Restoration of student unions: a formidable challenge for the stakeholders

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M. FAZAL ELAHI,

Some leading dailies of the country recently reported that the incumbent
government is seriously contemplating to restore the student unions in
educational institutions across the country. It must be known that student
unions were proscribed about three and a half decades ago. The reason
for doing so was obviously the highly undesirable role that the student
unions started playing; serving their prescribed mandate trivially and
playing more in the hands of their mentors (political parties and other
vested groups) in the country. The fact of the matter is, dancing to the
tunes of their political masters and serving their interests conscientiously
the student unions mostly undertook activities which were profoundly
detrimental to the interest of the educational institutions in which they
were functioning. The most unfortunate part of the whole scenario is that
the students’ community who voted them to the citadel of power, to
serve their interest, barely benefited from their existence.
By disregarding its prescribed mandate palpably and by becoming a tool
of the political parties and other vested groups of their liking, the student
unions of the yester years had become a source of despicable anarchy
and vandalism particularly in the educational institutions in which they
were functioning and the country in general. The regrettable part of this
extremely sad and repugnant situation was the role brazenly played by
the political parties of this country. To attain their obnoxious political
objectives, they surpassed all norms of respectability and inconsiderately
manipulated the youth of Pakistan.

None could deny the facts expounded above. Had the student unions
served the purpose for which they were created, they could have played
a significant role in not only strengthening the institutions in which they
were established, and conscientiously served the students who elected
them, but also positively contribute towards national development.
Universities and other institutions of learning are responsible for
educating the youth of this country, equipping them with state-of-the-art
knowledge and skills, and preparing them for leadership roles in the
corporate world and in affairs of the state. Sadly enough, the role of the
student unions vis-à-vis attainment of the referenced objective,
particularly in our institutions of higher learning, has not been very
encouraging.
Having articulated my views on the abysmal role the student unions
have played in the past, I certainly wouldn’t like to give the impression
that I am against the restoration of student unions in the country’s
educational institutions. In a democratic setup, the significance of
student unions cannot be overemphasized. Having said that, I consider it
pertinent to quote 16th US President Abraham Lincoln’s definition of
democracy “government of the people, by the people, for the people”
and accentuate that a student union should likewise be defined as “union
of the students, by the students, for the students”. Departure from this
definition in any manner, I am afraid, will trounce the very essence of
this vital student body. In view of the foregoing fact, it must be ensured
at all cost that this important student organ must be bound by stringent
laws to strictly confine itself to its mandate; serve the interest of the
students’ community, and nothing else. Contravention of this defined
mandate should render them illegal and, therefore, totally dysfunctional.
The political forces in the country should, on their part, refrain from
politicizing the student unions in the specific interest of the youth of this
country, and in the larger interest of this nation.

In this context, one couldn’t agree more with the opinion of those in
saddles in the country that before restoration of the student unions a
comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct, learning from the best
practices in internationally renowned universities across the globe,
should be framed and put in place so as to enable the student unions to
play their role effectively and positively contribute in grooming the
youth as the future leaders of this country. I also fully endorse the view
that in the past student unions, due to their reckless attitude, created
anarchy in the campuses of educational institutions in which they were
functioning, thus utterly destroying the otherwise cordial atmosphere of
these institutions.
Some quarters reacting to the remarks of the Prime Minister of Pakistan
calling the student unions “violent battlegrounds” profoundly criticized
him. I would term their reaction to be bigoted, as the truth of the matter
is that this exactly is what the student unions have mostly been doing in
the past. The scenario vis-à-vis the past student unions depicted above
lucidly portrays a similar demoralizing picture. May I reiterate, once
again, that all the negative things that most of the student unions, baring
a few exceptions, resorted to in the past was on the behest of the political
forces with which they got themselves aligned. In view of the foregoing
facts, it must be clearly enshrined in the code of conduct the government
is contemplating to frame, vis-à-vis governance of student unions, that
any student union found to have political affiliation of any kind,
whatsoever, with any political party or for that matter any other
extraneous body, would be banned forthwith.

Pakistan is passing through a critical phase in its 73-year old blemished
political history. Character assassination and mud-slinging have become
the order of the day. Our social and moral values stand seriously
challenged today. Those who are supposed to be role models for the
present and upcoming generations of this country are totally oblivious of
this profoundly undesirable bearing; precluded under all norms of
civilized conduct. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that this is causing
serious harm to the social and moral conduct of the youth of this
country, and colossally eroding their sense of respectability in almost all
spheres of life. We, as leaders of this country and mentors of the youth
of Pakistan, must know that our doings, good or bad, have an impact,
positive or negative, on the youth of this country in particular and the
society in general. So, for heaven’s sake, let us have some compassion
for the youth, the future leaders, of this country; guide them to the right
path, and don’t let them go astray under any circumstances.
(The writer is an analyst and freelance columnist based in Islamabad)