Feb 20, 2009

Future Power Vacuum

By Salman Siddiqui

Can the educated youth of today lead tomorrow’s Pakistan? Across the world, student unions and university politics are considered the nursery for future leaders. Even in Pakistan, many political leaders have risen in national politics through the ladder of student unions in universities and colleges across the country.
According to Dr Kaiser Bengali, a leading economist and former student leader, ‘People like Meraj Mohammad Khan were very powerful in the early [Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto] regime. Even now, in the present government, there are leaders who were former student leaders. For example, Fauzia Wahab was a very prominent student leader in her time.’
However, it is also true that none of these student leaders rose to the position of party chairpersons or premiers because of the hereditary nature of politics in our country. Today, Bilawal Zardari Bhutto is the chairman of the ruling party in the country, not on merit, but because his mother was the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).
But dynastic politics cannot be the solution in a fledgling democracy. And so, the fact remains that student political unions are essential for cultivating a culture of partisanship and democracy. Indeed, student unions provide the necessary intermediary organizations in a democracy to create linkages of constituencies with a state – they are a vital go-between to strengthen the dictatorship-prone and weakened democratic infrastructure of Pakistan. No wonder then, General Ziaul Haq felt the need to ban student political unions in 1984.
When Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced the lifting of the ban on student unions in March 2008, questions were raised about whether the newly formed government was serious about reversing Zia’s imposition. Those voices have now gained momentum as Pakistani democracy is under threat from extremist and external forces and a power vacuum looms. Moreover, those voices have increased relevance given that a year has passed since Mr Gilani’s announcement, but few changes are evident.
Dr Shakil Farooqi, Assistant Professor at the Department of Genetics and the last elected president of the student union at the University of Karachi in the early 1980s, says: 'Even though the government has announced the lifting of ban, there hasn’t been much change since 1984. Sometimes I wonder that if our government is really interested in this cause of lifting the ban, because if they were then why didn’t they do it during all this time. There were democratic governments before. The PPP and PML-N both have been in power in the past, but they were never serious about lifting the ban.'
It is also interesting to note that despite the ban being virtually in place since 1984, the current demand for student unions was not made by the students themselves. This might be because 25 years later, today’s student has no recollection of how the process actually works in their favor. All they’ve seen in the period between is a degraded form of student politics under the ban, which is a politics of fear, intimidation and violence. Political scientist Iqbal Haider Butt, who recently conducted a wide-ranging consultative study on students’ views on politics in campuses, reports that more than six out of every 10 students (61.2 percent) in public universities are not in favour of student politics. However, almost 70 percent students welcome the lifting of ban on student unions.
Butt concludes that this actually highlights that a student today is not necessarily apolitical or apathetic, but in fact rejects the violent politics on campuses that they have witnessed over the years under the ban. Mohsin bin Rashid, a University of Karachi (KU) student, reflects exactly these views. ‘If it is ensured that student unions will be peaceful in campuses and would work for the welfare of students, then student politics can be a good thing.’
However, there are also many students, including Kanwal Qadeer, another KU student, who do not wish to participate in politics even if such guarantees are made. Still, Qadeer agrees that students who do not stand for elections can still benefit as they would gain knowledge about how to become an intelligent voter – an essential training process required in our fledging democracy.
Leadership among the youth and students can be trained only if they are given healthy platforms to test their skills. A well-thought out plan is needed to take the rust out of the present state of student politics. It will be in the government’s interest to sincerely pursue its policy of overturning the mistakes of the past.

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