It was nearing noon and the corridor leading to the entrance of the Punjab University’s Institute of Social and Cultural Studies presented a picture of despair. As students of the university’s sociology department spotted bloody splotches in the corridor, loud wails, screams and curse words rent the air. At the entrance lay a young man beaten and bloodied.
On Jan 22, the students of sixth semester were taking an exam when a group of young men with masked faces, holding sticks, barged into the exam hall and dragged out a Pashtun student. The group of students beat up the student with sticks and left him lying at the entrance.
Earlier that day, at around 4:45am, some members of the Pashtun and Baloch councils had wrecked preparations for a festival organised by the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT) at the university’s electrical engineering department. A clash had ensued and a storeroom was torched. Before the day’s end, the PU had expelled 37 students and police booked two dozen students for terrorism in three cases. As protests continued the following day, police picked up 80 more students, and by the end of the night, the number of students arrested had risen to around 200.
The sequence of events is all too familiar to Dr Javed Sami, president of PU’s Academic Staff Association (ASA). “I have seen a lot of violence in my time and every time, the violence is instigated by ‘outsiders’...our students are never violent,” he insists. The sentiment is echoed by Dr Mehboob, of the ASA, who explains that it was necessary for the police to book the students for terrorism. “Now you see the civil society mobilised against this though it was a step in the right direction.”
Demanding that the police release all the arrested students, some 50 women from campuses across Lahore gathered at Charing Cross on Friday. The hashtag #StudentsNotTerrorists has been trending on social media all week. On Saturday, Asma Jahangir and Hussain Naqi, accompanied by a student, addressed a press conference demanding the police quash all cases against the students.
Speaking to Dawn, Mr Naqi recalls the time when Gen Ziaul Haq visited the PU and said he wished that more students could be like Liaquat Baloch, then general secretary of the IJT. “It was Zia who handed over the PU to IJT,” he says. There was a time when the IJT used to operate as a welfare organisation and was a part of the civil liberties union, he says, deploring the role of the state in this context. The state doesn’t want students to be engaged in politics because they know that students can be a formidable force that can speak truth to power, he says.
Dr Sami vehemently opposes the idea of providing students a platform. When asked why he is a member of an association for the staff himself, he says students are not mature enough to understand politics.
Other instructors present a possible solution to the current impasse. The leaders of ethnic councils should agree to dissolve the councils on a condition that the IJT is dissolved as well, an instructor says, adding that the next step would have to be the restoration of student unions.
“We have demanded the restoration of student unions because that is the only possible solution to unite students across ethnic lines,” says a student.
In a post on social media, Dr Ammar Ali Jan, a PU instructor, complained that it was the media that was presenting the issue as an ethnic one. “Two of my students, Nasir Wazir and Qaisar Khan, are currently in jail over terrorism charges. Their class, which comprises mostly of Punjabis, had an exam today. Yet, they unanimously declared that they will not take the exam until these two boys return. Rising above the limitations of race, language and ethnicity, the entire class boycotted the exam, and are now vociferously demanding that their class-fellows be brought back to campus. It is these micro-level acts of solidarity and gestures of kindness and empathy that get buried under the rigid discourse of Pukhtun vs Punjabi.”
Speaking to Dawn from the Model Town police station on Saturday evening, Noorullah, a member of the Pashtun council, says they are at the jail to secure the bail of their arrested friends. Earlier during the day, they had met Balochistan home minister Sarfaraz Bugti and Punjab higher education minister Syed Raza Ali Gillani who assured them that the cases against students would be quashed.
Later at a press conference Mr Bugti said student organisations would have to be banned entirely and the PU would be depoliticised.
To this, Mr Naqi, himself a former student leader, explains that in the absence of elected organisations, students will form their associations regardless of what the administration allows. This has happened in the past. What students need is a pluralist organisation that provides students a platform to resolve their issues, he says. “Oxford and Cambridge universities have their student unions for example...all major universities in the world do...why not Punjab University?”
Published in Dawn, January 28th, 2018