Pre Partition Pakistan had an extremely rich student union culture. University cafeterias and tea shops are where most modern Pakistani political parties were conceived. These spaces are where their original ideologies were formed. These united student bodies were also the center for discussion for pro-partition citizens. They played the role of the middleman and ensure that the youth of the country were being listened to and accounted for when policies are being formulated. 

However as time went on, these student unions became opportunities for political parties and other entities to manipulate the mindsets of the youth and create dissonance between institutions. Now, student unions are seen as rebellious anti-state groups. Many universities in Pakistan have incoming students sign undertakings against joining any unified student body other than the ones approved by the institution itself. This, by many, has been seen as an unjust restriction on students and their freedom of expression of political identity. 

The United Kingdom and the United States on the other hand have a very strong Student Union culture. These groups and their activities ideally foster leadership ability and a sense of responsibility towards their society and their country in general. Some of these student body members like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan have gone on to govern their country. 

These student groups, while sanctioned by their respective institutions, work independently and often come to disagreements with their administrations. They help foster a more civilized and positive relationship between the general student body and the administration. They create educated, working-class leaders and citizens. They give these young citizens a platform to speak and be heard. They are a unified voice that ensures that the students’ concerned are heeded to. These characteristics are not just limited to Student Unions in the UK or USA, but these are the general attributes of Student bodies all over the world. It is when these students’ voices are politicized and manipulated, that things become a lot more complicated.

On November 29th, various Student Unions came together all over the country to march in what was titled the “Student Solidarity March”. The key organizer of this march is the Student Action Committee (SAC), which is a coalition of seventeen independent student organizations. They put forth a set of demands, the essence of which is to be warranted a say in matters concerning them.

The march was quickly labeled as a political effort to rebel against the government and establishment and Student Unions were eventually banned completely by the Prime Minister. Many were skeptical of how these organizations suddenly came to be and were empowered enough to protest the way they did. However, these organizations have been around for much longer than most realize. These independent student unions have been operating all over the country. They are where like-minded students, frustrated at not being heard, come together. While many were quick to label the Student Solidarity March a rebellion, not many questioned the students’ motivations beyond speculations of hidden political agendas. 

Omer Abdullah, a member of the Student Action Committee, explained to us that this march and the activities around it are not spontaneous. Rather they are the result of frustrations linked to inaction on various incidents that had taken place over the last couple of years; incidents like the cruel death of Mashal Khan, the misuse of surveillance footage at the University of Balochistan and the death of a student at COMSATS University when she was not provided with emergency medical services in time. Most of these incidents could have been avoided had a Student Union been present to hold dialogue with. These incidents and the inaction around them, Abdullah says, rattled their collective consciousness to think that maybe the youth’s future are not among the government’s priorities. 

Maybe these energetic students were overreacting and maybe protesting was not the way to express themselves. However, whether or not banning Student Unions entirely is the answer is up for debate.

Our history gives us an example of what happens when we silence the youth. During General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, when student unions were banned in campuses across the country, it did not end student politics. On the contrary, it made them more active and more importantly, violent. Banning student unions does not resolve the problem, instead it may lead to a bigger one. These student unions would leave behind a vacuum that can be filled by other, more violent ideologies that would take advantage of these students’ enthusiasm. That is what happened after student unions were banned during the Zia regime. The vacuum left behind by Student Unions was filled by the Jamiat e Talaba, a student wing of the Jamaat e Islami, that manipulated these students’ mindsets into more violent, extremist ones.

On the other hand there is always a chance that these groups become violent anyway due to high spirits, adrenaline and a thirst to rebel against the “system”. So what is the safest, most feasible solution? In order to figure that out, it is important to look at the bigger picture.

Youth all over the world, is protesting. Whether it’s the school protests against Climate Change inaction in the US and Europe lead by the likes of Greta Thunberg, or the anti-government protests in Iraq and Hong Kong. The youth of the world is at unrest. They feel trapped in a future they had no hand in creating and now they’re trying to gain some semblance of control over it. 

The solution is not to arrest, ban or disregard these citizens, it is to listen to and understand them. In times when they realized their concerns were not being heard they took to the tools like social media to express their discontent. In some instances they took the freedom this tool gave them for granted and must understand that this freedom comes with a responsibility. It is this balance that they need to try and maintain.

 They need to use social media for the better and refrain from aggression, blaming and misinformation. In today’s political climate, Student Unions might not seem like the best idea. But banning them completely isn’t one either. While it might seem wrong that the youth form these politicized unions, it might just be the answer to our problem in the first place. When they’re given a platform to speak and be heard, they will understand that they have some autonomy over their futures. When we say that this youth is the future, we need to give them some power over said future and we need to trust them with it as generations before us did.


About Author

is a Mass Communication graduate from NUST. She enjoys creative writing, reading and, photography in her free time.

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