Few weeks ago, a news story in “The Times of India” grabbed my attention. The story was about recent elections of student unions in Indian universities. Such processes are what makes India the largest democracy around the world. This is perhaps the secret behind continuity of democratic process in India.
Student unions are known to provide students with an opportunity to sharpen their leadership skills and learn democratic values. It serves as an entry point for middle-class youth into mainstream politics. Absence of unions at educational institutions pave the way for feudal, industrialists, and dictators to take control of political affairs of the state. It is widely understood that unions provide a podium for students to participate in political/social activities thus leading towards a vibrant civil society. They empowers student community to protect their rights and serves as nurseries for producing the future leadership.
However, students’ community in Pakistan is deprived of their democratic right of forming union although constitution of Pakistan (article 17) and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (article 20) protect their right to form association. Everyone else in the country is free to form associations to protect their rights but not those who are expected to lead the country in future.
Students Union was banned twice in 1958 and 1984 by dictators because of the increasing students’ movement against their regimes. PPP government in 1989 lifted the ban. Nevertheless, in 1993, that time’s “BABA REHEMTA” re-imposed it maintaining that student union contribute to violence at educational institutions and without commissioning a study to explore relationship between violence and unions at campuses. However, empirical evidence proves that there was more violence in educational institutions during post-ban era.
Do we think educational institutions are just venues for delivering curricula? Whose responsibility is to shape politically trained, culturally aware and socially responsible citizens? Isn’t it responsibility of educational institution to provide a conducive environment where youth can learn political, diplomatic, negotiation and communication skills?
The ban on student union has affected personal growth and well being of Pakistani youth. It has quashed the culture of tolerance, dialogue, democratic values and respect for diversity in political arena. Limited activities and participation at campuses makes Pakistani youth apolitical and irrelevant with contemporary political challenges of globalized world.
Lack of healthy political activities at campuses encourage our youth to join various religious, ethnic and regional groups, which promotes regionalism, radicalization and sectarianism It undermines common purpose and collective power of student community. It has not only affected them in political discourse but in all pursuits of life.
Unfortunately, opponents of students union have successfully established negative perceptions of it. They argue that it is all about political clashes, rallies, demonstrations. I agree with it to some extent. Nevertheless, it does not provide a justification to keep them deprived of their constitutional right. If having union is such an unwanted thing, should constitution of Pakistan protect it?
Plato said, “Those who refused to take part in politics are destined to be ruled by inferiors”. I would reiterate, “those who oppose student politics, intend to be ruled by those doesn’t represent them”.
In the past, it was only PPP, which has made efforts to resume students unions in the country. They announced lifting ban on students unions in 2008 but it could not materialized. Senate under the chair of Mr. Rabbani also passed a resolution for revival of students union in 2017 but no further progress was made. No other has forwarded this agenda seriously or included it in their manifestos.
Almost every speech by PM Khan is full of examples from western liberal democratic systems. He never mentions that even small kids are encouraged to participate council elections at schools. “All human being are political and only animals are apolitical”, said PM Khan in one of his speeches. However, a wide gap between preach and practice can be seen as PTI government did nothing for revival of unions in NAYA KPK during their last tenure. Based on KP experience, one should not be very optimistic. Yet, I strongly urge the government to take this important agenda forward to end discrimination against students. Government should immediately lift the ban on unions and direct institutions to organize union elections. Since, this is a provincial chapter, the provincial governments should develop a strict code of conduct with ‘zero’ tolerance for violence to maintain the values of responsibility, tolerance, co-existence and respect for diversity. At the same time, I would encourage student community to drive this agenda and make their voices heard at policy level. This is the only way to stop “paratroopers” and pave the way for “gross rooters” to enter the political system.
“Itfaq Khaliq Khan is a professional in International Development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org“