Importance of Student Unions
Whenever there is talk of strengthening democracy in any society around the world and cultivating democratic traditions in society, some social factors are made a part of the discussion that directly or indirectly affect democracy. One of those factors is the youth. The youth, especially the students, have a direct share in democratic, economic, and social development. Pakistan is a rich country in the sense that more than 60% of its population is youth. But unfortunately, a significant obstacle to a transparent and stable democracy in Pakistan has been the forced ban on student unions for the past 34 years.
Interestingly, all the country's political parties recognize the student unions as the constitutional right of the youth. Still, after the formation of the government, they seem to ignore this issue. With the imposition of the ban, the culture of student development, well-being, and healthy debate in educational institutions has ended. The champion rulers of democracy did not lift the ban imposed by dictator Zia-ul-Haq despite their promises. In the two decades from 1970 to 1980, the student unions' platform provided the country with excellent leadership and extraordinary people in every field, including politics, science, medicine, engineering, literature, and journalism. All over the world, they displayed their talents and rendered valuable services to the country. Student unions were accused of merely engaging in politics, and the involvement of these students in politics was not considered appropriate. The platform hosted healthy debates on political, philosophical, and scientific topics and ideas of their time, art and sports competitions, literary poetry readings so that students could stay connected to the wisdom of their time. At that time students knew what contradictions and differences were going on between the countries of the world. They knew what was going on in regional and national politics. They knew how to raise voice for their rights. The essence of competition and leadership was always present in them. They were skilled at resolving differences efficiently through a culture of dialogue.
On the other hand, today, many students in educational institutions are not involved in such activities. The ban on student unions in educational institutions has led to extremism, intolerance, linguistic and provincialism in educational institutions, especially universities. Now, after a long time, extremism has taken the form of terrorism. Earlier, in promoting terrorism, the students of religious seminaries were accused of being brainwashed easily. Still, now this extremism is gripping the educational institutions day by day in a threatening manner. Student unions worldwide operate under various names in educational institutions, including the Student Senate, Student Unions, Student Associations, and the Government of Student Body, etc. Students have the full right to form unions in neighboring India and Bangladesh. In the United States, annual student union elections are held at the official level. They believe that unions are the only solution to students' educational, national, and regional problems. There are separate unions for each department in every major Australian university. Student unions are usually more active in the fields of politics, economics, advocacy, and media. In China, student unions are active under the name of the Students League. Most organizations in China are affiliated with the Communist Youth League because the Communist Party is more influential there. Similarly, student unions are working in Egypt, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Sri Lanka, Greece, Ireland, and Europe. Student unions operate freely wherever there is democracy around the world.
As the Chief Minister of Punjab, Mian Nawaz Sharif held the last student union elections in 1989. In April 1993, Chief Justice Afzal Zala issued a decision to lift the ban on student unions and hold elections, but even after 26 years, the Supreme Court's decision on union elections could not be implemented. Leading legal experts, including Justice Syed Naseem Hassan Shah, also called the union ban decision inappropriate. In the previous PPP government, former Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani announced the revival of the student union on the Assembly floor immediately after taking the oath, but that promise could not be fulfilled. The absence of student union elections in the presence of democratic governments for the last ten years is an example of dictatorship. Despite having student wings of the three major political parties in power in all four provinces of Pakistan, students at their respective levels are being deprived of their constitutional rights. While rolling in the Senate, former Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani termed the ban on student unions as a clear violation of the 1973 Constitution and basic human rights.
It remains to be seen whether the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which came to power with more than 60 percent of the youth votes, gives the students their constitutional and long-standing rights, or is it just a dream-like the previous governments. The Punjab government has postponed the decision to revive the student union for the time being, while the federal government has not yet given any green signal for the election of the student union in the new Pakistan. There is no doubt that for the first time in the country's history, a large number of young people openly declared their political support for the PTI. Interestingly, the Insaf Students Federation, a sub-organization of the PTI, is also demanding restoration of the unions from its government on this issue. The new Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Imran Khan, has to admit that the ban on the participation of students in positive and practical activities in educational institutions is not a solution to the problem. At the university level, where teachers' organizations are working and holding regular annual elections, student organizations should also be given the right to elect their representatives. Student organizations also need to acknowledge past mistakes and work together to develop a framework that will promote a culture of peace, research, religious harmony, tolerance, and debate in educational institutions and address student issues. At the same time, they should play their part as a key member of the society for the solution of regional and national problems and the development and stability of the region, because the dream of a new Pakistan can never come true without the support and effective participation of the youth.