For decades, political dynasties have ruled and governed the Pakistani political landscape. After the first upheaval in early 50’s by the Democratic Students Federation, who were immediately silenced by the government then, it wasn’t until the advent of APMSO in 1978 that challenged the status quo through student politics and ensured participation of the middle class in politics. A few years later, from 1984, MQM got registered as a major political party and since then has been a force to reckon with.
Student unions were banned in 1984 during General Zia’s dictatorial regime and there have been numerous attempts to depoliticize students and forbid them to partake in any political activities.
Many believe that this depoliticizing of students is essential to resolving the myriad of issues youth face due to the contemporary social and cultural fabric of the society. Leaders of student unions and proponents of student politics believe otherwise. They opine that the answer to youth issues is in the revival of student unions.
Why student unions?
Student unions act as a body representing and safeguarding the rights of students and youth overall.
Article 17 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan grants the right to people to form unions and associations for any rightful agenda/purpose. “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,” it states. Supreme Court needs to acknowledge such unions in the light of the constitution.
The contribution of student unions has been phenomenal in the past. “Karachi University was formed by a student collective. Ayub Khan was overthrown through the protests and powerful demonstrations of student rallies,” said Zahabiya Khuzema of the Progressive Student Federation (PSF), a left-winged student organization at Adab Fest 2020.
In the last couple of years, the debate for revival of student unions and activism has picked up momentum and many student bodies have come to the forefront to protect and guarantee rights of students and youth. The latest bill by the Sindh Government is a step in the right direction, but student leaders believe that it should have been accomplished a while ago.
The panel put together by Adab Festival organizers this weekend had representatives from major student bodies and organizations who have been working towards the goal.
Speaking to the audience, Shaheera Jalil pointed out the structural impediment for students to get their voice heard. The system is such that it has many barriers to entry for students to get involved in politics. “They can’t register dissent publicly and you can’t even let them take the electoral route,” she said.
Shaheera is advocating for a 30% election quota for youth now through her latest campaign and believes that’s how they can create a level playing field.
The plague of extremism is hitting every nook and cranny of our society. “Back in the days, artistic activities like painting, sculpting, qawwalis etc. curtailed religious extremism to a great extent,” said Sindhu Nawaz, the Chairperson of Youth Action Committee.
The panelists said that students lack an outlet now. The system favors the rich, with fee of private and even government institutes soaring high according to one of them. The 40% cut in the education budget of 2019-20 also led to an outcry among the students.
“Most students in our society end up going to Madressahs or get technical education,” added Naghma Shaikh of the Democratic Student Federation and the Democratic Youth Fund. These places are breeding grounds for religious extremism, she said. “Another contributing factor is the unavailability of jobs with so many graduates coming out of the universities every year.”
Adding to the propagation of intolerance, Zahabiya Khuzema shed light on the environment of the campuses. According to Khuzema, the curriculum is full of extremist ideologies and teachers come from such background that they end up fueling the radical school of thought. “Female students are raped and killed on campus; Nimrita’s case is a living example of that,” she said.
This rule of force is not just restricted to females and minorities. The environment of fear is rampant on campuses with the presence of organizations that harass students. The presence of security forces on the premises and their dominance on hostels stimulates this fear.
Asghar Rushdi of the Federal Urdu University further highlighted how the plague of extremism has hit the students in public and low tier private universities due to the curriculum and the fee structure of the universities, and made some very sensible recommendations. Rushdi believes that the revival of unions is the only answer to youth issues, as it will increase institutional accountability and serve as a political nursery at the grass roots level from where change can be ignited.
His three-pronged recommendations can be a stepping stone in addressing these challenges. “Teachers should be treated as knowledge workers contributing to the global knowledge economy, commercialization of education needs to stop, and curriculum that is gender, religious, and language biased needs to be changed,” he proposed.
The student activists told the audience that 15 amendments have been proposed in the draft bill which was presented in the Sindh Assembly. The bill also confiscates the right to strike by student bodies and associations.
Though the step to legalize student unions is laudable, limiting dissent is something that most student union heads objected to. There is hope that all leaders will come to terms and be on one page with regards to the bill and it will be implemented for the overall development of the society.