Military dictator Ziaul Haq ruled Pakistan with an iron grip for 11 long years from 1977 when he toppled then prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government and declared Martial Law to the time when his American-made C-130 plane crashed near Bahawalpur on August 17, 1988. During his rule, civil rights were at best non-existent.
In 1984, he grew afraid of growing student resistance. On February 9, 1984, he issued a Martial Law Order banning student unions in colleges and universities. The reason: growing violence between student organizations in campuses. Critics disagree.
Instead of reducing on-campus violence, the ban on student unions polarized student politics as political parties stepped in to fill in the void left by the exit of unions. Their way of hammering out conflict was to attack each other. Guns became the weapon of choice.
Fast forward 35 years, the unions are still banned and students in government universities are forced to sign affidavits declaring that they will not take part in politics. But the ban hasn’t been able to root out student politics. Today we see a resurgence, led by left-leaning student organizations as thousands of young people all over the country came out on the streets on November 29, 2019 for the Student Solidarity March. Their foremost demand: revive student unions.
It took less than a week from the march for the Sindh government to come forward and say it was ready to lift the three-decade-old ban on student unions.
Students should be allowed to participate in political activities, said Sindh government spokesperson Murtaza Wahab while addressing a press conference in Karachi on Monday. “We will soon make a law regarding student unions.”
As the Student Solidarity March gained momentum in the middle of November, we talked to the heads of some student organizations at the University of Karachi about student politics, the ban on student unions and affidavits barring students from taking part in politics. This is what the nazim for the Islami Jamiat Tulaba Karachi university chapter, Ashir Saleem, the ISO’s president Asif Ali and Safeer Ahmed who heads the Punjabi Student Association had to say:
IJT nazim Ashir Saleem
He told SAMAA Digital that he did not think there was a legal restriction on having student politics. Universities try to keep new students away from political parties because of the nuisance of having student organizations that pressure the administration for their rights.
The IJT recognizes that the problems students face are common. He gives the example of the lack of hostels. “Even if you have hostels, the rangers have encroached on them,” he said. “Or there is some other situation as a result of which students are not given relief.”
The IJT tries to help solve student problems by talking to the administration. “We guide them and try to get their issues resolved through protests, negotiations or whatever is necessary,” he says. But if that doesn’t work, the IJT doesn’t believe in going to extremes.
“If things head to extremism because of your protests,” he adds, it disrupts the environment on campus. If you go against the very educational institution where you are studying, you need to work on being tolerant.
The IJT has thus always felt that student unions should be revived to handle these problems.
“There are unions for rickshaw drivers, labourers,” he argues. “They are even given reserved seats in the assemblies. But the most progressive section of society, [students], one that we expect to take part in the development of the country and is expected to lead the country, is not given the chance? What can you expect from students if you don’t give them a chance?”
If unions are revived it would be after a long period of 25 years. Since the ban the numbers of students entering politics has dwindled. Many were afraid entering student politics would mean eventually staring down the barrel of a gun. So the IJT and other groups would have to work hard to contest elections if they are held and build themselves back up.
Saleem believes on the groups that have espoused strong beliefs will survive. The heart of student politics is ideology. “People die but philosophies stay alive.” That is why he believes that ideological student organisations have staying power over any other kind of politics. He is generous to admit that the NSF’s leftist, socialist philosophy has kept their vision alive. The slogans of the 1950s are being chanted today.
It is a testament to the IJT’s democratic credentials that as one of its nazims Saleem believes the NSF, a rival student organization, has a right to talk about their philosophy. This applies to anyone who backs the slogans of Jiye Bhutto, Jiye Muhajir, Jiye Punjabi… the decision to support someone is taken on the basis of their ideology.
Of course, as a nazim Saleem espouses the IJT’s ideology of Abul A’la Maududi that date back 70 to 80 years ago. “If we already have a structure, a system, which we want to implement, then I would like to remain associated with the IJT and play my role there.”
ISO’s president Asif Ali
Another group on campus is the Imamia Student Organisation. Its president at KU, Asif Ali, is an M. Phil student at the department of Botany. He agreed with Saleem that making students sign an affidavit is “an utter justice”.
He makes the same argument. If students don’t learn how to justify fighting for rights and emerge to enter mainstream politics, then we will continue to see an immature approach in national politics.
Ali sees no reason why adults who can vote should be infantilized. When a person gets their ID card at 18, it means that they are responsible for their own actions. And so it follows that they should as students be able to take part in politics.
Punjabi Student Association president Safeer Ahmed
Safeer Ahmed clarified that KU did not have an affidavit earlier on. VC Dr Ajmal introduced it two years ago to end student politics and encourage societies, which operate differently. That plan was not successful but the affidavit stayed on.
Earlier on, the affidavit used to be attached with the form. Student had to sign in eight to ten places and they used to clear it. Many didn’t even realize what they were signing until the administration drove the point home. You could even buy an affidavit and get it stamped. Ahmed maintains that students still enter politics even after signing the affidavit, so even its efficacy is questionable.
For the last five years, there has been a Student Alliance at KU with many student organizations, including the IJT, APMSO, ISO, PSF and Punjabi Student Association.
During admissions or whenever students face problems like the last time there was an increase in fees, then all of the organization talk to the administration in the form of an alliance. Fees are being increased, there are harassment cases. This is where student unions can help.
His argument is the same as Saleem’s. There is a double standard: “At Karachi University and other universities, there are teacher unions, employee unions but the students, whose rights you talk about and make rules and regulations for them, they don’t have any representation.”