Noreen Laghari, a second-year student of the Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences (LUMHS), Jamshoro disappeared in February 2017 and later surfaced as a terrorist-suspect when law enforcement agencies nabbed her after an encounter with a terrorist gang in Lahore. The incident generated a tremor across Sindh, which has hitherto remained insulated from perilous extremism. Although some heinous acts of terrorism occurred in Sindh during recent years, the perpetrators were not locals.
Jamshoro, a small town near Hyderabad on the flank of the Indus Highway, is home to three prominent universities of Sindh. The town has remained a centre of progressive political and cultural movements for decades. Thousands of students from all parts of the province, mostly coming from humble rural backgrounds, study in these universities. The Sindh University is the mother institute that nurtured two colleges namely Mehran Engineering College and Liaquat Medical College for several years before they were upgraded to the status of full-fledged universities.
LUMHS was originally established as a medical school in 1881. It was upgraded as a medical college and affiliated with the University of Sindh in 1942. It became a full-fledged university LUMHS in 2001. The youngest of the three institutes is Mehran University of Engineering and Technology, which was established as a campus of the University of Sindh in 1976 and now known as a premier engineering university of Pakistan.
The Sindh University had been at the forefront of the nationalist movement since the 1950s. Founded in 1947, the university was initially situated in Karachi. It was subsequently relocated to Hyderabad in 1951 after Karachi was detached from Sindh against the will of masses and the provincial government.
The partition of subcontinent brought an upheaval for the Sindhi society as its middle class was completely wiped out due to the migration of Hindus. Sindhi Muslims were scantly educated and therefore did not form a vibrant middle class to lead any political movements at that time.
Forced separation of Karachi from Sindh, expulsion of Sindhi language from official corridors, plunder of barrage lands and imposition of the One Unit jarred Sindhi society. Eruption of a mass movement was a natural reaction to such unjust policies of the establishment. In the absence of a dynamic middle class, students became the torchbearers of the movement for political, cultural and economic rights of Sindhis and the cluster of the three institutes emerged as an epicentre of the nationalist movement in Sindh.
All leading political parties formed their students’ fronts in these universities. Cultural and nationalist movements dominated the political landscape of these institutes in the following years. Political leaders, writers and poets would frequent universities to deliver lectures and students’ organisation would arrange rallies, observe memorial days, book fares, study circles and cultural events round the year.
The universities remained abuzz with cultural bustle, keeping students wired with political and cultural activism. Anti-One Unit movement became a rallying point for different student groups. This was the era of the zenith of a progressive Sindhi nationalist movement when stalwarts like G.M Syed, Rasool Bakhsh Palijo, Hyder Bakhsh Jatoi and Kazi Faiz Mohammad were leading the political movement. Sindhi writers and poets like Shaikh Ayaz, Rasheed Bhatti, Jamal Abro, Hameed Sindhi, Ali Baba, Siraj Memon, Ustad Bukhari, Rashid Morai, Tajal Bewas, Agha Saleem and countless others were streaming heart-warming literature.
Student organisations were the lynchpin of the movements for printing voter lists in Sindhi language, stopping allotment of lands to non-locals, stopping settlement of aliens in Sindh and abolishing the One Unit. All this activism had a strong secular and progressive orientation and faith was never a divisive element. This movement brought fruition and One-Unit was ultimately abolished in 1970 and the identity of Sindh was restored after being held in abeyance for more than a decade and a half.
The post One-Unit years witnessed a massive degeneration in the character of student politics in Jamshoro. Although rival political groups remained engaged in slugfests and skirmishes during Bhutto’s era as well, hostels were not replete with automatic weapons and campuses were not smeared with blood in Jamshoro. The Zia era set the rot in motion and students’ unions were trammelled and criminal elements were inducted in the students groups. Lethal weapons were allowed to proliferate in hostels.
Once known as bedrock of resistance movement, the students’ politics was demonised as a shelter for criminals. Law enforcement apparatus unleashed all its might targeting student activists. The Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) was pulverised with an atrocious use of force. Amid this chaos, universities would remain closed for several months. Academic standards nosedived and a rapid decay gripped these institutes.
In their heydays, these institutes not only churned out cadres of human resource in a range of professional fields but also an inspiring array of political leaders, writers, journalists and intellectuals.
Thanks to these institutes, Sindh that once faced a dearth witnessed a sharp rise of middle class during the last two-three decades. Jamshoro has remained a powerhouse of the Sindhi middle class by producing a profusion of professionals over the years. No matter how vilified, these institutes produced a large number of professionals to shore up a derelict rural society that eventually reshaped Sindhi society.
Although student politics had its own pitfalls, it acted as a bulwark against any invasion of faith-propelled extremism. Sindhi nationalist movement inspired by progressive literature and led by secular political leaders was deeply entrenched in the peaceful and tolerant culture of Sindh.
The scenario has gone through a drastic alteration in recent years. Student politics has been systematically expelled from universities, cultural days are no more celebrated with the same fanfare and political leaders do not frequent these institutes. Nationalist leaders desist from interacting with young students and Sindhi literature is no more laced with the idioms of resistance. University campuses are manned by security forces asserting to provide a peaceful environment to the students and faculty.
While law and order environment has considerably improved, student politics has not been replaced with any constructive engagement of youth through extra-curricular initiatives such as debating societies, conferences, exchange visits, sports competitions, art festivals, scientific societies, readers clubs, quality research, career counseling and innovative experimentation. Young minds need opportunities to unleash their creative energies in addition to the routine of classrooms and laboratories. Denial of such avenues results in frustration and dejection among youth.
The prevalent stagnancy in the universities has created a vacuum that is now being filled by obscurantist elements. Clandestine networks of such elements easily sneak into young cadres, who become easy prey to their emotive traps.
Network of seminaries has sprawled in the rural areas of Sindh during recent years. Extremist groups have been spreading their tentacles through multiple interventions in the province.
A massive displacement and deprivation caused by a series of flood disasters in 2010 and the following years provided easy access to religious charities in the remote areas of Sindh. The government’s inability to extend relief and rehabilitation services to a humongous number of the flood affectees provided new opportunities to such groups to ingratiate the dejected communities.
Another corridor is north Sindh districts bordering with Balochistan and South Punjab. These districts are tribal fiefdoms ruled by tribal chiefs. The area has remained hotbed of lawlessness, poverty, violence against women and gruesome tribal feuds for several years. Religious groups have also remained active in these areas. A new chain of seminaries grew in these areas. Jacobabad and Shikarpur districts witnessed some of the gory incidents of terrorism in the recent years. Incidents of abduction and forced conversions of the Hindu girls had been pervasive in the north Sindh districts.
Another major corridor of seminaries is southern districts of Sindh, mainly in Tharparkar, the area having a sizeable population of the Hindu community. Religious groups have been actively working and establishing seminaries even in the remote and inaccessible areas under high surveillance with restricted movement.
Karachi is yet another pocket of extremist elements in Sindh. Military operations in Swat and Wazirstan forced militants to flee and find new safe havens. Densely populated parcels of Karachi offered congenial shelter to such groups.
With extremism in Sindh attaining monstrous proportions, Sindh’s complexion of a progressive polity has been obliterated in an organised manner. Nonetheless Sindh’s deep rooted progressive political consciousness and the traditions of plurality and inclusiveness are offering stiff resistance to this unprecedented spike in extremism. However, the days of complacency are over. After years of battle for political rights, Sindh is now confronting a new challenge of spiralling extremism.