The three-week-long tensions between students and administration of Pakistan’s top ranked seat of higher learning, Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU), came to a rather sad end on Monday with a massive – and violent – crackdown on protesters by law enforcement agencies. Dozens of students were arrested and stuffed into police vans to make way for resumption of classes at the university, which did resume in a sombre environment on Tuesday.
The university had remained closed since October 4 following strikes, protests and boycott of classes by a group of Baloch and Sindhi students demanding cancellation of a rustication and expulsion order of several students involved in a violent clash earlier in May. Besides, protesters were also demanding improved facilities at student hostels, better transportation service, cancellation of fee hikes and curtailing university’s internal corruption.
An agreement was seemingly reached between the two sides over most issues on October 21, except that over restoration of expelled students. However, Monday’s battle scenes presented another story. While actions of administration and the students remain topics of detailed debates, we took stock of the situation to try to learn a few things from the incident. Following are our findings.
- Universities Need Greater Security Checks
The fact that a violent gun battle took place in one of the most respected universities of Pakistan itself raises a number of questions about security measures at our universities and access to arms in general. This issue of students bearing arms becomes all the more alarming when considered against the recent arrest of some Karachi University students over alleged connections with terrorist organisations. Individuals who should be concentrating on studies and their future should have no business wielding guns. Besides the arms, many hostels have also become dens of other horrendous activities such as substance abuse etc. with no concrete steps to curb the same on administrators’ part. Tragically, no one seems to be doing much more than offering lip service to contain such crippling evils in our youth.
Student-Administration Relation Is Absent
The QAU episode has been a glimpse into the divide that exists between student population and administrations at universities and colleges across Pakistan. Students are expected to turn up for classes, follow the rules and be off with their qualifications, while administrations are seen by students not as guides, but authoritarian setups designed to subdue and prohibit. While many universities offer students a chance to engage in student societies and clubs, these forums go little beyond serving as hobby clubs. There is a serious absence of structures that encourage student representative bodies to constructively engage with administrators over more pressing issues such as fees, campus facilities, course structures, teaching methodologies and student-faculty or student-student conflicts. Student unions once served the purpose, but their eventual politicisation and exploitation resulted in a ban that is still in place 33 years on.
Intolerance Is Evident
This one goes without saying. Despite universities generally being the coordinates of some of the most literate (seemingly) minds in our society, intolerance there is as bad as in a street mob with a robber caught and a few kicks to spare. We seem to have lost the knack of tolerance altogether; during conversations, while driving, at traffic signals, during grocery shopping, in queues, if there ever was one that is. Everyone appears to be right in a society that is doing a lot of things wrong, and anyone who contradicts becomes a sworn enemy. Reason stands defeated, and violence has become the drug of choice. Although it’s hard to know exactly why, Pakistani’s become easily irate and are readily irritated. Lecture na dey, science na mar, chal apna kaam kar are the expected replies even if you politely point out the other person’s fault during the slightest of disputes. With such a high level of intolerance for others’ right of belief, way, speech and actions, one wonders what we will become in a few more years.
Dissent Is Disallowed
Just like questioning the government puts the country’s jamhooriyat in khatra, any notion that offers critique to a policy, action, sentiment or decisions is deemed outright insubordination. The QAU episode is a case in point. Disagreeing with a fee hike makes students agents of discord, asking for better facilities at hostels makes them wanting more than they deserve and protesting expulsion of fellow students makes them endorsers of violence. All without ever really lending an empathetic ear to the aggrieved party’s concerns. What does that make us as a nation? Indomitable? Incompetent? Insecure? Inept? Inconsiderate? It’s really hard to say what. But one thing’s for sure. Whether it’s the government, a university administration or an individual, each has a little jamhooriayat within that gets in khatra each time it is questioned. You traitor, foreign agent, lobbyist, you!
We Don’t Know How To Protest
Protesting is one thing, forcing others to join your protest is a different ball game altogether. This is what happens in majority of protests staged across the country. Blocking of roads, forced closure of shops and other civic activities are the usual outcomes. And it becomes much worse when mob mentality takes over, leading to damage to, as well as pillage and pilferage of public and private property and installations. Remember the violent protests of 2012 against a film defaming Islam? The true essence of the rightful dissent was lost as rallies staged across the country quickly turned into destructive expressions of murder, vandalism, loot and plunder. We need to learn to register protests humanely.
We Don’t Know How To Handle Protests
The first response is: ignore it. The second – warn them of dire consequences – and the third is to strike down upon the ‘agitators’ with full force. Baton charge and overpowering jets of water cannons are the usual measures adopted. The QAU incident was more of the same. For days, the university administration did not pay heed to the protesters’ demands and entered into half-hearted negotiations after more than two weeks of university remaining shut. We say half-hearted because despite the two sides apparently reaching an agreement, Monday’s police action can be termed anything but commitment on the administration’s part to resolve the issue amicably. Be it the government, public or private organisations or institutions, those being criticised prefer ending agitation with forcible dispersion of crowds, rather than a peaceful resolution of differences.
Protesting, Even Peacefully, Is A Crime
Again, the mere thought of a protest is considered a challenge to authority and rightful claim to throne by the powers that be, no matter what facet of our social structure we look into. The problem, we think, brews from years of authoritarianism most Pakistanis experience at home. Most households rarely tolerate a family member disagreeing with the majority, aka parents, let alone encouraging children to think on their own. Education, food, political fondness, marriage – you name it and it’s the same in each case. Young minds are hardly given the freedom or the opportunity to think on their own. Bus keh diya na, aisay he hota hai and abhi tum bachay ho are the final words that children have to align their thoughts with, or else be labelled nafarman, gustakh and bey-adab. This approach is partly responsible for the obvious dislike towards dissent and protest. Despite them being a basic right of every human being.
We Don’t Care Until It Affects Us
“Who got expelled? Some Baloch students? Oh. Whatever!” Just like in other avenues of life in Pakistan, the lack of concern for the wider community is visible in higher education institutions as well. The protests at QAU were launched by Baloch and Sindhi students of QAU for seeking reversal of rustication of their fellow students. Not by students of QAU. By Baloch and Sindhi students. There’s a difference. We have become seriously apathetic towards the loss and pain of others. We don’t mind affliction of others as long as it doesn’t bother us or at least until we can find a reference to relate with the aggrieved soul. Many would term it minding your own business, but it is what it is. Apathy.
We Are Everything But Pakistanis
Yes. Even after 70 years of being a nation, we still remain separated on several accounts. Tribe, race, caste, class, status, profession, province, region city, religion, sect, sub-sect, ethnicity; there are unlimited options if one was indeed inclined on dividing Pakistanis. Permutation, anyone? In the QAU incident, the initial clash in hostels between students was quickly labelled a clash between ‘Baloch and Sindhi students’, rather than one between students. Such divisions on religious, ethnic and provincial lines have already done much to worsen the harmony that once existed between the country’s citizens. It’s just sad that we fail to see beyond the immediate still.
Might Is Right
Of course. If you can end it with force, you do not need other interventions. This mantra of using force to crush dissent was on display in full force at QAU on Monday morning. Without really making earnest efforts for a peaceful end to the issue, the administration deemed it easier to just crush the ‘uprising’ with force, arrests and FIRs. The genuine concerns of protesters, like facilities at hostels and rise in university fees, got lost in the chaos that ensued. Jis ki lathi, us ki bhains. Apt.