The call for reviving student unions has been heard time and again and ignored with ease. But the decibels the students have achieved this time around might make even the deafest of ears take notice. Maybe.

he move was quite Orwellian indeed. And the year as well. It was 1984 when then ruler of the country, late General Zia ul Haq, proclaimed a ban on student politics at university and college campuses across the country. Thirty five years have passed, but the clampdown continues, despite almost every political and social leader calling for and promising to address this key issue affecting the youth of Pakistan. Zia regimes move was apparently an attempt to curb the then spiraling violence and clashes between students on the Left and Right sides of the ideological divide. Ironically, violence on campuses has only grown in the years that followed, all while stifling the intellectual discourse and social development of students.

In recent months, the debate around the long-standing demand of restoration of student unions has come to the fore again. The movement gained special mileage at last month’s Faiz Festival in Lahore, where students turned up in large numbers.Student unions have had a defining role in Pakistan’s politics, and though they remain banned, students continue to play an important role in the politics of the country. 

Slap The Ban 

It was February 9 in 1984 when student unions were banned in the country. The curbs were eased for a brief period in in 1988 by then prime minister Benazir Bhutto, but the move was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1990. The apex court then re-imposed the ban in 1993. Nonetheless, discussions about reviving the unions has been a regular feature of social and political debates, but without leading to much progress. In his address to parliament after getting elected as prime minister in 2008, Yousaf Raza Gilani had vowed to restore the unions. However, his government failed to keep the promise.

Student unions have had a defining role in Pakistan’s politics, and though they remain banned, students continue to play an important role in the politics of the country.

Another attempt was again made by PPP in Senate in 2017. On August 27, 2017, the Senate passed a resolution for the restoration of student unions. The senate cited the positive role of the unions for arranging activities for their respective student bodies, as well as defending the rights of students. Once again, the ban was not lifted as a bill could not be pushed through Parliament. Other attempts were also made and resolutions passed by the Sindh Assembly. The most recent attempt was a resolution passed by the Sindh Assembly on November 4 to lift the ban student unions in the province, however, the provincial government had not lifted the ban as of yet.

Student Say

One of people who made much of their presence at the Faiz Festival in Lahore was Arooj Aurangzaib. In conversation with the Academia Magazine about the restoration of student unions, she said it had been so long since the ban on student unions that students had forgotten their rights. “Because of this, students do not realise that they have a say in decision making and that they can make decisions about their education,” she added. The continuation of the ban is quite perplexing, given that all major political parties of the country have active student wings, upon which they rely for rallying support on various issue and occasion. It is no secret that every public university in the country is defined by rival student factions, each having a clear backing of some political party. The Punjab University in Lahore is a prime example, and it is no secret who supports whom. Despite this, many mainstream political parties shy away from working for or even demanding the restoration of student unions, apart from the PPP and JI, who made the demand part of their election manifestos in the 2018 election.Haider Kaleem, an activist, told Academia Magazine that political parties had been opportunist in their cause of supporting the restoration of student unions. “Political parties use students when it suits them, such as for mobilization, campaigning etc.” He was also critical of the ruling party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and said the party had been exploiting the youth for its own agenda. Kaleem said Prime Minister Imran Khan “always speaks about the youth and calls himself the leader of the youth but is silent on the constitutional right of the students – the right to association”.

Campus Violence

The biggest criticism against student unions has been the claim that they turn violent and cause harm to themselves and others in the process. In fact, this was the reason cited by the Zia regime for banning student unions in the first place. Responding to the argument, Arooj said how was it that campus violence continued to exist despite student unions having been for more than third of a century. Naming Islamic Jamiat-e-Talba (IJT), she said the group had been involved in almost all incidents of violence on campus, but university administrations had failed to control them over the years. Responding to the claim, IJT Central Information Secretary Rana Usman said IJT had always been peaceful and accused ethnic student organizations of conspiring and dragging it into various conflicts.

While the motive of the ban was ending campus violence, that same has only grown in campuses across Pakistan over the years.

He said the IJT had stood the test of time and had remained because of its support from all parts of the country. Asked if IJT would join the other side in demanding the restoration of student unions, he said the IJT had always supported the cause, but objected to the slogan raised by the students. He said IJT had always stood against the ‘Red Asia’ slogan and instead believed in ‘Green Asia’. Asma Aamir,  another activist working for youth’s political rights, said, “Many good politicians of today once were part of student unions. Student unions are the nursery for young leadership. Therefore, I fully endorse the students demand for revival of unions. It can play a vital role for those who want to be a part of mainstream politics in their future. “

Teachers’ Take 

Prof Dr Mumtaz Anwer Chaudhry, president of the Academic Staff Association (ASA) of Punjab University, who himself leads the teachers’ union, told Academia Magazine he had always believed in letting student unions exist. “Unions are a form of representation that cannot be denied to anyone. I have studied in Germany and UK where student unions exist,” Chaudhry said. However, he added that the scope of student unions was an important question that needed to be answered.

Although he disagreed with the idea that student unions should be allowed to be part of administrations, he did opine that students giving their input in academic and other activities in Syndicate or academic council should be acceptable. “But if the student representative, being part of the syndicate, was part of choosing a head of a department, it would be out of scope of what students should be doing.”  For their part, people at the forefront of the recent movement that demands rights for students have put forth certain demands from the powers that be. They want the government to lift the ban on student unions and hold elections of student unions across the country immediately. They also demand a halt to privatization of educational institutions, besides a roll back of recent decision to increase fees.

Also in their list of demands is the revocation of recent budget cuts in HEC budget and lay off of academics and at least 5% of total GDP allocation for education, abolishment of semester system, allowance of political activities in educational institutions, end to intervention of security forces in educational institutions, end of Curfew Timings of male and female students, committees based on harassment law with female representation, establishment of educational institutions in the less developed areas, provision of jobs to degree holders or an alternate unemployment allowance and associating April 13 with Mashal Khan and making it a public holiday. While the list of demands is long and may take some time becoming a reality, one is certain; the students’ movement has gained considerable momentum and might well be in its best position to press for its rights.  The key question is: is anybody even listening? 

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