Student unions

December 03, 2019

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IN a welcome move, Prime Minister Imran Khan has indicated that student unions in the country could be revived.

Responding to the countrywide demand, expressed in the form of solidarity marches in some 50 Pakistani cities, the prime minister tweeted on Sunday that the government might revive student unions, although after a “comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct” was in place. Mr Khan is not the first prime minister to have expressed his resolve to revoke the ‘ban’ on student unions.

The PPP’s Yousuf Raza Gilani, too, had declared his intention of reviving student unions in his first parliamentary address in 2008. But nothing came of it.

The Senate took up the matter in 2017 and its Committee of the Whole passed a resolution calling for the restoration of student unions, terming it a constitutional right. The committee also addressed the ‘ban’ imposed by a 1993 Supreme Court verdict, saying that the restoration of students’ representative bodies would not be in violation of it. Recently, the Sindh Assembly passed a unanimous resolution along the same lines, and PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari spoke in favour of the issue.

But there are challenges.

First, the politicians’ willingness has not been translated into action. Ambiguity still persists regarding the legality of students’ right to unionise. This may also be partly due to society’s negative perception about politics itself and because the student wings — that operate with impunity on university campuses — of various political parties are often confused with these unions. At best, such groups can be described as student organisations; but they are a far cry from an elected body of student representatives with the mandate to address students’ issues.

Hopefully, the ‘code of conduct’ will, besides formulating the rules for establishing unions, also make clear the distinction between elected unions and other groups led by students.

Secondly, and equally significant, Mr Khan’s announcement was clouded by disturbing reports of arrests of student activists and march organisers, and the subsequent registration of cases of sedition — no less — against them.

Shockingly, those booked included Iqbal Lala, father of Mashal Khan who was lynched by fellow students at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan on wrongful charges of blasphemy.

That episode clearly showed how dangerous forces have established themselves on campuses in the absence of legitimate student representation.

How can unions be restored in the face of such authoritarianism, and if student activists and march participants are arrested and accused of sedition?

Student unions are the first step towards participation in national politics and the grooming of future leaders. They must be healthy forums where debate and dissent are welcomed.

The government cannot afford to blunder.

The onus is now on the federal and provincial governments to come up with a workable solution to decriminalise and revive student activism.

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2019