London is a wonderful place for events and seminars organised by academic departments in universities as well as student societies. One gets the opportunity to hear and meet all kinds of interesting personalities; somehow the academic environment encourages one to listen to and consider opposing points of view more readily than one might otherwise.
But recent events illustrate how this situation is changing and, at least for South Asian politics, how great are the pressures on — or biases of — groups at the universities.
One specific event was a talk by Pakistan’s elected member of parliament Mohsin Dawar in London. Dawar is from the tribal areas (North Waziristan) and is associated with the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). Although launched just a little over a year ago, it has coalesced into a broad-based social movement demanding civic rights and challenging the state and social attitudes towards Pashtuns that have been a result of the anti-terror operations of recent decades. Leaders of the movement have always stressed that this is a peaceful movement, and reiterated this is not a separatist movement but a citizens’ rights movement, operating within the framework of the constitution. This is why two of its members stood for election and are now in the National Assembly.
Despite this, PTM is regarded with extreme suspicion by the security establishment and the crackdown on its members and activists has been harsh: young professionals have been charged and detained, denied bail, leaders have been barred from travelling abroad by being placed again and again on the exit control list (ECL), some have been briefly ‘disappeared’ and one activist Arman Loni, a young poet and professor, was killed at a rally in Balochistan earlier this year.
The movement itself is an interesting phenomenon because it has found a following in many young people who have grown up in the shadow of ‘the war on terror’ in Pashtun areas, whose lives have been marked by militant violence, disappearances, displacement, occupation and a general demonisation of their ethnic group. Therefore the opportunity to hear more about the movement and to ask questions about its aims and strategy would seem to be timely. However, most of the student groups approached about this at London’s leading universities declined as the ‘anti-state’ label seemed to have stuck to PTM. The main reason seems to be not just the fact that they have criticised the army’s behaviour in the tribal areas but also because Afghan leaders (such as President Ashraf Ghani) have expressed support for them.
Surprisingly, even groups at the ‘bolder’, more third world oriented universities declined to host this talk, but eventually the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy hosted the talk and Professor Dibyesh Anand in his introduction to the event (‘Mohsin Dawar on a Rights Based Struggle in Pakistan’) clarified that the Centre was “unapologetic about hosting events that talk about rights”, and examine the “strong disconnect between the people and the state” (whether Kashmir, Palestine or anywhere else). He also mentioned how Palestine events usually have to face disruption and the mysterious triggering of firing alarms (so the premises have to be vacated). And lo and behold the same thing happened at this event.
The ‘restless elements’ in the audience were apparent early on, as they kept trying to interrupt proceedings to ‘make a point’, but one, a burly bespectacled and bearded guy finally became uncontrollable and made a bit of a scene. He managed to provoke the crowd who began to get angry with him, but as he refused to quiet down, he had to be removed by security. After creating more of a scene outside the auditorium along with a like-minded female attendee, he went to the toilets and … set off the fire alarm!
The disrupter later admitted to somebody (who he ran into at the tube station) that he had indeed set off the fire alarm and that his intention was always to disrupt the talk.
A pity really because this was a good opportunity to hear from somebody who had opted to join mainstream politics to fight for the rights of a people so adversely affect by the war on terror. Dawar was clear and unruffled throughout the questioning. Before he spoke, Ayesha Ijaz Khan gave a very good overview of the movement, in particular the involvement of women in it. But the controversy was perhaps needless and displayed a certain security establishment paranoia.
But this does give an idea of how controlled the narrative in student circles is beginning to be. Universities are places where you should debate and question, discuss and dispute rather than disrupt or boycott. Alas, this is just another illustration how people have forgotten to discuss anything in a rational manner, and how vested interests control what narratives are discussed.