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December 16, 2019

Without clear plan of action, decision to restore student unions meets with scepticism

Karachi

December 16, 2019

While student leaders have welcomed the Sindh cabinet’s decision to lift the ban on student unions at institutions of higher learning, some have regarded it with scepticism.

The Sindh chapter of the Student Action Committee (SAC) has expressed satisfaction on the acceptance of their demands, which include restoring student unions at public and private educational institutes and increasing the number of the unions’ elected members from seven to 11.

After the students’ long march, the committee had submitted a charter of demands to the Sindh cabinet for carrying out further legislation on the restoration of student unions.

The SAC’s representatives, however, lamented that the rest of their basic demands, which they said are crucial and equally important for restoring student unions, have been ignored by the provincial government.

The committee has vowed not to accept hollow student unions in which the students have no authority in the decision-making bodies at their institutions. “We will continue our struggle until the government accepts all our demands,” said SAC senior member Fida Kakar.

On the other hand, former leaders of student unions have different opinions on the restoration of unions. One school of thought believes the government does not intend to revive student unions, while others are of the view that the government will fulfil its commitment.

Unaccepted demands

The unaccepted demands comprise inclusion of all the members of student unions in the decision-making bodies, such as the syndicate, at public universities and administrative bodies in the case of private institutes.

A number of Sindh’s universities have specific seats for student representation in their decision-making bodies. For the past many decades, however, these seats have been vacant because of the ban on student unions, and so there is no one to represent the students in these bodies.

According to the draft proposal that the SAC-Sindh has submitted to the cabinet, the second demand of the committee is to address sexual harassment complaints and it must be made mandatory for every educational institute to form a committee comprising equal representation on the basis of gender.

They demanded a gender-sensitised female member of the student union be on the anti-harassment committee. However, the government has already constituted anti-harassment committees on departmental level at many universities, including the Sindh University and the University of Karachi, under the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010. But public and private colleges have no such bodies.

Another demand of the SAC is that the annual budget of the universities should get approved only after the student unions and the council’s chairperson have vetted it. However, the proposal may be ignored by the provincial government because the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan distributes the annual budgetary grant among public universities.

Other demands include holding yearly elections of student unions at all higher educational institutions and every political student organisation should be allowed to contest the student union’s polls.

“It’s beyond any reason why the Sindh government is not willing to accept these two demands,” said Kakar. Nevertheless, he believes Sindh is the only province whose government intends to restore student unions, which is quite encouraging for the SAC’s provincial chapter.

SAC-Sindh

Another senior member of the SAC-Sindh, Muzammil Khan, said the committee is an unannounced platform of various progressive student organisations that is functioning across the country, but only 14 student organisations are part of its Sindh chapter.

The committee has also invited other student organisations, including the Peoples Students Federation, the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba and the Muslim Students Federation, to join the SAC for restoring student unions.

“The restoration of the student unions that the SAC is demanding are the ones that will allow the students for whom these higher educational institutions have been established to be the real stakeholders in the functionality of these institutes. On this point each and every student organisation agrees,” said Khan.

He said that at present only progressive student organisations are actively attending the protest for the restoration of student unions. However, if other organisations join the SAC-Sindh, it will further strengthen the body and also fuel the struggle for restoring the unions, he added.

“We appreciate the contribution of all the students who have put laudable efforts in this struggle. Like Sindh, all other provincial governments as well as the governments of administered areas, including Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir, should immediately accept and announce the demands of the SAC presented on November 29 at the students’ long march.”

Idea versus reality

On December 9 the Sindh cabinet approved the proposal of formulating a piece of legislation to restore student unions at institutions of higher learning in the province. Named ‘Sindh Students Union Act 2019’, the bill provides an effective system for reviving and regulating student unions across the province.

Academic and former student leader Prof Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan said the Sindh government has not approved any bill yet, adding that it is only a proposal for restoring student unions that the cabinet has discussed.

Khan said the provincial government is still seeking expert opinion on the bill, for which some progressive academics and students have convened a joint consultation on December 17 at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science & Technology.

Students, members of the civil society and political activists will be attending the consultation, in which suggestions from all participants will be heard and then submitted to the Sindh government for necessary legislation, he added.

He said Pakistan had suffered decades-long dictatorships and during those eras political activities were almost banned. He also said the situation resulted in a lack of mature political leaders. The irony is that student unions are nurseries of politics but they are still banned, he added.

The academic lamented that students have no voice anywhere in politics despite the fact that more than half of the country’s population is made up of young men and women.

Keeping politics aside, he said, students face many issues that include increased fees, lack of hostels, discrimination and harassment, but they have zero representation in the decision-making bodies of their educational institutes to address such issues. “If one province moves a step forward to restore student unions, other provinces will follow suit,” he hoped.

Scepticism

Dr Shakeel-ur-Rehman Farooqi, the last president of the Karachi Students Union who is now the most senior faculty member at KU, said: “I am very sceptical of the talk about reviving student unions.”

Dr Farooqi said that when student unions were banned in 1984, both left-wing and right-wing students had launched a large-scale movement against the then government. However, he added, none of the political parties had come forward to support the students.

He said that those political parties later came into power several times, but they did not give any thought to lifting the ban on student unions.

These days Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Sindh government have been making promises about restoring student unions, but no significant measures have been made from which one can expect that the federal and provincial governments are really interested in reviving the unions, he added.

He said that only after non-political elements exert pressure on political parties do they start thinking about the restoration of student unions, but all this exercise is nothing apart from a waste of time.

He pointed out that last year in the Sindh Universities Amendment Act 2018 the provincial government eliminated the reserved seats for students in the decision-making bodies of universities.

Unions vs organisations

Dr Farooqi said student organisations are basically political wings of different political parties, as they still have a presence at colleges and universities. Contrary to this, he added, student unions were official statutory bodies recognised by the government and the respective educational institutions.

“It was a cruel decision of the then government to ban the official and lawful bodies of students, while the unrecognised and political student organisations were left free to operate.”