On the revival of student unions

2016-03-26T23:31:27+05:00 Zahaid Rehman

Active participation in politics by the youth is fundamental in developing the democratic process. This participation can take many shapes and forms; it can limit itself to young adults voting for one’s favourite candidate, or can extend to becoming an active worker of the party supported. Or, if one’s views are not adequately represented by any party, being politically aware and making a conscious decision to not support any party or politician can also be seen as a conscious political choice. After all, abstaining from voting based on the lack of representation of one’s views is a clear statement about where the vote lies.

However, the recent debate surrounding the revival of student political unions in universities misses the point. While the principle argument behind it, much like the one made above, is predicated on the need for the youth to take part in the democratic process to facilitate it, student unions are not the only, nor the best way to achieve the stated purpose. Political discourse is inherently important at universities to create more politically aware graduates. Considering these individuals have a stake in the democratic process for years to come, increasing political awareness at an early age could lead to creating an electorate that makes informed decisions that can benefit them the most. The current voting trends in Pakistan are still plagued by voting based on personalities, familial and tribal affiliations and a sense of duty or loyalty to specific candidates. In a situation like this, voting for ideologies or principles goes out the window. However are student unions the only way to engage students in political dialogue?

The only active student union in Pakistan, the Islami Jamiat Talba (IJT), has left us wary of the potential for student unions to commit acts of violence, which is a very central element behind IJT’s philosophy. Students have been beaten for talking to their female classmates, have had their bodies burned with irons for playing music too loudly and have been terrorised into complying with IJT directives. IJT’s members use their advantage of numbers over other students in a very similar way to the street power used by JI and other religious organisations. Disturbing reports have been surfacing from the Quad-e-Azam University of late, about increasing IJT presence. Some argue that other unions would diminish IJT’s power. The Leftist unions and their activities in the seventies and eighties however paint a very different picture. Zia’s Islamisation and its battle with the Left swept into universities through student unions, and the violence that followed has not been forgotten. The Islamic Jamiat Talba (IJT) turned into the monster that it is today by winning this fight. While a moderate or left-leaning union would offer a counter-narrative to IJT’s regressive and conservative mindset, there is a very high chance of clashes between unions leading to increased violence at educational institutions.

Political parties would of course be open to the move of reestablishing youth chapters at different universities. As a matter of policy, most established parties have used violence to get their point across, which is why allowing parties to form their own student unions is not the best of ideas. Our students must not sacrifice their lives for lofty political ideals that even their own leaders do not believe. Political leaders wield great power over the minds of their followers, and they often use this to their advantage at great cost. Sending supporters to contend with their rivals and creating violent situations for political point-scoring comes naturally to all politicians. There is no check that can be placed on blindly following a cult of personality other than education and clarity of thought, and sometimes even these are not enough.

The alienation from politics is a big problem. If the objective is to increase political awareness among the youth, we must look at avenues other than forming student unions that might end up doing more harm than good. To mitigate this problem, students need to be informed about current affairs on a regular basis. This will not prove to be too challenging if the ratings generated from news shows are worth anything. They cannot be force-fed this information, and the youth must be personally invested in the future of its country in order to participate towards its improvement. The only way that this can be achieved is by reminding them that an active stake in politics could go a long way in determining the future of the ideological trajectory Pakistan will take. Schools and universities that encourage debating among the students, hold mock-parliamentary and United Nations sessions, are on the right track towards creating a more conscientious generation. PTI’s campaign in the 2013 elections and the successive two years should be a lesson for all parties. If PTI, a party that promised nothing but a change from the status quo, could rally such numbers out of a disenchanted youth, think of the scores of young people that will be attracted to a cause if there is an actual tangible improvement that they are supporting.

A large voter base automatically leads to greater accountability of politicians. Our representatives will have to appeal to a larger electorate, and this bigger audience will consist of a very large part of the youth if the country’s population statistics are kept in mind. A more dynamic electorate that competing political parties have to get votes from will enable the politicians to rise above the stagnation. Those that cannot will be weeded out, for the benefit of the democratic process. More political parties that promise greater things can be created, with more ideologies and political perspectives covered. This process is gradual. It will not take days, weeks or even years, but decades to improve substantially.

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