Thursday, April 24, 2008

Politics of student unions

Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Syed Saad Rizvi

The removal of ban on student unions by the present government is a welcome sign for the establishment of a strong democracy in Pakistan but there is still a lot that needs to be done. Much damage has already been done to the image of politics and its effectiveness among the post-1984 generation – especially present students – because of the long-standing ban on student unions.

General Ziaul Haq banned student unions, learning from his Turkish counterparts, in an attempt to subdue politics. The decision was further compounded by his ideological leanings because that mean that progressive student bodies were effectively rooted out but Islamic student's organizations such as the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba (IJT) were in fact strengthened during his time. As a result, these Islamic student unions gained a monopoly in the universities and frequently resorted to militancy and violence to harass students at campuses to coerce them into following the student wing's own agenda. Furthermore, the state support, even if covert, to these student organizations made them immune to any action from law-enforcement agencies and this only served to embolden them. In many cases, members of the faculty at various universities felt their moral duty to support these militant student organizations to the extent that they became their de facto members and/or patrons.

Also, in the aftermath of the ban, some student organizations arose along ethnic lines while others, remnants of former unions, associated themselves with political parties. The student organizations that organised along ethnic lines were armed and did not hesitate to engage in violence to safeguard their interests. These student organizations also represented and reflected the resentment of local ethnic groups against the policies of the central government and also the state itself.

The ban on student unions did not stem the violence on campuses, which only continued to grow. Adamjee Government Science College, apparently the best intermediate college in Karachi with a student body that is among the brightest in the country, was often scene of many violent incidents. On the very first day for new students who join the college, the above-mentioned student organizations have their representatives at the college door, all trying to lure the new students to join their student wings. They are attracted by what later turn out to be bogus promises of helping with academics or even with the registration process. Some even go to the extent of claiming themselves to be saviours against campus violence and pledge to protect their members from it. As for those students who manage to somehow avoid joining a student union, they still are affected by violence. It is this violence which greatly affected how most students see and perceive student unions on campus – usually as things to be avoided. The power of the student wings was, as is, such that usually even the head of the college, the principal, is unable to do much about the violence, except to call in the Rangers of the police, as and when it happens. And this state of affairs is found across the length and breadth of the country.

So, while the step to lift the ban on student unions is good that it may allow some genuine politics to take place and could help reduce the incidents of violence, it needs to be followed by a stringent deweaponization campaign in all colleges and universities. If done without favouring any particular student wing it could restore a certain level of confidence in student politics and would also contribute towards the establishment of a level playing field for all student organizations. Reducing violence in politics at national level would also serve as motivation for those students who may already be interested in political activism.

In addition to this, courses in civics should be taught to secondary school students. Political science, history and geography should all be offered as separate subjects instead of the hodgepodge that one finds in the form of Pakistan Studies. In addition, seminars and conferences should be held to explain to students the real role of student unions and how they can be used as a platform for airing and reflecting the wishes and aspirations, as well as grievances, of students to the administration and even to the government of the day. Politicians could be invited to campuses to engage with students in dialogue and this could help remove some of the faulty notions that many students have of politics and politicians.

Students need representation at some level. All developed and democratic nations have student platforms and organizations and these usually serve as breeding grounds for future leaders. Besides, if an interest in politics is not encouraged or developed during one's student years, this country could face a grave leadership crisis – the signs of which are already becoming visible.

The writer is a student at the University of Connecticut in the US. Email: