Once upon a time in UET | Pakistan Today

Once upon a time in UET

  • No student unions, please

Last week saw demands for revival of student unions, amid a lot of ‘Asia is red’ poppycock. The latter merits no response except mirth, but after the tweets from the Prime Minister the student unions issue can no longer be ignored. There’s this romance of student politics, especially among those who have never seen it first-hand and who therefore believe that they will do wonders if provided the platform. For those who have experienced the ‘fruits’ of student politics, it’s not easy to share this enthusiasm. Having spent five years of my life at the UET Lahore in the 1990s, I have a fair idea what I am talking about.

Gen Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s had slapped a ban on student unions across the country, mainly for his own political convenience. Not that the reign of terror at the hands of the student wings of political parties had abated as a result– it was more a matter of patronising one side at the expense of others. Of course, by the turn of the decade ‘democracy’ had returned to the country, and Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister. She revived student unions– to enable students to get political training and have their say in their own affairs, of course. On the ground however, the violence and terror only increased.

Although reminiscences from that era can fill several columns, here are a few glimpses of what went on at the campus in those days: The University was home to all sorts of regional and ethnic organisations, in addition to the student wing of every political party. However, the IJT and MSF were the two main rivals, and much of the violence and tension revolved around the activities of the two. Hostel allotments that were supposed to be merit-based were anything but. Many rooms were permanently occupied by members of the different unions. Some were used for storing firearms, etc., and some had been sub-let to outsiders. Prior to allotment, lists were displayed making it clear which rooms were not available. If you mistakenly opted for one of those rooms, nobody could get it vacated for you.

Brutal ragging of the students was rampant, and it wasn’t confined to hostels or the buses. It went on in classrooms as well, and sometimes even during class hours. Senior students misbehaved with the teachers with impunity. An early incident is still fresh in the memory. In our very first week, a group of students stormed the classroom in the ‘Lecture Theatres’ and told the professor to leave the class. The professor said: ‘Please give me some respect in front of my students’; but having registered this half-hearted protest, promptly left the building.

Students have no business in active politics– not our students, at any rate. Our educational institutions aren’t exactly the envy of the world as we speak. Throwing in student unions into an already complex mix of problems won’t be the smartest idea one could ever think of

A few days later, the very first lab test was conducted and only a handful of students passed it. The second lab test had been announced by the instructor (let’s refer to him as Mr J), and everybody was apprehensive. As it happened, there was a completely unrelated hostel-related grievance, on which it had been decided that the best course of action was for the whole class to protest in front of the VC office, a standard operating procedure. From afar, Mr J saw the procession and must have thought that the students were going to complain about him. He was with the students in a flash, whom he told that the date for the next test was negotiable. We were mere freshmen with no links to any political organisation, but this was the sort of pressure the teachers faced from the student body.

When our first summer approached, one of the students asked a professor about the schedule of the summer vacations. The professor, who thought it was quite a joke, replied: ‘That is for you to tell us’. The students had taken ‘managing their own affairs’ to a whole new level. So much so that there used to be a week-long holiday around October-November to facilitate the students to bring their quilts from home.

Date sheets were drafted by the students themselves, with each paper preceded by four days off. So, every year the exam season was a good two-month-long activity, including the practical exams (it was before the advent of semester system). And sometimes even this much ‘preparation’ wasn’t deemed to be quite enough. Upon reaching the examination centre for our first annual exam we were informed by the union students that we were to boycott the paper. The exams were then postponed for a full two months. Of course, the instigators themselves were a minority, but the rest had no option but to acquiesce.

The terror was not confined to the campus alone. It was usual practice for students to stop vans on the GT Road, force the passengers out, and make the driver take them wherever they wanted. It was in this backdrop that Gen (retired) Akram Khan took over as Vice-Chancellor in 1997. It was taking around six years for students to complete the four-year programme, and the institute was called (with some justification) the university of errors and terrors. It was only after academic activities were suspended, the hostels evacuated, and an extensive clean-up carried out, that it started looking anything like an educational institution again.

The Prime Minister wants to establish ‘comprehensive codes of conduct’ to ‘restore and enable student unions to play their part in positively grooming our youth as ‘future leaders of the country’. Knowing our track record on comprehensive codes of conduct, one would urge the Prime Minister to resist the temptation. Students have no business in active politics– not our students, at any rate. Our educational institutions aren’t exactly the envy of the world as we speak. Throwing in student unions into an already complex mix of problems won’t be the smartest idea one could ever think of.

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed