Youth Leadership: Student unions missed on eve of LG polls in KP

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Photo By Matiullah Achakzai
Photo by News Lens Pakistan / Matiullah Achakzai.

Peshawar: With local elections due on May 30th in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, observers say despite seats reserved for the youth in the local government, the long ban on student politics has virtually snuffed the potential for leadership among the youth.

Pakistan has a youth bulge – more than 60 percent of its population is young. Critics of the government policy to ban student unions in education institutions say the policy has left the youth ignorant of the political system in Pakistan, it intricacies and dynamics.

“Because of the 35 year long ban on students unions, we have stifled a platform that is a nursery and a training ground for  students to enter politics,” says Dr Fiazullah Jan, a lecturer at the journalism school in Peshawar University. “The long ban on student unions in Pakistan has stopped delivering politically mature youth and quality leadership to the political spectrum of Pakistan.”

Student unions in Pakistan were banned in February 1984 through a Martial Law order issued by the military ruler President General Zia-ul-haq. According to a research study by Pakistan Institute of legislation and Development (PILDAT) the reason cited for imposition of ban was the  growing violence on university campuses due to political activities.

The report said it was widely believed that the ban was imposed because General Zia considered the student unions as threat to his military government: “It is also believed that the decision was based on reports that anti-government student alliances had gained considerable influence and strength and these could pose a threat to General Zia-ul-Haq’s government…., the sort that helped topple President Ayub Khan’s government in 1969 and [Zia] decided to forestall such a possibility by banning students’ unions and other organizations of students.”

The late chairman of Pakistan People Party, Benazir Bhutto, and former prime minister of Pakistan,Yousuf Raza Gilani, had both pledged to revive student unions in Pakistan back in the year 1988 and 2008  in their opening addresses to parliament. However, very little political activity aimed at the revival of the student unions, if any, is in evidence despite pledges from political leadership to encourage its role and scope.

In the local elections that will be held this month in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a long break, one seat has been reserved for youth in every village council in all districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

“I am unaware of the entire setup of local government polls,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, 25, who has filed nomination papers for the youth seat in Lower Dir district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He said he never got involved in student federations “which does nothing more than creating violence in the university campuses.”

Muhmmad Tayab, 29, another candidate contesting local elections from Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa told News Lens said that the difference between “student unions” and “student federations” is that the former would have a single vision while the later is given to holding rallies and disturbing education on the campuses.

Student unions in the past have arranged different types of training in educational institutions – leadership training, awareness campaigns, and other events for rights and political awareness. Student unions used to be the official body of the administrative setup of public sector education institutions where they would provide input on the rights of students.

Political commentators dub the ban on student union a threat to  growth of democracy in Pakistan. Raza Rumi, policy expert and independent analyst, said that ban on student politics had an adverse impact on the growth of democracy leaving a large number of young people ignorant of the democratic and electoral structures.

Asked about the lack of political awareness among youth contesting local government election in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Raza Rumi told News Lens that local governments had  been irregular due to which political participation had suffered.

“Pakistan needs to lift the ban on student unions to enable youth to engage in mainstream politics,”, said Rumi. “For this to happen, the state must acknowledge that the democratic path is essentially for building a pluralist society and turning the state into a responsive entity.”

He said that the unelected “state-military bureaucracy” was not in favor of opening the campuses for political activity and the political parties were also fearful that their rivals might get an edge over them if they do.

“Student unions are there in Bangladesh, India and other countries like Pakistan so why not have them on  campuses here?” Rumi asked. “What  purpose does the ban serve other than weakening  genuine democratic participation.”

Leaders of different student federations operating in the Peshawar University campus voice similar opinion about the role of student unions as the nurseries for the new leadership to emerge on the political scene.

Mian Sohaibuddin Kakakhel, general secretary of  Islami Jamiat Talba affiliated with Jamat Islami, a religious political party active in university campuses across the country, strongly opposed the ban on student unions saying it was against the Constitution of Pakistan.

Kakakhel told News lens that the youth contesting local government elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had neither knowledge or grooming to understand the political system nor were they mature enough to address the issues of youth in their respective constituencies.

Kakakhel criticized the government for not taking interest in reviving  student politics in university campuses. “The universities have established student societies as an alternative to student unions but it is a childish approach because students societies do not get involved in politics,” said Kakakhel. “The student societies are just confined to arranging seminars or symposiums and not more than this.”

Comparing “student unions” with “student federations” in campuses, he considered the former far more useful than the later as very few students were members of student federations due to the stigma that they create violence on the campus.

“Student unions had a an electoral system that acted as a  nursery to train and groom student leaders,” said Kakakhel.

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