It seems the countrywide rallying by students in the guise of Students Solidarity March on Friday has made those in the power corridors take note of the plight of the country’s youth, with Prime Minister Imran Khan hinting at a possible lifting of the ban on student unions.

The November 29 protest to demand rights for students saw hundreds of thousands of students from across Pakistan take to the streets in several cities simultaneously, calling for an end to the ban on student unions, abolition of fees and rolling back of cuts in higher education budget.

Other demands included a halt to privatization of educational institutions, at least 5% of total GDP allocation for education, abolishment of semester system, allowance of political activities in educational institutions and end to intervention of security forces in educational institutions.

The Ban Story

The ban on the student politics and unions has been in place since February 9, 1984, when the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq put a bar on students’ political activities in colleges and universities. The ban was eased for a brief period in 1988 by then prime minister Benazir Bhutto, but it was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1990 and apex court eventually re-imposed the ban in 1993.

However, the ban has done little to achieve what it aimed at i.e. putting an end to spiraling violence on campuses. Since then, violence on campus has only increased. Student unions have been banned, but student factions remain evident on campuses. Campus unions were once an indigenous activity of students, by the students and for the students. But since the ban, students over the years have been subject of factionalism fuelled by many mainstream political parties, whose aim has been to exert influence on campus and on the street.

Students once engaged in intellectual arguments, agreed to differ in peace and learnt harder to improve their rebuttals. Over the course of three decades that unions have remained banned, those intellectual arguments have been replaced by insults, differences have been dealt with silencing through violence and the only rebuttal that has truly become significant is that of muscle.

So while it is essentially important to restore student unions on campuses, it is even more essential to ensure that the politics of students is just that; politics of students. This is apparently what the PM had in mind in his message on Twitter on Sunday.

Acknowledging the role of universities and students, Khan wrote, “Universities groom future leaders of the country & student unions form an integral part of this grooming. Unfortunately, in Pakistan universities’ student unions became violent battlegrounds & completely destroyed the intellectual atmosphere on campuses.”

In the clearest hint so far of his intention to let the ban on student unions go, the prime minister added, “We will establish a comprehensive & enforceable code of conduct, learning from the best practices in internationally renowned universities, so that we can restore & enable student unions to play their part in positively grooming our youth as future leaders of the country.”

This is indeed a welcome news and one that will assure student of Pakistan that their voice is loud and audible in the furthest of corners. But what students must also do is show an intent to keep clear of the vested interest some political players aim to push for in return for their support.

What we need is students at the helm of affairs of matters that relate to their fate.

Let the unions be, we say.

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