Although Pakistan has a rich history of student politics, politically conscious students are no longer welcome in any public space. The legacy associated with many rebellious student leaders like Rashid Ahmed Khan and Nazeer Abbasi are often told to ‘focus on getting degrees’ otherwise they are labelled as ‘anti-nationals’ or ‘liberals.’ This saddening statement is not based on some fiction – it comes from my experience.
Recently, a video from Punjab University surfaced on the internet where a student associated with Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) beat another student with a wooden stick while the security guards failed to protect the unarmed student despite their efforts.
Ironically, the conflict took place because another student group (Progressive Students Collective) held a study circle on the developments unfolding in Afghanistan. For many people, it was just a video from an incident but this video played a whole reel of many incidents in my mind where the university I studied at for four years, constantly failed to protect students from the violence of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba.
Our political order is in a state of paralysis but some truths must be told. The Punjab University has a history of silencing students who wish to talk about issues connected to their academic and political rights. This incident took me back to 2017, when a senior student gathered some students (including me) to have some collective discussions about art, literature and history as our curriculums were boring and lacked contemporary debates as well. So, we formed a group named, Tashkeel-e-Fikr-e-Nau (Constructing New Thought).
This group moved a lot of students towards reading and sharing their thoughts in those study circles. As the number of students were rising, some teachers also joined us and gave us support. From Dr Imran Munir who taught us contemporary debates and literature to Dr Ammar Jan who made us explore sociological theories – we all were inspired to read, write and work more for our department and students. This encouraged more students to join our circles. In the course of some months, a large number of students were studying, sharing thoughts and holding big events in the form of a collective which happened after a very long time in Punjab University (as we always heard).
Students from diverse cultural backgrounds and beliefs gave us the strength and a sense of association (a union) we never felt before but then the study circles (which was a reader’s club afterwards) began to get disrupted by Islami-Jamiat-e-Talaba. They also started participating in the weekly study groups and as we never excluded anyone, we always welcomed IJT people as students. The study circles had a culture of healthy debates but IJT’s presence disturbed everyone.
I remember once we were discussing the caste system and a participant was discussing the history of casteism – suddenly an IJT student cut him off and presented a hadith and said that we discuss non-issues, problematic and un-Islamic things. Thankfully, everyone countered with their arguments and the IJT students left without answering anyone. This was an indication for me and my friends that something bad can happen now because Jamiat never lets any other student group grow and gather people. This is the reason behind major conflicts between IJT and Pashtun/Baloch student groups.
After that incident, the administration used to keep a check on us and then, out of nowhere one day we were told that we were not allowed to hold study circles in any classroom. Even this could not deter us and we moved into the grounds to hold weekly reading groups. We never lost our strength by any disruption but when Dr. Ammar Jan was terminated and “study circles” were misrepresented by both Jamiat and the administration of Punjab University; we were extremely demoralized. We protested against the decision but we were silenced badly. Some called us “anti-national” and some were strictly “informed” that our degrees can get cancelled if we protest more. Afterwards, the administration issued a notification stating that students cannot sit in the student grounds or sit together in groups inside the department and this shattered us all.
We had to put a halt on the study circles but fortunately, our group of almost 15-20 students stuck together and we held some really strong campaigns and events involving seminars, theatres and poster campaigns. In this period of time, we never got much support from the administration and there was constant bullying we faced by the IJT and we witnessed all the violence they always erupted. The biggest reason for violent incidents in Punjab University is that the administration never sanctions IJT with its constant violence (IJT holds massive events and they get permits as well) but they barricade ways of every other student group which tries to emerge a new thought and questions the system.
There is a huge gap between the students and the administration and that is why the policies they come up with never align with the needs of the students. For example, the lower quota for the students of other provinces, fee hikes and the ban PU administration imposed on auto rickshaws inside the campus. When students raise questions around the policies, they make them go through a lot of moral policing and think that there is some sort of rebellion erupting in the university and student voices go unheard
The biggest reason for violent incidents in Punjab University is that the administration never sanctions IJT with its constant violence (IJT holds massive events and they get permits as well) but they barricade ways of every other student group which tries to emerge a new thought and questions the system
This creates a “hollow space” for both students and faculty where they are constantly surveilled and divided rather than becoming a space which gives life to their mind and enhances their intellectual capability to think beyond themselves and formulate solutions for the socio-political crises at hand.
Stating this makes me remember the time when our team performed a theatre about our education system. There’s a dialogue in a scene where all the frustrated students say to each other in the tone of a zombie, “University is the basic unit of market” – the scene still resides in me as it came out from our hearts.
In my opinion, this sums up what the students want to communicate with the administration. The university administration needs to rethink the idea of a university – whether it is a place to produce thinkers and inventors or it’s just a space producing labours for the market. If our country really wants to grow, giving students some space and autonomy in the decision-making processes is one of the most important elements so that students nurture their aptitudes and enquire about our rotten mechanisms.
Whereas it is evident that the administration wants to turn a university into a “private and elite school for adults” where innovation is refrained but hate is dominant. However, students will keep fighting to reclaim their spaces whether students are labelled as “communist”, “liberals” or “anti-national agents.” Political dissent will always be keeping its place and form a greater political narrative in the times of crisis. The universities must be kept as the space of dissent where people gather to “think” not “hate.” This is what makes students stronger before the powers; we have got our pens and our thoughts, we don’t hate but we think and we will keep making universities a critical outlet of resistance against violence no matter what.
As Bismil Azimabadi has left us with his words and we still hold the narrative strong so this must conclude with his famous poem’s couplet:
Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai
Dekhna hai zorr kitna baazu-e-qaatil mein hai
(The desire for revolution lies in our hearts
Let us see how much strength the enemy has)