At the time of Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the only established student organisation was the Muslim Students Federation (MSF), the student-wing of the ruling Muslim League. MSF had been formed to assist the League in recruiting students and young Muslims of undivided India and help it achieve its goal of attaining a separate country for the Muslims of the region. The Muslim League began to disintegrate soon after coming to power as Pakistan’s first ruling party. It broke into various self-serving groups, mostly due to intra-party tussles over the distribution of government ministries. As a consequence, MSF, too, split into different expedient factions.
The multiple infrastructural and logistical problems the country faced at its inception also reflected in the condition of the universities and colleges that Pakistan inherited. Consequently, with the gradual disintegration of MSF as a platform for the students to voice their concerns, a brand new student organisation started to take shape. In 1950, a group of students at the Dow Medical College in Karachi formed the Democratic Students Federation (DSF).
Initially, DSF did not have a written or formal platform or agenda. It only aimed to address the academic problems of students and fill the vacuum created by the splintering of MSF. DSF was the creation of Urdu-speaking Muslim migrants from India, who had mostly settled in Karachi. It was a huge influx that had put pressure on educational institutions that could not accommodate an unprecedented increase in enrolments.
In 1951, DSF launched a hectic recruitment drive. As it gained a strong footing in Karachi’s colleges, it also began to establish itself in colleges of Lahore and Rawalpindi in the province of Punjab. Here as well, its earliest leaders and recruits were migrants. This time, it was Punjabi-speaking migrants from East Punjab who had migrated to Muslim-majority West Punjab that had been made part of Pakistan.
Urdu-speaking and Punjabi migrants believed that they had left their ancestral homes and economic interests in India to reside in Pakistan, which to them had been promised as a safe haven and a land where they would be able to prosper in the absence of ‘Hindu hegemony.’ But despondency soon set in when they realised that the promised land lacked the infrastructure to accommodate them. The creation of DSF was first and foremost a platform to express this despondency.
One of the first political parties to engage with DSF was the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). It was due to CPP’s influence that DSF gradually began to perceive the problems that the students were facing at colleges through a ‘Marxist’ lens. By 1952, DSF had evolved into becoming a dedicated left-wing youth organisation. Its growing influence saw it taking bolder steps in its attempt to move the government towards addressing the concerns of the students.
In 1953, DSF in Karachi’s Dow Medical College drew up a “Charter of Demands.” The demands included lowering of tuition fees, expansion of college libraries, better classrooms and the construction a proper university in Karachi. A “Demands Day” was announced on which DSF activists in Karachi moved out in a procession to meet the then education minister, Fazlur Rehman. The police tried to block the procession. A riot broke out. Six students were killed, several were injured and many were arrested.
The situation had spun out of control. Finally, Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin agreed to meet the DSF leadership. He invited a DSF delegation to meet him. It was a cordial meeting and promises were made. Although Nazimuddin was soon replaced by Mohammad Ali Bogra, the negotiations continued. PM Bogra showed the students a plan of a university to be built in Karachi. The site for a new campus of the Karachi University (KU) was identified and construction ordered.
It was a victory for DSF, though achieved at the expense of the death of six students.
By now, DSF had also started to exhibit its displeasure over Pakistan’s growing role in supporting the United States against the Soviet Union. DSF demanded that the government take a more independent stance in its foreign policy. It is thus not surprising that in the following year (1954), when the government of Pakistan banned the CPP, it also imposed a ban on DSF, accusing it of being the CPP’s ‘front organisation.’
It was due to CPP’s influence that DSF gradually began to perceive the problems that the students were facing at colleges through a ‘Marxist’ lens. By 1952, DSF had evolved into becoming a dedicated left-wing youth organisation
The CPP had already been implicated in 1951 for supporting and facilitating a failed coup attempt against the government of PM Liaquat Ali Khan. After the 1954 ban, many DSF members tried to maintain the organisation secretly. But the mass arrests that followed the ban made it impossible for these students to continue operating under the DSF banner. The government tried to counter the prevailing leftist sentiment on campuses by facilitating the creation of a small pro-government student organisation, the National Students Federation (NSF).
In 1955 however, concern about NSF’s ideological orientation caught the attention of the bureaucrats who had been instrumental in helping the government uproot DSF. Unknown to them was the fact that some former DSF members in Lahore and Karachi had started to infiltrate NSF as a way to change its ideological course. In 1956, when NSF held a large rally in Karachi in support of the left-leaning Egyptian leader Gamal Abul Nasser during the Suez Canal crisis, it became apparent that NSF had changed its stripes. The gathered students started chanting anti-British and anti-Israel slogans. NSF had slipped into a role that it would hold for the rest of its existence.
Compared to DSF, NSF was able to develop a wider platform on which students from all shades of progressive politics started to gather. One reason for this was that non-migrant students had also begun to take part in student politics. In 1957, progressive Sindhi, Baloch, Bengali and Pakhtun nationalists had joined hands with former members of the banned CPP to form the National Awami Party (NAP). NAP’s interaction with NSF widened the latter’s platform, agenda and membership. It became the leading student organisation in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi — even though it is also true that the opposition was weak. It mainly constituted MSF factions and independent student groups that did not have any real presence outside the colleges that they operated in.
In late 1958, when President Iskander Mirza and military chief Ayub Khan imposed the country’s first martial law, political parties were banned. So were student groups, including NSF. Martial law was imposed on the pretext of ‘political chaos’ triggered by years of power games between the politicians and the bureaucrats, and the rising levels of ‘corruption’ and ‘provincialism’ in the country. At the start of the new decade, the student-wing of the Islamist Jamat-i-Islami (JI), began to emerge from the sidelines and materialised as a prominent right-wing force on campuses. Called the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT), it had been around for more than a decade, but was almost completely overshadowed by DSF and then NSF. IJT was originally formed as an evangelical outfit before it turned political in the late 1950s.
JI, led by the Islamic scholar Abul Ala Maududi, had a following among some middle-class segments in Karachi and Lahore. IJT was activated to provide JI with political leadership and members who were qualified to join (read: infiltrate) government and state institutions and media outlets. By 1962, IJT had developed into becoming NSF’s strongest opponent. IJT was also one of the first student organisations that had a direct association with a mainstream political party — even though MSF had been the first, it had become almost non-existent.
NSF, on the other hand, remained largely independent, but its growth and influence had put it in touch with labour and journalist unions of Karachi. These unions were also close to NAP. IJT’s growth became apparent when in 1962 Ayub lifted the ban on political parties. Student union elections were restored as well. IJT was able to oust NSF from Karachi University (KU) and some other colleges of Karachi. However, NSF retained its electoral supremacy in most other colleges.
IJT was largely popular among students from migrant families in Karachi and Punjab, who were unhappy when Ayub facilitated the entry of non-migrants, especially Pakhtuns and non-migrant Punjabis, into state institutions such as the military. His industrialisation policies also triggered an influx of rural Pakhtuns and Punjabis into cities such as Karachi and Lahore. The cultures and economics of these two cities were largely dominated by the migrants.
The Ayub dictatorship prided itself on being progressive and guided by a ‘modernist’ strand of Islam. It invested a lot of energy on vast industrial projects. It was also looking to eliminate ‘religious obscurantism’ on the right, and ‘communism’ on the left. So whereas IJT and NSF competed for the control of student unions, they converged to undermine the Ayub regime.
By 1967, the urban middle-class youth that Ayub had tried to cultivate as a constituency was radicalised by student uprisings taking place across the world, Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China and also by Bhutto’s rhetoric
The splintering of MSF in West Pakistan had made space for the emergence of DSF, NSF and later IJT. In the Bengali-majority East Pakistan, MSF’s decline made way for the Democratic Youth League (DYL). It had emerged from MSF, but quickly turned against the Muslim League government. It became a platform for Bengali youth who were critical of the regime’s decision to make Urdu the national language (instead of Bengali). Urdu was spoken by less than 10 percent of the population. DYL was banned in 1949. Three student outfits emerged after DYL: Students League (SL) — the student-wing of the Bengali nationalist Awami Party (AL) — and the Students Union (SU) which was launched by the East Pakistan branch of NAP. There was also some presence of NSF in East Pakistan. But by 1960, the East Pakistan Students League (EPSL) became the largest in the region. It was formed in the early 1950s from the ashes of MSF and then SL. But like SL, it too was left-leaning and invested to secure the interests of Bengali culture, and to challenge the ‘hegemony of the West Pakistan ruling elite.’
In West Pakistan, NSF’s overall leadership was dominated by pro-Soviet Marxists. But with the onset of the 1962 Sino-Soviet split, a strong pro-China faction appeared within the party. NSF’s pro-China or ‘Maoist’ faction used its relations with influential labour and journalist unions to aid it in replacing NSF’s top leadership, which it accused of being on the payroll of Moscow. A power tussle ensued between the leadership of the two factions. This allowed the IJT to make deeper inroads in student politics. Meanwhile, the same year (1962), a revived Muslim League, renamed as Pakistan Muslim League, was formed by Ayub Khan as his civilian vessel. Another League also emerged, the Council Muslim League. Ayub’s party became the Convention Muslim League (PML-Convention). The party revived the MSF.
Battered in the 1950s, MSF returned to student politics and made some impact in the Punjab, but it was no match for NSF and IJT in influence and electoral strength. NSF had also strengthened its links with NAP. As such, NAP too had been impacted by the Sino-Soviet split. But it did not splinter, as such, even though there was a clear Moscow-Beijing divide in its ranks. In fact, the pro-China leaders of NAP quietly supported Ayub Khan’s candidacy in the controversial 1965 Presidential Elections. This was due to the Ayub regime’s close relations with China. Ayub’s opponent in the election was Fatima Jinnah, the sister of the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. She was supported by JI, the Council Muslim League, and the pro-Soviet leadership of NAP.
Ayub was ‘re-elected’ as president. But later that year, his regime got embroiled in a war with India. The war ended in a stalemate and both countries signed a peace agreement. Ayub’s young foreign minister ZA Bhutto accused Ayub of losing a war on the negotiating table which the soldiers were ‘winning’ on the field. Nothing of the sort happened. Yet, there were demonstrations against the peace agreement by NSF, IJT and even MSF. Bhutto was ousted from the cabinet by Ayub. But Bhutto found himself rising as a hero of sorts by the (West)-Pakistanis, gathering a reputation of the man who wanted to fight on against the Indians, and who had stood up to his former boss, the dictator Ayub Khan.
Bhutto was first embraced as a ‘hero’ by NSF’s pro-China faction because he had been the main architect of the country’s relations with Mao’s China. MSF in Punjab, too, decided to support him. Consequently, Bhutto formed his own party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). He was aided in this endeavour by socialist ideologues such as J A. Rahim, Shiekh Muhammad Rashid, Dr. Mubashir Hassan, and a group of intellectuals led by the ‘Islamic socialist’ Hanif Ramay. Bhutto began his second political career by speaking at NSF conventions. He was courted by the time’s prominent NSF leaders, especially Mairaj Muhammad Khan and Rasheed Ahmad. In fact, Bhutto was even successful in convincing Mairaj to join the PPP.
The war with India became a catalyst for the rise of those segments of the society who felt they were being kept away from the decision-making processes. By 1967, the urban middle-class youth that Ayub had tried to cultivate as a constituency was radicalised by student uprisings taking place across the world, Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in China and also by Bhutto’s rhetoric. On the right, JI that had been ousted from the mainstream political arena, rebounded to remove a weakening regime. The commotion also created enough space for JI to fully formulate and proliferate its idea of an ‘Islamic state.’ IJT played a crucial role in distributing pamphlets and literature authored by JI ideologues.
But whereas NSF and IJT were both aiming to oust Ayub, they often clashed against each other on campuses. At the Punjab University (PU) in Lahore, a group of leftist professors helped form the National Students Organisation (NSO). Its aim was to oust the Ayub government and keep IJT out of PU. NSO was largely a Marxist study group. But as the movement against Ayub heated up, NSO became more activistic. But compared to NSF, NSO was heavily influenced by Marxist doctrines, whereas NSF had become more populist — especially its pro-China faction.
The Ayub regime was convinced that it had neatly constructed an economic, political and social whole that could be controlled and navigated from above and influence what lay below. From the late 1960s onward, this arrangement began to be challenged by those who felt marginalised and also by those who, even though, had the means to gain upward mobility, but only to discover that they were being blocked from entering certain areas above. Within a year (1968) the regime’s much touted economic gains and ideological narrative crashed when the country’s bottled-up ethnic, political and sectarian diversity found a way to express itself (sometimes violently) in a scenario where there were no ample democratic outlets. It was an inward collapse. An implosion of an ageing regime.
IJT largely drew votes from Urdu-speaking and Punjabi migrants; and from students arriving from small cities and villages. The progressive alliances received most of their votes from left and liberal students; foreign students (who were mostly from Middle Eastern, African and South-East Asian countries); and from young Sindhi, Pakhtun and Baloch nationalists
The student groups that were most active in West Pakistan during the anti-Ayub movement were NSF, IJT and those factions of MSF that had turned against the Ayub regime. In East Pakistan, student outfits such as East Bengal Revolutionary Students Union, Bengal Students League, and East Pakistan Students League were in the forefront of the movement. Many members of these outfits would go on to join the Bengali militant group, the Mukti Bahini.
Ayub was forced to resign in March 1969. General Yahya replaced him and imposed the country’s second martial law. But he promised to hold the country’s first ever elections based on adult franchise.
1968 also saw the birth of three new student organisations. Pakhtun Students Federation (PkSF), Baloch Students Organisation (BSO) and Anjuman Tuleba Islam (ATI). NAP had splintered into two factions. The pro-Soviet faction became NAP-Wali and the pro-China faction, NAP-Bhashani. PkSF and BSO both became student-wings of NAP-Wali. ATI emerged as the student-wing of the Barelvi Islamist party, the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP). Pro-China factions of NSF had become the student-wings of the PPP in all but name. Tensions between NSF and IJT increased manifold during the campaigning of the 1970 elections. JI had decided to support the Yahya regime in a bid to keep leftists sentiments in check, in West and East Pakistan. When attacks on PPP rallies by IJT increased, the PPP formed ‘Peoples Guards’ (PG) which included the more militant NSF members. PG’s main purpose was to ward off IJT attacks.
Awami League (AL) swept the 1970 election in East Pakistan. The PPP won a majority in West Pakistan. But civil war broke out in East Pakistan when AL was refused its democratic right to form the government in the centre by the West Pakistan ruling elite. East Pakistan broke away and became Bangladesh. The PPP formed the government after Yahya was ousted. A new parliament came into existence.
Students had played a major role in the anti-Ayub movement. They had also been instrumental in aiding the PPP to become a prominent force. The energy unleashed during the movement was still circulating when the PPP, led by ZA Bhutto, formed the new government. To contain this energy, the Bhutto regime began formulating a policy to regularise student politics on campuses. Student union elections had bounced between being held and curbed across the 1960s. It was a decade dominated by NSF, but its main nemesis the IJT was quickly gaining ground. By 1972, the IJT had become the leading electoral force in the country’s two largest universities, the PU and KU. NSF shattered into various factions.
Emboldened by Bhutto’s downfall and JI’s growing influence in the Zia regime, the IJT began mutating from being a democratic-conservative student group, into one with increasing authoritarian tendencies. At times, it became hard even for its mother party to control
IJT organised study circles in which students arriving from peri-urban areas, small towns and villages were invited. Literature authored by JI’s ideologues was shared and discussed. These students had felt intimidated by the ‘modern’ and permissive ways of city life. Most of them joined the IJT and became an important source of votes during student union elections. Another source of support for the IJT came from youth belonging to Urdu-speaking and Punjabi-speaking migrant families who had poured into Pakistan from 1947 onwards.
Ironically, these families had largely supported the state’s modernist Islamic project that was pitched against Islamist parties such as the JI. But by the late 1960s, when politics of ethnicity, support for leftist ideas, and for localised strands of ‘folk Islam’ began to strengthen, these migrants felt vulnerable and began to flock towards Islamist groups who offered a more theologically-inclined alternative to the fading modernist Muslim ethos. The Islamists also claimed to transcend identities based on ethnicity.
As NSF fragmented into self-serving factions, the PPP formed its own student-wing, the Peoples Students Federation (PSF). But NSF remained strong and intact in various colleges of Karachi. At universities, IJT’s electoral rise often forced NSF factions to form electoral alliances with BSO, PSF and PkSF. But till 1974, these alliances failed to stall the IJT juggernaut. Disillusioned by the secular sectarianism within the once powerful leftist student groups, ‘independent’ anti-IJT students formed the Liberal Students Organisation (LSO) at KU and PU. As leftist student outfits spent much of their time quarrelling over minuscule ideological differences, LSO concentrated on serving the immediate needs of the students, as IJT was doing — even though, IJT was also ‘educating’ recruits the philosophy of JI’s main ideologue, Abul Ala Maududi.
In 1974, LSO was able to oust the IJT from the student union at KU by winning that year’s election. The next year it won again, this time at PU as well. The same year, the government issued an ordinance which regularised student union elections. They were to be held every year on the same date at all state-owned colleges and universities. Political parties began to take more interest in these elections, funding the campaigns of their student-wings. Violence between student groups was not uncommon, but firearms were hardly ever used.
Vote-banks were more or less firmly established. As mentioned, IJT largely drew votes from Urdu-speaking and Punjabi migrants; and from students arriving from small cities and villages. The progressive alliances received most of their votes from left and liberal students; foreign students (who were mostly from Middle Eastern, African and South-East Asian countries); and from young Sindhi, Pakhtun and Baloch nationalists.
1977 was the year of general elections, the first after the historic 1970 elections. Though, passionately supported by progressive and left-wing student groups (especially NSF) before and during the 1970 elections, this time the PPP got no such support. NSF had been angry with Bhutto ever since he purged hard-line leftists from his party in 1973, and then send in the Army against Baloch insurgents in Balochistan.It also accused Bhutto of rolling back PPP’s original socialist manifesto and alienating the leftists by inducting prominent feudal lords and capitalists in his post-’74 cabinet. The only progressive student group willing to support the PPP was, of course, the party’s own student wing, the PSF.
NSF had also accused the Bhutto regime of ‘allowing’ IJT to flourish on the main university campuses of the country as a way to keep Islamist opposition against his regime from spilling on to the streets. Apparently, the president of Egypt Anwar Sadat had done the same in his country. The aftermath of the 1977 general elections was tumultuous. The nine-party opposition grouping, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), accused the Bhutto regime of rigging the polls. The PNA began a campaign of mass protests. Many of these protests turned violent in Karachi and Lahore, enough for Bhutto to send in the Army and impose curfews. Among the student outfits, IJT was the most active during the protests. In July 1977, the Bhutto regime was toppled in a right-wing military
The military regime led by General Zia launched a crackdown against parties that had come out to oppose him. Hundreds of activists were arrested and thrown in jails. Many political workers and even some journalists were publicly flogged. The JI had agreed to support Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ project. The party therefore found itself in the first cabinet announced by the dictatorship. This aided IJT to function with more freedom compared to other student groups. But things turned ugly when during the campaigning phase of the 1979 student union election at KU, a gathering of progressive student outfits was fired upon by some IJT members. This was the first time a sophisticated firearm such as the Russian AK-47 was used on a Pakistani campus.
Emboldened by Bhutto’s downfall and JI’s growing influence in the Zia regime, the IJT began mutating from being a democratic-conservative student group, into one with increasing authoritarian tendencies. At times, it became hard even for its mother party to control.
The PPP’s student-wing, the PSF too became violent, but for different reasons. Many of its members were jailed, tortured and even flogged, sometimes simply for raising anti-Zia slogans.
Progressive student groups in Karachi and Lahore regrouped to form new alliances. In 1981, a Marxist professor Zafar Arif at KU helped form the United Students Movement (USM) which consisted PkSF, BSO, Punjabi Students Organisation (PSO) and the then tiny All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO). APMSO was formed in 1978 as a secular Mohajir nationalist outfit by Urdu-speaking students who were formally associated with LSO and IJT. Taliba Jamhoori Mahaz consisting PSF and NSF was also formed.
Under pressure from its student-wing, the JI pulled back the more blatant aspects of its support for the Zia dictatorship. But IJT suddenly withdrew from the anti-ban movement, after JI convinced its leadership that the ‘Afghan jihad’ might be rolled back if Zia fell
In Lahore, similar anti-Zia and anti-IJT alliances emerged. A new student organisation, the Black Eagles was also formed. At KU, all hell broke lose when a member of PSO was gunned down by IJT militants. Gun fights between student groups became a norm in colleges and universities of Karachi. Violence erupted at PU as well, when a PSF candidate managed to defeat an IJT heavyweight Hafiz Salman Butt in the 1983 student union election.
By 1982, almost all major student organisations had armed themselves. It had become simpler to acquire deadly firearms in the black market due to Pakistan’s involvement in the Afghan civil war. More than serving the needs of the students through elected student unions, occupying territory in the shape of hostels and physically eliminating opponents, became a more pressing need. IJT claimed it was doing this to oust un-Islamic and anti-Pakistan ideas and elements from campuses, whereas the progressives claimed they were fighting to restore democracy and survive IJT’s ‘fascism.’ Dozens of students from both sides lost their lives in the ferocious battles.
As was the case in the early 1950s and late 1960s, turmoil on campuses in the early 1980s too was a manifestation of the political and economic tensions and polarisation triggered by the introduction of yet another political and ideological experiment to (supposedly) keep the country from tearing itself apart. This time, Islam as an overt political expression was used by the state. This not only strengthened Islamist forces, it also benefited the urban middle, trader and business classes who had been stung by the Bhutto regime’s ‘socialist’ policies. They quickly fell in line. In fact, these classes were already on the move in this respect. They were in the forefront of the 1977 anti-Bhutto and ‘pro-Islam’ movement.
The nature of polarisation in the society began to manifest itself in a more intense manner when in 1982 and 1983, student union elections generated entirely mixed results. For example, IJT won big at KU, but lost badly in most colleges. Growing violence on campuses had not been treated as much of an issue by the Zia dictatorship. However, when progressive student outfits began to oust IJT from the unions of most colleges in Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, the government became concerned. It felt that the progressive student outfits may be used by the opposition parties to create political turmoil against the regime.
Advisors to the Sindh government warned that, though, the JI had been supporting the Zia dictatorship, IJT’s influence was receding. The Zia government was also warned that this situation would not only increase the level of violence on campuses, but the violence was likely to turn outwards against the government. In 1984, the dictatorship imposed a ban on student unions.
It cited growing cases of violence on campus as a reason. Of course, the decision was based more on reports that anti-government student alliances had gained strong electoral and political momentum. It was feared that this momentum could trigger a students’ movement, the sort that aided the ouster of the Ayub Khan dictatorship in the late 1960s. The most ironic fallout of the ban was the way IJT reacted to the interdiction. It defied its mother party’s approval of the ban and joined other student groups when they began a protest campaign against the ban. IJT demanded that its mother party withdraw its support for the Zia regime.
Under pressure from its student-wing and now conscious of the criticism the party had started to receive for supporting Zia, the JI pulled back the more blatant aspects of its support for the dictatorship. But IJT suddenly withdrew from the anti-ban movement, after JI convinced its leadership that the ‘Afghan jihad’ that the mother-party was directly supporting might be rolled back if Zia fell.
As mainstream student politics and student parties receded, colleges and universities began being infiltrated by groups with no prior history in student politics. Their target audience was a new generation of middle-class youth apparently caught between a ‘corrupt democracy’ and a politicised clergy
1983 was to be the last year in which countrywide student union elections took place in Pakistan.
However, student organisations remained active in most state-owned colleges and universities. But in the absence of any electoral process or student unions, these organisations became placeholders for political parties on campuses. But soon, the political parties too withdrew from funding their student-wings — even though IJT and APMSO continued to get support from their mother parties. Without student unions and elections, the student parties became insignificant on campuses. Many simply transformed into gangs fighting for physical territories on campuses, or expandable fodder to be used by mother parties outside the campuses in a political milieu that had become extremely intolerant and violent.
After Zia’s demise in August 1988, the PPP under Benazir Bhutto won a majority to form the first post-Zia government. Her government lifted the ban on student unions and in 1989, student union elections were held for the first time after 1983, even though only in Punjab. IJT found itself on the losing end in most of the province’s colleges and universities. The main gainers were PSF, ATI and a reformed MSF which became the student-wing of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML). Elections could not take place in Sindh because the province had become engulfed by ethnic violence. Benazir’s regime was dismissed by the president in 1990, setting the stage for the ML-led right-wing alliance, the IJI, to ‘win’ that year’s election.
But in 1992, when territorial and electoral violence erupted between MSF and IJT in Punjab, JI quit the IJI. Nawaz formed his own PML faction, PML-Nawaz. After hearing a petition against campus violence, the Supreme Court ordered a blanket ban on student unions in Pakistan. As mainstream student politics and student parties receded, colleges and universities (especially privately-owned) began being infiltrated by groups with no prior history in student politics. Their target audience was a new generation of middle-class youth apparently caught between a ‘corrupt democracy’ and a politicised clergy. The groups did not operate like the conventional student groups of yore. In fact, they claimed to shun politics and help the students become ‘better and more successful Muslims.’
One such group was the evangelical Tableeghi Jamaat (TJ) and the other was the Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Tahrir was formed in the UK in the 1950s. It advocates the imposition of an ‘international caliphate.’
Conscious of the repulsion that the new generation of students demonstrated for the violence associated with established student outfits on state-owned campuses, the TJ and the Tahrir slipped into private educational institutions with a more social agenda. Instead of preaching political ideology, these groups emphasised on ‘moral social behaviour’. For example, students were given tips on how to behave and look like ‘better Muslims.’ But the consequences of this tactic was not entirely apolitical because at least the Tahrir is a political organisation with an agenda to ‘unify the ummah.’ It is banned by the state of Pakistan.
Iqbal Haider Butt interviewed numerous former student leaders, most of who became successful politicians and journalists. Almost all of them lamented that the 1984 and 1993 bans negatively impacted the quality of political leadership in the country
The impact of Tahrir and TJ’s preaching in private universities and colleges made many students adopt the worldview of various post-Cold War right-wing radical outfits. It birthed perhaps one of the most conservative generations of young, urban middle class Pakistanis. Eventually, the faculty and administration of educational institutions began to consciously allow the entry of ‘evangelical’ groups, believing that these would not only erase political identities of the students, but also keep their social behaviour in check. Yet, as one saw, over the years, the more educated recruits bagged by militant Islamist groups, had all attended lectures by the supposedly apolitical social outfits that were allowed to operate on campuses.
From the mid-1990s onwards, clandestine Islamist groups began to infiltrate public and private colleges and universities, pretending to be apolitical and evangelical in nature.
In October 2019, protests erupted on the campus of Balochistan University. Even though the protests were against the alleged harassment of some students by the university’s administration, the renewal of student unions also became one of the demands of the protesting students. Recently, various youth activists in Punjab and Sindh have raised similar demands as well.
What’s more, Sindh’s ruling party, the PPP has already restored student unions. In his 2009 book Revisiting Student Politics in Pakistan, Iqbal Haider Butt interviewed numerous former student leaders, most of who became successful politicians and journalists. Almost all of them lamented that the 1984 and 1993 bans negatively impacted the quality of political leadership in the country.
They also argued that at least two generations of young Pakistanis lost touch with how democracy worked, and what it stood for when democratic activities, such as, electoral campaigning, participating in elections, and negotiating better academic and recreational facilities through elected student unions, were outlawed.
The perception of student politics being just about violence, entirely drowned the fact that till the late 1970s, it had been a vibrant democratic cornerstone on campuses that had invested the students with notable bargaining power to negotiate better academic and recreational facilities
The decline of student politics in Pakistan was part of a universal trend. Student politics and activism had witnessed a peak globally in the 1960s. But this peak had begun to recede from the mid-1970s onwards. One of the reasons behind the rise of student activism in the 1960s was that a large number of middle and lower-middle-class men and women had begun to enroll in colleges and universities after the end of the Second World War. Even though, European countries, the US and many new post-colonial realms in Asia and Africa enjoyed economic booms of one kind or the other in the 1960s, their colleges and universities were not able to accommodate a large influx of new students. This created numerous logistical and administrative problems that left students feeling disgruntled and angry.
Many students channelled this anger through radical political ideologies, mainly those of the left. By the 1970s, and due to the gradual disillusionment towards left-leaning ideas, similar feelings of disgruntlement began to be expressed through rightest gesticulations. However, as conditions in educational institutions became more accommodating, and, in case of ‘third-world countries’, the number of private colleges and universities swelled, these eventually rendered traditional 20th-century student politics obsolete.
Yet, in Pakistan — from 2007 onwards — and also in many other countries, there is once again a clear feeling of restlessness among the youth. One can explain this as a result of governments and educational institutions once again falling short of accommodating the changing socio-political needs of another generation.
Thus, those demanding a revival of student unions today have a convincing case, which can be favourably argued with some compelling evidence. However, it is equally important to understand that the nature of student politics that culminated in a ban in 1984 was largely a Cold War phenomenon. It cannot be reactivated in its original shape in today’s changed scenario. For example, as mentioned, the ban was repealed in January 1989 by the first Benazir Bhutto regime. But despite the fact that elections for student unions were successfully held in Punjab’s many state-owned colleges and universities, the venture soon collapsed on itself.
In 1993, the Supreme Court observed that the restoration of student unions in 1989 had failed to stem the violence, and that this violence could only be checked by a blanket ban on all political activities on campuses. Indeed, by the early 2000s, the violence had greatly receded. But, again, the reasons were far more complex. The number of privately-owned colleges and universities had increased and state-owned educational institutions had become pale reflections of their former selves.
The perception of student politics being just about violence, entirely drowned the fact that till the late 1970s, it had been a vibrant democratic cornerstone on campuses that had invested the students with notable bargaining power to negotiate better academic and recreational facilities. This is exactly what a new generation of university and college students are demanding again. Unlike the generation that grew up between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, and which was consciously apolitical, the new generation has become deeply politicised despite never having any direct engagement with on-campus student union politics, which is quite remarkable. This means that if the unions were banned to keep the students away from politics, then the ploy has clearly failed. They want their unions back.