A Third Of A Century Later, Student Unions Remain Banned In Pakistan

It has been 34 years. A third of a century has passed since students in Pakistan were deprived of a platform that allowed them to practice upon their skills of diplomacy, debate, politics and leadership. This February 9, it is the 34th anniversary of the ban on student unions in all educational institutions in the country.

The year was 1984 when then ruler of the country, late General Zia ul Haq, proclaimed the ban on student politics at university and college campuses across the country. The move was apparently an attempt to curb increasing violence and clashes between students on the Left and Right sides of the ideological divide. Ironically, the continued ban has not only failed to end violence on campuses, but also resulted in stifling the intellectual growth and social development of students.

Pros and Cons

For those answering with aye, student unions were training grounds that provided responsible citizens to the national mainstream. The indulgence in constructive debate, campaigning for intra-university positions, developing small-scale governance policies, highlighting and resolving issues affecting the student body and ensuing accountability are cited as some of the drills that made students turn into fine individuals who could shape the country’s future for the better.

But for naysayers, student politics conjures up images of slit open bloodied heads, gun violence, gangsterism, strikes, political interventions and pressurisation, and a complete disconnect with the academic process. Varsity administrations, critics of student unions opine, also became hostage to political influence and failed to take decisive actions against elements crossing disciplinary boundaries. But violence and political influence continue to mar progress of universities even without the unions, as was on display in last month’s clash at Punjab University.

Half-hearted Attempts

The ban on student unions was briefly lifted in 1988 by the regime of prime minister Benazir Bhutto, but was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1990. The apex court then re-imposed the ban in 1993. Nonetheless, there have been discussions about reviving the unions, but without much progress. In his address to parliament after getting elected as prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani vowed to restore student unions. However, his government failed to keep the promise.

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.

A discussion paper published by Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), tilted Proposed Revival of Student Unions in Pakistan, calls for a wider debate among stakeholders. The paper published in 2008 concludes, “An effort should be made to learn from the examples of other countries. India has gone through and may still be going through almost similar experiences relating to students’ unions and their negative fallout. The safeguards and guidelines adopted by the Indian Government and the Supreme Court may serve as a good starting point while preparing a blue print for the orderly revival of students’ unions in Pakistan.”

But without regulated student unions, students have found refuge in in various groups based on religious, ethnic and geographic affinity. The purpose is quite similar – protection of rights of affiliated students. The problem? The groups work for the benefit of the parts, not whole of the student body. And the sum of parts – even if working well for each – can never be greater than the whole.

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