It is this country’s great misfortune that its educational institutions place critical thinking and the growth of an independent spirit at the bottom rung of their priorities. Those who question the status quo are seen as pariahs as the state grows more intolerant of dissent with each passing day. In this atmosphere, Arooj Aurangzeb — the young woman whose slogans, and leather jacket, captured our discourse — is an inspiring sight. For many young students she has become a symbol of resistance.
On November 29, Arooj and her fellow students will be taking to the streets to demand better standards in our country’s higher education institutions. I urge people to join them. Their quest is not only noble, but also the need of the hour in our country. For these students are not just demanding better facilities (such as transportation and books) but are also asking for the adoption of stricter measures to combat issues like sexual harassment on university campuses.
Perhaps their most important demand is the restoration of student unions and political activities in universities throughout Pakistan.
There is a misconception in the country that student unions are banned. While Zia’s suppression of multiple freedoms did include a ban on student unions in 1984, the ban was lifted by Benazir Bhutto’s government in 1989. The confusion seems to stem from a 1993 judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan regarding a petition that prayed that the ban on student unions be reinstated. But as many other commentators have recently pointed out, that judgment does not ban student unions. Instead, it asks the federal government to restore them.
Despite there being no legal provision that curtails the right of students to engage in political activities, the majority of our universities prohibit such actions through a number of administrative rules. At the heart of the debate, and the subject of the November 29 march, is an affidavit that many students have to sign before gaining admission to many public and private universities. This affidavit asks that students undertake that they will not participate in any unions or political activities. The consequences of violating this affidavit involve expulsion.
The government and universities must understand that any attempt to curtail student unions is a violation of Article 17 of the Constitution. The Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to form associations or unions. The only condition is that such associations not be against the “sovereignty”, “integrity”, “public order”, or “morality” of Pakistan. The government has no factual basis upon which it can say that any of these restrictions is applicable in the case of student unions. The sole argument given against student unions is that they have given rise to violence in the past.
However, this seems to be a broad generalisation. It implies that student unions are inherently violent in some way.
Student unions are no more violent than any association of people such as political parties. And if some are violent, that still does not justify a blanket ban on every single union that may exist. Only a draconian theory of the Constitution would allow a government to curtail a fundamental right on such a vast assumption. If student unions were the cause of violence, then violence in campuses across the country should have decreased, instead it continued to exist. Exposing how the narrative of violence was a myth perpetuated to strangle student unions rather than to curb violence.
If students engaging in political activities create violence, then it seems many of the best universities in the world haven’t gotten the memo from Pakistan. The University of Oxford has its student union, and Yale has its College Council.
Universities are environments for the fulfilment of academic pursuits. However, that is not their sole purpose. Universities are supposed to be places where students evolve their thinking, identity, and political thought. The ban on students undertaking political activity stands in the way of students and their political awakening.
To be sure, student wings of various political parties exist, but student unions serve a different purpose. They allow students to address the power disparity that exists between individual students and the university administration.
It is necessary to address this disparity. Recent events are a testament to this: in the University of Balochistan, the administration was complicit in a massive sexual harassment ring. Had the Balochistan High Court not intervened, the pleas of the students would have continued to fall on deaf ears. At Sindh University, students were branded seditious because of their demand for better water facilities.
Many people point to the hold that the Jamiat has on Punjab University as a case against student politics. But I believe that the opposite is true. It is the fact that students cannot unionise against the Jamiat that has allowed it to grow so powerful. It is unchecked power; other students can curb that power.
Student unions can help Pakistan achieve something that it drastically needs: a development of a culture of democracy. Let students practise democracy and the workings of politics in the days when they are developing their identity. Let them learn the value of the vote. Let them learn the compromise and diplomacy that are essential qualities of leadership. As many commentators have argued, the death of student unions has resulted in a lack of good political leadership in the country. These laboratories of democracy must be reinstated.
It is a cornerstone of liberal democracy that a conflict of ideas will always exist in society, but the best process to resolve this conflict is the democratic process. Student unions can help nurture within students the idea that debate, not violence, can resolve even the most intractable issues that might exist.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 26th, 2019.