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Violence in universities

Before another Mashal Khan is lynched on campus

Violence in universities

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the character of Mitya states that he does not require billions, but answers to his questions. To that, allow me to add John Ruskin’s observation that “to be able to ask a question clearly is two-thirds of the way to getting it answered”. Finally, I have to refer to E. M. Forster who understood the subcontinent so well as to write A Passage to India, and who noted that “nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear and merge into something else”.

Thus asking pertinent questions is vital, and how to stem violence on campuses is the most vital of all questions posed to us. The issue is profoundly pertinent given the recent on-campus violence at universities in the Punjab and KPK.

The core principle on which any education policy is predicated is academic vision. As members of the academia, it is our individual vision for our various parent institutions which collectively translates into a more widespread vision for higher education in Pakistan. Every university professor and administrator must ask himself the essential question: what are we contributing to the progress of higher education in Pakistan?

This question in turn depends on the answer to the question: what is our vision?

There are three problems that need to be addressed in the formulation of a vision for higher education in Pakistan. Thus, our strategy for countering on-campus violence must be three-pronged.

To begin with, at the core of our social problems lies the ideological exclusion of large sections of society. This tendency to segregate — reflected on our campuses in the gender-based seating arrangements in classrooms and even in faculty lounges — has led to violent thought patterns of religious, ethnic, linguistic and sectarian nature. Are we then surprised that this mental-epistemic violence translates into actual physical violence?

This exclusionary attitude has its roots in the colonial legacy of the subcontinent. The Muslim discourse in the subcontinent was, from its initial stages, based on separatism — from the “unholy” infidels, Hindus, Christians, and other minor religions. While this is in itself problematic, the problem was compounded in the post-partition Pakistan, where this separatism could not find its natural targets. Resultantly, separatism turned into exclusionism for co-religionists, and in 1979, this was finally stamped through the Zia-ul-Haq regime’s single-minded bulldozing of ideas of inclusive nation-building.

Plurality, expressed in providing equal space for all the myriad cultures of Pakistan, is the only available course. However, one has to admit that this solution will not be convenient to implement at all.

During this period, a rigid, exclusionary, and myopic definition of Pakistani nationalism was constructed, and reinforced through coercive and violent state policies. Once and for all, hatred and violence coupled with a fear of expressing one’s opinion were embedded into the academic culture of the country.

It was from 1979 onwards that the national narrative was solely appropriated by the religious clergy who gave it an exclusionary and regressive twist. That shift in the representation of Pakistan was extremely crucial. The academic milieu became its principal victim and obviously it was manifested most visibly on university campuses.

The obvious answer to this bane of our society is — and this might sound clichéd — inclusion. Plurality, expressed in providing equal space for all the myriad cultures of Pakistan, is the only available course. However, one has to admit that this solution will not be convenient to implement at all.

Historically, the formation of national identity in Pakistan has involved not just denial of cultural multiplicity but an active stamping out of all peripheral presences. It will be immeasurably difficult to overcome these historical currents. But if we encourage pluralism, cultural diversity and inclusion of marginalised communities on our campuses, I am sure we would be making an invaluable contribution to the eventual goal: a tolerant society.

The second problem is an active antipathy towards criticism. I do not need to remind my learned peers and seniors that criticism is the essential pre-requisite for a healthy society. If a society has to prosper, it must allow divergence of opinion. The exclusionism discussed in the previous point has naturally led to a clamping down on independent expression of opinion.

Academic administrators must allow such criticism, within reasonable limits, to foment a more academic atmosphere, where students and faculty members are nor perennially afraid of draconian laws and policies. Universities are, first and foremost, spaces for free exchange of ideas. To counter the violent forces of our ideological precedents, allowing criticism on campuses is the only way forward.

Finally, there is an epistemic divide between scientific theory and practical aspects of technology. While technological mastery is the mainstay of a modern, globalised existence, unfortunately it seems to me that the Pakistani academia has unilaterally adapted to technology at the unforgivable cost of almost completely ignoring the theoretical side of science. This ahistorical attitude to science and technology is responsible for the skewed educational vision reflected in the policies of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, which are tilted in favour of the Sciences, reflected in the predominance of vice chancellors from the Sciences.

The apathy exhibited towards the Social Sciences and Humanities is one of the major causes of the violence that we have recently seen on our campuses. The teaching of social sciences and literature and other humanities subjects does indeed affect the very composition of humans.

I have attempted in this column to underscore and theorise the problems faced on our campuses today. Violence is a reality that we have for long tried to shove under the carpet. Now let us revert to Ruskin, and frame two questions in the spirit of finding an answer.

Do we really need to allow another Mashal Khan, a son, a friend, a brother, to be publicly lynched on a campus for us to wake up to the reality of a society that is mercilessly exclusionary, unwelcoming of criticism, and devoid of theoretical understanding of historical trends?

More importantly, can we allow our universities to become campuses where fear is permanent, and where students and faculty only limit themselves to hackneyed discussions divorced from exchange of ideas?

My answer is a definite, block-lettered NO.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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