Is it time students had a platform? | Pakistan Today

Is it time students had a platform?

  • Students when they learn the best way to demand their rights translate into citizens who safeguard theirs

The aims, objectives and activities of student unions/guilds/associations vary depending on where they are found. In the USA, student unions mostly take the form of student activity groups with their own governing bodies. In New Zealand they focus primarily on addressing students’ financial issues, such as student debts.

Historically in Pakistan, student unions have been much more involved in the politics of the country starting with the Muslim Students’ Federation, an arm of the Pakistan Muslim League. The MSF was already an established entity when Pakistan came into being in 1947. Subsequently, other student groups came into being as well.

Ten years ago Nadeem Paracha wrote an excellent paper about student unions in Pakistan. One of the (many) things you learn reading this paper is that the Karachi University owes its existence to demands made by the DSF, a student union set up in Karachi’s Dow Medical College. But Karachi University did not come into being until six students lost their lives in processions and riots demanding their rights in the shape of a proper university for the metropolis. The point then is: should student unions exist, and if they do, should there be any perimeters within which they should function?

The primary function of schools and universities is to impart education of course. Whether or not unions exist in educational institutions hinges upon the definition of education. Is learning dates and theorems all there is to education?

Schools and universities can be the cradle where these things are taught and learnt. So long as the authorities stand firm against violence and undisciplined behavior, so long as they insist on academic learning not suffering as a result of these student activities– while remembering that both are important– the country can only benefit from such grounding. Unions can prevent students and citizens from being exploited by universities and later by governments regardless of their gender and religion. This might teach us to tolerate minorities and help us protect the rights of all citizens as already provided for in the Constitution of Pakistan but not practiced. Students, when they learn the best way to demand their rights, translate into citizens who safeguard theirs.

A holistic approach to education would require the student to learn about all aspects of life, social and political, and to acquire the knowledge with which to organise these various aspects. Real education provides students with principles to help him lead a good, decent life, and that definition in turn depends on the defining authorities.

A person who grows up without having learnt about these various aspects of life is left with little option but to allow those with power to govern, and if he manages to get power himself such a person is more likely to use it incorrectly. He is more likely to accept mis-dealings on the part of his government and leaders because he/she does not know any better. That works very well for persons with selfish motivations.

It comes as no surprise then that in Pakistan, student unions are illegal.

It was the DSF that was the first to be banned, in 1954. By the time General Ayub Khan blew in with his Martial Law the National Students’ Federal (NSF) had become powerful. It, and other student unions and all political parties were banned by Ayub Khan. But unions rose again and were a force in bringing Z.A. Bhutto into power.

The late 1970s saw a great increase in the presence of sophisticated arms and ammunition on campuses and powerful student activism. Many violent incidents occurred.

General Zia ul Haq banned student unions in 1984; they were revived again in 1988 and banned again in 1993. The ban was supposed to be subject to review, but a review never materialized, and unions are still for all purposes not allowed to function.

Should this state of affairs continue? Are students justified in their protest against the existence of pressures against reviving student unions?

If there is one thing that sets our culture apart from the West it is the inability to organise. Few people in this country are aware of the due process involved in any organisation. Surprisingly for a culture that prides itself on its tehzeeb (refined manners) few people allow a person to finish speaking before cutting in. Debate and discussion and the ability to reason and infer from available evidence is almost unknown. Instead violence and baseless accusations are resorted to. We are also comparatively new to democracy. It is possible to learn both organisation and the workings of the system on campus by means of student groups.

It has to be a good idea to re-form student unions and insist on them being organised with proper committees and working groups. The committees must run as committees should, with regular meetings conducted in a disciplined manner. The death of students demanding their rights should never happen again.

We have been guaranteed certain rights by the constitution of this country. No one has the right to take them away at any stage. Nor do students shed their Constitutional rights at their university’s gates.

Schools and universities can be the cradle where these things are taught and learnt. So long as the authorities stand firm against violence and undisciplined behavior, so long as they insist on academic learning not suffering as a result of these student activities– while remembering that both are important– the country can only benefit from such grounding. Unions can prevent students and citizens from being exploited by universities and later by governments regardless of their gender and religion. This might teach us to tolerate minorities and help us protect the rights of all citizens as already provided for in the Constitution of Pakistan but not practiced. Students, when they learn the best way to demand their rights, translate into citizens who safeguard theirs.

So, yes, student unions should exist. Subject to certain conditions.

Rabia Ahmed

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at http://rabia-ahmed.blogspot.com/



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