View Full Version : Let students unionise — a student’s demand! By Ramis Sohail - 7th February 2016

7th February 2016, 09:09 AM
Dr Rasul Baksh Rais, in a recent op-ed for this newspaper titled, “Student unions — models of democracy?” (January 20), presents a scathing critique of the “top-down” decision by the political class to revive student unions. Yes, “the political class has decided to revive student unions in colleges and universities to promote ‘democracy’ in the country”, but why does that have to be a bad thing? Why must we underestimate our people so much that we are unwilling to give them their basic inalienable rights?

Dr Rais argues that if the political class is sincere about the idea of strengthening democracy, it must start with the parties they belong to and end age-long dynastic politics within them. He extends his argument to the revival of student unions, and concludes that the political class is not reviving student unions to strengthen democracy. The real reason, according to him, is that these dynasties want to extend their influence over educational institutions. While we can agree that the commitment of the political class towards strengthening democracy is stingy to say the least, the re-legalisation of student unions does not have to be mutually exclusive to this process.

How can we expect a change in grassroots leadership when there is no training ground for students to groom themselves? The sad reality is that Pakistan has a few powerful families that end up forming the so-called ‘political class’. With such structures inherent in the system, there is barely any room for a change in leadership. Not only do you need to wipe out dynastic politics from within the structures of political parties, but you also need viable options to replace them with. Say democracy is implemented within parties, who will be nominated and who will contest elections within the party? Those select few with abundant resources who already have influence within the party. Yes, party structures need to be democratic, but that cannot happen in isolation.

As Dr Rais points out, student unions have, in the past, been used as tools by political parties since they were funded, organised and advised by the ruling parties. Political parties used student wings as political nurseries to develop future ideological members. It is feared by the opponents of student unions that history will repeat itself, and in doing so, political parties will once again exercise influence over campuses.

This fear is a legitimate one. However, it does not take into account the realities of the day. After the ban on student unions, the crackdown that followed was not against all student groups. It was only the progressive forces that were banned, while elements of the status quo were not only allowed to operate, but were supported by the ruling elite. Meet any student from the University of Punjab and you will hear the never-ending tales of their violent encounters with those from the Islami Jamiat Talaba, or meet a student from Technical College, and you’ll inevitably hear the same stories, albeit with a different perpetrator, i.e., the Muslim Student Federation. The ban has, in fact, helped further strengthen these student groups because alternative student organisations no longer exist.

Lifting the ban on student unions might result in small incidents of disturbance, yes, but reviving them will also result in something far greater — space for new ideas and room for debate. Something that is long overdue in a country like Pakistan.

On the surface, it may appear that it is the political class spearheading the efforts to revive student unions. Building arguments solely around the recent Senate debate is unfair, as it takes agency away from students. It portrays students as pawns being ‘controlled’ by the ruling elite for their own benefits. That is an extremely patronising view of students.

The undeniable fact is that students have been undertaking various actions over the past year to demand unionisation. If there are fears of influence from political parties, there are ways to regulate this influence rather than banning them altogether. Reviving unions is not only a decision that will be passed from ‘above’, but it is also organically entrenched in the voices of students everywhere. Do not silence those voices only because you do not trust the ‘loudest ones’.

Any student of history knows the importance of students in the struggle for a democratic Pakistan. The student movements of 1968 and 1969 forced the dictator Ayub Khan to announce that he would not be contesting elections. Movements such as these gave us progressive activists and academics who shape Pakistan today. These activists did not emerge out of a vacuum, they had space wherein they could grow, organise and mobilise. The students of today are deprived of that space. How can the powers that be expect to strengthen democracy when one of the major forces of democratic struggle is purposefully denied its right to practise what is inherent in any democratic set up.

Today, students across the country look at the promise for space to unionise with unwavering hope and commitment. The same students have been working and struggling to revive unions before the issue was brought up for debate in the Senate. For decades, it was not considered a priority by the country’s academics, hence it was by and large ignored; however, now that it has gained national attention, the voices of the political class are trying their best to take over the debate. We can question the intentions of the so-called ‘political class’, but that action alone will take us nowhere. We need to trust students to be smart enough not to fall in the same old ‘trap’. It is time that the older generation passes the torch to a newer one while we play our part in the country’s democratic evolution.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2016.