About Project

The Past That Couldn’t Be

It would not be easy today for a student in Pakistan to imagine a kind of campus where students have a collective, consolidated and legal political space. This was how the public-sector universities were before the 1980s. At that time, students were not a disassociated group having no political imagination of any sort. They were rather a unionized and organized collective having a profound influence on politics in and outside the campus. Their political engagement ranged from having a legal right to have a say in university policies to being a potential political partner of the organized labor. Students comprised the foundation of the movement against the dictatorship of Ayub Khan. Unions like Democratic Students Federation (DSF), National Students Federation (NSF), Islami Jamiat-e-Tulba (IJT), All Pakistan Mutahhida Students Organization (APMSO), etc. were a constant presence on campus. Interestingly in educational institutions today, students cannot even imagine a campus where their consent is necessary for any policy to be implemented by the university.

In the 1980s, however, student unions were banned in Pakistan by the Zia regime. Perhaps it was expected by the government that such a legislation would put an end to all sorts of political unionization among students, as it claimed that by the removal of student unions would eradicate the violence in and outside the campus. The progressive element of the society saw the legislation as an attack on fundamental human freedom and many believed it to be Zia’s attempt at silencing a politically charged student base to speak or act against his rule.

It, unfortunately, hasn’t turned out as planned by the government at that time. Campuses in the country have continued to be politically mobilized by organizations like the Islami Jamiat-e-Tulba (IJT) who, some believe, and rightfully so, had the state behind them through every endeavor. Even in the recent past we have seen various clashes among ethnic, religious and political student groups on the issues of culture, religion, race, etc. There was an attempt by the PPP administration under Benazir Bhutto to revive student unionization but the decision was nullified by a Supreme Court ruling in 1993. This means that students now get admission in universities under a legal pledge to not participate in a political activity of any kind if they are an enrolled student. A recent resolution passed by the Senate in favor of reinstating student unions offers a glimmer of hope to the proponents and advocates of student politics.

What has aroused curiosity in me in the current realm of affairs is the recent rise of the politics of the left in this scenario. The left in Pakistan has always followed an interesting trajectory. It managed to put up a potential rise in the wake of the socialist dream of the 60s, but other than that, the right and center have dominated the political landscape of Pakistan. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the left, as they said, had been done and dusted. There was no major influence of the left on the politics of the 90s and the 2000s. But now we see another attempt to rejoin the political sphere. Old organizations such as the DSF and the NSF are trying to have another go while newer groups like Democratic Students’ Alliance (DSA) and Progressive Students Collective (PSC) are also trying to become an influential entity in the political and educational landscape.

I had a few acquaintances in the circles where students wished to pursue what they called the politics of the alternative. They arranged reading groups, seminars, street theatres, etc. which were aimed at building an alternate analysis of the contemporary socio-political situation. The reception of their work is, of course, not too high since their mode of politics is considered

to be outdated. It is as if the primary task, as of now, is not to build a national level movement against the system. It is to try and recapture a space where alternative political discourse and practice can be entertained.

I, however, saw this opportunity to see how the left is trying to build its revival and to record the experience of the old and the new students. This marked the start of a journey of documenting the activities of students who are trying to revive of speaking the truth out loud, as it is. A documentation of a different species in a desperate search of those of their kind.