A historical sketch

December 15, 2019

The banning of student unions served only to create a vacuum in the governance of student issues

Student unions have been part of the college and university structures in South Asia since the first grant-in-aid higher education institutions were instituted under British rule around the nineteenth century. By the turn of the century, student unions had emerged as a space of political discourse and activism in the history of anti-colonial nationalism. Tracing a history of student unions in Pakistan takes us to the oldest university within its borders, the University of Punjab, but also to locations in today’s India and Bangladesh—to Aligarh, Delhi, Bombay and Dacca—where the history of Muslim nationalism of the early twentieth century unfolded. Institutions of higher education were an important space for political articulation of nationalism. The first two decades of the twentieth century saw a proliferation of projects and institutions of ‘national education’, from Tagore’s Shantiniketan (1901) and Arya Samaj’s Gurukul Kangri to the Jamia Millia Islamia (1920) and Syed Ahmed’s Aligarh Muslim University (1920; earlier as MAO College, Aligarh). There was a concerted effort to wrest education from the clutches of colonial control. These institutions of national education embarked on a ‘self-civilising’ mission, which often sat uncomfortably with the activist and agitator politics engaged in by students, the objects of the pedagogical project of nation-building. Student unions remained one institutionalised space in civil society where this struggle played out.

The fact that universities and colleges have historically been seedbeds of nationalist movements in the colonial context invariably led to an entanglement of student unions, student organisations and mainstream political parties. The politics of Muslim identity from the late nineteenth century up to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 has seen Muslim students as key players. They not only mobilised on the streets, but also were active engagers in political discourse and the emerging political leadership in the anti-colonial nationalist struggles, including the movement led by the Muslim League. Student unions held by branches of the Muslim Students Federation (founded in 1937) across British India were instrumental in the coordination of the ‘constructive work’ and electioneering done for the political goals of the All-India Muslim League in the 1940s. The Aligarh College student union in the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, was a veritable nursery of Muslim nationalist leadership. It was a forum of vibrant exchange among the ashraf student body on contemporary political and social issues and was addressed regularly by Muslim League leaders, especially MA Jinnah.

During the Pakistan Movement, the Muslim League leadership had been conflicted in, on the one hand, depending on students as an “arsenal of Muslim India” and on the other, worrying about losing control over the direction of student politics. The Muslim League’s transition from an anti-colonial movement to a political elite of an independent nation-state tells us a story of how politics could be relegated to the illegitimate. The creation of a binary of ‘constructive work’ being for the nation and the critical politics being anti-national is one that has bogged state discourse on youth and their political voice since 1947. The institution of the student union and its relationship to student organisations take centre stage in the state’s concern with depoliticising its citizenry, in particular those that are to be trained as the future technocrats of the country.

Up until the banning of student unions in 1984, a quick perusal of the government reports brought out on education highlights the conflicted relationship the state has had with the institution of student unions. In 1966, the Ministry of Education published the Report of the Commission on Student Problems and Welfare. It had been commissioned to take stock of educational conditions in the country, to examine the provisions of the University Ordinances promulgated under Ayub Khan’s regime, to identify the roots of “student problems” (that led them to agitate) and make recommendations to address these. The commission was established in the wake of student demonstrations in East and West Pakistan against the University Ordinances promulgated in June 1961 that drastically undermined the autonomy of universities as well as that of student unions. This state of affairs was temporarily reversed when Bhutto came into power (1972-1977). Under the new University Acts, student unions for the first time became statutory bodies, with the right to representation in syndicates and senates of universities.

Generally, every university, except the Peshawar University had a central university union, along with next tier department or college unions. In East Pakistan, Dacca University had a central union, but also a union for each residence hall. Student unions functioned as the formal link between the student body and the university administration. Along with its representative function, it was responsible for organising extra-curricular activities and social work. Especially in the aftermath of the partition, student unions of colleges and universities were involved in campaigns to raise funds to fill the gaps in facilities; books were collected for libraries, furniture was organised for classrooms, and so on. Student unions were also useful in coordinating relief and volunteer work after natural disasters and during the 1965 and 1971 wars. Student unions were provided a budget from the educational institution, normally drawn from student fees, as well as an office space. They generally also had a constitution and by-laws which governed their functioning and defined their points of contact to the administration. Often the administration of the educational institution would appoint a staff member as a Director of Student Affairs who would function as the primary contact between student union members and the administration.

The institution of the student union and its relationship to student organisations take centre stage in the state’s concern with depoliticising its citizenry.

During the 1950s and 1960s, student unions were located in the ideologically diverse landscape of student organisations, vying for representation in student unions, and often maintaining links to mainstream political organisations and parties. The Muslim Students Federation (MSF) began to crumble soon after independence, mirroring the factionalism of the Muslim League. In East Bengal (later East Pakistan), this took the form of the student organisations reconsolidating for the cause of the Bengali language. As the Bengal MSF began its decline, the East Pakistan Muslim Students League came into being in January 1948, which a little later dropped the ‘Muslim’ from its name. One of its founding members was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then a student of Dacca University, who later went on to become the leader of the separatist Awami League. Analogous to the Bengali student organisations, ethno-lingustic identity also formed the basis of a number of organisations in West Pakistan. However, it was only in the mid-1960s that ethnic student organisations affiliated with provincial parties acting on the national stage began emerging here in the context of the anti-Ayub movement. These included the Baloch Student Organisation, the Pukhtun Student Federation (1967) and the Jiye Sindh Students’ Federation (1967).

Among the early actors in the landscape of student organisations was the revivalist Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba, a wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan that was launched soon after partition in Lahore. In its early years, the Jamiat showed little interest in student union politics and was more focused on religious and educational work – da’awah. The Jamiat, despite its marginal role in college union politics, nevertheless gained prominence in the national context in the early 1950s, due to its confrontations with the leftist Democratic Students Federation (DSF). The DSF was founded in 1948 at the Gordon College in Rawalpindi by Abid Hassan Manto but was subject to close surveillance by the CDI. Soon after, it found its footing among the students of the Dow Medical College in Karachi. Within a year, the DSF had swept most of the college union elections in Karachi and initiated the Inter-Collegiate Body (ICB) to unify the student unions under one banner. The ICB consisted of vice presidents and general secretaries of all students’ unions, a few of which were in the hands of other student organisations, such as the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba. The ICB and the DSF were at the helm of the large-scale 1953 student movement. In 1954, the DSF was banned along with the Communist Party of Pakistan.

After the banning of the DSF, the National Students Federation (NSF) was formed in the mid-1950s in a ‘take-over’ of what was an organisation originally sponsored by the Karachi University administration. By the early 1960s, the leftist NSF in Karachi and Lahore emerged as a key player at a time when political parties were banned and the student population became the main political opposition to the military government of Ayub Khan. Beginning with its successful protests of the University Ordinances in the early 1960s, it organised mass demonstrations openly defying the martial law orders throughout Ayub’s regime.

As Laurant Gayer has shown in his study of Karachi, the entry of violence on campuses in the 1970s that played out along mainstream political cleavages had little to do with the institution of student unions. Rather, it was a result of the patronage of rightwing politics by the state in combination with the militarisation of society that accompanied the Afghan War from the late 1970s. Ironically, the banning of student unions only served to create a vacuum in the governance of student issues—the practicalities of student life that had to do with hostels, fees, examinations, transportation and so on—that came to be filled by student wings of political parties, creating a network of patronage and protection. The Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba’s hold on the Punjab University from the mid-1970s onwards is a case in point.

The writer is an assistant professor at the Humboldt University, Berlin.

Students' unions in South Asia: A historical sketch