of the Zia regime. On the other hand, Zia gave IJT free hands to operate within universities and colleges. In the wake of this, IJT withdrew from protests against Zia’s ban of student unions.

Renowned satirist, cultural critic, and DAWN columnist, Nadeem Farooq Paracha, has remarked in his book ‘End of The Past’ that during the peak days of the student union in the ’70s, there was less violence witnessed in educational institutes. Likely those who served in executive councils of different unions were competent and talented students, also in their studies. Portraying them as the gathering of goons is not less than a crime committed against student unions.

The student union is the nursery of democracy. Serving in the student union develops a sense of responsibility among students which gets extended when they enter the political arena. This is how student unions create a difference. Those involved in union activities take care of the needs of students from water, bus services, and quality food in cafes to scheduling fees at the campus. This training throughout their lives pushes them for sensible and rational decisions.

Student unions are meant to serve the political environment by their healthy activities, not vested interests of politicians through violence. The political leadership needs to realize that student unions are a requirement of democratic systems. These are the training institutions of democracy. There is a system of student unions everywhere in the world. Every democratic party has student wings for the training of youth so they can come to politics.

During the days of student unions, the fate of students was designed by the institute’s syndicate in their presence, thus they were familiar with what was going on. Is it not miserable for students that they have been made voiceless? They are denied their say in the issues of utmost importance that directly or indirectly affect them. It is none other than snatching one of their basic democratic rights.
More importantly, ain’t it an atrocity that sans student unions, the students actually have no say in any financial or administrative policies of universities which are in fact being formulated for them? As the student unions represent the students, they should be provided with the seat in the university syndicate.

Therefore, for all these reasons, the ban on student unions should immediately be lifted and they must be provided with an amicable environment to flourish and grow on its own. The current COVID-19 crises have only accentuated that need for there is hardly any platform where the students could actually raise their concerns. May the better sense prevail.

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