It has been 35 years since students’ unions were banned in Pakistan. LSE student, Hussain Abbas, explores the reasons why they were banned, what possibilities for legal reform there are, and where the students are in demanding they are reinstated?

Pakistan recently marked the 35th anniversary of the ban on students’ unions in Pakistan. The ban was imposed by Former President of Pakistan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1984 after student-run organisations were accused of becoming a force of anarchy, polarising campuses and inciting violence. While they only existed for a short period of time students’ unions were an essential vehicle to express dissent, engage in political and social commentary, support or oppose the ruling classes and, of course, bring student concerns to the forefront inside and beyond the university.

It was this very concentration of strong-headed, socially-aware individuals however that led to the unions’ demise. Accusations of political parties interfering with student elections and controversy caused around the funding of student campaigns meant that students’ unions became the playing ground for political bigwigs, another platform on which to advance partisan agendas. From these disputes over the independence of students’ unions a factional mentality emerging on university campuses with violence breaking out as different groups were pitted against each other. University administrators were concerned that this polarisation was affecting academics. Consequently, instead of attempting to reform the system, the Zia government of 1984, already draconian in nature, saw a perfect excuse to impose a blanket ban on one of the few outlets of free speech that remained at the time.

India: an example of reform?

Pakistan however could look to India as an example of reform. Students’ unions within India, although being intermittently banned in different states and experiencing periods of tumultuousness themselves, do exist and are active. In 2006, a report published by a committee formed by the former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Mr. J.M. Lyngdoh detailed how the students’ union system in India could be reformed. The 84-page report was , detailing the reforms set out by the committee.

Indeed, a discussion paper published in 2008 by the independent think-tank PILDAT (Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency), titled The Revival of Students’ Unions in Pakistan, cited India’s ideas for reforms as the best route for Pakistan’s own revival of students’ unions.

What the Lyngdoh example signifies is something that Pakistan policy-makers should also consider. Attempts have been made throughout the years to reinstate students’ unions, with the ban being briefly removed in 1988 by Benazir Bhutto. However, owing to violent clashes, a Supreme Court decision in 1992 and 1993 rescinded Bhutto’s efforts, passing an order that left Pakistan’s student with unions that were severely limited in what they could do.

A curious lack of action from students

Absent from this analysis, of course, is the students themselves. Why have student federations remained dormant, lacking in the implementation of a wide-scale campaign for reform?

There have been instances of challenge from students in the duration of the ban, however they have been sporadic in nature. Recently, students from universities in Lahore organised a march in which demands for the restoration of students’ unions, alongside other issues, were central. Aside from that, there have been calls from various student federations across Pakistan in recent years stressing their continual commitment to restoring students’ unions. These clearly show that the ban is fresh in the minds of students, not forgotten and ever-present.

However, the issue with student federations, particularly those that are politically charged, such as the Islami Jamiat-i-Tulaba and the Insaf Student Federation is that, although their demands for a restoration of students’ unions might be unified, they are divided ideologically and organisationally. Unless we have conservative right-wing and secular left-wing students uniting for a campaign against the ban of students’ unions, efforts are largely going to remain like the march in December – sporadic and inconsistent.

The absence of a student revolt has been largely due to a generation of students born long after students’ unions in Pakistan were thriving; a generation unable to visualise the heyday of unions, a heyday ironically etched maybe only in the memories of a select few that today made up the successive political hegemonies unable to remove the ban.

With students’ unions active in democracies across the world, it is time for Pakistan to see these bodies not as agents of violence and rebellion but of a training ground for a new generation of political, economics and business leaders. Students in Pakistan for 35 years have been denied a right to representation in the university system. Issues that plague students: sexual harassment, racial tensions, social mobility, quality of academics, mental health and wellbeing have no voice in the institutions they will spend such a large and formative part of their life in. Ensuring that these issues are taken seriously is largely left to the benevolence of the university. But it is not only within the university students need a voice. Students’ unions are a key vehicle for encouraging young people’s engagement in political and social commentary.  It’s high time that the ban on students’ unions’ in Pakistan is overturned.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.

Hussain Abbas is studying Economics at LSE. He is currently the Development Officer of the LSESU Pakistan Society and sits on the main editorial board of the Bahrain Research Group, an online independent economic-focused publication. He tweets @hussain2842

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