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Footprints: Post-gag, the talk heats up

Updated April 14, 2015

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Relatives of missing persons march on road at Hyderabad press club as they participate in a rally organised by Voice of Baloch Missing Persons. - INP/File
Relatives of missing persons march on road at Hyderabad press club as they participate in a rally organised by Voice of Baloch Missing Persons. - INP/File

This is how the story goes. Last Tuesday, a senior faculty member at the Lahore University of Management Sciences found himself ‘hosting’ two very unlikely guests.

The men, who let themselves into his office without an appointment, identified themselves as officers from the ISI and told him that they carried a letter for the university from their boss: call off the panel discussion on human rights in Balochistan his department had planned for the next evening.

Read: LUMS under pressure

The organiser tried to reason his way around. He offered to push back the talk to a later date or/and drop from the panel a couple of speakers — Mama Qadeer and Farzana Majeed, the Baloch rights activists struggling for the recovery of missing persons from Balochistan.

That was not acceptable. The event had to be cancelled. It wasn’t a request; the organisers weren’t given a choice, people privy to the conversation between the senior faculty member and ISI officials told Dawn on Monday.

No sooner had the university called off the panel after consultation with other senior faculty members as ‘advised’ by the ISI men than many LUMS students took to the social networking sites –– Twitter and Facebook –– protesting restrictions on their ‘academic freedom’.

Also read: Outcry on social media as LUMS cancels talk featuring Mama Qadeer

The promotional posters of the event entitled ‘Un-silencing Balochistan’, planned as part of a series –– Remapping Justice: Human Rights in Pakistan –– were altered to read ‘Re-silencing Balochistan’ and tweeted, re-tweeted and posted as cover photo by Facebook users. A silent protest was organised on the day the panel was scheduled to be held.

The event was moved to Islamabad and held without the Baloch rights activists and a couple of other panellists.

Protesting students and faculty members were not the only ones to take to the social networking sites.

“Trolls followed them and harassed them through their tweets. Some even went on to hack several websites of different centres and student societies of LUMS. Our computer science activists have traced some of those hackers,” said Usama Khawar, a LUMS student.

Also read: Lums students protest ‘academic censorship’

“The university is suddenly found by the trolls to be involved in anti-state activities and funded by the enemies of Pakistan just because we wanted to talk about what is going on in Balochistan and why the Baloch have taken up arms,” he said. “As if it wasn’t enough, a few journalists and TV anchors have also taken up arms and launched a malicious campaign against the protesting LUMS students and faculty, apparently at the behest of our [security] establishment.”

Since then scores of students gather every evening outside the LUMS Dining Centre, play Balochi music, recite radical poetry, talk about academic freedoms and human rights violations in Balochistan for one hour or so, and walk around the campus before dispersing.

Dr Taimur Rahman, assistant professor of humanities and social sciences at LUMS, admitted that the call-off was forced because the organisers had invited Mama Qadeer and Farzana Majeed to speak.

“It may not be the only reason but it certainly was the main reason the university was forced to cancel the panel discussion,” he said. He said he had been associated with LUMS since 2002 but could not recall even a single instance when the government or the establishment had put pressure on its administration to call off a scheduled discussion, adding that the pressure mounted on the university amounted to “censorship and a violation of academic freedom”.

Fahad Mahmood (name changed on his request), a LUMS graduate helping students organise their daily protests, agreed with Dr Rahman. “We have invited many politicians such as Imran Khan and Mushahid Hussain in the past. No one objected to their visiting the university and speaking to the students. Since we were going to discuss the situation in Balochistan, it attracted the interest of the security agencies that want only their own narrative [on the issue] to be heard and don’t want the public to have access to firsthand information of what is going on in that province.”

On a visit to the campus some students told Dawn that no “university should invite people considered anti-state”, but spoke strongly against curbs on an educational institution’s independence and the people’s right of free expression and assembly.

“I disagree with those who had organised the debate; they shouldn’t have invited the Baloch dissidents to the university. However, I can never condone the interference of the establishment in our affairs,” said Shumaila Abbas (name changed to protect her identity).

Her friends insisted that the number of LUMS students who “agreed to the viewpoint of the militant Baloch groups was very small, but there was no harm in listening to their side of the story as open and free debates are crucial to finding solutions to the issues and disputes”.

The LUMS management has termed the cancellation of the discussion unfortunate, and pledged to “work with the government to find a way to allow the university to hold discussions on the topics that are sensitive but that need to be debated in an objective and unbiased manner”. It is yet to officially identify the agency that put pressure on it and explain the reasons that led it to buckle under pressure and comply with orders that nobody think were legally valid or binding on it.

Indeed, the cancellation of the event has disappointed and enraged many who firmly believe in the universities as places that spread knowledge and encourage independent thinking. “A university is an ultimate place for spread of knowledge, and free debate and inquiry are crucial to the creation of that knowledge,” said Mohammad Waseem, a LUMS professor and author.

According to Dr Rahman, the forced cancellation has provided the students and faculty with the idea for their next discussion: censorship.

Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2015

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