Student Unions – the birthplace of thoughts and leadership!

Khalid Pervez, Chairman IEEEP Karachi Centre & CEO KPWS Consulting

Like all developed and forward-looking nations, Pakistan too had the good time when its colleges and universities had student unions. The unions, elected through a very transparent democratic process which was handled by the faculty, provided a very effective platform for all the students to participate in healthy activities and acted as a support organ to the intuitions’ management.

The unions organized debates (inter-class, inter-college/university), quiz programs, mashairas, celebration of special events by inviting prominent speakers, etc. On the one hand these activities rejuvenated the mental faculties, and on the other hand they provided considerable food for thought for the young and dynamic brains. The unions used to have various societies to take care of literature, debate, social aspects, sports, exhibitions, etc.

The unions also provided a single official platform for various groups having different political inclinations, place of origin, etc. The system, albeit some difficulties at times, worked wonderfully. It was impossible for the youth and the student unions to remain indifferent to the political and allied developments of the country, and that was never considered as something undesirable or out of their jurisdiction. The masses in general vividly remembered then the excellent role the student unions had played in the creation of our beloved Pakistan.

I can hardly forget the following couplet written on the notice board of Literary Society of my alma mater, the NED Govt. Engg College, Karachi:

ہم پرورش لوح و قلم کرتے رہیں گے،

جو دل پہ گزرتی ہے رقم کرتے رہیں گے۔

Then came Gen. Ziaul Haq who had seen the effectiveness of students’ protests against his ex-boss, Field Marshall Gen. Muhammad Ayub Khan, and with his skewed and self-serving mental faculties, considered it best to disband student unions altogether. He must have enjoyed the thought that his action would totally crush the faculties of thinking, analysis, debate, and discussions of the youth and future intelligentsia. He was successful in his evil design, which finally resulted in severe damage to the upbringing of our younger generation, leading to a societal chaos.

Whereas there were only two parties having active role at universities and colleges, I’m witness to the fact that within a short period of time of banning the unions, 19 different students’ groups emerged at the NED University, each eager to show its muscles. The next step to damage the sanctity of educational institutions was the deployment of Pakistan Rangers at universities, I recall, throughout Pakistan. What a pity!

The most unfortunate part is that all successive civil governments and another military ruler, considered to be very liberal, also continued it as a holy legacy, remaining indifferent to its long-term repercussions. Most likely, the vice chancellors of universities and the principals of colleges have also considered it best not to have student unions. That allows them to do whatever they consider befitting. Absence of a consultative process makes things easy for them. And don’t be mistaken that university senates and syndicates provide consultative platforms. We hardly have people going in a different direction to the boss. Even if it was not so, senates and syndicates can never fill the gap of student unions.

Consequently, we don’t have people of substance who have deep, realistic, and rational thinking, have original and out-of-box thoughts, are ready to accept difference of opinion, etc. which has steered our society into illogical mindsets, cursory thoughts, dearth of truth-seekers, acute polarisation, etc. Undoubtedly, other factors have also contributed to this dismal situation, but it’s the burning of the basic apparatus that outweighs everything else. Will we ever have student unions? Most likely not for a very long time. Bold decisions need courageous and visionary people. People who don’t go for elections but for long-term nation building. Unfortunately, we’ve an absolute dearth of courageous and visionary nation builders.