Why student unions are essential

Published: November 28, 2010

In the past, when the students stood up, nothing was able to hold them back.

Those who refuse to participate in politics are destined to be ruled by their inferiors.


General Zia‘s ban on student unions in 1984 was akin to demolishing all medical colleges in the country and then bemoaning the fact that Pakistan lacks capable doctors. If you ban medical colleges, the doctors who will serve you are likely to be quacks, armed with fake degrees and no real desire to help those whom they profess to serve.

Student unions are the nurseries of leadership. They hold debates between students from opposing parties. This helps create tolerance for differing viewpoints and helps students learn the ‘agree to disagree’ approach. Regular, annual elections are held that teach students how to campaign and build a support base. Often, coalitions are formed between groups from different parties such as the Progressive Students Alliance (PSA) and the United Students Movement (USM). This teaches compromise. Students learn the power of a vote and leaders learn that they must be humble or face a rout in the next elections.

The youth is the future of Pakistan. If they do not learn the basics of mature politics, how can you expect individuals of high calibre to appear in the politics of the country?

The disillusionment of the post 1984 generation with politics is another effect of the good General’s ban.

Students have become cynical and pessimistic. Many are not culturally, socially or politically aware. The power of the students has been broken. And there are pertinent reasons for this.

In the past, when the students stood up, nothing was able to hold them back. It is doubtful that Pakistan would have been formed without the passionate young scholars of Aligarh College.

Ayub Khan’s government was toppled by students who were at the forefront of the anti-dictatorship movement in 1968. Steps were taken to categorically dismantle and break their power, especially of progressive, leftist student parties like the National Students Federation (NSF).

This left the field open to conservative, Islamist parties who imposed their myopic ideologies on student bodies throughout the 80s.

An interesting thing to note here, especially for sceptics who believe that student politics results only in violence is that more students were killed after the ban on student politics than before. This is expected when one realises amount of energy contained in youth. It can be expressed constructively though vigorous debate and election, or through an AK-47.

An article published in the New York Times on August 28, 2010 refers to how, traditionally, Pakistani politic remained the domain of a few members of the landed class. This is again courtesy of the ban on student unions. When you stop a whole generation from entering the political arena, who will fill that gaping void? Sons of feudal landlords come to mind. This is how the tradition of dynastic politics began.

A frequent question students ask is how we can get rid of dictatorial heads of political parties? How will we change the corrupt system?

Pakistan’s biggest problem is that we want a knight in shining armour to whisk away all our problems with the wave of a wand. Instead of a top down approach, why not begin from the grassroots? Once the foundations are changed, it is easy to change the head.

When passionate, determined students enter politics, they can change the system by keeping true to their principles of integrity.

Most importantly, they can take charge of Pakistan and, with the help of an independent judiciary and a free media help Pakistan face all her problems in a mature, solution-oriented way.

Some prominent members of student unions:

Miraj Mohammad Khan (NSF)

Shaikh Rashid Ahmed (IJT)

Raheela Tiwana (PSF)

Raja Anwar (NSF)

Hussain Haqqani (IJT)

Fatehyab Ali Khan (NSF)

Altaf Hussain (AMPSO)

Liaqat Baloch (IJT)

Dr Farooq Sattar (APMSO)

Qasim Zia (PSF)

Salamullah Tipu (PSF)

Nawaz Sharif (MSF)

Jawad Ahmed (MSF)

Shahzeb Najam

Shahzeb Najam

An A’ Level student at Karachi Grammar School, Shahzeb makes no apologies for being a passionate advocate of democracy and tolerance. He blogs at shahzebnajam.wordpress.com.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.