SOCIETY: THE CASE FOR STUDENT UNIONS

November 24, 2019

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Composed by Saad Arifi
Composed by Saad Arifi

Rabia* is applying to be admitted to a prestigious medical school in Karachi. Aside from the usual paperwork for admission, she must also submit an affidavit to the university administration declaring that she will not partake in any political activity on the campus.

Known among students as the ‘non-political’ affidavit, this is an oath signed by the student to use the premises for studying only and not for politicking. Rabia’s father also has to sign the same affidavit, turning it into a joint declaration that in case she gets involved in any political activity in the varsity, she may be “immediately expelled”.

If Rabia were to violate the non-political undertaking in future, she would face a number of adverse disciplinary actions. These range from temporary suspension of the student for a week, during which the student is not be allowed to enter campus premises temporarily, to rustication or permanent expulsion from the institute. “The nature of the action is subject to the severity of the act of the student,” public relations representatives of four major public universities tell Eos. 


In its glory days, the University of Karachi (KU) campus was a seat of not only learning but a symposium to debate anything under the sun that affected its student life. Its alumni, who were also student activists, reminisce about the heated discussions conducted under the session called Rubaru (face to face). It was a face-off between the student body and the academic authority, they say. The vice-chancellor would come to respond to the students’ grievances and there ensued debates that made KU a classic example of a democratic atmosphere.

This is no longer the case at the KU campus nor at other institutes of higher learning.

The Sindh Assembly recently passed a resolution demanding the restoration of student unions. While welcome, the Assembly can do far more than simply pass resolutions. It can act

Dr Syed Asim Ali, adviser for students affairs at KU, says currently there is no student union but every department has a students’ society so students can conduct healthy activities, such as debates, seminars, etc. Earlier, a student representative at least held a seat in the university’s syndicate — the highest platform — to discuss administrative affairs related to the university and students. In 2012, however, the Sindh government amended the universities act and ended student representation on this platform as well.

The environment for debate is not only watered down in the form of students’ societies, but discouraged across campuses in the country.

Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani youth graduate from universities and their affiliated colleges each year. This youth, constituting the majority of Pakistan’s internet users, is exposed to information coming from the world over 24/7. Are students given the space in centres of learning to cultivate and voice opinions based on the information they gather incessantly? Some students may opt to become politicians in the future, but do varsities provide adequate environments or training for them to become politically sensitised?

“Student unions are needed more than ever, today,” says Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, a professor at KU’s mass communication department and a student leader in his day. “When a group wins or loses the election, it gets trained in how to behave with those who have lost and how to navigate around the winners. Due to the absence of unions, Pakistan has been deprived of some very fine political leadership,” Dr Tauseef laments.

But public relations officials from the country’s four major public-sector universities — Punjab University (PU), KU, University of Peshawar and University of Balochistan (BU) — say that students are not allowed to form unions or take part in political activities. The situation is not so different in the case of private institutes, including some of the very prestigious ones.

A history of the ‘non-political undertaking’

Members of Dow Medical College student union, 1972 | File photo
Members of Dow Medical College student union, 1972 | File photo

University campuses were purged of political activities back in the Ziaul Haq era. On January 30, 1984, the dictator imposed a ban on student unions across the country.

At first, the ban was imposed in Islamabad due to the regime’s fear that students in the federal capital may take up arms against military rule. But the ban quickly extended to Punjab and then to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (previously known as the North Western Frontier Province). Student unions had been banned in Sindh earlier, in 1979 when automatic weapons first surfaced in the Pakistan, and on university campuses in Karachi and Lahore. 

Perhaps the ban was the result of learning from history. Dr Mehdi Hasan, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), says the first ban on student unions in the subcontinent was imposed in 1929 following Hindu-Muslim riots, but these bodies were later restored in 1958. Then, in 1962, Pakistan saw a ban on direct elections of trade and student unions during the Ayub era.

“In Karachi, students leaders — including Meraj Muhammad Khan, Fatehyab Ali Khan, Shehanshah Hussain and others — offered staunch opposition to General Ayub’s martial law in 1958,” Hasan says, adding that nine of them were forced to leave Karachi. Hasan has an association of 50 years with PU — first as a student and now as a teacher.

The ban was reluctantly lifted by Yahya Khan under pressure of the opposition and in order to give his regime a lifeline. 

It was the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT), a student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami, that was blamed for introducing automatic weapons on campuses of KU and PU. Student wings of other political parties caught on and clashes between them led to casualties.

Veteran journalist Sohail Sanghi says the Zia regime deliberately introduced the element of violence in student unions in order to create the impression that these bodies were involved in activities detrimental to state and society. “It was also an attempt to counter the rising Pakistan Peoples Party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto since its Peoples Students Federation had almost swept clean the student union elections in Sindh’s major educational institutes,” says Sanghi. Once the unions were banned, the Zia regime proposed that student councils and societies could be set up in higher education institutions. However, direct polling to elect student leaders of these councils and societies was not favoured and it was further proposed that vice-chancellors and principals would head these bodies.

“Student unions were nurseries of politics in the country,” says Sanghi. “Had they not been banned, these nurseries would have played an important role in the movement against the dictatorship of the time and would have also produced a cadre of strong politicians.”

Later, with Benazir Bhutto coming to power, the ban on student unions was briefly lifted in 1989 before being challenged in 1990 through a petition filed by M. Ismail Qureshi and others versus Awais Qasim, then secretary general of the IJT, and three others.

The Supreme Court reimposed the ban on student unions on July 1, 1992. After lengthy proceedings, the apex court allowed the restoration of legitimate student groups and union activities on March 10, 1993, but with a condition. The apex court ordered the government to make arrangements as soon as possible, and not later than a month, “to take steps for developing, restoring and reorganising a healthy students’ discussion and other activity in any form suitable to the individual institutions which might be called by any description”.

“Ever since, several successive governments came to power in the last 26 years, but the top court’s directives are yet to be implemented,” says KU professor Khan.

Today, the student societies and councils that were formed in PU, KU, University of Peshawar and BU — in compliance with the Zia regime’s recommendations following the ban on student unions — still exist but they are headed by varsity officials as opposed to students chosen by other students through direct elections. Having students sign the non-political affidavit is a further surety that wrests any possible autonomy from them.

Senior lawyer Rasheed A Razvi, who specialises in trade union litigation, says the practice of requiring students to file such an affidavit is a form of coercion. “Every Pakistani, who is an adult, has a right to vote his or her vote. Similarly, a citizen cannot not only join a political party but also participate in political activities,” he argues. “How can you stop them from taking part in politics?” asks Razvi. “It is beyond the authority of university administrations to take away the students’ fundamental rights,” he adds.

It is a blatant constitutional transgression. Barrister Salahuddin Ahmed says, “This is an unconstitutional act that violates Article 17 of the Constitution. Article 17(i) states: ‘Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality.’”

Given that the Supreme Court had given a month’s deadline to the government of the time to chalk out a code of conduct to restore student bodies with effective regulatory and monitoring systems, the lawyer says: “If the government failed to draw up a code of conduct in the given amount of time, it does not mean that my constitutional right as a Pakistani citizen to join any union or association can be violated.”

What is stopping the revival of student unions?

The Students Solidarity March, in Lahore, demanded the restoration of students’ unions and campus safety, December 2018 | Asian Marxist Review
The Students Solidarity March, in Lahore, demanded the restoration of students’ unions and campus safety, December 2018 | Asian Marxist Review

In his first speech as prime minister in 2008, PPP leader Yousuf Raza Gilani announced on the floor of the assembly that student unions were to be restored across Pakistan. It took lawmakers another nine years to realise that there was no ban in the first place on forming student unions.

In 2017, the Senate’s committee of the whole compiled a report stating, “It was of the considered opinion that the judgment of the Supreme Court does not prevent the committee from proceeding further in the matter by way of legislation, resolution, guidelines or any other means it deems fit, but this does not close the doors for intra-institutional dialogue as well.”

Former chairman of the Senate Raza Rabbani, who presided over the meetings of the committee tells Eos: “During the proceedings [of the committee] the bureaucracy took the first line of defence by trying to create an impression that there was a ban on student unions imposed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan which was an obstacle in the way of reviving these bodies. However, after thoroughly examining the apex court’s judgment it turned out that the Supreme Court had not imposed any ban.”

The committee directed the Senate secretariat to prepare a working draft of a resolution and proposed guidelines within two weeks, the report stated. Upon failing in its first attempt, Rabbani says the bureaucracy then argued that the revival of student unions would create law and order issues on campuses.

 “The moment the draft of the resolution and proposed guidelines is ready, whether the House is in session or not, the Committee of the Whole will meet again to finalise that,” concluded the 79-page-long report.

Rabbani says the Senate committee asked the then prime minister to ensure revival of student unions in the federal capital, and for all the four chief ministers to follow suit in the provinces, but regrettably they did nothing.

Dr Tauseef, who spearheaded this campaign after the Senate cleared the way for reviving student unions, deplores the reluctance shown by most of the vice-chancellors towards reviving student unions. He says, “Some of the stakeholders do not want to have student unions revived — including the vice-chancellors, the establishment, the local administration, the police, etc — because the unions play the role of a ‘watchdog’ within and outside the varsities.”

While unions have not been restored, all public-sector universities and colleges do have student wings of the country’s major political parties — Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf, Jamaat-i-Islami and several others. Thus, it is ironic that none of the major political parties prioritised the issue of reviving student unions in educational institutes in the July 2018 general elections.

As a result of this negligence, millions remain deprived of the opportunity to partake in and learn from political activity and do not get to participate in what is their fundamental right. Incidents such the alleged harassment and blackmail of students at BU, the lynching of Mashal Khan, a student of Bacha Khan University in Mardan on campus premises over false blasphemy allegations, and the detention and manhandling of now prime minister Imran Khan by IJT activists at the PU campus in the days of Musharraf’s 2007 emergency are some of the incidents that offer a glaring reminder that unions, which empower students and inculcate in them a sense of tackling difference of opinion peacefully, are imperative.

“In my opinion, such incidents are the outcome of the absence of student unions,” says HRCP’s Hasan. “The culture of holding debates and discussions has ended and so has the culture of political training and democratic norms. These were what promoted the idea of tolerance among students.”

 Furthermore, student unions play a pivotal role in training the country’s youth not only in politics but also in understanding what their rights and responsibilities are as conscientious members of a society, he adds. 

“This is the reason why we have a crisis of good politicians,” Hasan laments, calling to attention that some of the top leaders our universities have produced, such as PPP’s Rabbani, PML-N’s Javed Hashmi, JI’s Munawar Hasan, and several others, had their first brush with politics in the country’s higher educational institutions and from the time when they were students.

An impression that needs correcting is that the culture of violence that entered campuses was on account of student unions, whose activities and elections were largely peaceful. In fact, most of the violence took place after the ban came into effect and during the absence of unions; those involved being members of political parties’ student wings. 

Restoring unions can lead to training our youth into how political activity is conducted, turning them into a major intellectual and political force for the country. With no legal impediments in place, there remains no logical hurdle in restoring student unions. The state is also morally obligated to ensure that Pakistani students have the liberty to partake in political activity.

This is of utmost importance today. At a time when students the world over continue to play their role in different socially and politically motivated movements, why do young Pakistanis not have that freedom?

  • Name changed to protect privacy.

An extended version of this story can be accessed on dawn.com

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 24th, 2019