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Reforming student politics | Managing campus security

Reforming student politics
April 2008: "WHEN politics is defined as the relational work of redistributing power and resources, negotiating differences, strengthening communities, and working together with others to influence or alter societal institutions, then the connections between service and politics can be made more readily." - The New Student Politics: The Wingspread Statement on Student Civic Engagement (2002)

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has announced that the ban on student and trade unions is to be lifted. This decision has been widely lauded with some analysts terming it as a historic step that takes democracy back to the streets, factories and campuses.

A quick overview of student politics in Pakistan underlines its substantial role in influencing mainstream political discourse in the country. Campus politics served as a nursery for national leadership.

The National Students Federation (NSF), espousing a leftist ideology, was a pioneer in the field. It was in the forefront of student activities in the 1960s and 1970s. Having a visible electoral strength in various colleges and universities of the country, the NSF led the student movement against Ayub Khan's martial law in 1968.

It is also believed that the NSF injected radical politicisation into the educational environment by launching ideological debates on polity, the economy, culture, art, literature, history and so on. The intellectual landscape of the academia was conducive to critical thinking and idealism that sought structural changes in the country.

In 1972, came the People's Students Federation (PSF) - the student wing of the PPP. Being closer to the NSF ideology, this student outfit remained in electoral coalition with the NSF and other leftwing student organisations under the United Students Movement and Progressive Students Alliance in the 1970s and the 1980s.

At the same time, the Islami Jamiat-i-Tulaba (IJT) - the student wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami - emerged as a counter-left outfit. The IJT massively manned the anti-Bhutto movement in 1977 and is believed to have introduced rightwing militancy on campus. Some reports suggest that the IJT was behind the firing incident at the NSF rally in Karachi in 1979 and that it established strategic links with the establishment by supporting the official jihad policy of the government oin Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO) - which later led to the formation of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement - was established in 1978. APMSO and the IJT have had an acutely adversarial relationship as they competed to capture the Karachi University campus. This has been viewed as a conflict between ethnic and religious militancy as each party sought to establish its base in Karachi's student community.

Under Zia's martial law, student unions were banned in 1982. But intriguingly, the IJT was allowed to operate with the tacit support of the regime. It also gave secure space to its workers and leaders which allowed them to influence the decisions of the education administration in colleges and universities. Resultantly, the IJT cadre was able to establish its stronghold not only within the student community. The education administration and faculties also opted to side with the rightwing outfit for their own reasons of political expediency.

Thus the culture of democratic and ideological debates that had emerged was turned into a monolithic and unidimensional ideology inspired by the thoughts of Maulana Maudoodi. In Punjab University, for instance, forced segregation between male and female students was enforced by demarcating seating spaces for men and women in the classrooms. Holes were made in the dividing curtains as a mark of mute protest against unsolicited gender separation and the restriction on male-female interaction in the classrooms of Punjab University.

Benazir Bhutto's first government revived the student unions in 1989 creating space for pluralistic politics in educational institutions but this failed to neutralise the entrenched hold of the IJT significantly. Rival candidates were abducted, threatened and harassed, and a culture of violence re-emerged in educational institutions leading to the ban being re-imposed and political space being left to the well-organised IJT.

It is suggested that this trend led to a massive de-politicisation of the student community which replaced the romance of ideological debates and intellectual enterprise with parochial, conservative and at some point criminal dispositions apparent in student politics. Campuses became the dens of proclaimed offenders, undesirable elements and trigger-happy youth. The spirit of vibrant student activism lost to power-driven interest groups and universities became infertile, and could not produce political cadres with democratic and pluralistic training.

It is assumed that the skills required for healthy student politics include political knowledge, critical thinking and relations-building and negotiation skills. But during the Zia years and after, student politics damaged the very core of students' organisations that degenerated into entities resorting to group violence and showing community intolerance. These patterns were capitalised on by political parties who now used their student wings merely for personal lobbying and individual security purposes.

It was observed that many politicians employed these student 'activists' as their private bodyguards or front men for their political businesses. Some of these student wings are now involved in the real estate sector, placing their weaponry skills at the service of syndicates of land and property dealers.

Against this backdrop and as a follow-up to the prime minister's announcement on student unions, it is suggested that the incumbent government needs to deliberate upon reforming student politics in the country. Primarily, these reforms can be focussed on:

1. Developing a code of ethics for student bodies by engaging existing organisations at the national, provincial and district levels.

2. Setting up a multi-party/parliamentary commission on student affairs as a facilitating body to inform, educate and orient student organisations towards democratic, pluralistic and tolerant values and practices in politics.

3. Develop a consensual policy of student politics by effectively discouraging violence on campuses and creating a better interface between politics, intellect and service at the student community level.

4. Putting in place mechanisms for redressing grievances and resolving conflicts at educational institutions by engaging faculty members and reputed academics.

5. Linking student unions with regional and international student bodies to enrich the content of politics at home.

6. Developing a leadership curriculum for student organisations in order to enhance their skills of debate, negotiation and interest and to demand articulation.

It is feared that without large-scale reforms, student politics will continue to unleash lethal violence on the campuses and polarise the academic atmosphere in accordance with the priorities of groups with vested interests.

By Amjad Bhatti (Dawn) - amjad@rdpi.org.pk

Managing campus security
In a show of defiance, the Rangers abandoned their security duties at the University of Karachi campus last Friday. Until Thursday, they had refused to return despite repeated requests. In the intervening week, there has been a clash between student groups on the campus and the teaching process has remained suspended for the last four days. The paramilitary force functions under the directives of the university administration and on the orders of the provincial governor, who also happens to be the chancellor of the university. That being so, the Rangers could not have refused to continue with the assignment even if they wanted to. This is how military discipline works. That the force left its positions without even intimating the university administration, as such, is an act of gross indiscipline and needs to be handled with the asceticism that is the hallmark of an existence in uniform.

The plea taken by senior Rangers personnel in their meeting with the vice-chancellor a day later also needs to be seen in due context. In their words, they had moved away because teachers were demanding their removal from the campus in the wake of an ugly incident in which the law enforcers had thrashed an associate professor. The teachers, naturally, were demanding a phased withdrawal. And, then, the Rangers did not intervene when the students clashed even though they were very much on the campus, resting. It was a clear case of blackmail to underline their indispensability.

The biggest loser in this unfortunate tussle between the teachers and the law-enforcement agency happens to be the body of students that has lost crucial days at a time when the current semester is about to end. Though the university is set to resume functioning from today, it is not clear if security on the campus will be taken care of. There have been attempts to get some alternatives in place, but nothing concrete has emerged thus far. Life at the campus, as such, will remain jittery and uncertain for some time to come. If there is one lesson to be learnt from the episode, it is the simple fact that the university is in dire need of a full-fledged security apparatus of its own. It is all the more essential in view of the revival of student unions that was announced by the prime minister in his inaugural speech. Dawn
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