As just as the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) greenlighted the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) project, in December last, the government of Punjab sprang into action. Construction work resumed immediately at locations where it had halted for a good seven months.
Earlier, the Lahore High Court (LHC) had granted stay in this regard, prohibiting the construction of the OLMT track near the 11 heritage and protected sites. The Punjab government went into appeal against the order in the SCP and succeeded in getting a decision in its favour. The historic Chauburji Chowk is one such site where the OLMT passes at a precariously small distance, and where the construction work was stopped in compliance with the LHC order.
Apparently, things had settled down for the provincial government following the apex court’s verdict, but still there were a few hurdles to overcome. The (now former) Punjab University (PU) Vice Chancellor Dr Zafar Mueen, the academic staff as well as the students of the varsity provided stiff resistance when the government demanded that two kanals of its property be handed over to Madrassa Muhammadia, a religious seminary located close to Chauburji. The madrassa would have to part with its mosque that the government wanted to demolish in order to occupy the land. The madrassa was going to be duly compensated. But the next we knew, the VC had resigned as a protest against the government’s intended ‘encroachment’ on the university lands.
This prompted the government functionaries to come out and level charges of corruption and misuse of authority against the former VC. It was said that the latter had quit in order to save his face.
The larger debate here is whether the government should be allowed to acquire lands of academic institutions at its will. President, Punjab University Academic Staff Association (PUASA) Javed Sami says there is hardly any disagreement among the university staff on the issue, “We shall go to any extent to defeat such attempts at grabbing university lands.”
Speaking exclusively to TNS, Sami says he has no problem with the government compensating the seminary for the loss of its land but what perturbs him the most is why should the PU have to pay the price: “We have identified a land owned by the government right next to the planetarium, which can be granted to the seminary. But God knows why it [the government] is stuck on our land.”
Sami adds that even though the VC has a central role, it is the PU syndicate that is supposed to address such matters in its meetings.
In the midst of this controversy, there are reports circulating in the media that the said seminary belongs to the Jamiat Ulema e Islam–Fazal (JUI-F) which enjoys strong ties with the PML-N-led government. It is also alleged that the government has tried arm tactics to get this ‘favour’ for its powerful political ally.
Administrator, Madrassa Muhammadia, Qazi Muhammad Awais Alvi dispels the notion and says that the institute has no political affiliation: “We function under the Wafaq-ul Madaris, which has representation of thousands of seminaries belonging to different schools of thought, and we enjoy the support of religious leaders including those of the JUI-F.”
According to Alvi, the mosque has existed at the place since 1927, while the seminary was registered in 1968. “All we need is land in compensation from the government, and nothing else.
“We’ve no idea why it should become such a big issue,” he insists. “Our agreement is about an alternative piece of land, and we are not insisting on the one that has become part of the controversy.”
When contacted, the PU Spokesman Khurram Shahzad explains that the issue will be discussed only after the elections on the four vacant seats of the university syndicate are held this month. “For the time being, they [elections] have been shelved. There have been instances in the past where the PU lands were acquired for different purposes — a few examples include Jinnah Hospital, Sheikh Zayed Hospital, Bhakhewal Mor, Baba Ground, the roads connecting Karim Block to Shaukat Ali Road etc. But just like in the past the decision of the syndicate shall prevail.”
Khawaja Ahmed Hassaan, Advisor to the CM Punjab, rejects the perception that the government forced the PU VC and others to surrender before their demand. Instead, he says, “we requested them to earmark a space for the mosque in their premises and keep it under their own administrative control.”
Hassaan says the government has recently had discussions with the madrassa administration in which a proposal to give them privately owned land after acquisition also came up. “Believe me, there will be no friction on this, and everything can be settled amicably,” he declares.
The former VC of PU Dr Zafar Mueen who resigned in protest, rubbishes the allegations of corruption and misuse of authority against him, saying that all this was done to mount pressure on him. “Or, why did these stories emerge only after the SCP verdict on OLMT when the Punjab government had restarted work at the site?” he asks.
“Surprisingly, they are making up corruption cases where no payments are involved. How could I have gone against the will of the teachers and students on the issue, especially when I was fully convinced that not an inch of the PU land should be given over?”
Mueen says that rather than going for a confrontation and pitching students and teachers against the government he preferred to resign: “I hope that our sacrifices do not go to waste.”
When reminded about the PU spokesman’s statement about the past land acquisitions, Mueen says “some of these were facilitated by a desperate VC dying to get a third tenure in return.”
He reveals that the promised payments have not been made. Besides, the agreement on the construction of two underpasses at the newly built road (Karim Block to Shaukat Ali Rd) has not been honoured. “Because I didn’t bow to the pressure from the Punjab minister for higher education, he held it against me. What followed next is for everyone to see!”