A Union of various interests

The newly elected prime minister lifted ban from student unions along with labour unions. It again sparked a debate about the uses and abuses of a student union. In the 60s, the culture of student union was totally different. Student unions were famous for involving students in healthy activities like debates, discussions, poetry, plays etc and worked to promote coordination and cordial relationships among students, between students and teachers and administration. Student unions were also playing a positive role to promote arts and culture of the country, and these were also involved in a number of social welfare projects.

But now student unions are making headlines for conflict and clash. – leading to a belief that the only function of a student union is to fight and agitate. Authorities are leveling allegations against student unions, such as that of spreading terror and violence on campus, keeping and using unlicensed weapons, drug trafficking on campus, influencing the results, harassing the students and teachers, fighting each other. These are very serious allegations and need to be investigated.

In recent days, some educational institutions have been rocked by armed clashes between rival student groups. These were the major incidents, while in our educational institutions; it has become routine matter to fight each other. The helpless parents are sacred of sending their children to educational institutions. They wanted a bright future for their children, but the violence at campus has made it uncertain.

Every murder on the campus is a national loss. So far, countless, students have been murdered on campus. We must try to change all this. These educational institutions are development engines of Pakistan’s progress. If we destroyed these, than who do we think will put Pakistan on the track to progress?

How can we make our educational institutions peaceful? Can we eliminate violence through banning student unions? And who controls student unions? These are the basic questions, which must be addressed, in order to make our educational institutions peaceful. But it has become a tradition that after each campus clash, the administration takes temporary measure to control the situation. The issue of a clash between student unions can only be settled by addressing its root causes. This issue should be considered at a national level and a strategy adopted for all educational institutions.

Even though there are very serious allegations against student unions, it will not be advisable to put them under ban. It is not the proper way to tackle the issue. It will make the situation more complex, and could lead to things becoming uncontrollable at a later stage. It would be better to have student unions functioning within the law and regulations.

The students have a right to form a union, which should not be denied, and it is a fact that not every student union is involved in unlawful activities. A union is necessary to create a working relationship between the students and the administration and helps smooth implementation of administrative policies. As students’ representatives, unions are a check on the administration. Student unions are part of the democratic process and it promotes democratic norms among students. The students of today are to run the affairs in various fields tomorrow. Those who practice democracy as students and promote dialogue and tolerance will forever be imbibed with democratic values.

The most significant function of student unions is to safeguard the legitimate rights and concerns of students on issues like academic matters, fees, and co-campus activities and even on the issues of faculty etc. So, banning of student unions will deprive students of an important outlet.

Who is controlling the student unions? This question is much important in order to know the root causes behind violence on campus. There are a number of interest groups that affect a student union. These interest groups use student unions to meet their ends and do not allow the student unions to perform their real function. Sadly, some of the people involved in this activity are those who are supposed to create a cordial environment on the campus. Following are the major interest groups who are influencing the student unions and controlling their activities:

Political parties:

Political parties and leaders have a very active involvement in our educational institutes through their party’s student wings. The roots of this phenomenon can be traced back to the Pakistan Movement when the Muslim Students Federation, backed by the All India Muslim League, played significant role in creating public opinion in favour of Pakistan. Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah commended the role of students in the movement.

After partition, Quaid-e-Azam asked students to stay away from politics and at the same time asked the politicians to not use students to get their means – in vain. Political parties in Pakistan established their student wings and used these unions to mount pressure on their political opponents, in and out of government.

Political parties influence the students systematically. These parties induct non-student elements in student unions, and are known to sponsor admissions of the candidates of their own choice to educational institute in order to get control of that institute. These are also known to provide students with money, weapons, and of course, protection from police. The result is violence on the campus. Violence crept into student politics in the early 1970s, and it was because of two political parties taking each other on.

Drug mafia:

It is another very powerful interest group which influences the student unions for its own benefit. This mafia is playing havoc with the future of the nation in our educational institutes; all kinds of drugs are available without any restriction. A good number of students have become addicts. This mafia, in many cases, is operating through student unions. This mafia is pitting the students against each other. We have many law enforcing agencies, which will do well to investigate this matter and help eliminate the drug mafia.

Teachers/administration lobby:

In some cases, teachers and/or administration ally themselves with a particular student union. Sometimes one of these takes on the other with the help of students. The students become a tool in the hands of exploiters, knowingly or unknowingly. Teachers sometimes use them for promotion, in times of dispute with another faculty member or over a policy, while the administration can use them to put pressure on any faculty member or impose some person or policy on students. It is better to ensure relationship between all these elements, but this lobby has created a new kind of crisis in our educational institutions.

These are the major interest groups who influence the student unions, but there are some other players around which do the same for their own interests. Like the ones who use student unions to gain personal fame.

How can we make our educational institutions peaceful? It is an issue, which every educational institute is addressing separately. There is a need to launch a joint effort at national level on this front. It would be better to formulate a policy at the national level regarding the student unions. In order to make our campuses peaceful, the authorities will have to show the will and commitment. The following steps may help:

1- Student unions should be registered as NGOs to make them function within clearly defined framework. At the same time, these should be provided financial assistance so that they can function without any external influence and pressure. Once we have defined the role of student unions, it will be easier to ensure that these unions adhere to it.

2- There should be such a forum in each educational institution where teacher, students and administration can interact with each other. It will help them know each other and resolve their dispute through this forum. This may discourage the lobbying that we see on the campus.

3- Educational institutions should not be run on commercial basis. Some institutions were offering admissions against self-finance seats and sometimes students get admissions on fake degrees. Such elements usually create disturbance at campus. To avoid such elements, admissions should be made purely and strictly on merit.

4- There should be a law that prevents political parties to intervene in educational institutions. Political parties can be asked to include a clause in their charter, saying that they will not influence students through their party wings.

5- There should be some security mechanism, which can prevent outsiders and drug mafia to function on campus. The elimination of such elements will help to improve the law and order and will save students from being the victim of addiction.

6- A separate “Educational Court” should be set up and it should be empowered to deal with cases related to educational institutions. And this court should be bound by legislation to declare its verdict within the period of one month. This will force everybody on the campus to act responsibly.

7- The media coverage about student unions conflicts needs to be improved. Sometimes, these union leaders are presented by media as heroes. Student leaders are shown toting guns in our films. Such coverage influences young, impressionable minds --- which should be sufficient reason for media to review its role.

All these steps may be helpful. But in the ultimate analysis, there is a need to improve the law and order situation in the society. Our society is getting less tolerant and less patient with time. Disputes often have their origins in minor problems. Practicing patience would be the best way to avoid a conflict, in the society, on campus.

( The News, March 7,2004)

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