Pakistan’s experience with student unions has been less than ideal, mainly due to political expediency and narrow political agendas which peaked during the Ziaul Haq dictatorship and led to the banning of unions in 1984.
Although political parties had their respective student associations, a few independent and progressive unions also emerged and played a crucial role in student politics during this time. Since then, despite repeated promises, trade unions remain illegal in Pakistan, thus depriving a large part of the population of their fundamental constitutional right to assemble under article 16 of the constitution of Pakistan.
Student unions are not only vital for the promotion of democratic culture, they are also the need of the hour. The process of legalizing student unions will not be exempt from its own challenges, but the state must create the conditions necessary for their rehabilitation.
Before Zia banned student unions, their role in socio-political development was very effective. They played a great role in promoting the academic interest of students during the pre-1984 era. Students who could not afford to pay for their studies received financial aid from the unions. A number of unions, particularly those not aligned with political parties, had dedicated leaders concerned with the general welfare of students. Their support has also extended to helping new entrants through academic counseling, and union leaders have helpfully monitored the facilities available on university premises. A system of control in public sector universities is either non-existent or at best ineffective, and student unions have played a very effective role in holding university administration to account.
The role of unions has been criticized for being too intrusive in the past, and some argue that their overreach has often rendered university administration ineffective. Similarly, some unions have resorted to violence on some occasions. The Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, is particularly notorious for promoting campus violence. Shah Meer Baloch and Zafar Musyani in their article for “The Diplomat”, titled “Pakistan’s Dark History of Student Extremists”, noted: “Violence, intolerance and extremism on university campuses is not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. This trend has a history of decades, but it has become unbearable now. So while one cannot categorically deny incidents of violence on college campuses in the past, making them a reason to outlaw student unions altogether says more about those in power than the actual problem.
Student unions can also play a very important role in promoting cultural events and showcasing Pakistan’s linguistic and cultural diversity. Such events will not only foster regional languages and cultures, but also create a strong sense of community among union members. In this way, students belonging to different ethnic and linguistic groups can also have the opportunity to interact with each other at different forums.
Noting such an example of cultural diversity on campus, an article – ‘QAU huts: where Pakistan’s cultural diversity blends in’ – published in ‘The Nation’ in 2018 mentions how at Quaid-e-Azam University “Punjab Hut serves its special ‘Malai jam’ with traditional paratha at breakfast…Hikmat Hut serves lobia karahi…Bistro Cafe has a traditional Pashtun style interior Apart from restaurants, unions can provide a more formal platform for interaction and the mix of students from different ethnic groups.
Finally, the historical role of student unions in politics is also worth examining. During the Pakistan liberation movement, students were at the forefront and made countless sacrifices for the realization of a separate homeland. Students from Aligarh Muslim University, Islamia College Peshawar and Islamia College Lahore have played a particularly important role in spreading the message of the Muslim League to faraway places. Since the means of communication were neither as efficient nor as accessible as they are today, the students played a vital role in spreading the message of peace among the population. In a nutshell, the students were at the forefront of the Muslim League’s campaign for a separate state.
During the years following Independence, these unions not only participated in the political life of the state, but enriched the ideological horizons of the people. The National Federation of Students (NSF), the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA), and the United Student Movement (USM) were among the leftist and progressive organizations fighting for the consecration of a progressive and democratic state.
At different times, these organizations rose up against dictators and tried to restore democratic order in Pakistan. Nadeem Farooq Paracha, in his article “Student Politics in Pakistan: A Celebration, Lamentations and a History”, noted Ayub’s crackdown on the NSF in the following terms: “In 1958, the NSF was banned when the Marshal Ayub Khan imposed the country’s first martial law. Politics and student unions as well as political parties were banned and a new crackdown on student radicals was launched. Martial law was imposed under the guise of “political chaos” triggered by years of Machiavellian power games between politicians and bureaucrats, and growing levels of corruption in society. »
Thus, it is evident that, more than violence, it was political expediency that led to the banning of the NSF in the Ayub era. The role of students did not diminish and trade unions were subsequently allowed, subject to strict conditions. In 1974, the Student Unions Ordinance was passed to allow political activity on campuses. However, General Zia eventually imposed a complete ban on student associations.
Student unions have been banned for expedient political purposes, their contribution to academic support for students, the promotion of a variety of languages and cultures, and their role in promoting progressive policies cannot be trivialized. Furthermore, they can play a very effective role in supporting academia, promoting local cultures and languages, and bringing mass political awareness which is seen as a prerequisite for a functioning democracy.
The writer is a Progressive Students’ Federation activist and an international relations student. He tweets at @mustafa_Wynne