1984: The murder of Pakistan's student unions

Updated February 09, 2015

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The winning candidates at a student union election at Karachi’s Dow Medical College (1972).
The winning candidates at a student union election at Karachi’s Dow Medical College (1972).

The 9th of February is a day of infamy for the democratic fabric of Pakistan, where there was a tear so fundamental that it left but a few shreds of democracy left in this Islamic Republic.

It happened so long ago that nearly two-thirds of this country’s young population is not even aware of it. How sad that those whose freedoms were snatched do not even know it.

On this day in 1984, General Zia ul Haq imposed a ban on student unions in all colleges throughout the country (though in Sindh, forming student unions was already made illegal in 1979).

Some people say this measure was to curb the violence on campuses between the Left and Right factions, while others come with a more conspiratorial approach, suggesting that America gave F-16s to the General and had in exchange, demanded the strangling of student-led grassroots democracy in Pakistan.

In the news: Restoration of student unions demanded

Whatever the cause, the effect of this illegitimate decision has subtly put this nation through a cruel and prolonged suffering period of 31 years; slowly allowing the poison of undemocratic tendencies to seep into our rotting political system.

Back in the day, Karachi University students used to have access to a shuttle service at pick and drop points across the city. Now, the numbers are close to one bus per 1000 students and hardly half the pick and drop points; that when the population of students has exponentially increased! And most of the buses are in dire need of repairs. It would be surprising if there are any buses left after this decade.

Banning student unions has stymied campus development and student welfare issues; damaged the personal growth of students and of healthy debates.

Although some of these activities still occur every now and again, they are limited and the student body is hardly engaged in the process; so instead of social development through intelligent conversation, we have been producing dimmer and dimmer minds of late.

How long before we see the light completely vanish?

See: Student unions termed vital for politicisation of society

There once used to be a famous session called “Ru-ba-Ru” where the VC of Karachi University used to come and respond to questions from students – a classic example of checks and balances that helped maintain a more refreshing and democratic atmosphere.

Supporters of the Progressive Students Alliance during a student union election at Karachi University in 1973.
Supporters of the Progressive Students Alliance during a student union election at Karachi University in 1973.

The most critical damage has been the lack of student elections and by extension, the death of the concept of responsible governance in the minds of our youth. The non-existence of this training has left a political vacuum of sorts. The unions used to be training grounds for students to become politically mature, active and responsible members of society.

The rise of ethno-nationalistic (or “asabi” groups, as Ibn Khaldun terms it), has been on the rise because it appeals to the lowest common denominator amongst a people; if they do not know much or are not politically mature enough to make an informed choice, they will opt for the simpleton's idea of ‘my group,’ which is probably one of the worst things for a republican democracy.

According to the famous Oxford Economist Paul Collier, “a society can function perfectly well if its citizens hold multiple identities, but problems arise when those sub-national identities arouse loyalties that override loyalty to the nation as a whole… in the societies of the bottom billion, ethnic identity usually trumps national identity.”

Has Pakistan become part of the bottom billion?

As a results of these changes, we are witnessing the development of private universities, with their secluded and 'special access' environments that are no doubt great for educational progress, but only in one of its dimensions. Also, they are a sore example of how we are failing in the public universities and colleges for the common people.

There is a tangible, stratified atmosphere amongst the public, with distinctions of class having turned into identities.

Benazir Bhutto tried to revive unions, but her efforts were short-lived. Then, even Yousuf Raza Gilani made a half-hearted attempt, but to no avail.

Explore: Student politics in Pakistan: A celebration, lament & history

There is a reason why authorities higher up do not want the pot to be stirred again like it was since the days of Independence down to 1984. They would rather that the masses keep feeding on the putrid diet of inane media statements and distorted histories or keep falling for illusions and false promises; than to be reinvigorated with fresh ideas, inquisitiveness and activism.

A union for a street-hawker;
A union for a veteran;
No union for a student;
The most educated, lettered man!