Sindh becomes first province to end ban on student unions

Students in Pakistan have been protesting this month for the restoration of student unions, banned since 1984 by Pakistan’s then military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.

They have taken heart from the lead taken by Sindh province, which became the first to reinstate student unions through a bill passed by the provincial assembly on 11 February, described as a ‘historic move’ by ministers in the provincial government.

The bill passed unanimously by the Sindh Provincial Assembly will require all academic institutions, both private and public, to hold elections every year allowing students to choose their representatives to take care of academic, extra-curricular or other education-related interests of students.

Under the new law, educational institutions must have at least one student union member on their syndicate, senate or board.

The Sindh bill was supported by opposition parties in the House and welcomed by students across all provinces, who called on other provincial governments to allow student unions.

Pakistan has over 58 student organisations, 30 of them connected with either political, ethnic, or religious parties, but they have no legal status on campuses and are not represented in decision-making bodies of university administrations.

The Sindh bill was first proposed in 2019, a year when there were many student demonstrations calling for restoration of student unions. Over two years, the Sindh Assembly standing committee on law, parliamentary affairs and human rights held consultations on the plan with all stakeholders including university vice-chancellors, concerned educationists, representatives of political parties, and their allied student organisations.

Lifting the ban on student unions was included in the manifestos of all major political parties since Zia-ul-Haq’s rule ended in 1988, but the promise was never carried out.

It is now widely believed in Pakistan that social evils on campuses originated from 1984 when student unions were banned and the solution to problems like harassment of female students, growing violence, intolerance and radicalisation on campuses lies in restoring student unions.

With the Sindh province move, it will now be difficult for other provinces to continue suppressing this demand of the students, according to experts. Many civil society organisations and members of different political parties have expressed solidarity with the protesting students and called on the government to restore the unions.

New protests this month

Since 9 February, students in Pakistan’s Punjab province have held a sit-in protest in front of the Punjab Provincial Assembly building in Lahore but no government official has yet visited the demonstration site to listen to their demands.

The students gathered are from different universities including those in other provinces. The protest was jointly organised by the People’s Student Federation, Progressive Students Collective, Baloch Student Council, Pashtun Student Council, Saraiki Student Council, Punjab Student Council and Gilgit Baltistan Student Council.

“We want a revival of student unions because students are not empowered on campuses and their interests are not safeguarded by the administration of the universities or by politicians. There is no voice raised in parliament against rising fees of colleges and universities or about other academic facilities for university students,” Afrasiab Khan Swati, one of the organisers from the Progressive Students Collective, told University World News.

Link to sexual harassment of students

On 17 February, following the passage of the Sindh bill, the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addressed a student convention in Karachi, capital of Sindh, and said political activism in colleges and universities would not only empower the voice of students demanding their rights, but it would also strengthen the institutions, their disciplines and the quality of education.

He also noted a rise in sexual harassment cases on campuses which he said was due to the non-existence of student unions. His views on the rise of campus harassment are corroborated by many human rights activists and by students’ representative bodies.

Raja Ashraf, vice-chair of the Punjab chapter of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told University World News: “Students are not part of the membership of anti-harassment committees at colleges and universities; they are not consulted before decisions [are made] affecting their life and careers; they are not involved in politics; they are beaten when they protest for their rights; and sent behind bars when they challenge oppressive policies of the rules introduced by dictators.”

PPP member of the National Assembly, Shazia Marri, told University World News: “The absence of student unions has led to a rise in harassment cases in universities and has stifled freedom of expression leading to violence at campuses.”

According to Pakistan’s Daily Times newspaper, the Islamabad-based Dukhtar Foundation launched a helpline to facilitate the filing of harassment cases in 2018. Two years of data shows that 20,741 cases were reported, of which a whopping 82% (16,981 complaints) were filed by female students at universities from across Pakistan, often against teachers.

Harassment of female students on campuses, linked to the absence of student unions, has also been a concern at national level. It also comes amid a general failure by universities to implement anti-harassment rules.

The student wings of political and religious parties at universities have mostly or entirely male membership and female students’ participation in the administrative affairs on campuses is minimal to non-existent.

Recent serious cases

In November 2019, countrywide protests demanding restoration of student unions and an end to harassment were held and many students were arrested and expelled while criminal charges were laid against 300 students who organised or participated in the demonstrations held across 38 cities under the banner of “Student Solidarity March”.

In the absence of a student voice, cases of harassment are often decided against the complainant. In 2020 Amna Ashfaq of the political science department at Peshawar’s Islamia College University complained of sexual harassment by her teacher Amir Ullah Khan but the investigation committee, comprising his colleagues, cleared him of the allegation.

Students then resorted to protests and the case was then decided last year by the office of the Ombudsman which recommended dismissing the teacher.

In 2019, female students protested against harassment by university officials at Quetta’s University of Balochistan, but they were heeded only after the Balochistan High Court ordered an inquiry into a video scandal involving secret recordings to blackmail the students. Many female students abandoned their studies after this scandal due to religious and tribal values in the region.

In June 2021, a male university student was raped by two male students at a hostel at International Islamic University Islamabad, and in 2006 human rights organisations protested at a rape attempt on a female student of law at the University of Karachi which involved three staff members of the Islamic learning department and one student of the physics department.

A Pakistani Hindu female medical student, Nimrita Kumari, was raped and killed at Bibi Aseefa Dental College (affiliated with Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto Medical University) in Larkana city in 2019.

A member of the National Assembly of Pakistan, Chaudhry Hamid Hameed, of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) party, alleged during an assembly standing committee meeting in December last year that a female student was gang-raped at the campus of the International Islamic University Islamabad, but the university administration promptly reacted to the allegation terming it “bogus and baseless”. Hamid has insisted that the university management has suppressed this issue.

Wider importance of student unions to civic life

While the link between student union absence and harassment on campus has been a recent concern, others have highlighted the wider benefits of student unions, particularly to civic life.

The PPP’s Marri said “student unions provide training to sharpen the analytical thinking of students which can provide ground for well-groomed leaders of the future”.

Before the 1984 ban, several student unionists rose to prominence in politics, and some are now ministers or hold positions in their respective parties.

Marri said banning freedom of association for students is an attempt by autocratic rulers to keep younger generations subjected to their oppressive policies.

Journalist Asma Shirazi, who hosts a TV show and writes for the BBC Urdu service, told University World News that banning student unions has caused huge damage to politics in Pakistan as the move “blocked the way for the emergence of a new political leadership as student unions earlier proved to be nurseries for well-groomed politicians”.

She said “dictators and political leaders with a dictatorial mind” are always fearful of the power of students as they have seen how students can shake the corridors of power.

Former president Ayub Khan, a military dictator in Pakistan who took power in a 1958 coup, was forced to resign in 1969 after massive protests, mainly by university students. The role of the students in ousting him was researched in a 2013 study by Aileen Eisenberg, published by the Global Nonviolent Action Database.

The study found that university students adopted non-violent methods such as staging anti-government plays and holding rallies in different cities organised and led by the then National Student Federation and Student Action Committee, which was formed after three university students were killed in 1968 in an anti-government student protest in Rawalpindi.

Martial law was imposed in Pakistan in 1958 and all types of unions including student unions were banned for two years. This led to the strengthening of student wings of religious parties such as Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) of Jamaat-i-Islami, a religio-political rightist party which became the main opponent of progressive or leftist student organisations which were against the military rule in Pakistan.

PPP founder, the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, led the political uprising against the military dictator. Student politics flourished when he came into power in 1971 until he was executed by another military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, in 1979.

The results of a 1983 election of student unions sent shockwaves through the dictatorship, which saw students becoming a massive power and an emerging threat to military rule, similar to the situation faced by Ayub Khan. Thus, Zia-ul-Haq banned student unions in Pakistan in 1984.

Razia Sultana, professor of history at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, told University World News: “The rise of Islamic student movements at campuses was mainly due to the policies of former military dictator Zia-ul-Haq who favoured such student organisations to counter the influence of leftist student movements which had led to the ouster of military dictator Ayub Khan and also because Zia-ul-Haq seized power from Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who was supported by socialist student movements in Pakistan.”

The banning of student unions also led to pan-Islamic religious trends on campuses and a rise in extremism and intolerance at universities in Pakistan.

A pattern observed over some years suggests that campus student organisations that took the place of unions mainly served the purpose and agendas of their parent political or religious parties and did not pay much attention to student issues such as a lack of facilities on campuses and in hostels, constant waves of fee hikes, transportation facilities, and alienation of students from the process of curriculum design or lack of career counselling facilities for students.

Mashal Khan, a student of journalism, was lynched by religiously motivated fellow students on the campus of Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in March 2019. He was accused of blasphemy which later proved a baseless allegation.

Also in March 2019, a student at Islamia University-affiliated Government Sadiq Egerton College in Punjab’s Bahawalpur city stabbed his professor to death over alleged blasphemy.

According to newspaper reports, the incidents of violence have been reported mostly from Lahore’s Punjab University, the University of Karachi, Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, International Islamic University Islamabad and the Islamabad-based Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology.