July issue 2017

By | Cover Story | Published 2 months ago

Pakistani activists shout slogans during a protest in Karachi

On May 18, the Chief of Army Staff, General Javed Qamar Bajwa, addressed a seminar at the GHQ at which a majority of the vice-chancellors of public as well as private universities were present. The topic of discussion was the youth’s role in rejecting extremism. It was agreed that student societies must be active in engaging students in a positive way, to avoid radicalisation. The seminar was held while the country was still reeling from the murder of Mashal Khan at Abdul Wali Khan University, in April.

Named after the former President of the Awami National Party (ANP), Abdul Wali Khan University, established in 2009, currently offers courses in 30 academic disciplines. It has eight campuses, four in Mardan and one each in Nowshehra, Buner, Dir, and Chitral districts, where 10,156 students are enrolled, according to the university website. The newly constructed, state-of-the-art Garden Campus is three kilometres from Mardan, and sprawls across 2,000 kanals of land. It has a huge library, and separate dorms for boys and girls, with a total capacity of 1,500 students. Since the murder of Mashal Khan at the garden campus in April, the university has been riddled with controversy owing to appointments made on political grounds and the embezzlement of funds by the administration. It was Mashal’s stance against these acts that led to his gruesome murder, in which members of the student wing of the ANP and the university administration were implicated.

The accusation against Mashal was one of blasphemy but there was no evidence to support it. Mashal’s teacher defined him as a critical thinker. “He was brilliant and inquisitive, always complaining about the political system of the country, but I never heard him say anything controversial with regards to religion,” he told Reuters. The forensic analysis of his mobile phone revealed no blasphemous content.

A Joint Investigation Team concluded that it was a premeditated murder. (See accompanying piece). It alleges that Sabir Mayar, the president of the Pakhtun Students Federation (PSF) Mardan, had planned it along with some university employees. Their motive was Mashal’s critical stance on university affairs.

The student wing of the secular ANP, the PSF was founded in 1968 – a time widely perceived as a golden age for progressive politics in Pakistan. With the vision of non-violence, and under the leadership of Bacha Khan, the ANP has always advocated peaceful politics. To learn that a ranking member of the PSF was conspiring to murder a fellow member was mind-boggling for many.

Mohsin Dawar, Central Chairman of the ANP’s youth wing, the National Youth Organisation (NYO), believes that extremist elements have infiltrated the PSF and NYO. “Many students join these organisations for reasons other than ideological,” he laments. “They might seek membership as a form of identity, or, at times, in an attempt to gain power. These individuals are not inspired by the ideology of the party they are joining.” He holds the state responsible for growing extremism among the younger generations. “Our curriculum is flawed; it encourages extremist ideas and discourages secular thinking,” he says, adding, “ and so, most of the students are heavily influenced by the state’s narrative, reflected in their textbooks, and the media’s relentless campaigning.”

Many share his opinion, linking Mashal Khan’s murder with the abduction of social media activists and bloggers, also accused of blasphemy, earlier this year. Months later, an Islamabad High Court judge threatened to block social media if blasphemous content wasn’t blocked. Following his remarks, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority sent mass text messages to millions of Pakistanis, asking them to report those who share blasphemous content online.

Students at Punjab University launched a pro-tolerance campaign.

Located in the leafy suburbs of Islamabad, Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) is a federal institution, with over 13,000 students enrolled in various departments. Ranked topmost within Pakistan, and consistently ranking among the top 500 higher education institutions, QAU provides a diverse environment, owing to students coming from across the country. Students are offered admissions on seats allocated for all the provinces. Currently, the university has students from all the provinces of Pakistan, who are enrolled after undergoing a competitive admissions process for the allocated seats. They are represented through six student councils: the Punjab Council, Pakhtun Council, Baloch Council, Mehran Council, Seraiki Council and Gilgit-Baltistan Council.

Ilhan Niaz, a Professor of History at QAU, believes that student councils offer refuge to students coming from far-flung areas. “They often suffer homesickness, and are in search of an identity away from their homes, which is exactly what these councils offer,” he says. “The student councils also support their members in various ways and are at the forefront of student agitation against the university administration,” Niaz adds. The students go through a selection process to join the council.All the student councils have their own process; some hold elections, while others decide in a huddle, or through careful selection.

In a student documentary on these councils, the current Chairman of the Pakhtun Council, Mian Abdul Raziq explains that students willing to join the council are interviewed and those genuinely believed to be following the philosophy of Bacha Khan are given membership. The QAU is known for its progressive philosophy. Its student councils are secular in nature and encourage political participation based on the students’ ethnicity, rather than their religion or sect. Yet this final outpost of progressive thought is also struggling with its demons. Tensions between student councils are on the rise, amidst the increasing influence of Islamist groups such as the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT).

A former general secretary of the Pakhtun Council, now serving as a civil services officer in Balochistan, asserts that these councils have through their joint forum, the Quaidian Students Federation, opposed the involvement of political parties and right-wing religious elements in university affairs. They have resisted the IJT’s efforts to increase their footprint, even though some university officials support the IJT due to their own association with the JI. He referred to a recent incident, when the Provost of the QAU was changed after the students protested against his promotion of the IJT on campus.

Niaz, who has been associated with the university since 2001, first as a student and later as a faculty member, believes there is a significant presence of religious groups like the IJT and the Imamia Student Organisation (ISO), but the student councils stand united against the penetration of extremist thought. “Although they are united against the Islamist groups, student councils have many differences amongst themselves, which often escalate into violence,” explains Niaz.

The most recent escalation was witnessed in May, when students from the Mehran and Baloch Councils clashed over the membership of a student, who was ethnically Baloch, but had a Sindh domicile. His attempt to join the Baloch Council resulted in a heated argument, followed by impassioned speeches by the chairmen of the councils. The violent clashes that ensued resulted in 35 students getting injured, hostels being evacuated and the university shutting down for a week. In January 2017, clashes reported to have occurred between the Mehran Council and the Pakhtun Council resulted in injuries to several students. The differences were later settled with the intervention of the QAU administration.

In 2013, the IJT tried to establish its own council on the campus, but the move met with a hostile reaction from the student councils. In the same year, the IJT called a meeting of all the educational institutions of Islamabad, attendance at which was publicly discouraged by the councils.

A report published by The Nation last year lamented the growing penetration of extremist elements in the university. The IJT had begun to brainwash students on campus. “They are taught that the campus environment is un-Islamic and secular. They believe that it has been turned into a whorehouse and a recreational arena for alcohol consumers and drug users,” one of the students told the reporter.

Niaz believes that student councils can turn violent at any time, and must be replaced with a better alternative. As part of a committee in 2012, Niaz forwarded the recommendation to dissolve the student councils and instead form a student government body, represented by all departments and societies. “I believe such an organisation, if given some administrative powers, could engage with the university administration constructively and help resolve the issues faced by students,” explains Niaz.

Qurratulain Zaman was a politically active QAU student in the early 2000s. She believes the student councils, although secular in nature, are very male-dominated. “From my time there, I remember violence erupting as students belonging to different ethnicities fought with one another,” recalls Zaman. “While the possession of guns was considered ‘normal’ in those days, today’s clashes, in contrast, seem nothing like what we witnessed.”

Naureen Leghari

However, despite these issues, QAU continues to represent the less violent and progressive face of student politics in Pakistan, which Ammar Rashid, a political worker of the Awami Worker Party (AWP) – a leftist political party – believes is rooted in its diversity. “Students from smaller provinces bring their relatively progressive and critical political traditions with them. These are organised and reinforced under the university’s ethnic councils, which serve as a bulwark against right-wing radicalisation,” says Rashid. However, he believes that the ‘controlled’ ethnic council model of student politics at QAU has serious limitations. “Other than the fact that the councils still have very little formal power, this model basically limits the students political engagement to one’s immediate ethnic identity, which often pointlessly pits them against each other, as we saw in the recent tussles between Baloch and Sindhi students,” he explains. “Of course students should have the option to organise according to their ethnic identities if they wish to, but that should not be the only option. There needs to be a structure of student politics that has collective bargaining authority and within which students are elected through freely-formed organisations based on ideas and political stances – not just through groups that reduce and confine students to their birth identities,” he adds.

Things are not very different in Punjab University (PU), the oldest educational institute in the province, established in 1882. Dominated by IJT, student politics in PU often take a violent turn. The latest incident occurred in March, when the IJT opposed a cultural event organised by the Students PSF. Asfand Khan, President of the PSF in Punjab University, claims the event was held with the permission of the administration. However, according to Khan, the IJT pressurised members of the PSF to cancel the event. Upon their refusal, an alternative event was organised by the IJT near the department of International Relations.

On March 21, when the event, attended by Punjab Higher Education Minister, Syed Raza Ali Gillani, began, Pashtun students danced to the music as a part of the cultural day celebrations. However, as soon as Gillani left the campus, Khan claims that the IJT attacked their stalls with stones and batons. “They were chanting slogans like Allah-ho-Akbar, as if they were fighting infidels,” recalls Khan. The clash injured at least 10 students.

The Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz’s (PML-N), Rana Sanaullah, later confirmed the PSF’s stance while talking to TV reporters. “The cultural show was being held with the PU administration’s permission, but the IJT had issues with the activity being held, and so they tried to halt the proceedings,” he says. “Sirajul Haq talks about fighting terrorism, the National Action Plan and building a positive narrative, but his own people are involved in creating such disruption.” Following the clash, PU remained closed for several days, and on March 29, the university administration banned the entry of political and religious figures, as well as sloganeering inside the campus.

In 2013, three affiliates of Al-Qaeda were arrested from PU’s hostels, and they were suspected of being protected by IJT members. The IJT, however, continues to deny having any links with them. Its central president, Sohaib-ud-din Kakakhel, labels the allegations and media coverage as propaganda. “We don’t indulge in violence; neither do we believe in forced membership,” he says. Meanwhile, many analysts have been pointing towards the growing radicalisation of students.

Naureen Leghari, a medical student at the Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences (LUMHS), Jamshoro, was arrested in Lahore in April, after her husband was killed in a counterterror operation. She had reportedly visited Syria and gained terror training there. “I was assigned to conduct a suicide-bombing mission on a church during Easter,” she revealed in a recorded statement.

Security analyst Amir Rana noted in a column, “The potential for IS influence to spread, particularly on campuses and among the upper-middle classes, has not been measured yet. The overall socio-religious atmosphere and activities of radical groups on campus are alarming. The problem is not confined to a few universities; this is a story of every campus.” Rashid also believes that all available evidence points towards growing extremism on campus. The fundamental reason, he believes, is the state and the regressive ideologies it has been force-feeding students for decades, particularly since the Zia era. “In our schools and universities,” he notes, “students are taught a version of Islam that glorifies war and conquest, to look suspiciously at anyone who expresses a critical view about the state or the clergy, to think of non-Muslims, including fellow Pakistanis, as scheming enemies, to understand secularism as a sacrilegious and traitorous concept, and to regard any form of progressive thought as deserving of violence.”

Ammar Rashid believes there is a nexus between the state, university administrations and right-wing groups like the IJT (though other party-based student groups are also complicit) who have, for decades – particularly in Punjab – enforced ideological and moral conformity on campuses, often through violent means.

The site of Pashtun Culture Day celebrations, disrupted by IJT.

Zaman feels that the disbandment of student unions by Zia-ul-Haq in 1984 due to their continuous agitation against his dictatorial regime left a void that extremist groups filled. “Student unions are very important because they politicise students, inform them about their rights, and teach them to stand up for their rights,” she asserts. Through student unions, Zaman believes, the energies of young students are channelised, as they engage in constructive, progressive politics. “Without student unions, the university can easily become an authoritarian place, as no one would be present there to challenge controversial decisions,” she adds. “International educational institutions like the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the London School of Economics (LSE) are a hotbed of progressive politics. They comprise the generation that Jeremy Corbyn targeted during his election campaign and through which he managed to upset his rival, Theresa May,” Zaman continues.

Niaz, however, believes that student unions are unnecessarily idealised. “During the time when the student unions were active, we witnessed a surge in violence, as the right-wing student unions would clash with their counterparts on the left, and QAU came to be known as the ‘Quaid-i-Azam Closed University’ because it would be shut down for days,” he says. “I strongly believe having student unions is a bad idea in our social construct,” asserts Niaz.

Rashid thinks it’s absurd that we are still raising this question today. The only other countries, he says, that ban student politics altogether are either dictatorships or monarchies. “Student unions are essential for producing political leadership, of which there is deficit in this country. They are critical for making the most educated segments of the country engage with important issues pertaining to the economy, society, culture and public policy, rather than the abject apathy, ignorance and disengagement that is the norm among students today. Student unions are necessary for students to learn the value of reasoned ideological debate rather than just resorting to violence at the slightest hint of difference,” Rashid says. “They’re important so that students learn how to form cooperative alliances and bonds that go beyond their immediate ethnic, religious or sectarian identity.”

Rashid, who himself has been actively involved in student politics and belongs to the AWP, rejects the notion that extremist or ethnic violence on campuses is caused by student unions. “Such violence has continued in the 33 years since the ban – it is because of the state and mainstream parties flooding campuses with weapons since the Afghan war. Students who use weapons need to be expelled, blacklisted and prosecuted,” he says. He adds that this has to be accompanied by actually giving them democratic alternatives to violence through spaces where they can freely debate and express their opinions.

In neighbouring India, student unions have been actively participating in student politics and have become a bulwark against right-wing Hindutva politics. The leftist movement at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has gained significant influence in recent months. The Left-Unity alliance won the JNU Student Union elections against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) -supported Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

Mohit Pandey, the current President of JNU’s student union, says they run campaigns around incidents where Hindutva groups like ABVP are involved. “We run campaigns against the policies of the Indian government and, nowadays, countering ABVP means countering the whole machinery of the government,” he explains. Pandey has realised that the fight is an ideological one, and one that will determine the future of Hindutva extremists. “They have gained support on many campuses due to their presence in the government, and due to a weakened left and social justice movement.”

India’s fight against extremist organisations provides a good example for Pakistani progressive movements to follow, in order to counter the significant influence of right-wing extremists.