DEPOLITICISED youth unfamiliar with democratic norms cannot be good for the future of representative rule in Pakistan. Yet whenever there is talk about reviving student unions on college and university campuses to promote a democratic culture amongst the youth, questions are raised — with valid reason — about whether these bodies will be hijacked by political parties. The recent announcement by the Quaid-i-Azam University syndicate to revive student unions at the Islamabad varsity has again rekindled the debate about these representative bodies. The meeting was attended by the chief justice of Pakistan, and the country’s top judge reportedly said the unions should not be organised along ethnic, religious or political lines, and should focus on student welfare.
Student unions were banned in the mid-1980s by Gen Zia’s military regime ostensibly to quell the violence on campuses fuelled by the warring factions of political parties. Of course, the move also served the general’s purpose of checkmating an important source of resistance to martial rule. But even after the ban, student wings of political parties continued to operate on campuses, and the nation’s seats of higher learning saw intense episodes of violence between these organisations. Even when violence levels came down, powerful student wings dominated campus life, enforcing their self-styled codes on students, along with interfering in academic activities. Therefore, the irony is that for student unions to succeed in grooming future national leaders, these organisations must keep a healthy distance from political parties. The QAU’s move should be welcomed, and other varsities should also consider reviving unions. A code of conduct governing the unions can be agreed upon by all stakeholders. Students have a democratic right to organise, manage their own affairs and liaise with varsity administrations. This can help inculcate a culture of debate and tolerance that young minds can later apply to national life. However, the ugly spectre of political violence must be kept at bay as the bodies are revived.
Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2023