This week Punjab University hosted a talk on Bhagat Singh, the socialist revolutionary who India and Pakistan adopt and abandon as occasion demands. Virender Kalra, a sociology professor associated with Warwick University, delivered the talk and over 60 students attended.
Kalra, not a big fan of towering over young minds invited the male and female students to sit on the floor of the auditorium and he sat close to them as he walked them through the history of Punjab’s socialist movements. A dedicated female photographer darted around the room, stepping on and around the students, capturing the event. From this angle, Punjab University appeared a bastion of progressive education.
But directly outside the Sociology Department, where the talk was held, a police mobile unit stood surrounded by over two dozen policemen, their guns casually hanging behind them. It has been reported the campus hosts over 200 policemen on a daily basis. Things appear further askew when you attempt to ask students and administration members what transpired on campus on March 21 when Pashtuns were celebrating their cultural day, and they are wary to answer.
Those who do divulge the tale of recent violence on campus fail to match their stories. One member of the Baloch Students Council says that while the Pashtuns were enjoying the beat of the dhol, members of Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT), the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, brought their own speakers to the venue and blared their tanzeemi taraanas so loud that the dhol was drowned out.
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The first popular claim is that this spurred the clash. Members of Islami Jamiat Talaba, the female wing of IJT, claim that the clash erupted when Pashtuns arrived with hockey sticks at their all-female event celebrating Pakistan Day. “They were dressed in Pashtun clothes, broke our stage, hit many of the young female students with hockey sticks and abused everyone in Pashto,” says Faiqa Salman, one of the guests at the function. The second claim is that this attack spurred the clashes.
Qaiser Shareef, a former Nazim of the student organisation, says that IJT displayed this decency despite having expressed to the administration that there is no need for a Pashtun cultural day, was this a day that was celebrated in any other university, he asks?
But does it really matter which group had the loudest music, or who threw the first punch? Sifting through the last few years of Lahore city pages shows that clashes in the university, followed by suspensions, arrests, and protests, are common. Violence in Punjab University, as anywhere else, is a sign of a changing political structure.
From the 1980s onwards, the IJT has enjoyed almost 25 years of dominance on campus, since they faced no competition. The first major change came under the vice chancellorship (VC) of Lt. Gen Arshad Mehmood who remained VC till 2007.
“Under General Arshad in 2001 the university began admitting students on open merit, this resulted in skewing the gender make-up of the university,” says Abir Naqvi, a professor in the International Relations department who has been teaching at the university for 18 years. “One of the ways the Jamiat retained their power was by suppressing female students, by imposing their rules and regulations on them,” he says. But today, when the university comprises 52 per cent females, this is no longer as easily doable.
After General Arshad served his second term, Mujahid Kamran, was appointed as VC.
It is said that Kamran adopted a much harder line against the IJT than General Arshad. To cite one example, Shabbir Sarwar, a professor in the Mass Communication Department who received his undergraduate, Masters, and M Phil degrees from the university reminisces that for the 2001 annual university book fair, Gen. Arshad was invited to inaugurate the fair by cutting the ribbon. But before the VC could arrive at the venue, Jamiat workers cut the ribbon and began the fair. In contrast, during Kamran’s era when the Jamiat declared that they would set up the majority of stalls at the book fair, the VC cancelled the fair, and shut down the university for three days.
The other element of political change attributed to Kamran was the university’s scholarship programme for students from Balochistan (a large part of whom are Pashtun Baloch). Starting in 2012, the university granted 97 Baloch students scholarships, and since then almost a 100 Baloch, or Pashtun Baloch, join the university every year — they don’t have to pay tuition fee, have free room and board and are awarded a stipend. These students have formed their own council, in the same fashion as the Seraiki and Sindhi Students Council were formed, and they don’t feel that they are answerable to the Jamiat.
On the one hand, these scholarships seemingly offered to win Baloch hearts and minds are a warm gesture. IJT’s Shareef agrees that “at the start we thought this was a step in the positive direction, the IJT also has many Baloch and Pashtuns.” But on the other hand, some complain the VC Kamran introduced the scholarship programme only to challenge the Jamiat’s hold.
Professor Naqvi says that the Baloch students were brought in to fight the IJT. “What the VC didn’t realise was that you can’t use force to crush force. If you do, no matter which force wins, it’s the university that will be haunted, the way it is right now,” he says.
Apart from this, Mujahid Kamran also employed various methods to crush the Jamiat’s means of earning: control over book fairs, university shops and agricultural lands was snatched from the student political wing and distributed amongst other students. It is said that by 2015 the once all-powerful organisation had been weakened and pushed into the background.
The dynamics of the university have also changed over time because of the Jamiat’s aggressive techniques. A female student, Faiqa Anwer, says “When a group is breaking down a head of department’s office doors, physically harassing and torturing students and threatening students, what is there to like about them? How will they recruit more people?”
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Another student says there was once a time when you needed the Jamiat to get certain courses, signatures, and permissions. It is rumoured that at one time they even gave excellent after class tuitions. But now they are hardly the only ones in power. “There are other groups and organisations that can get this work done for you now,” says the Mass Communications student.
But given that the IJT was in power for more than two decades, and that they formed ties and links with faculty and administration, it is unlikely that their political hold can be overturned in so short a time. They are still the only organisation on campus that chants populist anti-US slogans, and as Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst, explains, “Punjab University’s political landscape does not follow a linear progression”. Right now, students on campus say that Jamiat workers and students are nowhere to be seen since the March 21 incident, but given their historical and political hold on campus they can reassert themselves at any time.
The current Vice Chancellor, Dr Zafar Mueen Nasar, has only held power for a few months and is yet to display his policies. “Since many of the student organisations have links and ties with political parties, a VC is only as strong as the support he receives from the Punjab government,” says Dr Rizvi.