Student unions — models of democracy?

Published: January 19, 2016
The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS

The writer is a professor of political science at LUMS

The political class has decided to revive student unions in colleges and universities to promote ‘democracy’ in the country. If the ruling dynasties and their allies in the assemblies wish to undertake the big task of strengthening democracy, the logical starting point is the political parties they belong to. Democracy doesn’t suit them, neither in determining who holds the party office or who gets the nomination to run for any public office. All keys are in the hands of the chief oligarchs of the parties. Strengthening democracy is not the reason for reviving student unions. The reason is that political dynasties and religious, ethnic and sectarian groups wish to extend their influence over educational institutions.

The truth of the matter is that student unions, before they were banned, were political unions. They were funded, handled, advised, and given weapons and physical protection by the party leaders who had special assignments in their home districts and cities for this purpose. There were many contenders, the PPP, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and a host of ethnic parties from the ANP to Baloch groups. These parties used their student wings as their political nurseries, apparently to develop a political cadre for their ‘ideologies’. That is not something objectionable at all, but the intent and the way student politics was actually practised turned out to be very different. Sure, some of the parties like the JI and some socialist groups were engaged in cultivating young students to embrace their respective ideologies. But the political parties, including the JI, also had a much more sinister design — to control educational institutions.

The end result was that each dominant political party, from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to Karachi, came to control the student unions to demonstrate to the general public how popular they were among the youth. Why did they concentrate their political attention and resources towards the unions? It is because of the great role that the students of my generation, independent of any political party, had played in the anti-Ayub Khan movement. The early leaders and groups of students who marched on the streets demanding democracy were not part of any political party — they had ideas and ambitions that coincided with the programmes of some of the parties. The power they demonstrated on the streets, the spontaneity of their actions and the strength of the slogan — democracy — made the students a power to be reckoned with.

The political class jumped into the fray and began to create their own student factions, giving them party labels. That ended the autonomy, the power and the influence of the Pakistani youth on the affairs of the state. The young population in colleges and universities became hostage to the gun-toting, paid and protected strong men of the political parties. Since consent was not the means to win votes or influence on campuses, what mattered was how much cash, weapons and sharp-shooters a party could place on campuses. While ordinary students and the administration lost power, the parties through their resident agents assumed all power. On some of the campuses in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, there were scores of killings of political rivals without there being a single arrest, let alone a conviction.

I believe there are many paths to promoting democracy at the grass roots level. Student unions can be one of them. But sadly, these have always been political unions of the dominant political groups. Surely, the political class and the ruling dynasties — with new faces of the next generation — will come to control the unions, as in the past. Campus politics will become a reflection of the rivalries and conflicts of dynastic politics at large.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (3)

  • Abdullah
    Jan 20, 2016 - 1:31PM

    Student unions is the need of time. Otherwise we will (and have) have a huge vacuum of leadership and good educated politicians. Recommend

  • MUF
    Jan 20, 2016 - 1:39PM

    We are in the habit of travelling in circles.
    The timing is right for the PML(N) to hand over the Educational institutions of Punjab especially by this move to the JI and lure it away from IK before the next election. As a by product of this decision the NAP will also be dented beyond repair.Recommend

  • Dumb Professor
    Feb 7, 2016 - 1:27AM

    You need to retire.Recommend

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