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.

  • http://justanothercommonblog.wordpress.com Shahzaib

    I really liked your post. Great work. :DRecommend

  • Majid Urrehman

    Dude, you have no idea what are you promoting. Do you have a student union in your institute? Since you are a student of A levels in Karachi Grammar, I believe you don’t have one in your institure. Theoratically the concept of students unions look good to any supporter of democracy but reality is far bitter and worse. Try to be a student of an institure where any student union is active (only student, not even a member of student union), you would know the reality of the these unions. They have wasted many years of mineRecommend

  • Talat Haque

    It’s a beginning that you are writing this article :) ………… it will have to be a grassroots up movement because it is hard to argue with an AK 47, which is how things stand right now ………. it will be heroes and not ordinary students who will have to struggle against the established order ………… it’s a tall order !!Recommend

  • http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/2534/whose-country-is-this-anyway-not-the-tax-payers/ Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    @Majid: you are quite right, but again the word student union has now become the personal domain of reactionary thugs, not debate, discussion and lawful protest. Its been over 25 years that institutionalized student unions were banned. The variety we see on our campuses today are political thugs, patronized by political parties to do their bidding. Recommend

  • Deen Sheikh

    I am all in favour of student unionism which operates under a reasonable code of conduct, without bringing outside politics into the equation.Recommend

  • Specific

    A good awakening of the time! But there are several many factors other than General Zia’s ban which hinder the passion to stand, to strive and to survive. Most importantly the negative taking of technology by the youth, is perhaps a big factor.
    Yet another cause is that we are not at any extreme in our situation… good or bad.. we are somewhere in mid or slowly moving to latter extreme.. and this doesn’t motivate the blue blood to bring zeal & zest in doing something… I used blue blood.. because blue blood is only who can afford the varsity studies in this time of ours – the varsity students which can make real unions…Recommend

  • Asad Baig

    The writer has written well, but as he is too young and is not aware of the negative side of the students union. I joined college back in 1987 in Karachi. Though in reality there was no ban in the college and university on student unions. Every political party used to try and bring the new entrants in their fold. There was more politics, more violence, more killings and less academic activity in those years. The students who were young wasted their time and money and eventually their career suffered,academic schedules also suffered because of disruption.The students ended nowhere. They lost their lives and many were seriously injured in shootings and beatings of clashes between different political parties students wing. Nobody goes to college or university to become a politician. If those who desire to enter politics, must first complete their studies, and then think of future in politics. Countries like Japan,China,Singapore,Canada,UK,USA,Germany etc did not become great nations by encouraging politics on their colleges and universities campuses!!!.It’s a great myth that because there is no students union/ ban on student politics in Pakistan, Pakistan is suffering and only feudals are coming in the power. For matter of fact almost all Pakistani rich and feudal send their sons and daughters to best colleges and universities in the west not because they want them to learn politics!!!!.
    This rhetoric of ban on students union has been spread by those who want to fool the current young people who are not aware of the facts. They want to destroy the careers of the common Pakistani’s by making them walk away from their path/career,so that their sons and daughters who are educated in west can come back and rule them easily. It’s time to wake up and not to be fooled by this rhetoric of ban on students union.
    We must choose that where Pakistan should stand, either with the developed nations or we want to remain where we are at the bottom of the table.Recommend

  • http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/2534/whose-country-is-this-anyway-not-the-tax-payers/ Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    @Asad: * Countries like Japan,China,Singapore,Canada,UK,USA,Germany etc did not become great nations by encouraging politics on their colleges and universities campus All these countries have had a vibrant student political culture apart from say Singapore. The Chinese Communist Party has used students as the vanguard of social and economic change. While the Western countries you mention have ushered in eras of progressivism, may it be the end of discrimination against black people in the US, allowing women to vote in Great Britain in the 1920’s, student protests in 1968…. you dont need to go back that far, look at the strong student protests against the hike in student fees in the UK today. All these countries you mention, most of the political elite were active first in student politics and then progressed into national politics. Student politics allows for one to develop an appreciation for issues that concern oneself and society at large. Calling for students to be apolitical and focus on their careers is will and good, but that nurtures individualism and alienates one from wider society. You say that people dont focus on their careers? But then what off the people who want to have political careers or be active in civil society? Do you think that young people are so easily swayed that they cannot complete their studies and have a political view at the same time?

    Do appreciate that “young people” in university, aged 19-23/24 are adults and they should be respected for the decisions they make. In Pakistan someone in that age bracket can die for his country and be applauded. Someone in that age bracket can get married and recieve societies blessings, but they are immature and cannot handle their work and politics at the same time?Recommend

  • Asad Baig

    @Syed Nadir El-Edroos:
    Its easier said than done Nadir. Politics in Pakistan is completely different to that of west. In west students union are for different purpose.Pakistan has hardly 20-30 percent literacy rate.Please don’t get confused with official figures.Its high time we realise that Pakistan has different environment than west. Lets first get education and compete with developed nations even India is way ahead of us in that and think about politics later.All the things which you are quoting happed at least more than 40 years ago.The world has changed so much.As I have gone through the education system in Pakistan I can easily say what is better or not whether people like it or not is an other matter.The truth is always bitter.
    Pakistan is not in a position to experiment with things at this stage, its standing at the bottom of the table.Please let the students get education First.Our degrees are mostly not recognized in the world.Education should be our Priority if we want to stand up among developed nations otherwise the downward slide will take us nowhere.Recommend

  • Ali Hassan

    Theoretically, I 100% agree with your viewpoint, but practically, in a country like Pakistan, we know how violent our political system is, and in order to maintain peace on the campuses, we can’t afford these unions. And the union members are used like tissue papers by our leaders.

    You very rightly mentioned that student unions produce leaders, same goes for the local bodies around the world, but not in Pakistan, local bodies have been around for quite sometime now, but no leader is produced, because our political parties are family business.
    P.S. Your forgot to mention some very important names in your listRecommend

  • Amyn

    A very well written article and I agree in principle with the writer’s point of view. But in our political environment student unions are not likely to run under a code of conduct and what will result is in violence and days off and watage of time for students who really want to STUDY! Yes if we can bring in student unions that will follow a code of conduct, I am sold to the idea. But till we have some sort of political stability this does not look the case. Currently these unions will be influenced by the political parties trying to run the country and will result in chaos. Recommend

  • http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/2534/whose-country-is-this-anyway-not-the-tax-payers/ Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    @Asad: Just because they are not legal student unions does not mean that students will shun politics and concentrate on their studies. As their are no legal, proactive and constructive form of on campus debate students are either apolitical and removed from the reality of every day life or are swung to the other extreme where they are part of fringe, radicalised and often violent student groups. social debate is part of an educational process. Education is not just about attending classes and passing exams, that a defunct model of education which we continue to push for. Perhaps, part of the reason our educational system struggles is because avenues for personal development outside the classroom are limited.

    Whether there is legal sanction or not, people will highlight their opinions. If there are no constructive ways of articulating those opinions, constructive criticism will either be wasted and remain unheard, or the frustration of not being heard will push people towards more violent and intolerant groups.

    The world has changed so much. Of course it has, that doesn’t mean that people anywhere have traded less political participation with economic development. Recommend

  • Majid Urrehman

    @Syed Nadir El-Edroos
    So another evil deed of Zia! Whenever I read some bitter reality of Pakistan, I come to know that every evil started in Zia’s rein. I really want to know how Pakistan and Pakistanis were before Zia.
    In my student life I did wish that there should be student unions which should work under some teacher of the institute regardless of any attachment with any political party.
    The student unions I know are bunch of outlaws. As far as my knowledge is concerned, I don’t know any real student union. It is a delight to know that there were real student unions before Zia’s rein.Recommend

  • http://habloid.wordpress.com Habiba Younis

    Uni life is the time to learn and excel in the field u chose and this is a fine medium to nourish yourself intellectually. Its not the right age to start boiling ur blood in politics. Also being a uni student, I can tell how extremely annoying the silly strikes are.
    @Asad Baig, fully agreed!Recommend

  • Asad Baig

    @Habiba Younis: Thank You. I agree with your comments.Recommend

  • http://bakedsunshine.wordpress.com/ Shumaila

    I’d have to agree with Nadir and the Author here. While it Is important for people to focus on their studies, Pakistan badly needs more politically aware students and student unions could, if properly nourished and supported, be a way to increase that pitifully small number of kids with interests other than just their coursebooks. And its really not as though we’re not adult enough to be able to focus on both things at the same time.

    I realise that politics, in uni or the real world, is filthy. But that’s no reason not to get involved and frankly, if all the smart kids step away for fear of getting their hands dirty its no wonder the country’s in such a state.Recommend

  • Raqib Ali

    Agree with the author. Student unions are important and help develop leadeship for the society. These student unions should be for students, not off shoots of political parties.

    If you have car accident, you don’t ban cars. We should focus on improving things, not banning them. Recommend

  • MAD

    Hey student unions should represent the students and their problems. if they go on to have links with mainstream political parties they become organized gangs. Ever been to KU or Urdu Science?Recommend

  • Zain

    @Asad Baig:
    Our education will only progress if we give the students a chance to voice their opinions and not cram them with books and books of knowledge. Education isn’t limited only to the classroom, there are no critical thinking development models in place or growth models in place, you could be the smartest person in the world but Univeristies don’t take you on your book smarts they take you for your capability to be an all rounder. Look at students from top Schools here who go to IVY league schools, they are excellent in academics, sports and active in societies like Model United nations, again which is based on political organisation. During my Uni years in my marketing class our lecturer constantly told us to convince him on why our pitch was the best, because text books only have hypothetical situations we need to learn how the real world works

    @Habiba Younis:
    I disagree (respectfully) We can choose to excel in our chosen fields and continue or hobbies it is called multi tasking. If we don’t boil our blood on these issues, then we should sit back and relax and let feudals come in and let it things progress from bad to worse. Everyone agrees students are the future yet, discourages them from going into the one field that we need the most improvement or complete overhaul in…Politics. This cycle of inheriting the country will continue unless educated people act.

    @Majid Urrehman:
    I would like to disagree (respectfully) I was a member of the Students Union in my university in the UK, I understand it is unfair to compare us with them, but if you look at what is happening now in the UK with regards to rise in tuition fees it is the students taking to the streets to oppose this not anyone else. When I was studying there the Israeli Ambassador was invited as a guest lecturer and it was the students union which stopped him from coming. It is unfortunate that trade and student unions aren’t as strong in our nation as they are else where, students know what they need most. It is imperative that students unions be formed from grassroots level this is the only way a honest, sincere and progressive leadership will rise.Recommend

  • Ali

    People here are again mixing student union with student organizations.. Student union is a representative body of students in any institute. It’s through these bodies students learn to organize themselves and work socially to solve issues.
    Students Union, in past, gave many leaders to the country; Islamist, secular, left and right. Students Union are the need of the hour otherwise the nation would have to endure the feudal lords, industrialists, wilayat palat bankers or street ghoondas. There was a time when ideological differences were debated and issues were solved using the platform of union.
    Since the ban on unions campus riots have increased resulting in more killings as students now don’t have a body of their own.
    Why Islamists have survived the ban is due the methodology they had adopted i.e. to be evangelical in their approach. Don’t forget the fact that Jamiat vehemently opposed the ban and led the campaign for the reinstatement of unions and its office bearers faced punishments in Zia’s regime.. and the fact remains that Jamiat won the elections in many a college bodies and unis when PPP held sway under Bhutto.Recommend

  • Ali

    Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed – not from IJT
    and few more
    Makhdum Jawed Hashmi from IJT
    Ahsan Iqbal from IJT
    Meraj Muhammad Khan from NSF
    Munawwar Hassan – from NSF then IJTRecommend

  • Waqqas Iftikhar

    Student unions are great….student wings of hardcore political parties are where the problems lie, APMSO, Jamiat, PSF etc…

    as long as they remain un affiliated, officially or unofficially with mainstream political parties, we wont hopefully see weapons, and thugs leading to massacres not politics…Recommend

  • Asad Baig

    @Zain: Please read both replies to @Nadir for my answers.Thanks.Recommend

  • Usman Mustafa Syed

    @ Asad Baig:
    Though in reality there was no ban in the college and university on student unions. Every political party used to try and bring the new entrants in their fold. There was more politics, more violence, more killings and less academic activity in those years.

    You need to understand the difference between the Student Unions & the student wings of the political parties. Student wings are still active on campuses throughout the country but the STUDENT UNIONS are banned. It is the Student Unions that will help in removing the menace of violence from the campuses becuase these student wings will then have to behave in a civilized & better way to get elected in the Student Unions. Remember, being a closely knit population of the campus it is usually very difficult for the elected representatives to indulge in wrongdoings & get unpunished, both by the administration & studnets (in form of rejection in next elections).Recommend

  • Asad Baig

    @Usman Mustafa Syed: Usman,Its easier said than done especially in Pakistan.All those who are saying that students union will change the environment are certainly not aware that the political parties student wing will not allow them any leverage at all.This is not the West.All those who are in favour of the students union probably have no experience of the things and are merely getting emotional.
    Please read my two reply’s to @Nadir to get more on this.Thanks.Recommend

  • Syed Majid Ali Shah

    Dear Shahzeb,
    Do you know what you are promoting. i think you don’t have student union in your school??and definitely i can say that there isn’t. Because i think you don’t have idea what is the image of student unions in all over ou country. i agree with you but only when if we are not in pakistan. Definitely theoratical concept of students unions seems good to any supporter of democracy but reality is far bitter as i told you. I pray that in future u’ll be a student of an institute where many student unions are active, then you will become to know the reality of the these unions. This is pathetic,believe me!Recommend

  • Usman Mustafa Syed

    @Asad Baig: Having been politically active during my university days at one of the best public sector engineering university of the country, I can confidently assure you that Student Unionism can help a lot in mitigating the violence & the clan-based political culture of Pakistan.Recommend