Student federations active today in the country are unanimous in their demand that student unions be restored, an election schedule be announced, and union elections be held as soon as possible.

The demand has the backing of the leadership of National Students Federation (NSF), Democratic Students Federation (DSF), People’s Students Federation (PSF), Muslim Students Federation (MSF), Insaf Student Federation (ISF), All Pakistan Muttahida Students Organisation (APMSO) and Islami Jamiat-i-Tulaba (IJT).

The then-prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani had, in his maiden speech to the inaugural session of the 2008 parliament, announced restoration of student unions. However, the announcement was not followed on with action.

Rana Sultan, senior vice president of PSF, says: “The establishment” blocked any attempts to restore the unions. “The chief secretaries of all four provinces wrote to the Prime Minister (in 2008) saying student unions could not be restored owing to a precarious security situation,” he claims.

A nationwide convention of the vice chancellors of various universities later, also, expressed unwillingness to allow restoration of unions, which is believed to have sealed the deal on the matter.

The ban on student unions was imposed in 1984 by the regime of Gen Ziaul Haq through Martial Law Orders. Later, the orders were rescinded by the first government of Benazir Bhutto in 1988. Three years later, the unions were challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan on grounds that they were contributing to on-campus violence. In 1993, a three-member SC bench headed by the then Chief Justice, Afzal Zulla, imposed a ban on the political nature of student unions.

The NSF is running an awareness campaign aimed at helping students realise the true nature of student unions and better understand how their restoration would benefit them. As part of its campaign, it is collecting signatures from students who believe unions are needed. It also intends to call a national convention on the matter on Feb 11 the following year.

While talking to Dawn, most of the student leadership expressed willingness to join any movement for restoration of student unions. “We would stand side by side with anyone who tries to have the unions restored,” says Rana Sultan, emphatically.Malik Waqar, vice president of ISF, said, “The ISF will, through consultation with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and our chairman, Imran Khan, table a resolution in parliament in support of restoration of the unions, which we will ensure gets passed as well. Soon, we would be launching a movement for universal education in Pakistan. The ISF will include the demand for restoration of student unions in this movement.”

He also pledged to contact all other student organizations to form a joint front to lobby for restoration.

IJT’s Nazim-i-Aala Zubair Safdar pledged to start a movement for restoration soon. He was joined by Qamar Abbas, the general secretary for DSF, who said he would be willing to challenge the 1993 Supreme Court judgment.

The APMSO does not believe in challenging the Supreme Court verdict. “We will hold consultations with our leadership in the MQM and then go for legislation in the National Assembly on this issue,” says Ahmer Falistini, member of central committee of APMSO.

The IJT, however, stands apart on the matter. For one, it states that its mother party, the Jamaat-i-Islami is the only political party in Pakistan which has the demand for restoration of student unions incorporated into its manifesto. It claims to have already approached the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan and held consultations with vice chancellors of various universities. “We want student unions formulated on an entirely new basis,” says Zubair Safdar of IJT.

“We feel the new student unions should be apolitical in nature and should concentrate on education-related activities. There should be a change in the election process, and teachers should be involved in it as well. The new union should be in the shape of a representative council, not a traditional union.”

Arfan Chaudhry feels the government should call an all parties conference, bringing together all the stakeholders, to hammer out a code of conduct. Rana Sultan of PSF agrees, “We need all the stakeholders on board. One or two groups cannot do much because then the process of consultation deteriorates into petty point scoring. We need to build consensus.”

The IJT, however, already has cobbled together a joint front: the Muttahida Tulaba Mahaz. This front includes MSF, Anjuman-i-Tulaba-i-Islam, Muhammadiya Student Federation, and PSF. The IJT claims the Mahaz has already formulated a joint “code of ethics”. It believes there is no need for any other code. “If any student organisation has any objections, they should register with the Mahaz. If it is a bona fide student organisation, it will be admitted to the Mahaz, and then it may raise its concerns, which will be given due importance.”

The IJT does not acknowledge the existence of left-wing organisations such as the NSF and DSF, saying these are now dead.

In any case, student federations of today say the culture of on-campus violence is now ended. They point towards the virtual absence of violence on campuses as proof. Student leadership claims most of perpetrators of violence were in fact non-student actors which have now been purged from their ranks. They say they believe in the politics of dialogue and debate, and even if they are confronted with the bullet, they would respond through the ballot.