E Magazine Issue 09 December 2019

Student Unions: Is It Time?


The call for reviving student unions has been heard time and again and ignored with ease. But the decibels the students have achieved this time around might make even the deafest of ears take notice. Maybe.

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he move was quite Orwellian indeed. And the year as well. It was 1984 when then ruler of the country, late General Zia ul Haq, proclaimed a ban on student politics at university and college campuses across the country. Thirty five years have passed, but the clampdown continues, despite almost every political and social leader calling for and promising to address this key issue affecting the youth of Pakistan. Zia regimes move was apparently an attempt to curb the then spiraling violence and clashes between students on the Left and Right sides of the ideological divide. Ironically, violence on campuses has only grown in the years that followed, all while stifling the intellectual discourse and social development of students.

In recent months, the debate around the long-standing demand of restoration of student unions has come to the fore again. The movement gained special mileage at last month’s Faiz Festival in Lahore, where students turned up in large numbers.Student unions have had a defining role in Pakistan’s politics, and though they remain banned, students continue to play an important role in the politics of the country. 

Slap The Ban 

It was February 9 in 1984 when student unions were banned in the country. The curbs were eased for a brief period in in 1988 by then prime minister Benazir Bhutto, but the move was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1990. The apex court then re-imposed the ban in 1993. Nonetheless, discussions about reviving the unions has been a regular feature of social and political debates, but without leading to much progress. In his address to parliament after getting elected as prime minister in 2008, Yousaf Raza Gilani had vowed to restore the unions. However, his government failed to keep the promise.

Student unions have had a defining role in Pakistan’s politics, and though they remain banned, students continue to play an important role in the politics of the country.

Another attempt was again made by PPP in Senate in 2017. On August 27, 2017, the Senate passed a resolution for the restoration of student unions. The senate cited the positive role of the unions for arranging activities for their respective student bodies, as well as defending the rights of students. Once again, the ban was not lifted as a bill could not be pushed through Parliament. Other attempts were also made and resolutions passed by the Sindh Assembly. The most recent attempt was a resolution passed by the Sindh Assembly on November 4 to lift the ban student unions in the province, however, the provincial government had not lifted the ban as of yet.

Student Say

One of people who made much of their presence at the Faiz Festival in Lahore was Arooj Aurangzaib. In conversation with the Academia Magazine about the restoration of student unions, she said it had been so long since the ban on student unions that students had forgotten their rights. “Because of this, students do not realise that they have a say in decision making and that they can make decisions about their education,” she added. The continuation of the ban is quite perplexing, given that all major political parties of the country have active student wings, upon which they rely for rallying support on various issue and occasion. It is no secret that every public university in the country is defined by rival student factions, each having a clear backing of some political party. The Punjab University in Lahore is a prime example, and it is no secret who supports whom. Despite this, many mainstream political parties shy away from working for or even demanding the restoration of student unions, apart from the PPP and JI, who made the demand part of their election manifestos in the 2018 election.Haider Kaleem, an activist, told Academia Magazine that political parties had been opportunist in their cause of supporting the restoration of student unions. “Political parties use students when it suits them, such as for mobilization, campaigning etc.” He was also critical of the ruling party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and said the party had been exploiting the youth for its own agenda. Kaleem said Prime Minister Imran Khan “always speaks about the youth and calls himself the leader of the youth but is silent on the constitutional right of the students – the right to association”.

Campus Violence

The biggest criticism against student unions has been the claim that they turn violent and cause harm to themselves and others in the process. In fact, this was the reason cited by the Zia regime for banning student unions in the first place. Responding to the argument, Arooj said how was it that campus violence continued to exist despite student unions having been for more than third of a century. Naming Islamic Jamiat-e-Talba (IJT), she said the group had been involved in almost all incidents of violence on campus, but university administrations had failed to control them over the years. Responding to the claim, IJT Central Information Secretary Rana Usman said IJT had always been peaceful and accused ethnic student organizations of conspiring and dragging it into various conflicts.

While the motive of the ban was ending campus violence, that same has only grown in campuses across Pakistan over the years.

He said the IJT had stood the test of time and had remained because of its support from all parts of the country. Asked if IJT would join the other side in demanding the restoration of student unions, he said the IJT had always supported the cause, but objected to the slogan raised by the students. He said IJT had always stood against the ‘Red Asia’ slogan and instead believed in ‘Green Asia’. Asma Aamir,  another activist working for youth’s political rights, said, “Many good politicians of today once were part of student unions. Student unions are the nursery for young leadership. Therefore, I fully endorse the students demand for revival of unions. It can play a vital role for those who want to be a part of mainstream politics in their future. “

Teachers’ Take 

Prof Dr Mumtaz Anwer Chaudhry, president of the Academic Staff Association (ASA) of Punjab University, who himself leads the teachers’ union, told Academia Magazine he had always believed in letting student unions exist. “Unions are a form of representation that cannot be denied to anyone. I have studied in Germany and UK where student unions exist,” Chaudhry said. However, he added that the scope of student unions was an important question that needed to be answered.

Although he disagreed with the idea that student unions should be allowed to be part of administrations, he did opine that students giving their input in academic and other activities in Syndicate or academic council should be acceptable. “But if the student representative, being part of the syndicate, was part of choosing a head of a department, it would be out of scope of what students should be doing.”  For their part, people at the forefront of the recent movement that demands rights for students have put forth certain demands from the powers that be. They want the government to lift the ban on student unions and hold elections of student unions across the country immediately. They also demand a halt to privatization of educational institutions, besides a roll back of recent decision to increase fees.

Also in their list of demands is the revocation of recent budget cuts in HEC budget and lay off of academics and at least 5% of total GDP allocation for education, abolishment of semester system, allowance of political activities in educational institutions, end to intervention of security forces in educational institutions, end of Curfew Timings of male and female students, committees based on harassment law with female representation, establishment of educational institutions in the less developed areas, provision of jobs to degree holders or an alternate unemployment allowance and associating April 13 with Mashal Khan and making it a public holiday. While the list of demands is long and may take some time becoming a reality, one is certain; the students’ movement has gained considerable momentum and might well be in its best position to press for its rights.  The key question is: is anybody even listening? 

E Magazine Issue 09 December 2019

Dr Sajida Vandal: Reimagining Arts Education In Pakistan

E Magazine Issue 09 December 2019

A Story About Stories

Storytelling used to be an important way to preserve linguistic, cultural and national identity. It was a key source of knowledge as well, besides a surefire way of giving children the gift of imagination. Sadly, that gift is not being presented to our children anymore and Instab Sahi tells us why we should consider making storytelling a part of our traditional education system.

E Magazine Issue 09 December 2019

A Bad Time To Be A Kashmiri Student


The most educated part of South Asia is where students are punished the most, in an international conflict that shows no respite.

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By Ahmed Quraishi

There is an eerie silence now on the only website in Kashmir for students and educationists. It used to be a bustling place three months ago, where students from around Kashmir used to come for latest information on courses, admissions, and student-related news. Today, the website looks haunted, like the Titanic ship, with every post on the page showing the same date: 4 August 2019. That was the day before India imposed a curfew and full communication blackout in Kashmir. The internet was cutoff, leaving the website with the last uploaded articles and reports. This online community symbolizes how the curfew and communication ban have disrupted school life in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

Most Kashmiri students have not seen their classrooms for more than three months now, as India refuses to heed calls by countries, the United Nations, and the international media to end the curfew and restore normalcy

Just like this online site, most Kashmiri students have not seen their classrooms for more than three months now, as India refuses to heed calls by countries, the United Nations, and the international media to end the curfew and restore normalcy. New Delhi illegally annexed Kashmir on August 5. The curfew is meant to stop the world from seeing Kashmiri reaction, which would puncture the neatly laid official storyline that Kashmiris accept Indian government control. And since the Kashmiri protest movement is largely made up of the younger generation, schools and colleges are a special target. 


Kashmiri students are the most educated in South Asia despite being at the heart of several conventional wars and a possible a nuclear-armed confrontation if the conflict is not resolved. The literacy rates have consistently been the highest for Kashmiris in both Pakistan and India. This underlines Kashmiri fondness for education. So the students are the hardest hit now when, in Indian-occupied Kashmir, students within a total Kashmiri population between 8 and 10 million are unable to reach their schools because of either the curfew, the security situation, or because the Indian paramilitaries have taken over schools to use them as temporary barracks.

Two months into the curfew, India tried to reopen the schools and encourage Kashmiri students to resume studies. (The curfew now has turned into likely the longest siege of a population this size in modern times). When the announcement was made, a correspondent for the Indian wire service, the IANS, visited a few schools in Kashmir, giving names of the schools and locations, and filed a story that described how teachers and staff were in office but no students at all. The report, which was carried by Indian media outlets, emphasized that Indian paramilitaries occupied some of schools.

READ MORE: Indian Forces Killing Intellectuals, Phd Scholars In Kashmir


Troubles for Kashmiri students go back in time. After the 2016 extrajudicial execution of a charismatic social media activist Burhan Wani, whose desperation at the situation pushed him to armed resistance, students studying at Indian schools faced a backlash. Indian extremists stormed into dorm rooms to beat up Kashmiri students. Many were intimidated on campuses and forced to return to Kashmir. In one incident, India watched on social media in horror as Indian extremists tried to enter the residences of female Kashmiri students. The Indian federal and state governments largely failed to protect Kashmiri students or punish Indian extremists involved, which raised the possibility that these attacks had some official sanction. Several of the incidents involved student groups linked to the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which is known to encourage religious hate. As a result, Pakistan was compelled to step in and offer scholarships at Pakistani universities for hundreds of Kashmiri students.

Many Kashmiris have the means but cannot study at foreign schools because of India’s harsh passport policy. India uses travel documents as one of the ways of controlling Kashmiris. So, Kashmiris who ‘behave,’ as in accept Indian rule and cooperate with Indian authorities, get a passport as a reward. Those who oppose India are punished by not receiving travel documents. Therefore, India is often the only foreign-schooling option left for many Kashmiris.

Economic hardship due to Kashmir lockdown will affect thousands of families and will further reduce the numbers of young Kashmiris with access to quality education. Kashmir has seen losses of up to a billion dollars since India slapped the world’s longest curfew. The figure was officially announced mid-November by Kashmir’s main trade body. The full impact of this loss, including on education, will be visible after India lifts the blockade. Even prosperous Kashmiri students who managed to travel to study in India, Pakistan, the Arabian Gulf, and the West are suffering. Their families cannot send money to cover tuition fees, and in many cases telephone communication is difficult or not available. Again, the communication blackout prevents journalists and researchers from understanding the full scale of this tragedy. But some examples exist. Many Twitter threads, with vivid descriptions, help in understanding how self-financed Kashmiri students in Pakistani universities are surviving. These students are not on scholarships and are completely dependent on funding from home.

So, the plight of Kashmiri students, who are some of the smartest in South Asia, really comes down to conflict resolution. But this does not absolve the government of India from its responsibilities to ensure Kashmiri students have full access to education in accordance with international law and Geneva Conventions.


The Kashmir Conflict has reached a stage where the end game is visible. The Kashmiris will achieve some form of end to Indian military occupation, and possibly succeed in getting an UN-supervised referendum to decide their political future. But this will be an arduous road. The key point is that India can no longer reverse Kashmir’s freedom. This is no longer debatable post-Wani. The freedom movement has cultivated enough critical mass for it to challenge India’s repeated claims that UNSC resolutions have ‘expired’ (UNSC resolutions do not expire; their status can only change through subsequent resolutions).The strategic community is watching Kashmir slip out of India’s hands. The Diplomat has bluntly said that Kashmir is Slipping Away from India. The Foreign Policy magazine has published an article titled, India is Losing Kashmir, and the BBC asked: Is India losing Kashmir?The reason the international media is discussing this is simple. It’s because India has lost Kashmir in most ways except the physical control, and that now is a matter of time.  Indian leaders realize they are headed toward the inevitable in Kashmir. Some Indian lawmakers, especially from non-Hindi speaking states, have called for ‘letting Kashmir go’ if that’s what the Kashmiri nation wants. Some Indian politicians have admitted that Kashmir is lost already.

Many Kashmiris have the means but cannot study at foreign schools because of India’s harsh passport policy. India uses travel documents as one of the ways of controlling Kashmiris.

It is a human tragedy that a minority of Indian politicians (most of them religious, Hindi-speaking, and come from the ruling state of UP in the north) whip up false religious and nationalistic emotions over Kashmir, where Indian army kills innocent civilians and where the Indian military suffers its worst casualties, including suicides and psychological problems as the Indian soldiers fight a losing battle. India holds the key not only to peace in Kashmir but the entire region. India created Kashmir conflict by stalling and rejecting UNSC resolutions. There is no real conflict between Pakistan and India if Kashmir is resolved. India is a big enough country to afford the necessary concessions to resolve Kashmir, allow Kashmiris to heal their wounds, and allow Pakistan and India to enjoy the dividends of peace.

If India fails to do this, the region will see more instability, and a possible war, which eventually would invite international intervention. That could be humiliating for India. It is better to show leadership, vision and compassion, and resolve the conflict with the Kashmiris and Pakistan. 

Expecting Pakistan to forget Kashmir is not an option. The physical, historical, cultural, and religious links between Pakistanis and Kashmiris make it impossible to consider this option. A comparable situation does not exist in India, where the vast majority of Indians share no affinity to Kashmiris and, more importantly, the Kashmiris overwhelmingly reject any manufactured affiliation to India.  Wani was an Internet poster boy for a new generation of Kashmiris. He donned military fatigues for show, as a form of rebellion and rejection of military occupation. He was handsome, well-educated, and Kashmiris loved him. India arrested him alive, but it miscalculated in his murder as it has miscalculated everything else in Kashmir.  Burhan Wani has changed Kashmir forever. He is also an example of how many smart, capable and intelligent Kashmiri students lost their lives and careers because of a conflict that awaits India’s readiness to permanently end it.


The writer is the executive director of YFK-International Kashmir Lobby Group, a nonprofit working on accountability for human rights violations in Kashmir and the peaceful resolution of the conflict. He can be reached at