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Photo Source: Dawn

Pakistan Reader# 297, 16 February 2022

Students’ Union: Lifting the ban after three decades



Sindh becomes the first province in the country to lift the ban on student unions

Abigail Miriam Fernandez

On 12 February, the Sindh Assembly unanimously passed the Sindh Student Union Bill. This bill will revive the student unions in educational institutions, and make Sindh the first province in Pakistan to lift the ban after over 38 years. The bill was supported by all opposition parties in the house. Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah termed the passage of the bill historic stating that the revival of students’ unions would create a healthy and conducive environment in educational institutions.

Sindh Students Union Bill 2019: A brief profile
According to the bill, “The student union will provide an environment for social interaction, education, and exchange of thoughts.” It states that the students’ union shall work for maintaining the social and academic welfare of the students; ensure the rights and interests of all students are suitably represented and protected; oppose and bring to light any discrimination or injustice that obstructs the social and academic life of students and ensure democratic and inclusive atmosphere for healthy debate that respects others’ opinions.
Further, the bill stated that student unions would be set up in all private and government universities, colleges, and institutions of technical education in Sindh consisting of seven to 11 bonafide students of the educational institution and student union elections to be held every year. The elected students’ leaders will be given representation in the Senate and Syndicate of universities.

The bill also states that there would be no chance for creating hatred amongst any group, class or students, adding that carrying or keeping firearms, weapons, or explosives within the premises of educational institutions will not be allowed. The bill held that educational institutions would formulate rules for the revival of students’ unions within two months after its enactment.

The Sindh Student Union Bill was drafted in 2019, it was then referred to the standing committee on law and parliamentary affairs for discussions.

The ban on student unions: A brief history
In 1984, General Ziaul Haq imposed a ban on student unions across Pakistan. It was later lifted in 1989, by the PPP; however, in 1993, the Supreme Court placed a blanket ban on political activities by students on campuses. Additionally, student politics was criminalised, thus depriving the students of their democratic right to participate in matters related to the state of governance in their educational institutions.

Since then, 9 February has been observed as a day to call for the restoration of student unions. In 2022, protests were held demanding the restoration of student unions. The students also demand allowing representation in decision-making departments of institutions, acting against recent fee hikes in several public sector institutions, and increasing the education budget to at least five per cent of the total GDP.

While successive governments have included the revival of student unions in their manifestos and recognize student unions as the constitutional right of the youth, however, student unions remained illegal in Pakistan. Until now.

Reasons for the ban on student unions
There are three main reasons why student movements were seen as a threat. 

First, their role in provincial politics. Prior to the ban, student unions were the breeding grounds for provincial politics as most of them were usually aligned to political parties. These unions played an important role in everyday politics and mobilization. Several students’ unionists became involved in politics. Until the ban, these unions served as an important bridge between student and national politics. Zia was afraid that the students’ unions could pose a threat to his regime.

Second, the leftist nature of student movements. Student movements often tend to be driven by leftist ideologies. The National Students Federation (NSF), Progressive Students Alliance (PSA), and United Students Movement (USM) were some of the leftist bodies that fought for the enshrinement of a progressive and democratic state.

Third, the violence associated with student unions. The role of unions has been criticised for being too intrusive and often leaving the university administration inefficient. A few unions have also been known to resort to violence, particularly, the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who is known for promoting violence on campus. This violent nature of the student unions was another reason for their ban.

Revival of student unions 
The revival of student unions in Sindh is a significant development amid the highly controlled educations system in the country. Education institutions require the revival of student politics as it helps in the promotion of democratic culture. Although student unions tend to get over politicised, they still play an important role in promoting progressive politics. Whether other provincial governments follow suit remains to be seen.

In conclusion, Prime Minister Imran Khan has termed 2022 as the ‘Year of the Youth’ highlighting the importance of this crucial demographic for the country. If the federal and provincial governments seek to tap into this resource, many such legislations and comprehensive plans to equip the youth would have to be put in place.

References
Tahir Siddiqui, “Rare unity in Sindh Assembly over passage of bill to revive students’ union in province,” Dawn, 12 February 2022
Mustafa Tariq Wynne, “Why are student unions still illegal in Pakistan?,” Geo News, 10 February 2022
Sit-in for student unions continues,” Dawn, 12 February 2022
Huma Yusuf, “The youth story,” Dawn, 7 February 2022
Reviving unions,” The News International, 15 February 2022
Student unions,” The News International, 11 February 2022
Student unions’ revival,” Dawn, 11 February 2022
Ban on student unions causes 'political drought' in Pakistan,” The Express Tribune, 8 February 2022
Zia Ur Rehman, “Pakistan's trouble with accepting campus politics,” TRT World, 8 January 2020

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