Pakistani students continue struggle against student union ban and score a major victory in Sindh province

After nearly 38 years since the military dictatorship of Zia ul Haq imposed a blanket ban on student unions in Pakistan, Sindh will become the first province to lift the ban if governor Imran Ismail gives his assent to the Sindh Student Unions Bill 2019

February 23, 2022 by Shriya Singh
Student unions Pakistan
(Photo: via Aurat March Lahore/Twitter)

In what was a historic day for the students’ struggle in Pakistan, the provincial assembly of Sindh unanimously passed the Sindh Student Unions Bill 2019 on February 11 after over two years since it was first tabled.

On February 9, 1984, military dictator Zia-ul-Haq had imposed a blanket ban on student unions in university campuses across Pakistan citing increasing “violence on campus” and “interference in administration”. On February 9 this year, scores of students in the country participated in the annual march to mark the 38th anniversary of the ban imposed by the Haq regime.

The bill to remove the ban was first tabled in the Sindh assembly in December 2019 but was later referred to the Standing Committee on Law & Parliamentary Affairs and Human Rights. It will only be enacted into law after the Sindh governor’s assent. The social-democratic Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which holds power in the southern province, has declared that regulations and guidelines for elections will be released in the next two months.

At present, there are no elected student unions in Pakistan. Student organizations backed by political parties dominate campus politics. The movement for the revival of student unions in Pakistan gained momentum in November 2019 when students across 50 cities participated in a ‘Student Solidarity March’ for the restoration of student unions and to demand better education facilities.

The Sindh Student Unions Bill 2019 defines student unions as “a body or association of students of any educational institution by whatever name called for promoting the general interests of its members as students for academic, disciplinary, extra-curricular or other matters related to the affairs of the students in the educational institutions.” It states that a student union will consist of seven to 11 members elected annually by the students of the particular educational institution. It further specifies that every educational institution will have at least one nominee of the elected student union in its syndicate, senate or board. Every educational institution within two months after the enactment of the law will formulate regulations and procedures for the establishment of the student union. 

Termed as the “nurseries of democracy”, student unions in Pakistan have been hailed for producing the country’s finest leaders and politicians by promoting a democratic culture of debate and learning on university premises. Both sides of the student union debate in Pakistan have often argued that student unions in universities are related to campus violence and student extremism. However, it is hard to prove that the ban has been effective in reducing student-related violence in the last 38 years. 

The announcement of the passing of the bill has been welcomed by student organizations in Pakistan as an encouraging first step which has made its way inside the parliament.

Former president of Progressive Students Federation (PrSF), Aunil Muntazir, spoke to Peoples Dispatch about the Sindh Student Unions Bill. “There is still a lot that needs to be done to convert this bill into a law. There is no clarity if and when this will turn into law. The language of the bill is unclear and states generality, no details of mechanism brought under light. Moreover no students organization was taken into consideration over the final draft of the bill before getting it approved from the assembly. Until the government actually hold election province wide in the varsities we welcome the passage of bill with caution and hope that it is not another political gimmick, but this only the time will tell,” he said.

After Sindh, students launch unprecedented sit-in in Lahore

In February, students associated with the Progressive Student’s Collective (PSC) launched an unprecedented sit-in or dharna in front of the assembly building in Lahore, Punjab, the country’s largest province. 

For over ten days, the sit-in has been continued by students demanding restoration of student unions in Punjab as well as the withdrawal of the affidavit that universities ask their students to sign at the time of admission. 

The affidavit, Muntazir says, details that they will not take part in any protest or political activities and if found guilty will be expelled from the campus. 

The other demands raised by students at the sit-in are at least 50% concession in transport fees in public transports on student card, establishment of anti-harassment committees on the campuses with equitable representation of female students, and action on the forced disappearances of student activists.

With increasing privatization in Pakistan, fee hikes, shortage of hostels and digital divide have become a permanent feature of education in the country. Students as the most important stakeholders are taking the lead in reviving higher education for the better.