Student ‘terrorists’

Updated 26 Jan 2018


IT has been almost 35 years since the dictatorship of Gen Ziaul Haq banned student politics on college and university campuses.

The rationale was simple — for the first three and a half decades after 1947, students played a larger-than-life role in political life. On campuses they mobilised around both their own concerns and larger challenges facing the body politic. Off campus they helped build popular movements, with many remaining committed to political struggle even after entering adult life.

Compared to its predecessors, the generation of Pakistanis groomed after the Zia regime banned student politics in the 1980s has a very different attitude towards the idea of the collective, whether the campus community or society at large.

The notion that politics can be a healthy activity serving the public interest has been almost completely displaced; for the most part, students are brought up to think that politics is something to avoid, that they should focus on their studies and career, and refrain from getting involved in activities monopolised by unruly elements seeking to manipulate ordinary students for their own ends.

This perception about politics as a self-serving activity — and the attendant ‘every man for himself’ mentality — has also taken root in society.

In this sense the underlying objectives of the military regime — to criminalise politics, especially progressive politics, and to mobilise parochial identities — were decisively achieved.

In recent times individuals as highly placed as the Senate chairman have tried to roll back the effects of the establishment’s anti-politics manoeuvring by calling for restoration of student unions.

Tragically, many ordinary students would have to be convinced to support such a step, so deep runs the hegemonic ideology. Persistent violence on campuses between rival student groups — such as that which took place at Punjab University (PU) — makes the anti-politics refrain into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The idea that politics can be a healthy activity has been displaced.

Ordinary students can’t be blamed for not questioning whether politics is, in fact, the problem that they perceive it to be — they have, after all, been taught this at home, at school, through the media etc. The powerful lobbies that continue to propagate anti-politics attitudes in society, however, need to be exposed.

This is the first step in the process of rehabilitating a healthy, democratic culture of political activities amongst students — and indeed within society.

Let’s return to the example of PU. Lest we forget, the one student organisation that the Zia regime did not clamp down upon was the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba. As a result, the IJT established a virtual monopoly on many campuses, often using force to regulate cultural norms on campus, as part of its larger ‘Islamisation’ agenda.

In some cases, the IJT was challenged by other student groups using similar strong-arm methods and espousing supremacist ideologies of their own, such as the APMSO on Karachi University’s campus. Whichever groups came up on top developed illicit relations with hostel wardens and other administrators and thus became part of the campus ‘establishment’.

The recent violence in PU is explained by the fact that new student groups have emerged to challenge the nexus of IJT goons and administrators. Many of these new groups are organised along ethnic lines as more non-Punjabi students make their way to Lahore to acquire the degrees they need to enter Pakistani officialdom.

But while these ethnic ‘councils’ are challenging the IJT’s erstwhile monopoly — and it is worth bearing in mind that the majority of students would hardly be upset at the IJT’s demise — they do not necessarily espouse a more expansive brand of politics to the incumbents.

They tend to be insular, often positing their interests as mutually exclusive to those of the ‘other’. This insularity isn’t surprising, especially given the manner in which non-Punjabis face discrimination in cities like Lahore and Islamabad.

Just think about how the police action in and around the PU confrontation has played out; of the 196 students arrested, more than 180 are Baloch and Pakhtun. All the students have been charged under the Anti-Terrorist Act.

By reinforcing ethnic divisions and labelling students terrorists, the state reinforces both the culture of violence that persists on campuses and the notion that there can be no collective interests that bring students together. And then the same state claims to be committed to checking ‘extremism’ on university campuses.

Sadly, it is not just state functionaries that wield the big stick and thereby make it harder to move beyond the anti-politics narrative that prevails amongst the silent majority of students and youth. Many teachers demonise politics and advocate repression against those who even express an interest in it.

In doing so, they reinforce the legacy of dictatorship and further reduce the chances of the almost 120 million young people in this country building a culture of democracy on campuses and society at large.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2018