Student unions are nurseries of democracy. So, when will we get them going?
The demand for restoration of student unions is soaring, since thousands of students, academics and activists marched in solidarity on November 29 in 25 cities of Pakistan. They demanded the government restore student unions, introduce sexual harassment committees in universities, end ethnic and gender discrimination, and raise the education budget by 10 percent.
But really how justified is their demand for student unions?
Though student councils and student bodies are functional in universities of Pakistan, they cannot take part in meetings of syndicate, “where decisions about fee structures, duration of semesters and disciplinary issues are made,” says Mohiba Ahmed, a member of Student Action Committee (SAC) and Progressive Students’ Collective. “Student unions prevent violence on campuses. Everyone is accountable in student unions. They empower and prepare them for democratic processes.”
The Zia government banned student unions, and the right-wing organisations operating in universities were promoted “to provide oxygen to Zia’s illegitimate government,” says Ahmed.
She thinks the ban on student unions led to the leadership crisis in Pakistan. “Campus politics cultivates leaders. The ban is the reason why Pakistan lacks seasoned leaders, and why our parliament is ineffective today.”
Counting the advantages of such alliances, she adds, “Unions encourage students to challenge the status quo. When they join mainstream politics they carry with them the same questioning, challenging mindset. Those who have not experienced the rigour of student politics turn out to be weak leaders,” she adds.
Today, university campuses in Pakistan are home to ethnic violence. Student councils divide students into Pashtoon, Sindhi, Seraiki, Baloch, Gilgiti and Kashmiri groups. Justifying on-campus ethnic divisions, Sanaullah Khan of Sindh Shagird Sabha says that Pakistan is an agrarian society, where people like to live in groups. “It is natural for a student from rural Sindh to connect with fellow Sindhis when he comes to Islamabad to study.”
However, he adds that student unions may resolve the problem of ethnic violence. “They will give students an opportunity to elect their representatives.”
Rafiq Jan Jibran from Gomal University in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, says that student unions are a constitutional right – “They are the wings of political parties.”
Jibran adds that when students are stripped of their right to unions, “They become frustrated. They lose a platform to express themselves.”
The right to unions cannot be confined to students of government universities. “Student unions must be elected in private as well as public universities,” says Khalid Khattak, a journalist. “Most students who marched for the restoration of student unions last month came from private universities.”
Khattak thinks there should be a clear distinction between student unions and political wings of students.
Professor Dr Kalimullah Bareech, the general secretary of the federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Staff Association (FAPUASA), acknowledges the importance of student unions. “Student unions produce debaters, writers and thinkers. Sixty percent of the country’s population consists of the youth. They must be given their constitutional right. “Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf must legislate and restore student unions on campuses.”
Raja Yasir Humayun, the minster for higher education in the Punjab, thinks that “unions are detrimental for students” claiming that a majority of students and parents are opposed to the restoration of students’ unions.
He alleges that those who organised the Student Solidarity March have vested interests. “We are working on a very comprehensive and engaging model of student associations, based on the US system,” he concludes.
The writer works for The News in Lahore. He can be reached at [email protected]