Restoration of student unions is a hot topic these days. In this article, we will discuss some of the popular myths surrounding the merits or demerits of restoring student unions in Pakistan.
Myth # 1 – Student Unions = Student Organizations
Though student organizations play an active role in student union elections, however, student organizations are not synonymous with student unions.
The student union is a body of elected student representatives that seeks to protect the rights of its voters, in this case, students, in a particular educational institute. A student organization, on the other hand, is an association of a group of students that share similar religious, ideological, ethnic, racial, or geographical backgrounds.
Islami Jamiat e Talaba Pakistan, Pakhtun Students Federation, Insaf Students Federation, People Students Federation and Anjuman e Talaba E Islam, etc are prime examples of student organizations. While a student union, for instance, Punjab University Student Union, would be a representative body of the student population in Punjab University. The president of the union is not the president of any particular organization. Instead, he/ she represents the entire student body of the varsity in front of university administration and seeks to protect their interests in university syndicate meetings.
Myth # 2 – Student unions are a waste of time
Students’ unions are perceived to be a waste of time and harmful in the career development of students. On the contrary, the role of student unions in professional and intellectual grooming of students cannot be understated. Student unions are productive platforms for students to polish their leadership skills and explore their hidden talents. That is why student unions are a permanent fixture in prestigious universities around the world, including Oxford University, Cambridge University, and Harvard University, to name a few.
Myth # 3 – Student unions lead to campus violence
Before banning student unions, at least two Pakistani universities were listed amongst the top 200 universities of the world, and both of the varsities were considered the hub of student union politics. Today, 37 years after the ban, no Pakistani university has been able to make it to the top 200 list. There has been a sharp spike in campus violence after the ban on student unions. The infamous Kalashnikov culture appeared only after the ban on student unions in the late 80s and mid-90s.
Myth # 4 – Right-wing organizations promoted gun culture on university campuses
In the late 70s and mid-80s, the Pakistani youth including students were pushed towards violence and militancy by two left-wing terrorist organizations namely, Al Zulfiqar and Pakhtun Zalmay. The former was founded and led by Shah Nawaz Bhutto, the son of late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. It drew strength from socialist and progressive student organizations working in Pakistan. The detailed history of Al Zulfiqar was documented by Raja Anwar, a close aide of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in his famous book, ‘The Terrorist Prince: The Life and Death of Murtaza Bhutto’. The ascendency of Al-Zulfiqar on university campuses leads to the destruction of peaceful student politics. The later, Pakhtun Zalmay, the armed wing of the National Awami Party of Bacha Khan, played an active role in Pakhtun belt and Karachi. Students were recruited from university campuses in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Karachi and were sent to Kabul for military training. Jumma Khan Sufi, a former comrade from Swabi, has provided a full account of Pakhtun Zalmy in his famous book “Fireeb e Natamam”.
Myth # 5 – Unions were banned to support IJT
During the Zia era, in 1983 to be precise, IJT candidates won a sweeping victory in unions elections held across the country. Similarly, during Benazir Bhutto’s government in 1989, student union elections were again held, and IJT candidates once again clinched a majority in union elections. In fact, it was IJT that organized protests, seminars, rallies, conferences in support of student unions and filed cases in the Supreme Court of Pakistan for the restoration of student unions in Pakistan.