As human beings with varying idiosyncrasies, we are bound to come into conflict with other humans with ideals other than ours. But while beasts would prefer to settle scores with might, we, the Homo sapiens, can reasonably be expected to act in a much civil manner.
However, acts of violence by some of the country’s most educated individuals often reminds one that civility might be a dying trait, at least in Pakistan. Only a handful of Pakistanis have access to higher education in the country and university students generally fall in the category of the ‘educated lot’. But education does not necessarily make you civil, as witnessed in acts during last month’s bloody clash in the country’s oldest university.
Activities in Punjab University Lahore came to a violent halt on January 22 after rival groups of students clashed on varsity premises, leaving more than a dozen injured, several vehicles damaged and a chemistry lab burnt down to the ground. Arrests followed; with over 190 students put behind bars and booked under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). The terrorism charges were later dropped, but disciplinary action has been promised and hearings of the varsity disciplinary committee are underway to award punishments to culprits. Which begs the question: who is the culprit?
The rival groups, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) and Pakhtun Education Development Movement (PEDM), naturally put the blame on each other. Fairly expected in case of a conflict. But it is the PU administration’s role that raises serious concerns. The PU has a current student population of close to 40,000. That translates to 40,000 differing views and disputes are a reality. But what isn’t expected is the apparent lack of a dispute-resolution mechanism or body in PU to settle differences among student groups amicably, before they turn into full scale violent brawls. Ask any PU student and he or she will tell you certain student bodies do not see eye to eye. So why isn’t the administration proactive? Why can it not see a storm brewing and why can’t it promote amity between rival groups?
PU Registrar Dr Muhammad Khalid Khan claims the administration is always on the lookout and has adequate checks and balances to counter conflicts among students. “Punjab University has a complete system. There is a disciplinary committee that looks into cases of clashes among students. All department heads play a proactive role in resolving student conflicts. If they see any such conflict, the whole administration is involved in resolving it.”
“We try all means to resolve a conflict. First, we bring them (conflict parties) to the negotiation table. We ask them each and everything and look at what needs to be resolved. What is it that students feel is missing from the classroom and the university in general. In every part of the university, there is a system in place and a head at the helm. Sometimes, students try to bypass it, otherwise, there is no such problem,” he adds.
Without naming “some elements” that create problems, Khan says there are some miscreants who simply do not heed to administration’s advice and keep pushing their agenda.
If Khan’s word is to be believed, his claim that miscreants do not heed seem to authenticate IJT and PEDM’s stance that the real reason for such violent acts is administrative weakness. Though both groups deem the PU administration weak for different reasons, they nonetheless hold it responsible.
PEDM spokesman Maqbool Jaffar claims the PU administration is much under influence of IJT to act against its antics. “There are people in the administration that are theirs (IJT’s),” says Jaffar. “Even some departmental deans are associated with IJT. What can we expect from them? They look for reasons to put us down when we go to them with our problems,” he laments.
Jaffar adds that it appears that the administration belongs to IJT. “Teachers who do not associate with Jamiat are threatened. We can’t conduct any activity in the university, while the IJT does as it pleases. The administration always tells us to compromise. It’s disappointing.”
On the other hand, IJT’s Taimoor Khan says his group has no biases, as it is as represented by people from all ethnicities, including Baloch and Pashtun students. The IJT spokesperson believes some groups in the varsity have political ambitions. “These groups thrive upon the backing of political organisations, who use them for their own politics. Such incidents are staged as bargaining chips to gain political mileage.”
Echoing the “weak administration” mantra, but for his own reasons, Taimoor says the PU administration has been rendered weak by internal politics. “The administration is weak because the vice chancellor is not permanent. He is unable to take an initiative because of being appointed temporarily without full powers. The administration tells us that they will manage things every time,” but nothing concrete happens.
The PU administration is adamant that it does all that can be done to deflate tense situations. Khan says the varsity is “doing its job and takes action against whoever is found involved in violence”. However, recent events provide evidence that the efforts are simply not enough.
IJT says the panacea for violence on campus is the revival of student unions and elections to elect student representatives. As for the role of the varsity administration, Taimoor says a permanent head with discretionary powers and authority can turn things towards the better. PEDM’s Jaffar also sees a solution in an administrative overhaul. “The solution for us is that the administration is made powerful enough that it is able to make its own decision without any pressure”.
When and how that happens is anybody’s guess.