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November 11, 2015

Why are the students rising?

Opinion

 
November 11, 2015

The students of Pakistan are rising once again. The same way that the idea of the university as a breeding ground for democracy and progressive ideas seemed to have been lost, students had been forgotten as well.
Months ago when ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ – a discussion the students of the Lahore University of Management Sciences had initiated – was cancelled because of state interference, students across campuses resisted the move and set in motion a chain of events that would initiate discussion and a need for greater student representation on the country’s campuses. After the event was cancelled at LUMS, the students and teachers of Karachi University picked up the mantle and held the talk in the face of opposition from the powers that be.
The emergence of multiple student groups has led to a discussion amongst students about their role and place in society, something that has not been talked about in a very long time. University campuses were once breeding grounds for young minds. Students once represented hope and were committed to progressive change, actively involved in the political developments taking place in the country.
This could be seen in the student movement of the 1960s, in which students all over the country rallied against dictatorship. Any crude romanticisation of these movements can be addressed by recognising the shortcomings of the movements as well. The emergence of violent student organisations – such as the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba and the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organisation – ended up defining students as they are seen today.
The student movements’ legacy has been defined by a history of political parties and personalities who in the past used students as a tool to further vested interests. The tradition of student politics began during the Pakistan movement, when Muslim students had united as a front of the All India Muslim League. Once the country was created, these students were expected to leave the

politics of the new state.
Once Pakistan came into being the Muslim student federation splintered under the various factions of the Muslim League. The vacuum was filled by the Left, as left-leaning students of the Democratic Students Front who helped students organise and develop a consciousness of what students should strive for. Through this student unions gained prominence, first in Karachi and then around the country, campaigning for the government to take notice of the plight of students in the country.
Facing tuition hikes, lack of hostel facilities and other basic amenities these student unions gained prominence. By 1954, this vibrant student organisation was banned – on charges of being an alleged front of the communist party.
As a result students were used to further various political interests, with the creation of the National Students Federation in the 1950s and the Peoples Students Federation created by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As prominent student organisations began occupying university campuses and making them their own territories, the will of the organisation became the law on campus. Such groups managed to stay in power through coercive methods and state patronage. From being a noble thing to do, student politics became a tool of the powerful to exploit others.
This generation of students is defined by the taboos created by the undemocratic ban on student unions imposed by Ziaul Haq. The Supreme Court judgement 1993 SCMR 1781 forbade students from indulging in politics and removed student unions from national and provincial legislation. In the judgement the honourable Supreme mentioned that students were not mature enough to unionise peacefully. It has been 22 years since that judgment.
We have had democracy for an uninterrupted period of more than seven years. Yet this generation of students fears politics. They fear politics because they have been taught to fear it. It has become a matter of pride for universities to produce ‘professionals’ that fit perfectly into the logic of a world dominated by multinational corporations. Universities are merely seen as brands in the job market which has no space for students of history, sociology or political science.
For some time, local government elections were seen as a way to challenge the status quo. However, the Punjab Local Government Act provides little or no room for substantial change. The new rules hand over powers to elect two women members, one worker, one person from the youth, and a non-Muslim member to a few elected councillors in each union council. In addition to this, there is a minimum age requirement of 25 years for candidates. Anyone under the age of 25 who understands the issues of the youth cannot be a youth counsellor.
It is in the background of such an environment that I ask: what is to be done?
Students must actively work on educating themselves outside the four walls of their campus. They must develop a habit of learning and unlearning. The process requires students to become open to change. They should be willing to critique and criticise actions from previous experiences. There is also much to learn from the movements of the past. While keeping that in mind, they should find new adaptive ways to organise. The rule of thumb must be creativity. For students, this process of coming together needs to be fun.
Student organisations such as the Democratic Students Alliance and the National Students Federation have shown commitment towards progressive change in the country.
In October this year, we saw students out on the streets demanding the right to unionise. The protest rang with slogans for free and classless education, for workers, peasants and women’s rights. This is not a struggle in isolation; to be inclusive it has to be inclusive of those youth who never got an opportunity to study as well as all the oppressed classes of Pakistan.
The students of this country are ready to unionise and fight for the rights of their fellow students. There will not be a repeat of past mistakes. They know that for student politics to work in this country, it has to be independent from the influence of political parties, be they religious or secular, left or right wing. The students of Pakistan are rising. Dair ayad, durust ayad!
The writer is a member of theDemocratic Students’ Alliance, and a law student at LUMS.
Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @ramissohail


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