In 1947 the only established student organisation in the newly created country of Pakistan was the Muslim Students Federation (MSF), the student-wing of the Muslim League. The Muslim League began to disintegrate as Pakistan’s first ruling party. Consequently, the MSF too started to reflect the fragmentary nature of its mother party.
In 1950, a group of students in Karachi formed a progressive student organisation called the Democratic Students Federation (DSF). The organisation’s rapid growth led it to becoming a powerful platform for the students, and it was this initiative that instigated the country’s first widespread student movement.
In 1953, the DSF began to fervently agitate against the ruling civil-bureaucratic set-up of the country, pushing it to be more responsive towards the many academic and economic issues faced by the students. A year later, the DSF was suddenly banned by the government along with the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). The government accused the DSF of being the ‘front organisation’ of the CPP, a party that was also implicated (in 1951) for being part of a leftwing coup attempt by Major General Akbar against the Liaqat Ali Khan government.
From the ashes of the DSF another progressive students organisation emerged called the National Students Federation (NSF). By the mid-1960s, the NSF had become the country’s leading student organisation having strong links with left-wing parties and various labour and trade unions. The NSF’s strong presence and electoral strength in colleges and universities at the time aided it to take the lead in the second major students’ movement in the country that erupted in 1967-68. The movement was aimed against the military dictatorship of Ayub Khan, whose regime the students accused of being exploitative and based on “capitalist cronyism.”
In the 1970s, due to deep divides in the NSF, and the formation of Pakistan Peoples Party’s student-wing, the Peoples Students Federation (PSF), the progressive vote on campuses began to split between various leftist student groups and factions. This helped the student-wing of the political-religious party, the Jamaat-i-Islami, the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), make decisive electoral inroads in to the country’s student union politics.
The IJT began a hectic recruiting campaign that included holding ‘study circles’ for new students in which the students were given academic advise and books. Also handed out during these study circles were publications and cyclostyled copies of lectures by the conservative Islamic scholar (and founder of the JI), Abul Ala Mauddudi, and Egyptian fundamentalist firebrand, Syed Qutb.
The IJT dominated student union elections from 1972 till 1977. It also became the most vocal and animated platform on campuses against the regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (whom the JI and IJT described as being ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘immoral’). By 1977, the IJT was in control of the majority of the country’s student unions. This helped it to give momentum (on the streets and campuses) to the movement against the populist PPP government of Prime Minister Bhutto. The movement was set off by a JI-led alliance of anti-PPP parties (the PNA).
Apart from the IJT, other student groups such as Aunjuman Teleba Islam (ATI) also took part in the movement. Ironically, also involved were certain NSF factions that had been bitten by Bhutto’s purge (in 1973) against his own party, the PPP’s radical wing. The resulting turmoil triggered military intervention and the imposition of Pakistan’s third martial law by General Ziaul Haq.
The intransigent Zia dictatorship that was initially supported by the JI openly patronised the IJT. The student party went into overdrive in helping the military regime clear the campuses of leftist and pro-Bhutto forces. Besieged by the dictatorship and the IJT, these forces, which included NSF, PSF and progressive nationalist student parties such as the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) and the Pakhtun Students Federation (PkSF), regrouped to form various progressive alliances.
Three of the most prominent alliances in this regard were the Punjab Progressive Students Alliance (in central and northern Punjab), the Taliba Ittihad and the United Students Movement (in Karachi). The student parties involved in these alliances were PSF, NSF, PkSF, BSO, Istiqlal Students Federation, Quaid Students Federation, and the Black Eagles (a radical student organisation formed by militant PSF and NSF students).
A number of tense battles (involving both the ballot and bullets) took place as these alliances began to agitate against the Zia regime and the IJT, and by the 1983 student union elections, the besieged alliances were largely successful in getting the IJT voted out from student unions across Pakistan.
The progressives’ electoral victory saw the dictatorship suddenly ban student unions in 1984. The draconian decision was vehemently protested against by the students who poured out onto the streets and attacked police and government property. Ironically, the IJT too was part of this movement, but pulled out on the advice of its mother party the JI.
In the absence of student unions and the vanishing of the traditional electoral mechanism on campuses, much violence among student groups followed the ban.
No prominent student movement emerged in the country in the next 20 years. The only mentionable action in this respect involved the All Pakistan Muttahidda Students Organisation (APMSO), which aggressively supplemented its mother party, the Mutahidda Qaumi Movement’s violent tussle with the state and the government in the 1990s. A number of APMSO students were arrested and lost their lives.
Twenty years after the last major student movement in the country (1983-84), students once again became part of an active nationwide political movement, this time during the Lawyers Movement against the Pervez Musharraf dictatorship in 2006-07. However, this time the nature of the students’ participation was different compared to the student movements of 1953, 1968, 1977, and 1984. Large student parties did not take direct part in the movement.
This was an unprecedented happening in which state-owned campuses dominated by established student organisations remained quiet during a major political movement. Instead, smaller independent student groups from private universities undertook a more prominent function. But this also meant that perhaps for the first time the students at large did not play a primary role in a major political movement in Pakistan.
A guide to major student organisations in Pakistan follows:
Mother Party: Jamaat-i-Islami
- Al-Badar and Al-Shams.
- Thunder Squad
- Allah's Tigers
Noted Former Members: Shaikh Rashid Ahmed (Former PML-N and PML-Q minister); Javed Hashmi (PML-N politician); Muhammad Ali Durrani (Former PML-Q minister); Hussain Haqqani (ambassador/writer); Farid Paracha (JI politician); Syed Munawar Hussain (JI politician); Muhammad Salahuddin (journalist); Saad Rafiq (PML-N politician); Liaqat Baloch (JI politician); Rana Javed (notorious militant) Dr. Israr Ahmed (Islamic Scholar), Ansar Abbasi (Journalist), Zaid Hamid (TV Personality)
Mother Party: Pakistan Peoples Party
Ideology: Socialist (1972-77); Militant-Left (1978-86); Progressive (1988-present).
Strongholds: Interior Sindh; parts of Karachi; South Punjab; Peshawar.
Well-armed cell within the PSF formed by Salamullah Tipu in 1979.
Noted Former PSF members: Jehangir Badar (PPP minister); Masroor Ahsan (former PPP Senator); Qasim Zia (PPP minister/former Pakistan hockey player); Wasim Akram (former Pakistan cricketer); Shoaib Akhtar (Pakistan cricketer); Kashmala Tariq (PML-Q politician); Shela Raza (former PPP Deputy Speaker); Salamullah Tipu (notorious militant); Najeeb Ahmed (militant).
Mother Party: Muslim League (1947-62); Muslim League-Council (1962-69); Pakistan Muslim League (1985-92); Muslim League-Nawaz (1992-99); Muslim League-Quaid (2000-2007); PML-N (2008-present).
Ideology: Conservative-Secular (1947-69); Conservative-Islamic (1985-97); Conservative-Democratic (2000-present).
Noted Former Members: Akhtar Rasool (Former PML-N minister/Pakistan hockey player); Javaad Ahmed (pop singer); Zafarullah Jamali (former PML-Q Prime Minister); Nawaz Sharif (former PML-N Prime Minister).
Mother Party: Muttahidda Qaumi Movement
Ideology: Progressive-Mohajir Nationalist (1978-86); Militant-Mohajir Nationalist (1986-95); Secular-Democratic (1997-present).
Strongholds: Karachi; Hyderabad.
- Black Tigers (1987-91)
- Nadeem Commandos (1990-95)
Mother Party: Jamiat Ulema Pakistan
Ideology: Islamist (Sunni-Barelvi).
Strongholds: South Punjab.
- Sunni Thereek (ST)
Mother Party: National Awami Party-Wali (1969-77); Awami National Party (1986-Present).
Noted Former Members: Asfandaryar Wali (ANP politician); Mian Iftikhar (ANP minister); Ameer Haider Hoti (ANP Chief Minister).
Mother Party: National Awami Party (1967-77); Balochistan National Movement (1987-97); Balochistan National Party.
Ideology: Marxist/Baloch Nationalist (1967-99); Progressive/Baloch Nationalist (2000-present).
- Balochistan Liberation Army (1973-77)
Noted Former Members: Dr. Abdul Hai (politician); Hasil Bezinjo (politician); Dr. Malik Baloch (politician); Ahmed Rashid (writer/analyst).
Mother Party: National Awami Party-Bhasani (1962-68); Pakistan Peoples Party (1968-73); Mazdoor Kissan Party (1974-82); Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party (1982-89).
Ideology: Marxist (1956-83); Progressive (1985-present).
Noted Former Members: Meraj Muhammad Khan (Former PPP minister); Fateyab Ali Khan (politician); Raja Anwar (former PPP member/writer); Tarek Fateh (writer); Dr. Syed Eithesham (writer); Mujahid Berelvi (TV talk show host); Mazhar Abbas (journalist/TV talk show host); Hasan Nisar (journalist/TV talk show host); Faisal Bengali (economist); S. Akber Zaidi (economist/writer); Nafees Siddiqui (former PPP minister); Mian Raza Rabbani (PPP politician); Ameer Haidar Kazmi (former PPP minister); Fauzia Wahab (PPP minister); Imtiaz Alam (journalist).
Mother Party: Communist Party of Pakistan (1950-77).
Ideology: Marxist (1956-83); Progressive (1985-present).
- Red Guards (1952-54)
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