History Pakistan Students

Who is Afraid of Student Unions?

By Lal Khan

On January 11, 2016, the normally dormant, lifeless and visionless institution called the Senate did something unexpected and radical even going against its core conservative characteristics. The Senate undid the ban on student unions imposed by the reactionary and vicious dictatorship of Ziaul Haq on February 9, 1984.

During the darkest days under Zia’s monstrous regime, all union activity was brutally suppressed. Let us not forget the naked and brutal massacre of the 133 workers of Colony Textile Mills in Multan for standing and speaking up for their basic fundamental rights. This was not an isolated incident. It was merely just the harbinger for many more episodes of bestiality to crush the workers’ and students’ movement. Banning the student unions was a part of this repressive campaign. The goal was to crush rebellious student movements and to prop up a politics devoid of ideology. This draconian decision put society through a cruel and prolonged suffering period of more than three decades slowly allowing the poison of fundamentalism, sectarianism and ethnic and other reactionary tendencies to seep into streams of society.

Despite political repression of the worst kind, there were many incidents pointing towards a generalised student revolt. The most significant was the courageous struggle of the left-leaning student union in Nishtar Medical College, Multan. It was met with brutal state oppression, imprisonment, forced migrations and attempts to kill. Subsequently, student unions were banned by a cowardly and despotic regime.

The youth and the students are like a barometer that indicates the prevailing tempo and temperature within society. Students are generally the first to light the spark of revolutionary infernos by which the working class enters the arena of history and can overthrow the system of oppression and exploitation. Many of the revolutions after the Second World War were started by students. The movement of 1968-69 in Pakistan was one such example, which was ignited after the murder of Abdul Hameed, a student of the Rawalpindi Polytechnic College. The movement transformed into a revolution that engulfed the whole country from Peshawar to Chittagong.

Like all over the world, in Pakistan, educational institutions and student politics was dominated by left-wing progressive ideas till the 1970s. There was a pleasant atmosphere in educational institutions and female students participated in political and cultural activities along with males. The reactionary, conservative and fundamentalist forces were miniscule in educational institutions. The coming together of student politics marked the birth of a new party based on socialist ideas — called the PPP — into a mass political force.

For the reactionary dictatorship to survive, it was necessary to break every enlightened and progressive practice in society. Banning student unions thwarted campus development and student welfare issues, damaged the personal growth of students and of healthy debates, and instead of social development through intelligent conversation we have instilled a culture of closed and intolerant minds.

The irony is that the post-Zia, so-called ‘democratic’ regimes after 1988 continued his reactionary policies, as the system remained intact, only changing the jargon it was run with and even this was superficial. Democracy has failed to restore student unions. Despite numerous declarations, this fundamental democratic demand did not materialise. There is a reason why authorities of the deep state and their political toadies never wanted the student arena to be stirred up again as in the 1960s and 1970s. They would rather keep the masses feeding on the putrid diet of inane television anchors, corporate media statements and distorted histories or being duped by the false promises of the reactionary and obscurantists elements than the youth to be reinvigorated with fresh ideas, inquisitiveness and activism, and breaking the chains of oppression and exploitation. Such ideological betrayals even by the PPP leaderships could not be concealed behind the masks of judicial orders cobbled under their governments.

As a result of these betrayals, we have witnessed a crushing domination of private schools, colleges and universities with massive profits in the education sector. Students in private and public educational institutions are facing harsh and oppressive administrations, expulsions, frequent penalties and fines, a suffocating environment, conservative curriculum and a very low standard of education. The ethos students are being taught are selfishness, competition and careerism. How can they become healthy members of society? Decline in culture, crimes, drugs, lumpenisation and alienation is an expression of this. Let us not forget that it was during Zia’s rule that the ‘Kalashnikov culture’ and sectarian tensions were implanted in student politics.

The rise of Islamist organisations in student politics after 1972 was primarily the product of the PPP’s leadership’s reconciliation with the system and the state. Abandoning revolution halfway and ideological deviations from the party’s socialist fundamentals led to demoralisation among the workers and youth paving the way for reactionary tendencies. With the connivance of US imperialism, the Zia dictatorship unleashed these fundamentalist vigilantes in educational institutions. Their survival is due to state patronage, as they do not have a strong basis among the students.

The post-Zia period and its controlled democracy merely continued with the super exploitation of the masses that led to even more confusion and alienation from mainstream politics. With commercialised politics, the establishment and moneyed classes will try to impose their hegemony on students similar to the national, provincial and local bodies’ elections. However, this will also lead to ideological discussions and debates on the real issues and, ultimately, revolutionary ideology will triumph over money. Given the misery faced by students, workers and peasants, a mass resurgence of student politics will serve as a school for revolution. The rulers know this and that is why they are terrified of the restoration of student unions. However, there is no real possibility of restoration of student unions by these bourgeois parliaments as they are clubs of the elite in disguise. The students and the youth will have to fight to win this fundamental right.

The students cannot be crushed in the name of degrees and careers for long. There is no doubt the next revolutionary movement in Pakistan will be ignited by the students. The students have to join their struggle for fundamental rights with the struggle against capitalism, which lies at the root of all deprivations. In this great undertaking they will draw correct conclusions on how their salvation lies with the breaking of the chains of the working masses. Only by embracing the might and leadership of the working class can they play a role to turn the tide of history for a future of collective salvation.

The average age of the members of the Central Committee of Bolshevik party that led the great revolution in Russia was 28 years. Their opponents mocked them by calling it a party of children. But historical events proved Lenin right, who said, “He who has youth, has the future.”

This article was originally published by Dailytimes on 17 January 2016.