A recipe for stagnation

Pakistan is at a standstill both in terms of its academia and society and the continued ban on student unions is an important reason for it

A recipe for stagnation

More than thirty-seven years ago, on February 9, 1984, Gen Ziaul Haq, the dictator, banned student unions in Pakistan (though in Sindh these had in effect been banned since 1979). A generation has now grown up without any organised student activity and soon the talk of student unions will just be a lore of nostalgia. Their continued absence not only thwarts the social and political development of the young, it also retards the development of critical thinking, freedom of expression, debate and dialogue in the country.

Like many of his decisions, the ban on student unions was a very thought out and measured decision by Zia, poised to not only counter the power of students but also to control and direct the social and political fabric of the country.

Zia knew that students were not only the backbone of the movement that resulted not only in the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as a populist leader but were also instrumental in the overthrow of his predecessor in the 1960s, Gen Ayub Khan. The world over, students had risen up against the US war in Vietnam, marched for civil rights and campaigned for greater social inclusion. At a time when Zia was championing a ‘look back’ policy, these harbingers of ‘progressive,’ ‘modern’ and even ‘radical’ thinking had to be stymied.

This disbanding of student political organisations, by design, left the room for only one kind of student organisation: religious. Thus came the rise of the Jamiat-i-Talaba, which under the guise of religion practically controlled campuses, controlling almost every aspect of life, from appointing lecturers to controlling the syllabus, enforcing moral policing, and domineering the administration of universities and colleges. Their power increased to such an extent that in several institutions the principal or the vice chancellor seemed to survive at their mercy.

The control by the Jamiat changed the very nature of college and university education in Pakistan, and almost defined it for a generation.

Since reaction to the religious right was not possible politically, the only counter came in the form of ‘cultural’ organisations along ethnic lines. Hence, Pashtun or Punjabi or Sindhi ‘councils’ began to be established in major universities where some space was literally wrestled away from the Jamiat. This often-explosive confrontation entrenched both sides even further and led to a solidification of ethnic and linguistic divides in the country, high on the heels of religious polarisation. Thus, campuses are now both religiously and ethnically divided and charged, quite often sitting on top of a tinder box.

Zia knew that students were the backbone of the movement not only for the rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as a populist leader but were also instrumental in the overthrow of his predecessor in the 1960s, Gen Ayub Khan. The world over, students had risen up against the US war in Vietnam.

From a rather ambivalent attitude towards student unions till the 1970s and ’80s, student unions of different shades and sizes are now part of almost every top-class university in the world. This is because these leading places of education have realised that nurturing student politics, in fact, leads to less division, friction and reaction and to more understanding, cooperation and ownership. Enabling student unions has thus not just cultivated future political and social leadership around the world, it has made those universities better learning environments.

In both the US and the UK where student unions (or student governments, as they are called in the US) have been very active historically; a vast majority of top-tier institutions not only have robust student organisations with independent and large budgets for student activities and welfare, they even have student representation on their governing boards, with some even wielding full voting rights.

This change has not simply come as a result of students clamouring for such power, but by a realisation among university leadership and administration that involving students in the decision-making process of the university will only strengthen the institution, especially by bringing in new and creative thinking. Hence, even in the often old-fashioned colleges of Oxford and Cambridge many governing bodies have the presidents of the graduate and undergraduate common rooms as members, with student representation on most college committees, too.

This has enabled these colleges to make strides in terms of university access and diversity, provided greater access to mental and sexual healthcare, created pressure and space for more equitable investment practices, facilitated more inclusive and welcoming spaces and even led to the overhaul of certain academic and cultural practices.

Thus, rather than countering college academics and administrations, the involvement of student leadership has largely paved the way for a more nurturing, conducive and welcoming academic and cultural environment at these colleges.

Every government in Pakistan has harped on the importance of higher education. The creation of the Higher Education Commission in 2002 was to give a fillip to the fossilised educational milieu of Pakistan. But in the nearly two decades since, while a lot of attention has been given to the faculty and administrative side of things (though still not enough), the role of student organisations has been given a wide berth. It is as if the students do not even exist in the discussion on higher education—that the majority of the country which is supposed to be educated in these institutions is of little consequence in the discourse.

The present government, for example, is keen to develop a university in every district but seems oblivious to the fact that even after nearly two decades our educational institutions are still to ‘take off’—and the absence of student involvement in university matters is a key cause in this regard.

The fear of student unions in Pakistan is more a dread of what they can achieve than what wrong might happen if they are allowed to exist. With a majority of the population under the age of thirty, the existence of student unions can only inculcate a sense of democracy, responsibility, accountability, tolerance and cooperation in this large segment of society.

The experience of several schools where elected student bodies have now existed for decades exhibits that its extension in universities will improve and develop the model further. Very rarely have there been any serious issues with student bodies in schools, and even then, it is the lack of properly functioning student unions which has precipitated such issues. Even in universities, small experiments like that of creating a University Student Government President at Forman Christian College in 2010, were successful and should have continued.

Pakistan is at a standstill, both in terms of its academia and society and the continued ban on student unions is an important reason for it. About time we lifted this ban and enabled our young to take part and lead the development of the country.

The author is a historian based at IT University Lahore. He can be contacted at Yaqoob.bangash@gmail.com Twitter: @BangashYK

A recipe for stagnation