Student politics

Over at Rs. 5 the Cyril Almeida interview comment thread has taken on a life of its own. AKS brought up some good points about the NSF (National Student’s Federation) which reminded me of the first book I ever read about Pakistani politics – The Terrorist Prince by Raja Anwar (a prominent NSF leader) which is one of the most exciting books about Pakistani politics.

Anyway, I found this interesting interview from last year of Raja Anwar about student politics. A couple of things he said really stand out:

TNS: Some people oppose the student unions mainly because of the possibility of violence in educational institutions. Don’t you think this is a valid argument given the free access to arms and intolerance in our society?

RA: I don’t agree with this assumption. We need to understand that universities are a reflection of the society at large. Violence is a social issue which could potentially influence the students as well. But that does not mean that student politics is the cause of violence. Let me put the record straight; it was the state which criminalised the student politics and introduced violence in educational institutions. Concrete examples are the now open secrets about state agencies’ involvement in recruiting students for Jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan.


TNS: Some people do not subscribe to the view that student unions are the nurseries for mainstream political leadership.

RA: I have a number of reasons to believe that student politics and student unions provide an entry point to the middle and lower middle class talent to later participate in national politics. You can see this even in the incumbent parliament. Most of the leadership of all political parties, coming from middle and lower middle class, has made it to the parliament and mainstream politics only through student politics. Therefore, I think that in the presence of feudal and elite-driven parliamentary politics, student unions can give an opportunity to the non-elite classes to send their representatives to the parliament.

One of the main themes of The Terrorist Prince is that progressive/populist Pakistani politics have always ended up being subordinated to the leadership of feudal politicians to their detriment. If you think about it, Anwar’s point about student politics providing an entry into mainstream politics for middle and lower middle class talent is absolutely correct – think of Altaf Hussain, Hussain Haqqani, Javed Hashmi, to name just a few. One may not agree with their politics but there is no denying that they are extremely gifted politicians.

The flip side of this is the complete destruction of our institutions of higher education:

A flashback It’s November 5th, 2003. The first graduating batch of the newly formed Visual Arts Department of the Karachi University is holding its first grand exhibition of the students’ final theses in the STC Hall. The exhibition is in process when all hell breaks lose. A group of Islami Jamiat Talba members have gathered outside to protest against the exhibition, which they termed to be out of line with the university’s code of religious ethics. They fall into heated argument with the administrative staff and around ten activists attack the hall, smashing the items on display. The items mainly include computers, television sets and speakers that the students have used to set up their presentations. The IJT members leave terrified young men and women in their wake; many of them crying as they look at their year’s worth of work shattered into pieces. The bitter taste of what happened almost two years ago lingers in memory. Students whose theses were destroyed incurred nearly a quarter of a million rupees in losses. Their losses were never compensated for by the administration. No action was taken; no complaints were carried through. One student whose presentation was destroyed recalls bitterly, “I was beaten to the bone, threatened and harassed, and saw the fruit of my labour get smashed into pieces in front of my eyes. Nothing happened. I was never compensated and the authorities conveniently advised me to withdraw the charges for my own safety. That’s when I realized trying to get anyone punished was a lost cause.” There is, however, another version to the story. Syed Tausif, Nazim, IJT, KU recalls the incident as follows. “The Visual Arts incident was a classic case of mishandling a situation by the administration. The protests had been planned to be peaceful. We had filed a number of applications against the exhibition with the administration as we thought it had elements that hurt the general student public’s religious sensitivities. But when protesting students gathered to hold a peaceful demonstration, Rangers intervened to force them to disperse. This angered some of the activists and the violence occurred as a reaction, not an act of aggression as it has been portrayed in the media”. Tausif further adds, “Yes, we do regret what happened that day, and we do feel bad for the students whose hard work was destroyed. But we genuinely believe that the administration was responsible for what happened and hence, it should have compensated them for their loss”.

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