Students in search of the lost union: lifting the iron curtain!



Student federations active today in the country are unanimous in their demand that student unions be restored, an election schedule be announced, and union elections be held as soon as possible.

The demand has the backing of the leadership of National Students Federation (NSF), Democratic Students Federation (DSF), People’s Students Federation (PSF), Muslim Students Federation (MSF), Insaf Student Federation (ISF), All Pakistan Muttahida Students Organisation (APMSO) and Islami Jamiat-i-Tulaba (IJT).

The then-prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani had, in his maiden speech to the inaugural session of the 2008 parliament, announced restoration of student unions. However, the announcement was not followed on with action.

Rana Sultan, senior vice president of PSF, says: “The establishment” blocked any attempts to restore the unions. “The chief secretaries of all four provinces wrote to the Prime Minister (in 2008) saying student unions could not be restored owing to a precarious security situation,” he claims.

A nationwide convention of the vice chancellors of various universities later, also, expressed unwillingness to allow restoration of unions, which is believed to have sealed the deal on the matter.

The ban on student unions was imposed in 1984 by the regime of Gen Ziaul Haq through Martial Law Orders. Later, the orders were rescinded by the first government of Benazir Bhutto in 1988. Three years later, the unions were challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan on grounds that they were contributing to on-campus violence. In 1993, a three-member SC bench headed by the then Chief Justice, Afzal Zulla, imposed a ban on the political nature of student unions.

The NSF is running an awareness campaign aimed at helping students realise the true nature of student unions and better understand how their restoration would benefit them. As part of its campaign, it is collecting signatures from students who believe unions are needed. It also intends to call a national convention on the matter on Feb 11 the following year.

While talking to Dawn, most of the student leadership expressed willingness to join any movement for restoration of student unions. “We would stand side by side with anyone who tries to have the unions restored,” says Rana Sultan, emphatically.Malik Waqar, vice president of ISF, said, “The ISF will, through consultation with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and our chairman, Imran Khan, table a resolution in parliament in support of restoration of the unions, which we will ensure gets passed as well. Soon, we would be launching a movement for universal education in Pakistan. The ISF will include the demand for restoration of student unions in this movement.”

He also pledged to contact all other student organizations to form a joint front to lobby for restoration.

IJT’s Nazim-i-Aala Zubair Safdar pledged to start a movement for restoration soon. He was joined by Qamar Abbas, the general secretary for DSF, who said he would be willing to challenge the 1993 Supreme Court judgment.

The APMSO does not believe in challenging the Supreme Court verdict. “We will hold consultations with our leadership in the MQM and then go for legislation in the National Assembly on this issue,” says Ahmer Falistini, member of central committee of APMSO.

The IJT, however, stands apart on the matter. For one, it states that its mother party, the Jamaat-i-Islami is the only political party in Pakistan which has the demand for restoration of student unions incorporated into its manifesto. It claims to have already approached the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan and held consultations with vice chancellors of various universities. “We want student unions formulated on an entirely new basis,” says Zubair Safdar of IJT.

“We feel the new student unions should be apolitical in nature and should concentrate on education-related activities. There should be a change in the election process, and teachers should be involved in it as well. The new union should be in the shape of a representative council, not a traditional union.”

Arfan Chaudhry feels the government should call an all parties conference, bringing together all the stakeholders, to hammer out a code of conduct. Rana Sultan of PSF agrees, “We need all the stakeholders on board. One or two groups cannot do much because then the process of consultation deteriorates into petty point scoring. We need to build consensus.”

The IJT, however, already has cobbled together a joint front: the Muttahida Tulaba Mahaz. This front includes MSF, Anjuman-i-Tulaba-i-Islam, Muhammadiya Student Federation, and PSF. The IJT claims the Mahaz has already formulated a joint “code of ethics”. It believes there is no need for any other code. “If any student organisation has any objections, they should register with the Mahaz. If it is a bona fide student organisation, it will be admitted to the Mahaz, and then it may raise its concerns, which will be given due importance.”

The IJT does not acknowledge the existence of left-wing organisations such as the NSF and DSF, saying these are now dead.

In any case, student federations of today say the culture of on-campus violence is now ended. They point towards the virtual absence of violence on campuses as proof. Student leadership claims most of perpetrators of violence were in fact non-student actors which have now been purged from their ranks. They say they believe in the politics of dialogue and debate, and even if they are confronted with the bullet, they would respond through the ballot.

Student unions have contributed much to Pakistan. Many of today’s politicians have roots in student unions. Jehangir Badar of PPP, Khwaja Saad Rafique of PML-N, Javed Hashmi of PTI, Liaquat Baloch of Jamaat-i-Islami, just to name a few, were once student activists.

Student activism even created an influential political party in Pakistan – the MQM. Similarly, Dr Muhammad Sarwar, one time student leader, founded Pakistan Medical Association and Dr Adibul Hassan Rizvi, another student activist, founded Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation, Pakistan’s largest public sector health organisation. Other student activists are in leadership roles in organisations and firms which are contributing positively towards Pakistan’s social development.

On the subject of student union’s future, Iqbal Haider Butt, the author of “Revisiting Student Politics in Pakistan”, feels that student unions are “a part of history”. He says it is not possible to restore student unions in the shape and form in which they used to exist, because social, political and economic dynamics have changed on the ground.

Student unions are inextricably linked with their history. The general public perception about unions is grounded in the tumultuous ‘80s and ‘90s, and it is not misplaced. While violence on campuses has abated, the structures and actors which promote violence, perpetrate it, augment it and exacerbate it are still present in some universities.

There is need for the state, which helped foster such an environment, to take responsibility and help in its amelioration. Similarly, those actors which are directly linked with union elections, and which have played their part in bringing things to the present pass need to own not only what they have done, but also the process of change.

The latter part is tricky. Such actors find the status quo expedient, and indeed beneficial for their own vested interests. There is the question, then, of whether or not they would be willing to allow change in matters as they are.

Furthermore, there is need to find an interest group which would benefit from restoration of the unions, and would, therefore, own the process of restoration. According to the 2008 National Survey on Student Politics conducted by Bargad, the most comprehensive study done on the subject to date, 52.4% of students feel student politics should be limited to educational institutions only, 72.3% students feel student unions should not be allowed to affiliate with political parties and 57.9% think there should not even be student wings of political parties. The matter of student politics then remains a contentious issue, on which there is little clarity of opinion and direction.

The dynamics of the education sector have changed considerably since 1984, when unions were banned. The change has come in multiple ways. For one, in 1984 Pakistan had 21 universities. Today, there are over 124. A vast majority of these belong to the private sector, which was very close to non-existent prior to the ban. Several ex-student activists today own their own private universities and colleges – for instance, Mian Amir Mahmood owns the Punjab Group of Colleges and University of Central Punjab, and Khurram Murad owns the University of Management and Technology. Both were student activists in their youth. However, neither has created student unions within their own universities.

Similarly, soon after the then-Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, announced that student unions would be restored, vice chancellors of various universities from across Pakistan held a conference in which they rejected the idea of restoration. The VCs emphatic opposition is taken to be one of the reasons why unions were not eventually restored. This essentially means that not only did the sector assert itself and announce its own unwillingness to allow unions, but also that the education sector is powerful enough today to stall government action, which presents the sector in itself as a key impediment in the way of restoration.

Similarly, the education system itself has undergone some fundamental changes. The yearly examination system has been replaced by the semester system, in which there are regular class tests, projects, assignments and successive examinations. This means students have far less time for union activities. On the other hand, however, many universities now have their own academic societies, or their likes.

Government College University of Lahore alone has 52 of them. This reduces the student’s need to associate with a union for social or political expression of any sort.

Furthermore, the expansion of the education sector has made universities far more accessible. Whereas, thirty years ago a student from Gujrat in Punjab would necessarily travel to Lahore to study, today he has Gujrat University within his town. This means that there are far fewer people in hostels today, making an ever shrinking part of the student body susceptible to be pressurised into supporting the dominant student group of a university.

Another dynamic change the education sector has undergone is the increase in number of female students. Female students are now beginning to outnumber male students in universities across Pakistan. This dynamic gender shift is particularly important. Females would want issues such as an end to sexual harassment, better healthcare facilities, perhaps even child day-care facilities, et al, addressed, thus changing the nature of discourse within student politics. Should unions be restored, and the dominant gender group (females) assert itself, it might mean interesting things for gender relations in Pakistani society, and perhaps, might mar beginning of change in the social status of women.

Such changing dynamics need to be factored into any discourse on the future of student unions.

Thus, it becomes necessary to formulate a new “kind” of student union. Scholarship on such matters remains limited, and there is a dearth of new ideas. Most suggestions for a new “kind” of student union find their way back to the 1993 Supreme Court judgment. Therefore, these revolve around complete de-politicisation of union activities. Little else, however, is offered on the subject.

Often, one encounters the suggestion of a “code of conduct” to govern union activities. On the one hand, no viable code of conduct has been formulated and little is being done to work one out. On the other hand, the Muttahida Tulaba Mahaz, dominated largely by right-wing student organisations, claims to have prepared a possible “code of conduct”. One must ask, if a code of conduct is ready, why is it not accepted by the state, and unions restored on this basis. One must question also its general acceptance amongst other student organisations which are not part of the Mahaz, or did not participate in their code’s formulation.

Then, there is the matter of eligibility. Virtually all interest groups approached by Dawn emphasise the need for setting eligibility criteria which would decide whether or not a student can contest union elections. This might include an academic criterion in which students who maintain a certain level of grade and class attendance can contest. It might, also, include other criteria such as election hopefuls being bona fide students of their universities, with a possible age limit. This would help undermine non-student actors from entering unions. Further, to ensure fairness and transparency such rules as election campaign expenditure ceilings and a ban on distribution of printed material might be needed. This would keep political funding out, and ensure that suitable candidates, irrespective of the social class they belong to, might be forthcoming.

It is high time the iron curtain be lifted off of such matters of concern, and these be debated and resolved. Broad-based consensus needs to be evolved on what shape new student unions may be accorded, and a sense of direction on such issues needs to be ascertained for the future.

The absence of student unions has served only to dissociate the student body from the democratic process, thus de-politicising it, and making it apathetic and misinformed. The purported justification for the ban – namely, that of campus violence – crumbles when we look at the actual history of it: campus violence spiked and grew more deadly after the ban.

Students have a right to associate for political purposes – Pakistan’s constitution guarantees the same under its Article 17, as a fundamental human right. Students’ political association has not ceased. Students continue to remain part of student federations – including Jamiat, MSF, NSF, DSF and, more recently of ISF. The ISF has especially mobilised the youth. It undercuts traditional modes of constructing a support base by using all-pervasive technologies – particularly those which are online. The ban has not helped stop students becoming politically affiliated, which strikes at the very raison d’être of it, and it cannot succeed in today’s world which has gone online. It would, then, be better to restore student unions and bring today’s social activism and political zeal of the Pakistani youth into an institutional framework.

The writer is an up coming journalist based in Lahore.

This article is a cross post from Dawn News.

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  • Afzal Rizvi  On October 20, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Two part Article published is from Half Truth about Student Unions and never discussing role of ruination so called Leaders Brewing casks

  • Political discussions  On November 5, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    There are advantages and disadvantages of student unions in educational institutes.

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