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!


Democracy or Dictatorship?

Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

Reinhold Niebuhr


The freeman, casting with unpurchased hand the vote that shakes the turrets of the land.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

IN AN auditorium at a prestigious school of Karachi, a large number of students sit restlessly. They are all members of the Young Leader’s Society of Karachi Grammar School and are here today to participate in a discussion forum. The topic of the forum is “Democracy vs. Dictatorship”. Ahead of them, the projector displays a large picture of the former President General Pervez Musharraf.

I was very excited to be a part of this forum. My interest in politics had been steadily increasing since the previous year and I looked forward to participate in what was sure to be an engaging debate. I was ill prepared for the rude shock soon to come.

The moderator asked for a simple show of hands for those who believed that democracy was what our country needed. I raised my hand and, to my surprise, discovered that apart from one or two more students, the rest sat with their hands firmly on their laps. I had unwisely decided to sit near the centre and now many of my peers were looking at me with less than favourable glances.

Although the ensuing debate was quite balanced and fair, my faith in my peers was shaken. Here I was, surrounded by some of the most brilliant youth this country has produced; students who, in years past, had gone on to become the movers and shakers of Pakistan. But excluding a handful, they preferred a fascist, totalitarian, police state to democracy.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Maybe a few had noble intentions. Perhaps they felt that someone without a formal education is less of a human; he is unfit to vote or to lead. Or perhaps they feel safer knowing that they have no say in the government and their fundamental rights can be taken away at a moment’s notice. Maybe they don’t want an independent judiciary.

Truth be told, the blame cannot be placed solely on the students. A major portion of it deserves to be lavished on our education system, specifically on the way history is taught in schools across the nation.

Students are not shown how to analyse major events and connect them to previous ones. All they are taught is that Muslims are good, Hindus are bad, India is behind everything nefarious and we are a great nation because we defeated the Soviet Union. Oh and of course 1971 is glossed over in a few words (read: pretend it never happened).

A case in point is the origin of our history syllabi. It seems that before Muhammad bin Qasim landed on the shores of Sindh, there was nothing of note here. No mention of the great Indus Valley Civilisation. Forget about other religions, even the tolerant and liberal Sufi saints are not mentioned.

Skip a few pages and we read that first of Mr Jinnah’s fourteen points was the demand for a federal form of government in India. This is not contrasted with the One Unit scheme of Mr Iskander Mirza nor does it bear any comparison with the Awami League’s demand for a loose federation. The words of the Lahore Resolution that clearly state that Muslim majority regions of India ‘should be grouped to constitute independent states in which the constituent units shall be autonomous and sovereign’ are likewise glossed over without any analysis.

We are not taught that Pakistan was hijacked by the bureaucrats (Mr. Malik Ghulam Mohammad and Mr Iskander Mirza) and military dictators. Only a brief period of democratic rule was allowed before the other powers take over the reigns of our country and decide that democracy is not for us. No… we are stupid, rabid animals that deserve, and are desperately in need of, a ‘danda’ to keep us in line.

We don’t question the fact that the 1965 war was fought under General Ayub Khan. We are not told about Operation Gibraltar. No, we are a peace-loving nation. We could never start a war. Similarly, we don’t think that it was under General Yahya Khan that East Pakistan was brutally raped. Nor do we see that the terrorist attacks that bleed our nation today are a direct consequence of another military dictator, the Amir-ul-Mumineen, General Zia-ul-Haq and his glorious defeat of the atheist Soviet Union at the behest of another superpower. We do not think because we are not taught how to.

No one can question the Two Nation Theory, even though Hindus and Muslims lived together peacefully for hundreds of years. No one questions our draconian laws which are misused time and again to persecute the minorities of this country. Mr Jinnah’s crucial 11th August speech to the Constituent Assembly is hidden and obfuscated.

I wrote this article to encourage my fellows to think and question the status quo. Do not take things for granted as it leads only to stagnation and repetition of past follies. My friends, we are the future of this country… you and I. We want to live in a vibrant, stable and progressive Pakistan. A country we can be proud to call home. The dictators have had their chance. Our flawed democracy is due to their erosion of the very institutions that are vital for ensuring a strong democracy. It’s true that we face many hardships but this is only because we have been denied the inevitable for over 60 years. As you are well aware that it is an awkward and difficult phase; one in which we may question the futility of even trying. But it must be passed in order for us to get back on track. It must be passed for us to mature as a nation.

We can all play our part in this by creating awareness on vital issues, by talking out our differences instead of resorting to personal attacks or violence, by not resorting to conspiracy theories at every turn, and by understanding that democracy – with its guarantees of free speech, protection of fundamental rights and inbuilt checks and balances – is the only way forward for Pakistan.