JUST when it needed to lend support, the Higher Education Commission has instead vocalised its opposition to the restoration of student unions in educational institutions. In an official document, the HEC stated that it would prefer students across the country to occupy their minds with poetry, music and sports rather than then wasting their time with politics. While the former are all noble and necessary pursuits, this does not mean that political activity cannot be a ‘healthy’ exercise or that it should be discouraged on this basis. Politics is not a ‘dirty’ word, and such perceptions (particularly entrenched within the middle and upper classes over the past few decades), need to be challenged. This cannot happen by creating apolitical spaces — indeed, there is no such thing — but by creating better ways of doing and thinking about politics.
When Gen Ziaul Haq banned student unions in 1984, the reason provided was that such bodies lead to violence on campuses. Yet violence intensified even after the ban, with the reactionary student wings of mainstream political parties threatening and enforcing their ideologies on others through brute force. Last year, scores of students attached to progressive movements took to the streets to demand the restoration of student unions. Their voices and concerns cannot simply be dismissed without a greater debate, which involves students as the main stakeholders, especially at a time when issues such as sexual harassment on campuses are being talked about. As a result of their agitation, the Sindh cabinet approved a draft of the Sindh Students Union Act, 2019, which would allow for the revival of student unions in the province. Members of the Balochistan Assembly have also called for a similar legislature. Cultivating a culture of robust debate and a respect for differences of opinion are not only vital to any functioning democracy, they are also the very foundations of a healthy society. And this needs to begin at the campus level, which should ideally be safe spaces for new thought, exercises in community-building, and a connection with the issues plaguing their societies — and not simply a place that encourages the individualistic pursuit of grades and pits one student against another in a spirit of competitiveness and thoughtless compliance. We have to consider what kind of future we are cultivating right now.
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2020