Student unions

Published February 10, 2023
Zubeida Mustafa
Zubeida Mustafa

ON Feb 9, 1984, Gen Ziaul Haq dealt an existential blow to Pakistan when he banned student unions. They were never truly restored though several civilian governments followed him and each promised to remove the ban.

It may sound somewhat far-fetched but the fact is that what we are witnessing in Pakistan’s politics today is a direct consequence of that fateful move of a military dictator nearly 40 years ago. The country is in the process of a slow meltdown as our leaders squabble among themselves for power and wealth. What is tragic is their lack of concern for the economy that is on the brink. The common man has been hit. But who cares?

Inarguably, our leaders do not qualify to be at the helm. They lack the understanding of sociocultural realities to rule a country as diverse as Pakistan. With the exception of a handful, they have had no training in operating in an environment comprising multiple interests.

In this context, the consensus is that student unions are the best training ground for politicians.

Things may not have come to such a pass if we had student unions.

Gen Zia was a wily man and understood that the threat to his survival came from an organised students’ body. The progressive student parties had swept the polls in 1983 when the last student unions’ elections were held. Zia saw which way the wind was blowing and reacted by imposing a clampdown on the unions. For precisely the same reason as prompted Zia, the political parties have found it expedient to keep the ban in place.

After regressing for years on its promise of restoring the student unions, the PPP finally conceded to students’ demand in Sindh where it is in office. But that too was quite a challenge. A meeting of the vice chancellors of the seven public-sector universities of the province produced a shock. With the exception of one, they vehemently opposed the move. Nevertheless, the government proceeded to pass a bill on student unions in the Sindh Assembly in February 2019. This was child’s play for the PPP as it has an overwhelming majority in the provincial assembly. But then came Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown. The bill’s remaining process of notification of the law was completed in 2022. Thereafter, there has been an unexplained silence. Rules have to be framed to bring the law into effect. One only hopes it is not the usual PPP strategy of short-changing the people by passing excellent laws but blocking their implementation by putting subsequent processes on hold. Without the rules the Act remains a dead letter.

What next? They say time and tide wait for no man. In these barren ‘unionless’ years, universities have continued to function. But the scenario has changed and the induction of the age of neo-liberal economics has stratified and polarised society. This poses a challenge to anyone seeking to make society egalitarian in the quest of social justice.

One can speculate if conditions would have reached such a pass in Pakistan had the unions continued to function. Their presence would have made an impact and forced the regressive forces to compromise. I say this in the light of the student politics of the 1950s when DSF set the trend. A number of parties ranging from the leftist DSF to the rightist IJT coexisted and cooperated with one another when that was the need of the hour. They were all represented in an inter-collegiate body when joint decisions were needed.

Today, the discourse in education focuses on student unions. Should they be there at all? There are three schools of thought. First are the students and administrations of private universities, mostly elite, who oppose unions. They are contented with societies for extracurricular activities.

Second are those who believe the student unions be revived unconditionally and allowed to function freely so that they learn from experience how to manage themselves. Third are those who favour student unions with some rational restrictions such as a ban on hate-mongering, prohibiting the entry of weapons on campuses, forbidding disruption of academic activities and a bar on political parties meddling in student politics. The Student Union Act that has been adopted contains several of these restrictions.

In the absence of the checks and balances offered by student unions, the divisive and secessionist trends of national politics infiltrate, unchecked, into students’ thinking and can be dangerous as they are not moderated by rational debate in an atmosphere of tolerance and dignified discussion.

A serious situation exists where students gather in study groups to debate issues or post on social media to vent their frustration and anger. When freedom of expression is suppressed, there is no room for those on the fringes to be brought into the mainstream by moderating their extremism through debate and discussion.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2023

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