Student unions were banned in the country in the 1980s but now Imran Khan's government is at a crossroads between lifting the curbs or facing fresh opposition in the form of campus activism.
In late November, student protests flared across 25 cities in Pakistan, demanding the restoration of student unions and a policy to tackle the growing menace of sexual harassment in colleges and universities.
As a result, there has been an ongoing debate about lifting the ban on student unions across the country. But new and concerning trends such as violent militant groups recruiting students and the culture of intolerance in universities often overshadow the real need for having democratic student bodies to reinvigorate Pakistan's predominantly dynastic and parochial political structure with young blood.
“The seeds of violence in academic institutions were sown in the 1980s after student unions were banned, but after the 9/11 attacks, transnational militant outfits such as Al Qaeda and ISIS [Daesh] focused on varsities and recruited students for militancy,” said Arshad Yousafzai, a Karachi-based journalist who has extensively written about Pakistan's academic institutions.
In the 1980s, student activism soared in Pakistan. The left-leaning groups led demonstrations against the military dictator Zia ul Haq, who ruled the country with an iron fist. To counter the young and energetic anti-regime students, Haq launched a brutal clampdown on the left-leaning student parties, arresting their key leaders and campaigners.
The move polarised the country into two groups: one sided with the anti-regime student politics, the other, ideologically aligned with Haq, opposed them. The climate of intense hatred in universities and colleges led to violence and between 1982 and 1988 at least 80 student leaders lost their lives, according to a report published by Jinnah Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank.
Haq's government eventually deployed paramilitary troops in the various universities and colleges of Karachi (which continue to exist in some universities until today) and also imposed a countrywide ban on student activism. The brazen confrontation between the state and student bodies triggered a culture of violence in Pakistan's educational institutions, which had far-reaching consequences in the following decades.
“Unlike in the 1970s and before it, when weapons were stored in safe houses outside the campuses, the increasing militarisation of conflict during Haq’s tenure has led the students to store their guns in student hostels,” said Dr Tausif Ahmed Khan, a Karachi-based journalism teacher and a former student leader.
Even today, violent clashes between student groups have become a regular characteristic of Pakistan's state-run academic institutions. Most recently, a student, who was a member Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, was killed and dozens were injured in a violent clash on December 12 between two student groups at a government university in Islamabad.
In the absence of free and fair student politics, many generations of students in Pakistan have graduated without experiencing being part of a student union. The element of criminality associated with outlawed student unions has prompted many state-run educational institutions to submit a mandatory affidavit pledging not to partake in any political activity on campus.
For cynics, an argumentative student with a tendency to join political groups conjures up images of guns, gang violence, strikes, political sabotage, and a complete disconnect with the academic process.
The recent student protests however were inspired by various factors, such as the negative impact of frequent tuition fee hikes, the demand of increasing hostel facilities and the need to raise Pakistan's education budget by 10 percent. Also, the student protest in neighbouring India, against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's increasingly autocratic policies, motivated many Pakistani students to step out on the streets to challenge Imran Khan-led government.
Prime Minister Khan did take note of the unrest but his response was measured. Instead of lifting the ban on campus politics from all the four provinces, Khan and his government showed the willingness to reinstate student unions in two provinces.
Sartaj Khan, a Karachi-based analyst studying political movements in Pakistan, said that middle-class students are more inclined to campaign and fight for intellectual and political freedom in academic institutions, while students from working class families who live paycheck to paycheck are mainly protesting against the hike in tuition fees and lack of hostel facilities. “This is a conjunction where the two meet,” Khan, who is also a former student leader, told TRT World.
A turbulent but democratic history
Student politics in Pakistan has had a tumultuous but rich democratic history.
In pre-independence Pakistan, student politics had been vibrant and mainly associated with the liberation movement from the British Raj and the formation of a new country for Muslims. The Muslim Students Federation (MSF) – associated with the Muslim League – was the most prominent student outfit. However, after the emergence of Pakistan in 1947, the MSF, similar to its mother party, did not survive and fractured.
However, two key student groups – the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP)-affiliated Democratic Students Federation (DSF) and the Jamaat-e-Islami-affiliated Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), were founded during the post-independence period.
The government imposed a ban on the CPP and DSF in 1954 after a failed coup attempt in 1951. Renowned 20th-century Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Major-General Akbar Khan, and several CPP leaders and military officers were jailed for their involvement in the conspiracy.
Meanwhile, left-leaning students had formed a new group, called the National Students Federation (NSF) following the ban on the DSF.
During that time, both the NSF and the IJT were boosted, accelerating their ideological leaning towards movements abroad – communism in the USSR and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab region respectively.
When General Ayub Khan took power in a military coup in 1958, it further radicalised the student politics. Both the NSF and IJT took part in the agitation against the military dictatorship but the latter focused on its agenda of Islamising the education system as well. During the period, a number of ethnic student groups, such as the Baloch Student Organisation and the Pashtun Students Federation, with progressive-leaning politics, also emerged.
Although the left-oriented Awami League in East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh in 1971) and the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party in West Pakistan, won the 1970 general polls, the surge in left-leaning politics did not mirror in the union elections at the academic institutions. Pro-Beijing and pro-Moscow members of the NSF have imploded the key left student outfit into two major factions along ideological fault lines. Analysts believe that the NSF’s weakening has provided the IJT an opportunity to serve as the longest surviving student outfit.
After partition in 1971, the early years of the newly-elected government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were termed as the most democratic period in student politics’ history. But later, he started distancing itself from student unions – the force that he had used for his political rise to power – after becoming afraid of the role of student groups in the separation movement of East Pakistan.
By 1984, with General Zia ul Haq dismissing Bhutto's government and promulgating a series of martial law ordinances to ban all political activities in colleges and universities across, the Pakistani political elite feared that student unions could weaken their grip on power like they did in the 1960s, ending the rule of Ayub Khan.
The present-day government's reluctance to normalise campus politics is not only based on the fears of previous governments but also on the fresh memories of campus violence that have been witnessed in recent years. A mob of students stripped, beat up and shot Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old student, at Wali Khan University in Mardan in April 2017 for committing "blasphemy". In another case, a student killed his college principal in the district of Charsadda in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in January after the former was reprimanded for skipping classes and attending the anti-blasphemy sit-in of a religious party.
Although many religious schools (known as madrassas) in Pakistan have been accused of promoting radical ideologies and having links with terrorist networks, law enforcement agencies in recent years have arrested just two students, Saad Aziz and Naureen Leghari, in separate raids for their alleged role in terrorist activities.
Aziz was a graduate of a prestigious business school in Karachi. He confessed to being involved in a number of terrorist acts in the city, including the May 2015 bus bombing that killed more than 40 Ismaili Muslims, as well as the April 2015 murder of Sabeen Mehmud, a known social worker.
Leghari was a student of a medical university in Jamshoro District who was arrested in April 2017 in Lahore following a shootout with the police. She confessed to being involved in a bombing plot targeting a church. The police raided the house where she and her accomplices were planning the bombing.
Although Khan's government may end up easing restrictions on campus politics, many former student union leaders and political analysts believe that Pakistan still has a long way to go before realising the dream of having a fearless and clean student politics scene that contributes to the country's turbulent democracy.