ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - Thousands of Pakistani students marched in demonstrations spanning the country Friday demanding the right to once again form student unions, which was taken away in 1984 by military dictator Zia ul-Haq.
The march in dozens of cities, backed by parents of students and civil society activists, received messages of support from several political leaders.
“The spirit of activism and yearning for peaceful democratic process from a new generation of students is truly inspiring,” tweeted Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, son of slain prime minister Benazir Bhutto and the current leader of the Pakistan People’s Party.
He added that his mother's efforts to lift the ban were thwarted in order to “depoliticize society.” In 1989, Bhutto reversed the ban, but her decision was challenged in court.
Lawyer and human rights activist Jibran Nasir said the Supreme Court in 1993 ruled that the ban on political activities on campus should be subject to periodic review, which never happened.
A senior leader of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek e-Insaaf party, Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, also tweeted in favor of the march.
“I fully support Restoration of students unions, ban on students unions is anti democratic,” he said.
Students in Islamabad said they welcomed his tweet but wished his government would follow it up with legislation to help them.
Students who want admission in Pakistani colleges and universities have to sign an affidavit, along with their parents that says the student cannot participate in any mobilization or political activity on campus.
Writing on the history and impact of the ban in the English language newspaper Dawn, political activist Ammar Lashari said it suffocated debate.
“Gradually, from the charged campus debates that had once taken place about the education system, economics, politics and governance, the sterile campus discourse that remained became limited to questions of morality and culture, fueled by narratives of civilizational clash in the age of the War on Terror and curricula filled with militarism and religious nationalism,” he wrote.
Authorities, he argued, achieved what they intended — docile student bodies and depoliticized campuses.
Former student leader turned politician Pervez Rasheed, who belongs to the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, agreed with Lashari’s analysis.
“Most of the political leaders who have opposed Marshall Law or dictatorships got their training from student politics,” he said.
Remembering how vibrant campuses were during his time as a student in late 60s and early 70s, he described how students received first-hand training in democracy when competing candidates for a union post had to argue their case in front of potential student voters who would then elect the person they deemed best.
While unions are banned in Pakistan, student wings of political parties are still allowed. Describing the difference between the two, student activist Comrade Minhaj said it was the same as the difference between a political party and a parliament.
“In a union, people belonging to different political parties, different ideologies, whether from the right or left, get elected and work together,” he said.
Friday’s march was organized by the Student Action Committee, a newfound umbrella group of left wing, progressive student groups. Students belonging to a right wing student group seemed to stay away in some cities, like the capital, Islamabad, but showed up in others, like Lahore.
A senior leader of Islami Jamiat e-Taliba, the student wing of the Islamist political party Jamaat e-Islami, said his organization was never invited. However, he expressed hope that in the future the groups could work together.
“We have ideological differences, but we can stand together for common student issues, like restoration of student unions, reduction in fees, and correcting mismanagement of universities,” Muhammad Aamir said.