Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In October this year, protests erupted on the campus of the Balochistan University. Even though the protests were against the alleged harassment of some students by the university’s administration, the renewal of student unions also became one of the demands of the protesting students. Recently, various youth activists in Punjab and Sindh have raised similar demands as well, with a ‘Students Solidarity March’ being planned on November 29.

What’s more, Sindh’s ruling party, the PPP moved a resolution to restore student unions on college and university campuses. The resolution was adopted by the Sindh Assembly on November 5. Student unions were banned in Pakistan by the Gen Zia dictatorship through Martial Law Orders (MLOs 1371, 227, 362 and 363) in February 1984.

In his 2009 book Revisiting Student Politics in Pakistan, Iqbal Haider Butt interviewed numerous former student leaders, most of whom became successful politicians and journalists. Almost all of them lamented that the 1984 ban negatively impacted the quality of political leadership and participation in the country.

They also argued that at least two generations of young Pakistanis lost touch with how democracy worked, and what it stood for when democratic activities, such as electoral campaigning, participating in elections, and negotiating better academic and recreational facilities through elected student unions, were outlawed in 1984.

Thus, generally speaking, those demanding a revival of student unions in this context, have a convincing case which can be favourably argued with some compelling evidence. However, it is equally important to understand that the nature of student politics that culminated in a ban in 1984 was largely a Cold War phenomenon. It cannot be reactivated in its original shape in today’s changed scenario. For example, many forget that the ban was repealed in January 1989 by the first Benazir Bhutto regime (1988-90). But despite the fact that elections for student unions were successfully held in Punjab’s many state-owned colleges and universities, the venture soon collapsed on itself.

Organised student politics needs brand new strategies and newer models instead of those from bygone times

Violence on campuses between student groups had become pandemic in the 1980s. And when such violence flared up again despite the 1989 revival of student unions, a 1992 petition against the restoration of student unions was accepted by the Supreme Court. In 1993, the court banned all forms of political activity on campuses across the country.

But whereas there had been violent protests by student groups against the 1984 ban, none took place in 1993. One of the reasons for this was the erosion of the traditional forms of student politics. This erosion was largely triggered by a new reality, in which young men and women were increasingly opting to get admission in privately-owned universities and colleges, whereas much of the country’s customary student politics had been centred in state-owned educational institutions.

Before the 1989 restoration of student unions, its supporters had argued that the violence that had engulfed student politics in the 1980s, had been largely due to the heavy-handed attitude of the Zia dictatorship, and (after 1984) due to the curbing of the students’ democratic rights. However, in 1993, the court observed that the restoration of student unions in 1989 had failed to stem the violence and that this violence could only be checked with a blanket ban on all political activities on campuses.

Indeed, by the early 2000s, the violence had greatly receded. But, again, the reasons were far more complex than simply the restoration and/or restriction of student unions. Privately-owned (and apolitical) colleges and universities had swelled and state-owned educational institutions had become pale reflections of themselves. The memory of student politics being just about violence entirely drowned the fact that, till the late 1970s, it had been a vibrant democratic cornerstone on campuses that had invested the students with notable bargaining power to negotiate better academic and recreational facilities.

Another reason for the attrition of traditional student politics was the gradual disinterest of mainstream political parties, that had founded and funded a majority of student outfits. With the declining influence of conventional student politics, the parties simply began to use their student groups as props to be exhibited at rallies, instead of being their electoral extensions on campuses.

The fact is, the decline of student politics in Pakistan was part of a universal trend. Student politics and activism had witnessed a peak globally in the 1960s. But this peak had begun to recede in the mid-1970s onwards. In Blood & Rage, Michael Burleigh writes that one of the reasons behind the rise of student activism in the 1960s was that a large number of middle and lower-middle-class men and women had begun to enroll in colleges and universities after the end of World War II.

According to Burleigh, although most European countries, the US and many new post-colonial realms in Asia and Africa enjoyed economic booms of one kind or the other in the 1960s, their colleges and universities were not able to accommodate such a large influx of new students. This created numerous logistical and administrative problems that left students feeling disgruntled and angry.

Burleigh writes that many students channelled this anger through radical political ideologies, mainly those of the left. By the 1970s, and due to the gradual disillusionment towards left-leaning ideas, similar feelings of disgruntlement began to be expressed through rightest gesticulations. However, as conditions in educational institutions became more accommodating, and, in case of ‘third-world countries’, private colleges and universities swelled, these eventually rendered traditional 20th-century student politics obsolete.

Yet, in Pakistan — from 2007 onwards — and also in many other countries, there is once again a clear feeling of restlessness among the youth. Indeed, one can explain this as governments and educational institutions once again falling short of accommodating the changing socio-political needs of another generation. But those looking to revive organised student politics will have to apply brand new strategies and offer newer models instead of the ones that have become obsolete due to the reasons already discussed.

Whatever the newness in this context is, or can be, it will have to get the attention of mainstream centres of power. And, on a lighter note, it cannot simply rely on the many meaningless new buzzwords that have been flying from left to right (and vice versa) on social media; and/or terms that have actually trivialised even the most urgent and alarming issues. They have simply gamified radicalism. So, the first step in this context should be to become a voice taken seriously, and not just noise.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 24th, 2019