A NUMBER of student-led events in several places including Islamabad, Lahore, Swat and Hyderabad were held recently to demand the restoration of student unions that had been banned on Feb 9, 1984, by the Zia regime. Almost four decades later, there may be reason to hope that some of the damage can be reversed with the approval by a standing committee of the Sindh Assembly of a bill calling for the election or formation of student unions in public and private higher educational institutions. According to the bill’s provisions, a union would have seven to 11 elected members with representation in the higher educational institution’s syndicate and anti-harassment committee. However, it is uncertain if and when the bill becomes law. Over the years, the closure of what were once vibrant nurseries of democracy has weakened the political culture. Student-led activities and representation helped educated youth interact, share ideas and develop intellectually, socially and academically in preparation for their future leadership role. Many seasoned politicians today learned their skills on campuses brimming with ideas and activities. But the ban created a political vacuum and is partially responsible for the present crisis of governance and democratic culture that we see in the country today.
In fact, the ban rapidly led to the politicisation of educational institutions as the student wings of political parties pushed their own agendas. These wings have emerged as the chief stakeholders in students’ grievances at public universities. What was a move to ostensibly prevent violence on campus has backfired, with a clash of ideologies taking a lethal turn in universities and different political groups fighting each other to retain their illicit influence on academic and administrative activities. The government says that 2022 will be observed as the year of the youth. It can take its first step in this direction by restoring student unions so that a culture of debate and respect for difference of opinion can once again take root.
Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2022