Bertolt Brecht once said “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participate in the political events. The imbecile doesn’t know that from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all.”
These are the lines on which student unions are built and, then subsequently shaped. Student unions play an imperative role when it comes to fabricating the social and political edifice of society. When organised methodically, the student organisations become a force for good. Every democratic society makes it mandatory for their students to wallow in political discourse and venture into the terrains of state affairs from the primary years of their lives. The goal of which is to merchandise student activism, academic freedom and to cope sagaciously those facets concerning civic affairs. Owing to this pivotal role of the student political front, many ill elements which come to power are quick to ban them. Pakistan has been no exception and seen many movements by students directed at the most diabolical elements of the society. Those movements played a crucial role in overthrowing the tyrannical system hinged on exploitation and self-aggrandisement.
It was the student unions of the 1960s and ’70s that had sieved out many consummate democrats. Movement of 1968 stirred by students subsequently toppled Ayub khan. The student unions after the ban in the 1980s were revived in the 1990s under Benazir Bhutto, followed by the order of the supreme court which threw a blanket on political activities but not debarred the students from organizing and making unions. Last year, we have seen a resurgence of the same wave by students to reinvigorate student unions in Pakistan. This demand was made in ”Student Solidarity March” cutting across 50 cities of the country. Rallies were organised, and those predicaments were voiced – sexual harassment on campuses, the oppressive nature of the administration, low budget allocation to education and Higher Education Commission, scholarships for the qualified students – which had been throttled for years. Despite these benign pleas and innocuous rallies, the organisers of the march were meted out with utmost atrocity and charged with sedition.
This maligned treatment is not foreign to the critics of state stratagem in Pakistan. The condemnation of the detractors of state policies is an authoritarian notion which clearly does not take place in open societies. It is the oldest trick in the book. It engenders only in those cultures where the state is identified with the society and its people. It is devised by portraying the private interest, of a teensy junta, into national interest. So, if you speak against concentrated power and appeal for de-centralization you are basically anti-state, and to top it all, against the society and its people. What is quite conspicuous is the fact that this ploy is not derided but accepted as true, a pure portent of an elite culture and status quo taking hold of the society, and where the populace is imbued with militaristic patriotism and nationalism.
The fixation of the top-echelons, in a state, with the compliance and depoliticisation of the students is neither a contemporary phenomenon nor is constrained to Pakistan. At the economic liberal end, the reaction has been quite the same. There is a whole dossier of ”The first trilateral commission” related with this. Its called the crisis of Democracy. The trilateral commission was comprised of three liberal capitalist entities – Europe, Japan and North America. They were fretting over the fact that democratic inclinations were brewing in what they called the passive elements of society, namely, Students, working-class and Women. In the 1960s these groups were organizing and gearing up to enter the political arena. The first task of the neo-liberal states were to de-politicize them. The way they put it forward ”young people are getting too independent and free.” Their phrase not mine. The references were made towards those institutions – schools and universities – which had been responsible for the indoctrination of the young people, and were seen to be floundering in their duties.
The tumultuous history shows the centrality and the prospects of student organisations, which should never be sidelined to the peripheries of society. A sanctioned procedure has to be enacted through which the grievances and wants of the students can be channelled and the right to politicize should be laid on. As Covid-19 wrought havoc it is central to showcase solidarity with those disproportionately affected by it and stand next to them. This year, there is another chance to speak for the muzzled voices to spread the word of political freedom to an extent that it reaches the power corridors. To refurbish our institutions and contrive them on merit, freedom and equal opportunity.