THE ban on student unions in Pakistan is over three decades old — a remnant of the Ziaul Haq regime.

However, even though Zia’s military dictatorship is now a part of history, successive democratic governments have been unable, or unwilling, to lift the ban.

After the PPP came to power in 2008, prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced in the National Assembly that the student unions would be revived.

Unfortunately, he was unable to deliver on his promise. Now there seems to be a fresh effort to revive the unions.

On Monday, Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani said in the upper house that the ban on student unions was “unconstitutional” and that the matter would be referred to a Senate committee. Many lawmakers agreed with the Senate chairman, adding that the prolonged absence of the unions had created a vacuum.

Removing the ban on student unions would do much to promote a democratic culture. However, there has been criticism that union activity on campus takes the focus away from academics and encourages a culture of violence.

Firstly, violence has become a part of society and student unions cannot be blamed for promoting it.

If anything, healthy union activity on campus may encourage an environment of tolerance and debate. Also, despite the ban on unions, the student wings of political parties are active in colleges and universities across Pakistan.

It is also true that many of these student wings have been involved in deadly violence on campus, particularly in public-sector institutions in Sindh and Punjab.

Perhaps the solution is to revive unions in varsities with a code of conduct in place — one that calls for zero tolerance for violent activities.

It is strange to expect students to refrain from political activities while on campus, but then participate in the democratic process once they step into the real world.

Politics in Pakistan would gain much if democratic culture was allowed to take root within colleges and universities.

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2016

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