The age of students’ rights

A sustained and rational struggle for their rights within the constitutional limits is what the students should ideally aim at

During the recently-held Faiz International Festival 2019, some students organised a Students Solidarity March and chanted slogans in favour of restoration of student unions in Pakistan. A young lady wearing a leather jacket and raising emotional slogans became an instant celebrity as an advocate of restoration of the unions.

The student political activism, however, did not go well with some quarters. According to some media reports, the degree of one of the organisers of the Students Solidarity March has been cancelled by a public sector university for mobilising students.

For a variety of reasons, including the vast cuts in the educational expenditures by the current government and the resulting hike in fees in colleges and universities, frequency of harassment scandals on the campuses, filing of treason cases against students, alleged partiality of the administration of the educational institutions towards certain student outfits, and a spontaneous surge of media interest in student issues, students all over Pakistan held the second Student Solidarity March on November 29.

The history of the students’ participation in political activities in Pakistan dates back to the times when the struggle for freedom from British imperialism and Hindu dominance started in British India. The Muslim Students Federation, the student wing of All India Muslim League led by the Quaid-i-Azam, played a significant role in the Pakistan movement. Massive resistance put up by students was also an important factor why Ayub Khan ultimately gave in and resigned from a long dictatorial stint.

The legitimacy of the political role of students in Pakistan has seen many ups and downs. Taking a cue from the students’ political activism during the Ayub Khan era, Gen Zia banned the student unions in Pakistan in 1984. It was expressly stated that the reason behind the ban on students’ political activities was the increasing violence and clashes between students on the left and right of the ideological divide. In practice, the ban was neither the ban was across-the-board, nor the objective of ensuring law and order on the campuses was achieved.

Ever since, there have been some half-hearted efforts to restore student unions. Benazir Bhutto temporarily lifted this ban in 1988. The matter was taken before the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1990 and the apex court reimposed the ban in 1993. Yousuf Raza Gillani promised to lift the ban after being elected as prime minister but did not make good on his promise.

The PPP government also moved legislation to restore student unions and tried to get a resolution passed in the Senate to the effect. However, the bill did not pass.

To have student unions or not is an ongoing debate. Those who favour student unions argue that when students participate in political debates, campaign for positions in elected bodies, develop and functiona micro-system of governance in educational institutions, highlight and resolve issues faced by students, they actually get necessary political training for playing a role in mainstream national politics.

The flip side of excluding students from the political process is that they become apolitical. Given the fact that our mainstream political parties thrive on hereditary and feudal politics, the disenfranchised students from the lower and middle-income groups rarely find an opportunity to learn the dynamics of active politics. The result is that the interest of the common man is routinely jeopardized, partly because people in positions of power and authority have either a very poor understanding of the issues of the poor, or they have little motivation to make their lives better.

Those who oppose the role of student unions in educational institutions believe that student politics ends up promoting violence, hooliganism and intervention in the working of the administration at the expense of their academic performance. Given the pressure, the administrations of the educational institutions are more likely to take sides and often make uncomfortable, even illegal compromises. According to research, when there is no vibrant political union, students form groups based on their religious, ethnic or geographic identities. The problem with this type of organisations is that the groups protect the interests of only their members often at the cost of the collective interest.

While the demand for the restoration of political rights of students at the campuses is legitimate, the problem lies in the narrative.

A litany of images, such as murder, murderer, martyrdom, dagger, death, and destruction punctuates the demands of the students for the restoration of student unions. Though nobody can deny the central role of the rhetoric in politics and in the struggle for collective rights, a misplaced zeal must be identified and countered with realism.

The imagery of war, martyrdom, and proclivity to see the population into binaries of a tyrant and innocent victims must have nothing to do with the discourse of highly educated men and women. The irony of the situation becomes clearer when we see that our own history testifies to the superiority of constitutional struggle to achieve the desired objectives over the use of violent means.

The history of the Pakistan movement clearly shows that Jinnah did not believe in violence to achieve political objectives. He firmly believed that civil disobedience was no answer to the constitutional travails of India. He, in fact, believed that the constitutional struggle was the only legitimate way to achieve the objective of self-rule.

Jinnah did not budge an inch from his principled position, even when the pressure to join Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement to free India from the British Raj was unbearable for most people . The subsequent use of force in the body politic of Pakistan was a factor in the dismemberment of Pakistan.

Students must have the right to avail opportunities which can help them actualise their potential through better learning conditions. Students have the legitimate right to have access to most recent research, best possible supervision, timely guidance to collaborate with the best minds in the world, and the right to useful information which can help them build successful professional careers. The right to networking with the political mainstream to push for their agendas through legislation, too, is an important right.

Why should the blood-and-gore narrative should be relinquished once and for all in favour of a narrative consistent with refined moral values? First, no parents would like their children to become cannon fodder of political parties who want their presence in academic institutions of higher learning through student bodies. I can narrate from my personal experience the sad end of a student leader who was brutally murdered (the murderer also succumbed to his injuries subsequently). One can imagine the anguish of his old father. How callous the administration could be to such events is another story.

Students should adopt a responsible narrative and make use of appropriate rhetoric to achieve their rights. A sustained and rational struggle for their rights within the constitutional limits is what they should aim at.

The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at COMSATS University Islamabad, Lahore Campus and can be reached at [email protected]

Faiz International Festival 2019: The age of students’ rights