Apolitical students have often blamed student political factions rampant in public sector universities for campus violence; the solution they claim is restoring student unions.
“Banning student unions is the root of the problem,” said Mutahir Ahmed, who teaches at the University of Karachi’s (KU) Department of International Relations.
KU Vice-Chancellor Professor Muhammad Qaiser agrees. Talking about the menace of student politics in an interview published on April 9 he said, “The only solution is restoring student unions”.
The question that remains unanswered is: how will lifting the ban de-weaponise the campus or ensure that the newly formed student unions will not be influenced by political parties?
After strolling down history and talking to various teachers at the university, a number of facts emerge.
Mutahir claims that student unions were first banned in 1984. But incidence of violence and the use of weapons emerged much before that.
The Islami Jamiat Talba (IJT) first emerged in the 1960s, and was strongly opposed by the newly formed All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organisation, during the 1970s.
Moonis Ahmar, director of the KU’s Area Study Centre for Europe, said, “Political violence erupted in campuses after a certain dictator patronised a particular student group. In 1978-79, armed conflicts first occurred when the Kalashnikov found its way into the hands of these Jihadi elements.”
A chronology in a discussion paper titled, “Proposed Revival of Student Unions in Pakistan”, prepared by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, states that in 1985 though permission of revival of student unions was granted in Sindh, elections did not take place at the KU.
In 1988, Benazir Bhutto lifted the ban on student politics in her opening address to the parliament, exactly like Yusuf Raza Gilani did when he took oath in 2008. “It was in the year 1989 that the officially-recognised student union elections took place across universities and colleges in Pakistan,” it was stated in the paper.
But Professor Muhammad Qaiser pointed out that 1989 was also the year when three students died in clash in the KU and Rangers were posted in the campus.
The situation deteriorated over the years, so much so that in recent cases, student clashes erupt on issues as petty as the hoisting of a political party’s flag or wall chalking that hurts a particular group’s sentiments.
‘Unions the only solution’
When contacted the mainstream student political groups unanimously agreed that student unions were the only solution for peace in campus, while quickly adding their political parties were anti-violence.
Sohaib Ahmed, the IJT’s press secretary, said, “Since student unions have been dissolved, political parties have also begun paying less attention to giving membership to students with high academic potential.”
Pakhtun Student Federation Sindh General Secretary Painda Khan said, “The only way all student political parties will agree to sit at one table and talk is if the government takes them on board.” He added that violence will decrease after the creation of student unions as, “Once a student political group wins election at a campus, all others will become submissive to that one party”.
When the All Pakistan Mutahidda Student Organisation was contacted, Shabbir Ali Babar, their information secretary said, “Governor Ishratul Ebad can solve the problem. A conference to review the policies taken by the government should be called, and violence before and after the ban should be monitored. All stakeholders should be taken into confidence.”
However the sentiments of these student political factions itself is enough reason to worry. In a situation where weapons are part and parcel of student politics, will a student union serve the purpose of ensuring peace? Or will the neutral student dare to compete in an election which is already tainted with violence?
“It will be unreasonable to expect that in the very first election, student unions will become apolitical. For some years, the same old workers and policies will stay in power, maybe in the garb of different flags and banners. Give it a couple of years, and fresh faces and enlightened ideas will revamp the scene,” said Hina Mujeeb Alam, a Masters student at the KU’s Department of Mass Communication.