General Zia’s dictatorship imposed a ban on student unions in all universities and colleges in 1984, strongly affecting the development of campuses and the personal growth of students. The ban has continued ever since, but now gradual efforts are being made by progressive students to revive them.
The Sindh government has unanimously passed a resolution calling on the provincial government to lift the ban on student unions in educational institutions by introducing a code of conduct to avoid conflict. Two years ago, the Senate passed a similar resolution calling for students to defend their rights, but these efforts have not yielded positive results.
Student politics has had a tumultuous history in Pakistan. Before they were banned, all internal matters of educational institutes were resolved by unions. It was common for student unions elections to be held between outfits affiliated with mainstream political parties. There is a reason why the ban has remained intact for over three decades as political leaders have been hesitant to revive them.
The rise of ethno-nationalistic parties on campus led to support even larger causes such the liberation of Kashmir or Palestine, socialism and Islam. This often led to increased violence on campus as many student groups were armed leading to a complete ban.
Benazir Bhutto tried to revive student unions in 1989 but her efforts were short-lived as Nawaz Sharif reimposed the ban in 1992 after violence broke out at Punjab University – the largest public sector university in the country. The most recent attempt was made by Yousaf Raza Gilani to no avail.
Student unions are not a new concept as they have the power to sway public opinion and even bring down governments. The protests against the Vietnam War by students in the US are a glaring example.
In Pakistan an entire generation has grown up without witnessing campaigns by student unions on campuses. General Zia realised their power to affect national politics and banned them. This has also eroded the concept of responsible governance in the minds of youth.
Student unions still continue to flourish and dominate public-sector institutes which imply that the ban was not effective. Sporadic violence erupts regularly despite the presence of paramilitary forces.
Reviving the ban on students unions is a double-edged sword. The constitution gives everyone the right to association. This will strengthen the democratic process and the emergence of new, vibrant leaders.