IN a welcome move, Prime Minister Imran Khan has indicated that student unions in the country could be revived.
Responding to the countrywide demand, expressed in the form of solidarity marches in some 50 Pakistani cities, the prime minister tweeted on Sunday that the government might revive student unions, although after a “comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct” was in place. Mr Khan is not the first prime minister to have expressed his resolve to revoke the ‘ban’ on student unions.
The PPP’s Yousuf Raza Gilani, too, had declared his intention of reviving student unions in his first parliamentary address in 2008. But nothing came of it.
The Senate took up the matter in 2017 and its Committee of the Whole passed a resolution calling for the restoration of student unions, terming it a constitutional right. The committee also addressed the ‘ban’ imposed by a 1993 Supreme Court verdict, saying that the restoration of students’ representative bodies would not be in violation of it. Recently, the Sindh Assembly passed a unanimous resolution along the same lines, and PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari spoke in favour of the issue.
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But there are challenges.
First, the politicians’ willingness has not been translated into action. Ambiguity still persists regarding the legality of students’ right to unionise. This may also be partly due to society’s negative perception about politics itself and because the student wings — that operate with impunity on university campuses — of various political parties are often confused with these unions. At best, such groups can be described as student organisations; but they are a far cry from an elected body of student representatives with the mandate to address students’ issues.
Hopefully, the ‘code of conduct’ will, besides formulating the rules for establishing unions, also make clear the distinction between elected unions and other groups led by students.
Secondly, and equally significant, Mr Khan’s announcement was clouded by disturbing reports of arrests of student activists and march organisers, and the subsequent registration of cases of sedition — no less — against them.
Shockingly, those booked included Iqbal Lala, father of Mashal Khan who was lynched by fellow students at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan on wrongful charges of blasphemy.
That episode clearly showed how dangerous forces have established themselves on campuses in the absence of legitimate student representation.
How can unions be restored in the face of such authoritarianism, and if student activists and march participants are arrested and accused of sedition?
Student unions are the first step towards participation in national politics and the grooming of future leaders. They must be healthy forums where debate and dissent are welcomed.
The government cannot afford to blunder.
The onus is now on the federal and provincial governments to come up with a workable solution to decriminalise and revive student activism.
LACK of democracy within political parties is an issue that Pakistan has been struggling with for the better part of its history. Parties with a national vote bank like the PML-N and PPP never really embraced this notion despite having agreed upon certain procedural requirements within the election rules. While the Election Commission of Pakistan inserted this requirement for elections within parties, the latter treated this as a formality to be completed in letter but not in spirit. Imran Khan’s PTI made a big deal of these sham elections and instituted a system for its internal elections to show it was truly a democratic party and not a family-run enterprise. The one-time electoral exercise led to such a bitter feud within the party that soon everything reverted back to the leader nominating people for various party offices. The PTI’s romance with democracy within its party was short-lived.
It was, therefore, not surprising to hear a PTI lawmaker admitting this fact at a seminar in Islamabad recently. Sher Ali Arbab, an MNA from Peshawar, conceded that democracy within parties, including his own, was a huge challenge. He is right. With the passage of time, the PTI has stopped even pretending that its affairs are managed on any democratic principles. By reverting to this traditional manner of running political parties in Pakistan, it has joined the ranks of the PML-N, the PPP and most other parties. The adverse effects of this undemocratic culture inside these parties are greater than we realise. Such a culture stifles debate, scuttles healthy disagreements and suppresses dissent. It elevates the leader to a position where he is not answerable to the rank and file of his party. It also gives him or her veto power on decision-making and diminishes the role of others. More significantly, it promotes an acceptance of absolute authority and dilutes the essence of democracy. When such a culture reigns within parties, it is difficult to expect them to change their value system within the larger democratic dispensation. It is the ECP’s responsibility to enforce the requirement for elections within parties and to ensure that these are not sham exercises in futility. So far the ECP has taken a lenient view of this deficiency. With a new leadership of the ECP due to be appointed, it is a good opportunity to take stock of the situation as it exists and to strengthen the rules so that we can strengthen democracy.
Removing the hurdles
AROUND the world, the International Day of Disabled Persons is being marked with various stakeholders coming together to create a better and more inclusive world for people living with disabilities. According to the World Health Organisation, around 15pc of the global population suffers from some form of disability, while around 2pc to 4pc live with more severe and debilitating impairments. In Pakistan, the 1998 census found that 2.38pc of the population was living with disabilities, but this figure dropped to a mere 0.48pc with the 2017 census. Disability rights activists feel this statistic severely underrepresents their reality on ground, and instead cite WHO figures, which estimates that around 13.4pc of the total population suffers from some form of disability. Since the passage of the 18th Amendment, the responsibility of enacting legislation on disability rests with the provinces. While Sindh and Balochistan have passed new laws on the subject, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab have not. Meanwhile, the Islamabad Capital Territory Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2018, is yet to be presented before the National Assembly. It is imperative that such a large section of society not feel excluded from mainstream society, and lawmakers must work closely with activists and members of non-governmental organisations who have a clearer picture of what barriers confront people living with disabilities, whether in politics, employment or education.
Most recently, the Punjab government’s Special Education Department launched its new policy which aims to enrol more children in public schools by making the education system more inclusive and focusing on the various barriers that keep those living with disability away from their right to an education. According to studies cited by the programme, children with disabilities are less likely to go to school, and have a greater chance of dropping out, if they do, owing to stigmas and structural barriers. If successful, the data and research-driven model can also be adopted by other provinces that must strive towards greater inclusivity for those who are disabled.