THE damaging effects of the Zia-era stigmatisation of student unions can be felt acutely in the current political atmosphere. The ban on student unions — which successive governments have failed to revoke — created a big vacuum in the political and ideological education of our youth, and gave space to many narrow-minded individuals who use politics as a means to attain money and influence. Indeed, as Senator Raza Rabbani recently pointed out at the annual Asma Jahangir Memorial Lecture, student unions allowed ideological nurturing of aspiring politicians. The senator was also correct in pointing out that participation in student politics was one of the key ingredients of the democratic struggle, which was stifled during the dictatorships of Ayub Khan and Ziaul Haq, along with labour and intellectual activity. The ban on student unions was institutionalised via an interim court order in 1992 that restricted all student political activity in the wake of deadly clashes on varsity campuses. This was followed by the apex court ruling of 1993 that allowed very limited student activity. Over the years, for those opposed to the idea of student political activity, this ruling has served as a pretext for not allowing the unionisation of students. However, old ideologues, including Mr Rabbani, believe that this interpretation is flawed as Article 17 of the Constitution stipulates that the forming of associations and unions is a basic right.

Clearly, the argument that student unions pave the way for violence is invalid since there have been several violent incidents on campuses despite the decades-long ban on student political activity. Although, when he assumed office, Prime Minister Imran Khan indicated he would allow student unions, his government’s response to the student march in late 2019 was nothing less than autocratic. There were reports of harassment and rustication of students while others were booked on the pretext of inciting violence when the rallies were peaceful and well-organised. The authorities should realise that the struggle for unionisation is a battle for independent thought and inclusivity.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2021

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