After the ban on student unions in 1993, several attempts have been made to restore them in the country. In 2016, Senator Raza Rabani formed a ‘Committee of Whole’ to look into the revival of student unions. Recently, the committee has passed a resolution to restore student unions at educational institutions. This was followed by the resolution adopted by Sindh Assembly in November to lift the ban on student unions in the province.Apart from various efforts put forward to lift the ban, what hinders the formal announcement of lifting ban on student unions is the prevalent view that university students are vulnerable to terrorist and extremist views of the outer world lying out of the campuses.
Undoubtedly, the series of untoward, nay violent, events do lend legitimacy to the view that students are exposed to an ‘outer world’ that has a venomous effect on them. The case of Saad Aziz, a university graduate, and his fellows, or the attackers on Sindh Assembly opposition leader, Izhar-ul-Hassan, are some examples which are endorsement of the view about students falling prey to vicious extremist views. If this is the foremost apprehension which debars the government from lifting ban on student unions, then these are post-student-union-ban examples—all happened while student unions are banned!
Historically, through its formative phase (1940-1947), the remorseless struggle for an independent state entailed a massive support from all circles of society emanating from peasantry to students.The Pakistan movement had been advocated equally by all. However, students were the ‘juggler vein’ of the struggle as they remained the closet ideological ally of the Muslim League. After the inception, the students had achieved what they dreamt of, but in future they would not have a task as zealous as the one they had accomplished or helped accomplish, to struggle for. Almost all post-independence student unions were ideologically interwoven with an ideology they were adherent to.
Subsequently, the ideological split in their closest ideological parties cut them severely, too. For instance, Muslim Students Federation (MSF) started stumbling soon after its Ideological party Muslim League crumbled down into various factions. Similarly, Democratic Student Federation met with a similar fate when its ideological party, Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), was banned. In forthcoming decades, National Student Federation (NSF), which was the brain child of government to tackle progressive student unions on campuses and was taken over by the former students of DSF turning it into a progressive party, saw a severe split – one following Soviet Socialist Union and the other was pro-China.
The widening rifts between ideologies tore apart the student unions and soon they were converted into political wings of their mother parties operating and leading them to either agitate against political rivals or amass strength in favour of a certain government. As soon as the student unions turned into political wings, violence became inevitable inside or outside of the campuses. From 1960s until the imposition of ban on student unions, political parties had turned student politics into an unending strength and campuses their political bastions. Not only did this lead to fistfights, amalgamation of arms by right-wing student party Islami Jamiat Talba (IJT), which later on encouraged progressive students to have taste of arms fight too, it culminated in killings at campuses – the first killing by a PSF activist at Karachi University.
The current situation is worse. The ban on student union and political activities has confined students to the campuses, yet they have become more ardent in their views and have become an easy tool to end in the hands of terrorist and militant organizations. However, this phenomenon is not new to the world;students turning into sudden militants and religious fanatics is an issue in universities throughout the world particularly after the emergence of ISIS. Influenced by a militant ideology, around 700 British citizens had fled to Islamic State. Interestingly, among them were university graduates like Mohammed Emwazi, who was a student at University of Westminister (UK) in 2010, known as infamous masked executioner—Jihadi John.
Given the enhancement in students’ extremist mind-sets, the ban has brought more troubles than bringing the situation under control. If looked with a meticulous eye, lifting ban on student unions is the only way to curb an extremist ideology. From these platforms, with an open debate and discussion, extremist ideologies could be curtailed effectively if not rooted out. Most importantly, the unions will be democratic nurseries again—student unions were political nurseries soon after inception—as the political shift, in Pakistan, has moved from student politics to youth politics. Since the youth is another tool resting in the hands of political parties, the interest in student politics seems lukewarm as their powers have been clipped with regular bans – or ‘perhaps’ their ideological rifts have emasculated their strength.