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Mirage of Students Union in Pakistan

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Usama Shahzad Cheema

Students Union is an almost forgotten institution in Pakistan. Irony is that even two-third of the young generation is unaware of the history, need and importance of students union. On the other hand, whole civilized world not only acknowledges the importance of students union, but the students union is actively functional in their educational institutions. Oxford Union is worldly known official union of students at Oxford University in England and even our former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto remained an active part of it.

Pakistan encompasses a rich history of students union that is full of constructive hustle and bustle in educational institutions. Students played a very critical part in creation of Pakistan from the platform of Muslim Students Federation and Aligarh College Students Union. Once Pakistan was established, the country was at ideological crossroads. This ideological divide of Left and Right was most evident in the educational institutions where students engaged in the ideological discourse, political activism and activities revolving around their relevant ideologies. Students union remained active in the educational institutions of Pakistan till 9th February 1984. As an outcome of students unions, culture of tolerance, harmony, social activism, constructive activities, ideological discourse and study circles et-cetera prevailed at campuses. Occasionally, students engaged in physical clashes but most of the times, the clash remained limited to ideological discourse. It altogether produced a very healthy environment, not only grooming and polishing the students but also minimizing corruption and ultimately improving quality of education. The authenticity can be observed even now that political leaders who arose to national leadership from the arena of students union are way better than the others, even the bureaucrats and philanthropists who spent time in students union served honestly and efficiently, brightening their name and name of their country.

Students union and democracy go hand in hand and their junction has always proved to be fatal for non-democratic powers. When dictator Zia-ul-Haq came to power, students protested against this breach of democracy. Such resistance by students had already proved fatal for the regime of Ayub Khan and the danger was evident for Zia. On 9 February 1984, a ban was imposed on student unions in colleges and universities across Pakistan, through a Martial Law order issued by General Zia-ul-Haq. Students’ outcry was suppressed by state power and student leaders were put behind the bars. Though students union was briefly revived in 1989 but only to be banned again and it has not seen the light of day since then.

It has been around 35 years since the ban on students union. As the union remained active for an equal duration of around 35 years, so a fair comparison can be drawn between both eras. The era after ban on students union has proved devastating for the country. A very common objection against revival of students union is that it may incite violence, but we are already seeing violence at our institutions and statistics have clearly indicated that the violence rate at campuses before the ban on students union was much lower than the violence rate now. Quality of education has miserably fallen. New records of corruption have been made and there is altogether no check and balance in educational institutions. Sexual harassment in campuses has reached to an alarming level in past years. Even the very product that our institutions are producing, that is only slightly better than cramming parrots. Modern-day skills of teamwork, confidence, creativity, event management and decision making et cetera are nowhere to be found in our youth these days, as the very institution to groom the students and incorporate such soft-skills has been already banned. Most importantly, democratic culture has become a history and even our National Politics has fallen into hands of dynastic politicians having no experience of grassroots politics.

‘Article 17 of 1973 Constitution’ guarantees every citizen the right to form unions, and ranging from teachers to clerical staff and from labors to traders; every citizen is exercising this liberty but students. ‘Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – 1948’ also grants the right to form associations and unions to every ‘human being’ but students in Pakistan have been long deprived of this right and that too at the cost of bright future of generations and prosperity of the country.

This global corona pandemic has further highlighted the importance of students union when students throughout the country faced educational problems. There is absolutely no representation of students in policy-making bodies and consequently the committees constituted to address the issues miserably failed in their task. Students were forced to take up streets and only then the issues got solved. Students throughout the Pakistan are now raising and vocalizing for the revival of their fundamental and constitutional right of students union. Country has been covered by the dismal cloud since 9th February 1984 and only the revival of students union can prove to be a way forward on the highway towards peace, prosperity and pure-democracy in Pakistan.

The writer of this article is student of Law at University Law College, University of the Punjab. He can be reached at usamacheema319@gmail.com.

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