Students from various campuses across the city have often gathered on typically hot Lahore afternoons in the aptly named Liberty Roundabout. There is little media coverage, the numbers a sharp contrast from the popularity of student movements in the 1970s, the ideas often considered radical. The protests are starkly different from mainstream politics in the country; there is story-telling, peaceful sit-ins, live music and no harm to the daily busy life of the city around them. The humidity does little to dampen the fervour with which the students continue to demand a basic democratic right. Something which has been neglected ever since the infamous dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq: the right for students to unionise.
The idea of student unions in Pakistan often brings up the image of hormonal young men erupting in sporadic, nonsensical violence across campuses. However, the functionality, tradition and history of student unions in the country and across the world beg to differ with such simplistic notions. While student unions have been responsible for various acts of violence in the past, a streamlined proposal to revamp them should rightly be on the cards for the incumbent government. Regular checks and balances on student unions to avoid them turning into militant wings of political parties is necessary, but so is instilling a culture of political leadership and plurality within students.
Student unions in the country have historically been used to pave the way for political ideas to foster and grow. Traditional left-wing politics in the country only existed with the support of student unions across campuses, even if it had little mainstream political clout. Similarly, religious parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami have always, despite the ban, used student wings to further political agendas. Repealing the ban on student unions is necessary to institutionalise these informal student federations and include them in the political process.
The fact of the matter is that university campuses can’t be made apolitical. Political activities exist in all human spheres in a variety of shapes and forms. Universities and colleges have traditionally played an important part in Pakistan’s rural and urban politics with political parties banking on support from students to organise events, collect people for rallies or further causes at protests, or simply gather support for causes. However, the ban on student unions has allowed for such a political culture to take place very informally and this has led to a decline in student participation in formal politics.
It has also meant that students’ political activity can’t be monitored and this has allowed various politically-influenced groups to form within campuses which are often merely armed wings backed by local political stalwarts with no mechanism for checks and balances.
The current ban on student unions also creates a vacuum for the students to collectively identify themselves as a political entity in order to further demands. Such a vacuum is often filled by apolitical identities such as ethnicity, religion and caste. The rise of ethnic or sectarian clashes erupting within educational institutions can be tackled by the formation of political identities through student unions, which are based on ideology rather than on other cross-cutting identity cleavages, which are dangerous and more prone to violent outbursts.
The ban on student unions is undemocratic and a hindrance to the establishment of a democratic or pluralistic culture in the country. The Senate Chairman, Raza Rabbani, has recently set up a committee to ponder over the lifting of the ban on student unions. The Senate, in an unprecedented consensus, recognised that student unions are a fundamental democratic right which students have been denied for decades. However, the Senate also recognised the need to revamp the process through which these unions work to minimise the threat of violence.
A ban on student unions also creates a vacuum for future political leadership to emerge from esteemed educational institutes across Pakistan. There barely exists any meritocratic or institutionalised hierarchy for students to pave their way into political parties. This paves the way for new leadership to emerge from outside the educational spectrum creating frustration and distrust for students with the political process. Student unions, if used correctly, can be breeding grounds for students to associate themselves with the political culture and learn leadership, political maturity and political organization first-hand.
There is a consensus in political spheres that the ban on student unions was the result of increased foreign pressure on the Zia regime against grass-root left-leaning democratic evolutions within the Pakistani political space at the peak of the Cold War. No such international pressures exist today and the decision is completely domestic.
While it is necessary that extremist ideologies and militancy be kept separate from campus politics through increased monitoring and a system of checks and balances, the democratic system in Pakistan has seen unprecedented evolution and the time is ripe for a grass-root democratic process to be established through student unions. While the current deliberations of the Senate are a step in the right direction, such attempts have previously been made under the regime of the late Benazir Bhutto, yet the idea never came to fruition. It is of utmost importance that the government implements a comprehensive plan to reintroduce student unions while also laying down a comprehensive mechanism for checks and balances.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th, 2016.