student unions pakistan

Written by Zara Ahmed 12:54 pm Articles, Pakistan, Published Content

Student Unions in Pakistan: The Neglected Past

Accusing student unions to be a source of violence is a misconception in Pakistan. Without tracing the roots of violence, it has been declared that student activism can be detrimental to the academic atmosphere of universities, as a result, students have completely disengaged themselves from politics. The author, Zara Ahmed, rediscovers the past of student unions, their role in society and politics, and how student activism turned into reactionary politics.
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About the Author(s)
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Ms Zara Ahmed has a Master's in History and is currently working as a media professional in a reputable media outlet.

What Became of Student Unions?

Student unions strengthened democratic culture at the local and national levels of Pakistan. When in the early decades, political parties, leadership and state institutions disintegrated and prevented the growth of democracy, student unions functioned as a strong resistance force against authoritarianism. Student unions were officially recognized bodies. Every year students used to take part in union elections.

Student unions worked through a proper set of rules and constitutions. Elected officials of the student unions had a mandate of direct correspondence with the university administration. Universities provided facilities and funds to student unions through an amount extracted from the semester fee.

The student union’s primary concern was to address the difficulties of students on campus, but they also worked beyond that and adopted a role of vibrant political opposition against authoritarianism and the establishment. Different academic and extra-curricular activities on campuses were organized by student unions which helped create a vital environment for socio-political mobility for middle-class students and trained them to develop debating skills and critical thinking.

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Student organizations belonged to different political parties; the Muslim Students Federation (MSF) was a student wing of the All India Muslim League (AIML) and the Democratic Students Federation (DSF) was associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP) and only a few of them established independently such as All Pakistan Muttahida Student Organization (APMSO) and Baloch Student Organization (BSO).

From 1947 and until the ’70s, student unions played a revolutionary role in rallying political movements significantly, against dictatorships, but after some time, violent clashes, the influx of arms on campuses, ethnic rivalries, religious extremism, state clampdown on students organizations led to the extreme polarization of society which disrupted academic sessions and classes.

The Tides Change

The highly spirited and tolerant political environment on campuses completely changed into a fearsome battleground of militant wings of different organizations and political parties. What factors compelled organisations to take up arms? The rise of jihadi groups during the Afghan war and their patronisation by the Zia regime, and the influx of Jihadi literature and weapons.

The organised suppression of student unions also started during the 80s by the Zia ul Haq government and political parties began interfering in student unions during military rule, using them as their proxies. Hence academic and literary virtues of student leaders gave way to nepotism and power-seeking interests. However, before their decline, student unions had valuable contributions in countering the authoritative steps of governments through their charged activism. 

Students played a vital role not only after the creation of Pakistan but also in its struggle and movement. Muslim Students Federation (MSF), which served as a channel of communication between local people and Muslim League leadership, prevented provincial chiefs and feudal lords from exerting their influence on personal interests in the party.

Moreover, the Muslim National Guards and Punjab Students Federation helped deliver the message of nationalism to local levels, and their successful efforts took people to the streets which transformed into unequivocal support of masses (especially in urban Muslim majority areas) for independence. After 1947, the student politics of the Muslim League dispersed as its mother party declined and divided into various factions.

Once the strongest young political force, MSF never recovered again. Student politics took a new shape and after 1947, student organisations were not inclined towards the idea of patriotism or nationalism, and they leaned towards progressive (Communist and Socialist) ideologies. To the right of the spectrum, there were Islamist organizations such as Islami Jamiat Talba (IJT), Anjuman Talba-e-Islam, and Imamia Students Federation.

Student Unions

Islami Jamiat Talaba

IJT was formed in 1947 as a student wing of Jamaat e Islami. Although IJT could not gain potential until the early 60s and was overshadowed by strong left-leaning student organisations. During the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq, IJT started making its way into student politics and defeated leftist organisations in union elections.

IJT formed militant wings to fight in East Pakistan alongside Pakistan Army (Al Shams, Al Badar), facilitated Afghan Jihad, instigated anti-Ahmadi riots in Punjab, was involved in propaganda and violence against left-wing organizations and created a force for moral surveillance of students on campuses (Thunder Squad and Allah Tigers).

Democratic Students Federation

DSF was established in Karachi in 1950 in Dow Medical College and by 1952 developed into a mighty student organisation. DSF gained popularity in Lahore, Faisalabad and other areas, held demonstrations demanding academic facilities for students and raised its voice against the government’s anti-Soviet foreign policy. DSF was banned along with its mother party CPP for taking part in a failed coup in 1954 (Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case).

National Students Federation

NSF, a state-sponsored student organisation to prevent the influence of DSF on campuses, was formed in 1956, but NSF failed to address the government’s concern when ex-DSF members joined the organisation and soon shifted its ideological foundations to the ones DSF followed.

NSF dominated Karachi and Punjab University for almost two decades, becoming an effective force in voicing its concern against government foreign policies, and rallied protests against the Martial Law of Gen. Ayub Khan. In the early 60s, a pro-China group broke away from NSF alleging that its leadership had become overwhelmingly pro-Soviet. Even after this dissension, NSF maintained its supremacy.

NSF was further divided in the 70s and broke into several groups; one of its groups NSF Meraj became close to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and formed the Pakistan Students Federation (PSF), the student wing of the Pakistan People’s Party. Dispersion among progressives continued, and indignant members of NSF and PSF established Liberal Students Organization (LSO).

All Pakistan Muttahida Organization

APMSO is an ethnic/liberal organisation, established in 1978 by Altaf Hussain at the University of Karachi, to address the concerns of the Mohajir ethnicity against the lack of socio-economic opportunities, burgeoned by the Sindhi and Punjabi population.

However, all these progressive, liberal groups started making anti-IJT alliances in student union elections during the 70s to secure the primacy of progressive ideas and to maintain electoral supremacy against IJT, such as the Progressive Student Alliance (PSA) and the Punjab Progressive Student Alliance (PPSA). They somehow managed to keep IJT from gaining ascendancy on electoral grounds.

The 60s and 70s were the most politically charged and student activism reached its pinnacle in Pakistan. In the 70s, various new ethnic, liberal, and Islamist student organizations appeared on colleges and university campuses including Peoples Student Federation (PSF), Baloch Student Organization (BSO), Pakhtun Student Federation (PkSF), All Pakistan Muttahida Student Organization (APMSO), Anjumat Talba Islam (ATI) and others.

Throughout the decade student union elections were held in all colleges and universities without any delay. Progressives and Islamists vied for winning elections and retaining their influence. PSF and NSF students were harassed and tortured by the Zia government and gained sympathy, while IJT after winning elections in the early 70s lost the electoral ground to the Progressive Alliance in Punjab and Karachi University due to its violent activities on campuses. 

All this progress and development of democratic culture—political debates, campaigns, organizations, alliances, elections, diversity in ideas—came to a halt after Gen. Zia ul Haq and his government, alarmed at the progressive liberal activism which routed Field Marshall Ayub’s dictatorship, banned student unions in 1984.

Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto lifted the ban on student unions in 1988, but student organizations could not revive their democratic nature; instead, they were disposed to hoarding firearms and militant combats, and became involved in violence against each other. From 1988 to 1992, student union elections could not take place due to the law and order situation in Karachi and Punjab University.

On July 1, 1992, interim order of the Supreme Court of Pakistan added insult to the injury of student politics, stating that “at the time of admission to an educational institution, student and his parents shall give an undertaking that the student shall not indulge in politics and if he violates, he will be expelled from the institution without any further notice.”

In 1993, Supreme Court also banned student unions and granted complete authority to heads of academic institutions to permit, if they wish, any kind of group or society to be made on campus. Hence, it completely discarded the traditional nature of student unions of the 60s and 70s.

Demands Day 1953

A predominant student organization, the Democratic Student Federation, articulated its power on Demands Day, on Jan 7, 1953, in Karachi by rallying demands against inadequate academic facilities. Students demonstrated, and the administration tried to obstruct the protestors and engaged in shelling and firing due to which six DSF members were killed and several arrested.

Students refused to retreat and so Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin invited student leaders for negotiations and agreed to their demands. Later, Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Bogra approved the construction of a new campus of Karachi University. And the very next year, in 1954, DSF and CPP were banned by the government.

Insurrection Against Field Marshall Ayub Khan

In 1966, Pakistan and India signed a peace treaty in Tashkent, popularly known as the Tashkent Declaration of Peace. Opposition parties and all student organizations protested against the peace treaty. Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto resigned from his post on differences with Gen Ayub Khan regarding the treaty which resulted in the harshened perception of the masses against the Ayub government. 

In the aftermath of the Indo-Pak war in 1965, the socio-economic conditions of common citizens in Pakistan deteriorated with the inflated prices of food and unemployment which gradually fueled a social and political upheaval against Field Marshall Ayub Khan’s government. In November 1968, a group of students, returning from a trip, was indicted with smuggling charges by customs officials in Rawalpindi.

As a result, a clash between students and police took place which ignited a countrywide movement. This was the first time that students in East Pakistan sided with West Pakistanis in a collective struggle against the authoritative state of government. In Dhaka, forces opened fire on hundreds of students protesting in support of a professor at Rajshahi Univesity who was killed by the Army.

Pakistan National Alliance and IJT Against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had become a symbolic leader of the progressive groups because he also leaned toward socialism and leftist ideas, but when he was pressurized by progressive leaders to hasten up the implementation of socialist policies in Pakistan, he shunned them and resorted to dealing with the radical progressives viciously.

Consequently, NSF groups and other liberal organizations renounced their support for PPP. They criticized the decision of sending the Army to Baluchistan for a militant operation and in 1974, for constitutionally declaring the Ahmadi community as non-Muslim under the pressure of Islamists.

IJT with PNA protested against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s socialist policies and rigging in the 1977 general elections and thereby he was ousted by Gen. Zia ul Haq. The split in progressive politics turned out well for IJT which triumphed in the student union election in KU in 1969, 1970, and 1971.

Afghan War and Martial Law of Gen. Zia ul Haq

Progressive students took an active part in protests against Zia ul Haq, and left-wing student unions quashed IJT electoral strength in 1981, 1982 and 1983. Governments feared that the overwhelming presence of left-wing student unions would pave way for the MRD (Movement for the Restoration of Democracy against Martial Law) and they finally decided to ban student unions in 1984.

At the onset of the Afghan war in 1979, arms were introduced on campuses by IJT (whose members were recruited for Afghan Jihad). This was the period when the government of Zia ul Haq launched a crackdown on political parties and those political parties unable to have a representation, used student unions as their proxies, they started interfering in student politics through money and influence. Ideologically inspired and issue-based student politics was replaced by party-based politics.

Emergency 2007

In November 2007, the Student Action Committee was formed in Lahore by the students of Lahore University of Management Science (LUMS) and other private universities and institutions against the imposition of emergency by then-President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. He suspended the entire Supreme Court and launched a crackdown on media and freedom of expression.

Students demanded and rallied for the restoration of democracy, constitution and judiciary with lawyers. After much political turmoil in the country, President Musharraf resigned on August 18, 2008. The student activism against the Musharraf regime was unique in the sense that it was independent of any external affiliation with political parties and this time, activism began to take shape from private institutions and the elite while the public sector remained inactive.


Tracing the roots of violence in student politics, we discover that governments never sincerely attempted to revive student unions. In 2008, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani, in his first address to National Assembly, announced the lifting of the ban on student unions and a Senate committee was formed to probe into the matter but vice-chancellors, establishment and bureaucracy opposed reviving student unions on the pretext of violence in campuses.

Student unions were always on the frontline against state repression and authoritarianism in Pakistan. Students protested against the West Pakistan University Ordinance in 1962 and the government was compelled to revoke the ordinance. From academic affairs to national and international conflicts, students’ political consciousness at that time was admirable, as they were responsive to every matter involving public interest.

The youth have been radicalized towards the religious lines and they are discouraged to think critically. The culture of dissent, debate and negotiation is essential to foster democracy, but, as per extremist notion, eliminating these essentials will embolden Islamic values.

Rather than promoting political awareness and civic values, governments have summoned law enforcement agencies to maintain security in universities which remained ineffective to prevent extremism. According to British Council Report 2013, “Three-quarters of women describe themselves as religious or conservative and nearly two-thirds of men, dwarfing the numbers of moderates and liberals. Young people have a craving for greater stability and this has influenced their political opinions. Even in urban areas, only a third of young people say they are moderate or liberal.”

In November 2019, students marched for the revival of student unions across Pakistan. People wanting to revive student unions also need to revisit their course and direction as circumstances have changed considerably from the 60s and 70s.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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