The word union is borrowed from old French and late Latin, meaning ‘one, unity/the state of being united or being undivided, uniting/action of uniting into one political body.’ If we are to remain true to the essence of the word ‘union,’ then student unions should be a platform where students of Pakistan and its administered areas: Unite!
In a country, where we have adopted the mantra of ‘divide and rule’ from our former colonial masters, calling for unionizing is bound to be seen as a seditious activity. Why? Unions bring people together. When people come together not only do they experience their own collective power, but they can also intuitively imagine a revolutionary alternative to authoritarian structures. Through political action, people can then transform their social, economic, cultural, and political reality. Hence, unionising is an act of sedition against authoritarian power.
It has been 36 years since student unions were banned in our country by Ziaul Haq to control the growing resistance and power of students against his dictatorship. Most of the current students studying in universities weren’t even born when the now-physically-dead dictator Zia was deciding to control their political participation on campus. Indeed his ghost continues to lurk in our present. How does a country get rid of its national ghosts? How do you stop these non-alive-alive creatures from haunting our collective future?
Last November the Student Solidarity March was held to demand the restoration of student unions among other student demands. The student movement took a massive quantitative leap from the previous year; marches were held in about 50 cities across Pakistan and its administered areas. In my lifetime I hadn’t seen or heard of such big numbers of young people getting organized, and that too on the basis of very clear political demands.
Last year, we had stepped into something new, something unfamiliar, where we were making a new path by walking in the territories that we were told didn’t exist. We were exercising our free will, we were realizing how it was political. Free will is political!
As of today, none of our demands have been met. On the contrary, Alamgir Wazir, a graduate of the University of Punjab, was abducted after his speech in the Lahore March, from the campus of the University of Punjab. He was denied bail for four months and kept in Camp jail, where recently 29 prisoners were detected to be positive of Corona Virus, and was released on the 10th of April 2020. Meanwhile, the tense situation forced us to lose focus from our plight of restoration of student unions.
Now, the world is on pause due to the Corona Virus. In the lust for profit, people controlling educational institutions are trying to shift the system online without having to deal with the realities of students from economically disadvantaged back-ground and students coming from most of Balochistan, ex-Fata, Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, Northern Sindh, and Southern Punjab, where access to quality internet is a joke.
This inability to assess the ground-reality of most students makes a solid case as to why we need student unions or a political platform to represent students. There is a basic conflict of interest among people who have profit as their intention and students who want to learn and receive education.
Meanwhile, I would just ask us to think about what questions do we have for this system of education and this system of politics. A system that doesn’t work at all, that doesn’t serve us but only controls us. This global crisis not only calls for all of us to rewind, reflect, and repair but also to be more present, observe more critically, and ask questions more bravely.
For that, we need to be studying ‘People’s Histories’, developing new skills that we must share with each other, imagining new freedoms, and getting ready for collective political action in the present and future.
A few days back, I was thinking about how me and one of my old friends, while discussing series of unfortunate events in our lives, used to tell each other, ‘we are in the same boat’. In moments of distress, being able to relate to someone else’s reality was oddly comforting. There is something that I wrote then, that I would like to leave as a weird end to this message:
If you can save the boat, then you must save the boat! If and only if you can’t save the boat, then you must save yourself. And in the process of saving yourself, appears a possibility of saving the boat or few more people, or one more person, then you must do that. But you have to keep in mind, at least, you have to save one life. And if you could save more, then you must save more! And remember that the boat is sinking! And remember that we are on the same boat!