The recent 15 day-night long ‘peaceful agitation’ by the students of the University of Peshawar against fee hike has certainly forced us to recall the golden era of students unions, where democratic and political thought flourished, student leaders were groomed and political leaders discovered. This all ended when they were axed by Gen Ziaul Haq. Irrationally dictators have often cited ‘violence’ for banning or limiting student union activities.
When we recall the era of the 1970s, there was student representation in universities’ senate, syndicate and other key decision-making bodies. Under the umbrella of the students’ unions, teacher-student centres were set up. At the centres speech, dramas, writing and painting competitions and other co-curriculum activities were regularly held, creating opportunities for the students to explore their potentials and hidden skills. In these unions, political leaders were discovered, even some who are now part of mainstream politics. They would discuss laboratory needs, transports, hostel and tuitions fee and other major and minor students’ issues. These unions were also instrumental in creating space for further activities by students across the country.
These were also the days when student leaders were supported by their university administrations. The administration provided office space, furniture and facilities to the students unions to organise their gatherings. And when the progressive students’ unions were struggling for a free education system, student unions were making efforts to improve the conditions of the country’s educational institutes and for peace, tolerance and unity amongst students.
Today, the absence of student unions has not only damaged the students’ cause but has also the blurred the picture of our democratic and civic culture. For instance, since 2008, every year the University of Peshawar administration issues a hike of 10 percent in students’ fees. Since 2012, the hostel fees became more than double. We see a similar situation with tuitions fees which have reached Rs88,000 per semester. People who should be on Grade 18 seem to be enjoying the perks and privileges of Grade 20? There have also been reports and rumours that hostel-sanctioned employees who are supposed to serve and help the students are reportedly working in the houses of the ‘authorities’.
The fact is that, in the absence of organised and democratic student unions, important students’ problems seldom attract the authorities’ attention. This is just an example because this is happening in all our public educational institutions.
The facility to pay one’s fee in instalments has been taken away by the authorities, making the education system seem even more cruel and unbearable for the poor. In today’s Pakistan, there is no representation of students in – nor are they are consulted in the key decisions of – educational institutions. Just getting an education is becoming unbearable; and this will further deteriorate the social order of our society because education is the only way people can hope to change their social status.
Democratic activists and student leaders believe that it is a flawed argument that student unions lead to violent activities. Instead, the argue that these unions are really serving as nurseries for democratic and progressive thought. In past, while students unions were thriving, students were not impossibly violent. This is why this logic fails; and unions should be revived and allowed to work.
Students must pass through a process of civic-political consciousness in order to know their duties and obligations. This can only be provided by student unions. The democratic political process needs nurseries for future leaders. These nurseries come in the shape of student unions. Along with academics, other progressive activities are important for political sensitisation – which is why the revival of student unions is imperative. People who argue that student unions are making students violent should understand that it is really our system that is producing intolerance and violence everywhere; student unions are just a part of it. In the past, when democratic systems were toppled by dictators who subsequently also banned student unions, the imposition of authoritarian order led to violence.
The story of student unions is in fact the story of democratic transition in Pakistan. In every martial law regime, there have been restrictions on students unionising. While politics cannot be subtracted from the politics of student unions, perhaps they can be framed within certain dimensions. After more than 33 years of student unions being dysfunctional, we are witnessing the same families and sometimes the same faces running the affairs of the state.
On March 29, 2008, the then prime minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani had announced the restoration of student unions in the country (he had made the announcement after he secured the vote of confidence). However, the plan didn’t succeed. Now, a Senate committee is working on the revival of student unions in the country. Parliament must try to expedite this process in order to empower students and make them more sensitised to democracy and tolerance.
Student unions are an important part of the democratic training and nourishment of the younger generation; they make up a really good training institution. The Pakistani government should revive these unions with a reformed agenda – by making age limitation, CGPA, attendance and other reforming factors compulsory for students involved in union activities, so as to discourage unsavoury behaviour. In the end, student unions should be revived to ensure a democratic culture in the country and discover leadership the from the grassroots level.
The writer is a Peshawar-based lawyer.