An incident in Peshawar University has given rise to the occasional debate on the revival of student unions in Pakistan. Banned in 1984 under the Zia regime, student unions faced a state-sponsored crackdown and one of the many harrowing effects of this policy culminated in the unfortunate incident that unfolded yesterday in Peshawar. A clash between protesting students of the University of Peshawar and police personnel led to the hospitalization of several students. Six students were injured and taken to the Khyber Teaching Hospital, the hospital’s public relations officer, Farhat Khan, told DawnNewsTV

Authorities responded to the incident stating that the students were in violation of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedures Code. Section 144 prohibits public gatherings of five or more people, processions, rallies in any public place within the limits of the area where the law has been imposed. The university said that the protest was creating an undue bad image at a time when undergraduate admissions are underway and that action was needed when the protesters moved towards the admin buildings.

The protest had been announced by the Muttahida Tulaba Mahaz. It was held at the university’s Pearl Lawn, where students from the Pukhtoon Students Federation (PSF) — the student wing of Awami National Party (ANP) — Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), and Muslim Students Federation (MSF) congregated to record their opposition to the fee hike. According to the university representative, however, the protest wasn’t being led by current University of Peshawar students, rather it was being conducted by “two outsiders, both of whom are graduates. One belongs to the IJT and the other to the PSF. Their aim is to find a way to blackmail the administration whilst using innocent students as a shield.”

According to the Progressive Students Federation Islamabad-Rawalpindi, here is what happened. 

The imposition of Section 144 on peacefully protesting students is a sinister state mechanism, which seeks to suppress students from gaining veritable political consciousness. Bear in mind that political consciousness doesn’t necessarily derive just from aligning oneself with a political party. That’s political activity, not political consciousness in its entirety.

A strictly political student union, for instance, would be something like Insaf Student’s Federation, which works solely for PTI.

That may not necessarily be a bad thing if the union is doing work for the greater good but the distinction between those and student unions needs to be drawn clearly in order to create a breeding ground for student unions to make a comeback. A student union protects the rights of students as a subcategory of the Pakistani population, not just the rights of a select few belonging to a particular party. As Ammar Rashid aptly points out:

Students collecting together, whether alumni or current should be protected by the state, rather than being brutally forced into submission. This subverted role of the police is a sorry state of affairs, which many fail to take into account in the rut of ‘protecting the national fabric’. This is not a tangential assertion, rather it is an astute observation given the nature of those protesting. The following tweet by Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahffuz Movement makes it abundantly clear why the crackdown will be seen by many patriots as legitimate and necessary for security reasons:

The inclusion of possibly ethnically diverse students in the protest potentially contributes to the criminalizing element of the student unions in question. This is a connection that will surely cloud the logic of a pro-student union argument by giving national solidarity the precedent. And surely, it has already started happening as demonstrated in the tweet below:

The ban on student unions stems from the fundamentalist element that became the defining feature of the groups. And there might be some truth to this assertion as the gang type activities of certain student-led groups is undeniably a feature of student-led politics in Pakistan. However, a few bad eggs in action doesn’t necessarily make the concept of student unions abhorrent in its entirety. The Supreme Court verdict that banned student unions in 1993 affirmatively paved the way for vigilante style politics to take force in student circles. The conundrum isn’t whether student unions are a problem. But the problem we currently face is that of confusing political consciousness with political activity. Student Unions must make a comeback, with this distinction in mind. Suppressing students through such terrorizing means will achieve nothing but unrest going forward as well.

The PRSF Islamabad-Rawalpindi is hosting a protest today in solidarity with the students in Peshawar. If you feel student unions need to make a comeback, join the cause! You can find the details of the event, here. 


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