Student Unions : need of the hour

Karachi, June 30(The News): Some time back, a student had come to the University of Karachi (KU) to take her Law exam. An employee tried to molest her; fortunately for her, a few students arrived at the scene and rescued her. While the employees' union tried to save the skin of the offender, the students on their part did their best to provide justice to the female student. The former union did not support the students and several hurdles were created in their way. Though the students eventually won the tug-of-war, the incident made majority of KU students wish for a union that could protect them in any such eventuality and fight on their behalf.

This incident has reopened many old wounds and has raised questions about the efficacy of banning student unions in the educational institutions, especially in universities. Student unions, before they were banned, played a very important part in the lives of the students, who benefited from being elected democratically and served as office holders: Councilors, Class Representatives (CR), Faculty Representatives (FR), Secretaries, and Presidents of union during their student days. These positions eventually inculcated in them leadership qualities and groomed them for various roles; in the art of public speaking, event organisation, meeting important people, helping the student community and according respect to the teaching and non-teaching staff of their institutions.

But even more importantly, the unions acted as a buffer between students and the administration of the educational institutions. They were a virtual parliament that formulated the laws of appropriate behaviour and conducted civilised arguments as well as intellectual discourses that ultimately won students useful concessions from the university administration.

The ban on the student unions was imposed by General Ziaul Haque on February 09, 1984, who used Islam to perpetuate his military rule. He took this step by accusing the student unions of violence on the campuses. He introduced elections on the basis of region, language, clan, etc that opened the floodgates of regionalism and sectarianism and damaged the social fabric of the society.

The proponents of the ban on the student unions are wrong to say that the presence of unions destroys the peace of the educational institutes. According to statistics, while student unions were functional, a total of 151 clashes took place during which 13 were killed, 284 injured, 800 arrested and 110 rusticated in a period from 1947 to 1984 while the unions were functioning.

The period that spans 1984 to 2004 saw 525 student clashes in which 165 got killed, 1,210 injured, 7,235 arrested and 985 rusticated. The increase in the violence took place within 20 years between student groups who vow their allegiance and existence to various sectarian and linguistic organisations.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1989 termed the ban unconstitutional and ordered union elections in the educational institutions. The government, however, failed to comply with the order, thus giving rise to a number of questions. The ban is in contravention of Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan that allows the formation of associations. Today, students find themselves in a precarious situation, as the absence of unions lands them in hot waters for minor offences. It is ironic that staff and teachers' unions are allowed to function in the universities that take care of their members while the students have been left to fend for themselves.

It would be interesting to refer to a pertinent quote from Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilization,' which reads, "In most countries fundamentalists winning control of student unions and similar organisations was the first phase in the process of Political Islamisation, with the Islamists 'breakthrough' in universities occurring in the 1970s in Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan, then mobbing on to other Muslim students in technical institutes, engineering faculties, and scientific departments.'

One wonders if the continuing ban on the student unions is part of the on-going 'Enlightened Moderation' process undertaken by media and NGOs to please and garner some bread and butter from the rulers and their foreign masters.



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