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Who’s afraid of student unions?

SAMAA | - Posted: Dec 12, 2019 | Last Updated: 6 months ago
Posted: Dec 12, 2019 | Last Updated: 6 months ago
Who’s afraid of student unions?

Yasir and Shiraz are students of a university in Karachi. Yasir and Shiraz are not their real names. They don’t want their names or the names of their departments and university published in this story—not because they would have done anything wrong—but because they were two of the organizers of the Students Solidarity March.

Yasir, who is a final-year student, was sitting with his friends on campus on November 25. At around 2:30pm, his cellphone rang. When he glanced at the screen, it didn’t show any number but a seven-alphabet word: Unknown. He didn’t take the call.

When he checked the call log for a number, he was surprised to discover that it didn’t show the date or time of the call either.

After three or four minutes, it rang again and he decided to pick up. “Who is organizing this march?” asked the man on the other side, who identified himself as a member of a law-enforcement agency.

“I didn’t tell him [the names of the organizers],” Yasir says. Instead he told the caller that he was just a volunteer. The caller wanted to him to help identify the march’s organizers.

Students chant slogans demanding more freedom on campuses in Islamabad on November 29. AFP photo

“I was scared and the caller tried to assure me that there was nothing to worry about,” he says.  “But I am worried because we have seen what these guys are capable of.”

Shiraz has a similar story to tell. He received two calls from an unidentified number. On one call the man wanted to know where he studied, what he did and his political affiliation. This man was also with a security agency.

“I had to lie about my institute,” says Shiraz, but he did tell the caller he was associated with the Progressive Student Front and Student Solidarity March.

Why do these young men think they received these phone calls from ‘security agencies’? “Well, that’s because they think we have some sort of shady agendas,” says Shiraz. Of course the students organizing the march have an ‘agenda’—fighting for their rights on campus. It just wasn’t an ‘agenda’ to threaten the State.

“We want unions and rights that are addressed in Article 17,” argues Shiraz. Article 17 of the Pakistani Constitution gives citizens the freedom of association. It says: “Every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of sovereignty or integrity of Pakistan, public order or morality.”

Students Solidarity March and beyond

Four days later, by November 29, students across the country took to the streets. Their demands include free education, restoration of student unions, freedom to think and question, and the de-securitization of campuses.

Ten days later, the marchers saw their first victory when the Sindh cabinet approved a bill that could pave the way for the revival of student unions in the province.

“Congratulations to all who fought tirelessly for the restoration of student unions,” tweeted Ammar Ali Jan, a well-known teacher and an activist in Lahore. “Keep marching forward.”

Students carrying posters and flags are demanding their right to student unions in Karachi on November 29. AFP photo

The bill will be presented for a vote in the Sindh Assembly soon and a standing committee will consult stakeholders before finalizing it, Sindh’s information minister, Saeed Ghani, told reporters on December 9.

Student unions were banned on February 9, 1984 by former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. The unions were briefly revived by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1989. The ban was re-imposed in 1993 by the Supreme Court.

How much of a threat are student unions?

Security officials maintain that they have no problem with student unions but they view the Student Solidarity March with suspicion. They have reservations over the participation of those who support the demands of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement.

The PTM is a rights group led by Manzoor Pashteen. It has been accused of receiving funds from Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies in the past. The group’s leaders deny the accusation.

Pro-union activists say, however, that the PTM was not behind the Students Solidarity March. It just so happens that some people who support the return of student unions are also sympathetic to the demands of the PTM.

“While many of the organizers support the PTM’s constitutional demands, it would be misleading to state that the PTM was behind the march,” Ammar Rashid, a member of the left-wing Awami Workers Party, told SAMAA Digital.

The suspicion of student unions is linked to the fears of being held accountable. Rashid believes that it comes from the apprehension that rulers have that young people will question them. Historically, student unions have always opposed military dictators as well in Pakistan, making them a force to reckon with.

A student shouts slogans during the Students Solidarity March in Islamabad on November 29. AFP photo

In fact, students played a key role in forcing military dictator Ayub Khan to quit in 1968. “The institution of the student union actually develops democratic attitudes among students,” says Tausif Ahmed Khan, a former member of the National Student Federation and Progressive Student Front in Karachi. In the 1960s and 1970s, the NSF was regarded as the one stand-out student group in Pakistan.

Small wonder then that General Zia-ul-Haq, who banned student unions in 1984, “was very conscious of the role students played in opposing and overturning Ayub,” as Professor Aziz-ud-Din Ahmad is quoted as saying in Revisiting Student Politics in Pakistan.

Did student unions turn campuses into ‘violent battlegrounds’?

In a tweet on December 1, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his government would “establish a comprehensive & enforceable code of conduct” to restore student unions.

“Universities groom future leaders of the country & student unions are part of this grooming,” he added. “Unfortunately, in Pakistan universities student unions became violent battlegrounds & completely destroyed the intellectual atmosphere on campuses.”

Student unions appear to thus still suffer, 35 years on, from a bad rep and the prime minister has bought into the rhetoric of the 1980s.
It is perhaps an unfair characterization that stuck, for the violence broke out after and in reaction to the ban. According to Professor Shakeel Farooqui, who was the last president of the University of Karachi student union, leftist and rightist parties got together after Zia’s ban to start a movement that lasted 100 days. He was a member of the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulaba back then.

Students chanting slogans in Hyderabad during the Students Solidarity March on November 29. Online photo

Another explanation for the violence comes from Tausif Ahmed Khan, who was an active member of the Progressive Student Front that defeated the IJT in the student union elections in the University of Karachi in 1976. He argues that it was student parties, and not student unions that turned campuses into violent battlegrounds. They ended up fighting over belief systems.

“[Debates] had been going on for decades and they always benefited students,” Khan says. “The debate was about what should a state be like.” The Left argued that the People and labourers should have supremacy and the Right, in the shape of the IJT, believed that the state should be Islamic.

It was when the debating ended that the violent fighting started. And it was only a matter of time before that conflict took on an ethnic and sectarian colour.

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