The union debate

Amid students marching in the streets to voice their demands, the debate on whether or not student unions should be allowed has assumed a new significance

The union debate

The debate between those who espouse democratic beliefs and are in favour of restoring the students’ unions in all educational institutions across the country and those who firmly believe in preventing political parties from engaging in students’ politics has persisted for a long time. The former consider the ban to bea sheer violation of Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan and the basic human rights.

Students’ unions (SUs) have been acknowledged as the principal focus that attracts an enthusiastic youth to play their due role in strengthening democratic culture in the country. These SUs, often described as nurseries for political training, have had a history of producing effective leadership and political cadre for various parties.

Since 1954, these unions have played a major role in national politics, and against dictators and authoritarianism, according to a former union leader and publisher Amjad Saleem. For instance, college and university students and their unions like the NSF (National Students Federation) and the MSF (Muslim Students Federation) played a pivotal role in Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s early rise, he says.

Indeed, in thosedays, according to Saleem, the unions became the prime force behind getting more democratic space, more civil liberties and providing an alternative source of fresh leadership in the political arena.

“Considering the ‘serious threats’ to decision-making authorities, authoritarian governments had no option but to minimisethe role of SUs at every level and finally put a ban on them”, he adds.

Nevertheless, these unions were also notorious as a pulsating contributor to promotion of a culture of violence. SUs were also criticised for allegedly introducing automatic weapons in the universities of Karachi and Lahore where many young people suffered injuries and several lost their lives. The gang culture in universities and colleges is at times connected to the existence of SUs.

Husain Naqi, the veteran journalist, former student leader and a human rights defender writes in one of his articles that, “in 1993, in the wake of armed violence, thanks (sic) to the induction of sophisticated weapons, and the consequent loss of life on educational campuses during the Afghan jihad’, the Supreme Court put a blanket ban on political activities by students in campuses.”

Salman Abid, an analyst, believes that such incidents occurred due to the involvement of political and religious parties in students’ politics.

“The intervention by political parties hijacked students’ politics and turned the students’ politics into a complex and dirty practices,” he tells The News on Sunday (TNS).

Malik adds that merely acquiring degrees will never help students in being productive to any society unless they also learn how to be part of a society and their role in the progress of a society.

In fact, political parties have misused these unions in the past to achieve their goals by creating chaos, promoting unrest and violence – ultimately polluting students’ productive politics for society, says Abid. Therefore, reinstating students’ unions in educational institutes must be conditioned with the non-involvement of political parties, he suggests.

Abid believes that a framework should be introduced in collaboration with stakeholders: students, educational institutions and political parties. Under this framework, he says, political parties must renounce their involvement in student politics and educational institutes must create space for students’ political activities on the campuses.This is the only way to reinstate SUs in their true spirit, he says.

Amjad Saleem strongly disagrees with the concept of non-involvement of political parties in students’ politics. He demands an unconditional restoration of SUs. Article 17 of The Constitution of Pakistan, he reiterates,upholds the right to establishan association/organisation/union.

Article 17 states, “Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality.”

“The MSF was the student wing of the Muslim League. It had been established to recruit students of the undivided subcontinent to help the Muslim League in achieving the goal of a separate homeland,” Saleem argues.

“It is the responsibility of the state to curb violence and misuse of SUs by any group, political party or an individual through proper reinforcement of the law; but imposing a ban on political parties’ involvement in student politics is not the solution,” he adds.

There is another argument for banning SUs on campuses. People in favour of imposing a ban on SUs state that unions and students’ politics were one of main reasons in bringing educational standards down. They believe that students must not do anythingbeyond studying in their classrooms, which they believe is the only purpose of going to colleges and universities.

Tahir Malik, a political analyst, calls this line of thinkingflawed and damaging to any democratic society. During the time that student unions were allowed, the standard of education was good, new campuses were opening, and public and private educational institutes were being constructed, he points out.

He adds that merely acquiring degrees willnever help students become productive to any society unless they also learn about how to be part of a society and their role in the progress of a society. This comes through extracurricular activities and political activities at campus – these are the prime sources that allow students to learn about their role in the development of a society, he adds.

However, Malik is opposed to the involvement of political parties in student politics. He believes that students are of thinking positively and constructively without a political party’s influence.

“Let them make mistakes and learn how to correct those.This is a good way to polish their skills of dealing with challenging situations,” he says.

The author is a staff member. He can be reached at

The union debate