February 17th, 2021 

By Hamid Riaz 


There has definitely been a dichotomy between the “words and actions” of the Pakistan People’s Party leadership on the issue of restoring students’ unions, said Senator Raza Rabbani, adding that he would advise different factions within his party to “address this gap”. He also revealed that the Chairman of the PPP Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had “raised the issue of students’ unions with his the party members in Sindh, but he is not privy to the details of the discussion, because he occupies only a “fringe” position in the party. His perspective on the party dichotomy came during an exclusive interview withVoicepk.net preceding a lecture. He was asked why the PPP leadership had failed to restore students’ unions in the province that they presently governed while offering passionate lip service to the right to unionize.


PPP Senator Raza Rabbani spoke at length at the second Asma Jahangir memorial lecture organized by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on Tuesday, February 17. The address focused on the freedom of association, and the need for students’ activism in the country. The lecture comes in the backdrop of the wave of students’ agitation in the country which was brutally repressed by the ruling regime. The senator began with an in-depth elaboration of his first-hand account of the history of students’ activism in the country and ended with a passionate defense of the right to unionize.

Historical Reasons behind the ban on students’ unions 

“After the dictator, Ayub Khan was ousted by a popular movement of intellectuals, students, and organized labor, the ruling elite started working on a plan to neutralize these popular forces so that the future authoritarian regimes could be protected,” explained during his lecture.

“As a result, intellectual spaces, like the Pak Tea house were choked, the Essential Services Act was brought in to break the might of organized labor, and most importantly, the students’ unions were banned,” he explained.

Senator Rabbani also pointed out that this project of crushing popular forces was carried out under the cover of protecting Islam so that the project could be given an ideological cover, overtly pointing towards the Islamist military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq.

“Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan states that ‘every citizen shall have the right to form associations or unions, and the ban on students’ unions is a clear violation of this constitutional principle,” said Rabbani. He explained that over the years this principle of the constitution had come under repeated attack by the authoritarian regimes to prolong their own rule. “There has been a drive to vilify politics, politicians, and political participation so that popular action against authoritarian regimes can be curbed.”

He also explained that 36 years after the initial ban, the Benazir-led PPP government tried to draw up a framework to restore students’ unions but the “authoritarian state structures could not absorb these social liberties” and the ban was soon reinstated in the form of a Supreme Court justice.

On the recent wave of students’ protests 

Rabbani commended students’ groups on their recent struggle against the private education mafia and defended their right to collectivize to make their demands heard.

“The response of the state authorities, especially the police, to these popular uprisings has been shameful,” he asserted. “They not only arrested students but also moved to take into custody the professors who stood with their pupils,” he said pointing towards the recent cases against students and Professor Dr. Ammar Ali Jan.

“We have all compromised”

The senator took pride in elaborating on his struggle as the Chairman of the Senate in trying to address the need for students’ unions. He states that the Senate has reviewed the Supreme Courts’ judgment which is used to justify the ban on students unions and reached the conclusion that the judgment does not in fact outrightly ban the students’ unions but instead offers a framework to restore students’ unions, while at the same time taking steps to curtail violence on campus.

However, he revealed that when the recommendations of the Senate committee were sent to all the provincial government’s none of whom took them up.

“The Senate cannot force the provinces to take action. We could only offer guidance, which we did,” said the Senator, prompting Voicepk.net’s question on PPP’s provincial government in Sindh.

Without mincing his words he expressed deep “shame” at the ambivalent role of his party during this entire crisis.

“The deep state and other entrenched interests have now become so powerful that owing to one consideration or the other we have all compromised,” explains Rabbani. He admitted that the current parliament is under a lot of restrictions and can only play a limited role in times of crisis like this. Promising to raise the issue with the party leadership upon his return.

Conclusionary Remarks 

Towards the end of the session veteran human rights activist Mr. I. A Rehman pointed out that the issues faced by the students must not be looked at in isolation. Instead, society needs to unite to demand the rights of the students because it is in fact a national issue.

“We must stop criminalizing our youth,” he stated.

The session concluded with remarks from Asma Jahangir’s sister, and human rights lawyer, Advocate Hina Jillani, who lambasted the government for using colonial-era legislation to brutalize the youth of this country while pointing towards the use of ‘sedition’ charges against young activists. Reminiscing her youthful activism she pointed out that in 1983 she too was implicated under similar charges.

“People say that students are not mature enough to form students’ unions. I say to them that if they are mature enough to go to jail they are mature enough to unionize,” Hina Jillani wrapped up the issue in a nutshell.