Contrary to what is thought of them today, student unions were a dynamic platform for students to peacefully engage in debate and discourse over various pertinent issue. That made the youngsters of yesteryear much more tolerant than the youth of today. Shahkar Aziz makes pleads the case for student unions and why they need to come back.
On February 9th, 1984, then Martial Law administrator cum president of Pakistan General Ziaul Haq issued a ban on Student Unions throughout Pakistan. Whatever the reason behind this act was, it effectively put an end to student unions on campuses, which has continued to this day. In these 34 years or so, many attempts to revive or restore student unions have taken place – all of them facing failure.So, what are student unions? While it may seem odd to discuss a question as basic as this, it is important in that there is a general sense of confusion regarding student unions, often confused with individual student organizations. Student unions are general student bodies, elected by students, and recognized by the administration of the institute. In fact, before the ban, many universities had a student unions fund, which was provided to the elected representatives of the unions to be used for student welfare. Every major educational institute had a constitution for the working of these unions, and they were usually provided with office space within the campus. Elections were held every year, with representatives from different student organizations or even independent students taking part. Therefore, student unions were beyond individual organizations, and acted as a representative of students of all types of political or ideological affiliation. These unions then organized various academic and co-curricular activities, and also highlighted issues of students’ rights.
Thus, with the support of the students, these unions wielded considerable political power, and were involved in various national political issues as well. While on-campus violence was cited as the cause for the ban imposed on student unions, the political power and activism of student unions was seen as a threat for authoritarian regimes, and this may have been the main reason they were banned.
A FORUM TO DIFFER, PEACEFULLY
Student unions provided space for both ideological and political dissent within campuses, as student unions mostly pursued a narrative that went against the power establishment. Also, student unions provided space for debate and discussion among ideological and political opponents, which would have a positive impact on the general discourse in society. One of the reasons of the intolerance that we see on all sides of the spectrum is that our youth have not had the chance to engage in meaningful debate regarding important issues.
Also, these unions provided an opportunity for students to engage in a democratic process of elections, engendering in them democratic values during their student life. In the politics of Pakistan, we see that political parties are dominated by political dynasties, or are often controlled by certain feudal and capitalist elites, who wield both power and money. As such, political parties become hostage to these interest groups, and cannot pursue their policies fully. On the other hand, student unions helped to produce political leadership that emerged from the masses, from middle-class families. If given enough time, student unions will certainly help in creating a political class that is ideologically-driven, determined, educated and open to the issues of the common man.
But for the past 34 years, student unions have received a lot of negative press through propaganda of all sorts, leading to much confusion. One main reason given in support of the ban is the on-campus violence that may ensue once student unions are restored. Certainly, on-campus violence was a reality in the late 70s and early 80s, when our country was in a general state of political and ideological polarization. But instead of seeking a discussion amongst stake-holders on how to solve the issue, or how to create a general framework for the working of these unions, the government decided to use this issue as a political tool, and banned student unions altogether. This is because political regimes may see student activists as a threat to their political power, as is the case in India, for example. Within India, student unions have been politically very active. In the very recent issue of the NRC and CAA legislations regarding citizenship grants, student unions have initiated a country-wide struggle against the controversial legislation of the Modi government.
Another reason might be the students’ protest against fee hikes in UK in 2010, for example. Pakistan, a country that is relatively ‘youngʼ in the sense that a considerable proportion of the population is in the younger age group – needs to focus and invest on this segment of society. However, our education system is in shambles. Due to the commercialization of the education sector, education has become a sort of commodity that only the financially-able consumers can afford. The administrations of educational institutions have totalitarian powers within campuses, and are usually inefficient and corrupt. Furthermore, with rising tuition fees and lack of facilities, the student community has been facing problems of all sorts. So, with the effective ban on student unions, there is no united voice or representation of students; no platform from which students can solve their issues. In fact, the ban has resulted in de-politicization of students, so as to turn them into docile subjects to be manipulated by those in power.
What is the way forward? Recently, the issue of student unions has captured the limelight again, particularly on our electronic and social media platforms.Now is the time to think about this issue in a sincere way, and to come up with concrete solutions. We need a grand dialogue between all stakeholders, students being the most important part of the issue. The dialogue needs to focus on forming a framework, acceptable for all, through which the students can express and represent themselves, raise a voice for their problems, and effectively solve them. This framework should then be implemented throughout the country, and the ban should then immediately be lifted.Maybe history has provided us with a chance to rectify our mistakes, and to learn from them. It is up to us whether we respond to this call of history or not.
Shahkar Aziz has an MPhil is Islamic Studies and runs a chain of international schools in Peshawar. He can be reached at email@example.com