When the Zia regime banned student unions in 1984, the reason for doing so was manifestly clear. While the official justification invoked the specter of violence between different factions of politicized students, the reality was that the move was an extension of long-running attempts by the state to muzzle dissenting voices and curtail opposition. Students had been fundamental to democratic politics throughout Pakistan’s history, with their contribution to the anti-Ayub movement being one of their more significant contributions, and banning unions had the effect of greatly reduce the ability of students to continue playing this role within the broader context of the country’s politics. Even when unions were eventually revived through a slow and piecemeal process, the student bodies that emerged as a result were shadows of their former selves; repeated delays in elections, clashes between rival groups egged on by different political parties, outright interference by the establishment, and the imposition of various restrictions on their activities, all meant that the radical potential these organizations once had was effectively eliminated. Furthermore, in the three decades since Zia-ul-Haq imposed his infamous ban, student unions, and the involvement of students in politics more generally, have been at the receiving end of a narrative that casts them as being violent and irrelevant distractions from the task of receiving an education. As a result, parents and students alike now view unions and politics with suspicion, fearing the repercussions, academic and otherwise, of involvement in such activities.

What is surprising about all of this is that unions and student involvement in politics are hardly unique to Pakistan. Across the globe, students are expected to organize in this manner as a matter of course, and their participation in politics is both encouraged and lauded. As many would rightly agree, participation in unions and politics as students can contribute to a holistic education, in which academic knowledge is supplemented with the practical experience of mobilizing, voting, and debating. Indeed, involvement in student politics has been the basis for launching many a political career, even here in Pakistan where a significant number of current and former legislators and ministers cut their teeth in the student movements and organizations that existed two or three decades ago. Perhaps even more importantly, unions provide a means through which students can engage with issues beyond those that concern them directly; while most unions can and do focus on questions pertaining to life on campus, they also provide platforms for learning more about the issues that society wrestles with and can even be forums for effective activism. After all, students around the world have marched to topple dictators, defend the rights of the oppressed, campaign for gender equality, and for greater economic justice, to name just a few causes. To suggest this is not important, or that it has no place on a university campus, is to seriously misunderstand what the point of a university education should be.

The fact of the matter is that the ban on, and subsequent demonization of, student unions and politics is symptomatic of attempts to de-politicize society more generally. From the very beginning, progressive movements and organizations in Pakistan have come under sustained attack from the state, and what we have witnessed throughout this country’s history is the gradual but determined erosion of spaces in which dissent can be articulated. While student politics in Pakistan was never monochromatic, accommodating a diverse range of opinions and actors across the spectrum from Left to Right, the progressive potential of energetic young men and women passionately fighting for ideas they believed in represented a challenge to the comfortable continuation of an unjust status quo in which the powers-that-be would prefer not to have their decisions questioned. It is not coincidental that the measures taken against student unions in the 1980s, and again in the 1990s (against the student wings of different political parties), were accompanied by ever-increasing amounts of support and patronage being given to religious organizations like the Islami Jamiat-i-Talba (IJT), which came to dominate university campuses in this period. What differentiated these actors from the ones that were banned and suppressed was the simple fact that former practiced and preached an ideology that was aligned with that of the state.

What happened in Punjab University earlier this week, when almost 200 students were arrested after clashes on campus between the IJT and rival groups, is indicative of how the political climate is changing. In the past decade, Pakistan’s tenuous transition to democracy has brought with it a slow revival of some of the more progressive and democratic traditions within student politics. At the same time, the IJT, which had policed campuses and ruthlessly sought to impose its own version of morality on other students while simultaneously intimidating and harassing faculty and administrators, has gradually been forced to contend with the emergence of student organizations that are no longer willing to tolerate its monopoly over the political space available to students. That some of these organizations have an explicitly ethnic character is not surprising; as Aasim Sajjad Akhtar has argued recently, this kind of identity politics is only to be expected when alternative political ideologies have been all but stamped out from the public discourse.

Universities should be spaces in which the free exchange of ideas is encouraged. The ban on unions, and the subsequent patronage extended to the IJT, flew in the face of this foundational principle. If we are now seeing the unravelling of this status quo, in the forms of the emergence of new student organizations, discussions and study groups on campuses, and a more general willingness to engage with issues that have been considered taboo for too long, it is a development that should be welcomed. This is something that the government and university administrations have not yet understood, and it can only be hoped that this will change soon. Allowing student groups to engage in violence against each other can obviously not be accepted, but it is even worse to respond by clamping down on student politics or, more dangerously, ignoring the violence perpetrated by some groups while tolerating that of others (which has been the pattern with the IJT for decades). By arresting students of predominantly Baloch and Pashtun origin, and by failing to take any meaningful action against the IJT for its current and past transgressions, the government and Punjab University runs the risk of exacerbating a situation that is already fraught with danger, reinforcing extant divides and further discrediting student politics.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.