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Will the Recent Protests Revive Student Unions in Pakistan?

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The Progressive Students Federation (PRSF), a leftwing students’ federation recently held a protest outside the Islamabad Press Club.

The recent protests by students’ bodies, by and large, have been ‘leaderless’ as angry students in huge numbers from Lahore to Islamabad and from Multan to Karachi have been protesting against on-campus papers demanding the online examinations.

The protests raging across the country have massively united students, by and large, in their appeal to push for online exams.

Critically examining the student protests in the last few weeks, it becomes evident that the ‘power’ of defunct students unions is once again forgathering and gaining momentum.

The protests swelled with private and public sector universities and students from colleges also participated.

Students from erstwhile FATA and Balochistan also protested outside the Pakistan Medical Commission (PMC) to restore their medical seats, which had been reduced in these areas from 265 to 29.

The struggle for the restoration of students unions has been going on, though not in a unified direction. Over the period of the last two years, students across the country tried to build their case for their rights from reducing the tuition fee to on-campus freedom of speech but there were no unified attempts. As in 2019, when left wing student body staged protests, they eventually had a verbal clash with right wing student bodies. The ideological differences surfaced instead of any logical attempt that may move towards providing the students their due rights.

Student unions were banned in Pakistan in the year 1984 by the former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. The student movements have been making attempts to break into politics since the ban despite a turbulent history.

Pakistan People’s Party leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto revived student unions in 1989 but it was banned again by the Supreme Court’s 1993 decision.

Over the last few years, the Progressive Students’ Collective has mainly spearheaded the most recent debate about the revival of the students unions.

In 2019, on November 29, students from across the country marched to demand the restoration of student unions in the country under the umbrella of Students Solidarity March.

Prime Minister Imran Khan afterwards expressed his government’s resolve to allow the restoration of student unions subject to the establishment of a comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct.

In a tweet, he said, “Universities groom future leaders of the country and student unions form an integral part of this grooming and become violent battlegrounds and completely destroy the intellectual atmosphere on campuses”.

“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,” the Prime Minister said.

However, the promise was never materialized and certainly, the government doesn’t seem to be invested into the restoration of student unions.

During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when the varsities and Higher Education Commission (HEC) announced the on-campus examinations, the dispersed students started protests on their own at their campuses.

The recent mass protests by students turned violent and the private institutions lodged FIRs against the protesting students. On January 26, Police baton-charged and arrested dozens of students from outside the University of Central Punjab (UCP), where students were protesting against the on-campus exams. The incident occurred when university guards hurled stones on protesting students, according to students’ narrative, while varsity claimed some unidentified elements attacked the university. Student Action Committee (SAC) along with the Haqooq Khalq Movement (HKM) and Progressive Students Collective (PSC) jointly addressed a press conference and announced student protests across the country in reaction to the arrests and torture of students in Lahore.

It is relevant to mention that authorities in Punjab, the Higher Education Minister Raja Yasir Humayun placed all the burden on the Higher Education Commission (HEC) for the final policy formulation of conducting online exams.

The Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood in a tweet announced that HEC ‘allowed’ the universities to hold exams as per their capacity. Shafqat Mehmood said, “I am happy to note that HEC has formally allowed the universities to conduct online exams with adequate safeguards. This paves the way for them to devise right procedures quickly to do so. Education standards must be kept up. Work hard students and wish you the best.”

The HEC announced policy was later interpreted by the campuses and many universities including Punjab University, National University of Modern Languages (NUML), Peshawar University and Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan.

In Peshawar University, students encircled the Vice Chancellor office and staged sit-it till their demands were accepted by the university administration.

The recent protests reflect upon the students’ unity and democratic struggle, which successfully led to their fulfilled demands. The struggle for restoration has already stirred the national debate. Hence, the coming months will reveal how students will present and convince their case for the restoration of student bodies.

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