The stunted growth of our political growth has many causes, be it the regular interruptions to civilian rule or the self-defeating actions of the political class itself, but nothing has been more destructive to the growth of democracy than the ban on student unions. The ban was first put in place by Gen Ziaul Haq in 1984 because he knew that the primary and most effective opposition to him would come from the campuses, as it had during the rule of Ayub Khan. Student unions are the birthplace of ideologies and activism and prepare future generations for the responsibilities of being active citizens. Rather than encourage them, we have looked at students as a threat and prevented them from organizing.
That may be about to change, what with the Quaid-e-Azam University syndicate saying it will be reviving student unions on campus. Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa attended the syndicate meeting last week and lent his support to the decision. This spells good news for the rest of the country’s campuses. In the last few years, there has been pressure from student-led groups and other forces to revive student unions. At the present moment, all activities by student unions are banned on most campuses, often with the backing of vice chancellors. Student unions in the past have been nurseries of politics and many of our most seasoned politicians got their start in student unions and groups like the National Students Federation in the 1960s and the People’s Student Federation in the 1970s and 1980s which were at the forefront of the protests against military rule. Restoring student unions would be the ideal way to nurture the next generation of politicians and show them that brute force alone does not a politician make. The irony is that all major political parties continue to operate student wings. The contradiction between the existence of student organizations and the absence of student unions is stark. This practice is behind the absence of a genuine political culture on campus. Instead, political student organizations, especially of the right-wing, have been used to assert control over campuses to ensure political and social control.
In a way, the enforced withering of student unions is a reflection of how workers unions in the country as a whole have been decimated. As we have followed the neo-liberal path, the idea of strikes, collective bargaining and restricting the power of capital have come to be seen as quaint. The official narrative now portrays workers as little more than leeches who use political connections to get cushy jobs. The reality of labour and the plight it faces has been erased. Bringing back student unions would be one small way to show that citizens still have a right to organize and demand change. To keep a check on tyranny in all its forms, unions need to be strengthened again. Genuine student unions would play a more active role in debating campus issues, be it the fees charged or the performance of university administrators. At the same time, they would be engaged with larger political issues as they were in the past. If we want to prepare our leaders of tomorrow to be better than those of today, the revival of student unions should be an immediate priority.