Farooq Tariq reflects on the days when student unions dominated campuses
Back in the mid-1970s, the foremost strategy of students unions was to establish close links with trade unions. It was mainly left-wing student unions and organisations that were eager to forge links with trade unions, unlike the present times where sections of the working class want student organisations to help them in their struggle against the onslaught of neoliberalism.
The 1970s was a moment of growth for the labour movement. A victorious labour movement, mainly led by young trade unionists, had helped overthrow military dictatorships of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan towards the end of 1960s. People’s power was demonstrated across the country, both in West and East Pakistan. There had been countrywide strikes by various sections of the working class that paved the way for the 1970 general elections.
Zulfiqar Bhutto’s coming into power was a catalyst in the re-emergence of student politics on the campuses. There was a very clear ideological divide of Left and Right among student organisations. When I joined the University of the Punjab in March 1974 as a student for my masters in Applied Psychology, the corridors of New Campus were littered with book stalls and welcome camps being manned by Left and Right wing student groups. Scores of volunteers from both camps would approach you for any help, information about admission in hostels, bookshops, libraries, cafeterias and so on. Both camps had plenty of literature for distribution free of cost. This mainly included introductions of student organisations and their constitutions.
There was no social divide among male and female students. There were very few students in purdah of any kind. Even female students of Islami Jamiate Tulaba did not wear the niqab or burqah. At most, they would cover their heads with the duppatta. The cafeteria of New Campus was full of young couples sitting together, drinking tea and eating pastries. It was a progressive reality where student organisations were functioning.
Soviet and Chinese literature was translated in Urdu, printed and made easily available. Maxim Gorky’s ‘Mother’ was the first such book that introduced me to Leftwing ideas.
By the time I was elected as Hall Secretary at Hostel 19, defeating a candidate of IJT, I was completely into the struggle for domination of Leftwing ideas on the campus. IJT had almost the same neo-fascist strategies as it does today to control the campuses. They would physically attack our activists. The difference was that we could retaliate in the same coin, and some times even more than that.
When I was physically attacked at my hostel by an IJT gang, three of us went the same night to put up posters in all hostels against this attack, armed with a pistol and a dagger. Student organisations had arms on both sides and exchange of fire was a routine matter.
Student hostels were also known to be controlled by Left and Rightwing student unions. Ours was a newly constructed hostel and we had the control from the very beginning. An attempt to name the hostel with religious connotations was defeated by us and we named it Waris Shah Hostel.
We had regular visits from trade union leaders on our campuses and we invited them especially when we felt we were at risk of being attacked by religious fundamentalists. Trade unions would join our public meetings on campuses and publicly declare their solidarity. Students would do the same at their meetings.
There were elections every year for student unions, not only at campus levels but at department levels as well. I was elected president of Applied Psychology department students union, defeating the candidate of the Right by a big margin. University departments known to be Leftwing included Applied Psychology, Sociology, Political science, Journalism, Public Administration, Philosophy, Biology, Chemical Science, History, Physics Fine Arts, English and Law studies. The rest were controlled mainly by IJT.
At the joint panel of the Left for student union elections at university level, I was nominated to contest for the slot of councilor. There were seven seats available for the student union: president, vice president, general secretary, joint secretary and three councilors. This was the Left panel for the 1975 student union elections. We saw the participation of left wing trade union activists in almost in every rally that we took out on the campuses. Only two panels were contesting; one from the Left and the other from IJT. There was always great debate on ideas of socialism in these rallies. Study circles were organised regularly. New contacts for the Left were followed and recruited in the organisations after detailed discussions on what is socialism and capitalism.
Unfortunately, the Left was divided in pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing factions. Both groups were mainly towing policies from Soviet Union and China. We became part of the Maoist grouping, not knowing the difference between the two camps. We were mainly influenced by our professors. They had a great role in dividing students into two different camps.
There was also a Professor Group. Most professors we came across were from this group.
The main difference between the past and the present is the political defeat of these two Left groups who have now their lost ability to divide students along ‘Stalinist’ or ‘Maoist’ lines. Students are much more aware of these ideas now. They are not dependent on literature being printed in Moscow or Beijing.
The present student movement that has emerged at national level has no parallel in the past. It reflects the different nature of the present epoch. Building a united student movement linked to trade unions whatever weak power they might have in an era of counter revolution is a great service to the ideas of socialism. However, there are sparks of new sections of the working class movement in the present time. The consistent struggle against privatisation by young doctors and paramedics is one such example. Close links between progressive students and the new layers of the working classes is an absolute necessary task to build a progressive Pakistan.