Of Students, Politics and Student-Politics

Those who refuse to participate in politics are destined to be ruled by their inferiors.


A YOUNG boy stands on the roof of his house and watches with wide eyes as an astonishing scene unfolds below him. A large group of students barricade the gates of Islamia College, Karachi. The students stand in lines, chests bared. Opposite them, a contingent of army personnel are arranged, guns cocked and pointed straight at the young, defiant students. A line stretches between them and a magistrate sternly warns the students of dire consequences if they cross it. In response, those courageous youth bare their chests to the guns and move forward. They cross the line shouting, “How many will you kill? How many?”

That young boy was my father and he vividly remembers the student protests against General Ayub Khan’s increase in sugar prices. The students were instrumental in overthrowing his regime and many sacrificed their lives for the sake of justice and freedom.

And this has always been so. Students have traditionally been at the forefront of revolutions. They played a monumental role in the creation of Pakistan. Without the young, passionate, idealistic graduates of Aligarh, it is doubtful that Pakistan would ever have been achieved.

Today, the youth of Pakistan are disillusioned. Their hearts are broken and they do not know how to achieve their forefathers dreams of a vibrant Pakistan. They complain that politics is dirty and that we lack capable leaders. And in the same breath most refuse to contemplate ever joining politics. What they fail to see is the negative feedback loop created by such thinking.

General ‘Generous’ Zia gave us many gifts. Two exemplary examples would be extremism and the Kalashnikov culture. But there is another present he gave us which, perhaps, is worse than the other two combined. This was his ban on student unions in 1984. By doing so, he deprived Pakistan of a generation of new leaders.

Why are student unions so essential? Well, where else will you get leaders from? General Zia’s measure was akin to demolishing all medical colleges in the country and then crying over the fact that we lack capable doctors.

Student unions would hold debates between students from opposing parties. This helped create tolerance for differing viewpoints and helped students learn the ‘agree to disagree’ approach. Regular elections would be held that would teach students how to campaign and build a support base. Often, coalitions would be formed between groups from different parties. This taught compromise. Students learnt the power of a vote and leaders learnt that they must be humble or face a rout in the next election. The youth is the future of Pakistan. If they do not learn these basics of mature politics, how can you expect politicians of calibre to appear?

An article published in the New York Times (Aug 28, 2010) talks about how politics has remained the domain of a few members of the landed class. This is again thanks to the ban on student unions! When you stop a whole generation from entering the political arena, who will fill that gaping void? Sons of feudal landlords come to mind. This is how the tradition of dynastic politics begins.

A frequent question asked by students is how will we get rid of dictatorial heads of political parties? How will we change the corrupt system?

Pakistan’s biggest problem is that we want a knight in shining armour to whisk away all our problems with the wave of a wand. Instead of a top down approach, why not begin from the grassroots? Once the foundations are changed, it is easy to change the head.

When passionate, determined students enter politics, they can change the system. Most importantly, they can take charge of Pakistan and with the help of an independent judiciary and a free media, help Pakistan face all her problems in a mature, solution-oriented way.

Pakistan Zindabad!