Pakistan Day at Punjab University

Lahore:24 March: Academic work is off on account of Pakistan Day at Punjab University, the campus eerily quiet and devoid of students. On the right, farther down from gate four of the new campus, are the boys’ hostel buildings. These, if they could, would tell tales — some myths, others more substantiated — of torture, extortion, moral policing and dirty power politics. Two mobile police units and scores of uniformed cops stand guard at the entrance while others lounge on the green patches along the hostel boundary walls. This is odd, certainly not something you’d expect at one of the highest seats of learning in the country. And yet, as the university spokesperson shares, over 200 uniformed and plain-clothes policemen, apart from the university’s own security staff, are currently deployed here. At the canteen opposite the Quaid-i-Azam Hall, some hostel residents sit around sipping tea under the generous shade of a tree. Plastered on the wall is a half-ripped poster for the Azm-i-Pakistan march that was to be held at the Islamic Centre to celebrate Pakistan Day. Its organisers, the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT), announced the event earlier in month and had been preparing for it. But the brawl on March 21 occurred at a mobilisation stall the IJT set up for its march. Tall, bearded Shafi Mengal from Nushki, Balochistan, asks his friend to rip off the poster. His friend, a gangly youth from interior Lahore, hesitates for a moment and looks around but then squares his shoulders and rips off not one, but two such posters. Mengal, a masters’ student, introduces himself as an adviser to the chairman of the Baloch Students Council. “We never expected a problem with holding a Pakhtun cultural day on March 21,” he says, pointing at the date for the Azm-i-Pakistan march – March 22. He explains that the Pakhtun cultural day was announced on March 13 at the Baloch cultural day, which several IJT members attended. “They enjoyed the music and dance then,” he says. “We have pictures. Why then did they have a problem with the Pakhtun cultural day later, [especially] when they knew we had permission from the university administration?” To this, former IJT nazim Qaiser Shareef asks why the Pakhtun Students Council had found it necessary to hold a cultural day. He explains that tensions between the various ethnic councils and the IJT have a short but turbulent history, especially since the IJT cadre represents all ethnicities. “The student who walked up to the cultural event organisers and asked them to turn the music down was a Pakhtun IJT member,” he says emphatically. But a university security guard assigned to Hall Council 1 joins Mengal at his table and dismisses explanations playing on ethnic divisions. For the IJT, he says, it has always been about asserting presence and control. Security guards usually deal with two to three complaints a week about IJT members harassing young men and women sitting together, he elaborates, “but I have never had a complaint about any members of the ethnic councils.” University spokesperson Khurram Shehzad says this is true. These councils have been around since 2012, he explains, when the university announced scholarships for students from Balochistan. Ninety-seven students from Balochistan were awarded scholarships in the first batch and the university has been admitting almost 100 students from there each year since. “But the administration has not had any complaints,” he says. The university also has a Seraiki Students Council and a Sindhi Students Council, apart from the Pakhtun and Baloch student bodies. These groups, joined by members of the Progressive Students Collective and the Democratic Students Alliance, held a demonstration on March 22 to express solidarity with the Pakhtun and Baloch student councils whose members were attacked the day before. “We found out about the peace march at 2am the night before and mobilised our members,” says Haider Kaleem of the Progressive Students Collective. The students first asked the vice chancellor for permission to hold a peace march but were told not to, after which they sat in front of the sociology department and shouted: “Ghunda gardi band karo [Stop strong-arm tactics]”, “Jamiat ka jo yaar hai ghaddar hai ghaddar hai [Anyone who is a friend of the Jamiat is a traitor]”. Journalists who tried to cover the demonstration were shoved off by the police. The students presented their list of demands: student bodies affiliated with political parties should be banned from campus; those who attacked the Pakhtun cultural event must be expelled and prosecuted under law; another cultural day, for all ethnicities represented at the university, should be held; hostels must be made safe for students. The former IJT nazim remains adamant that his organisation was not at fault. “The university has video footage of what transpired. It should be sincere in establishing who was at fault,” he insists. He points out that most of the students injured were IJT members. “Umair, one of our members from the geology department, was beaten so badly that he’s in the intensive care unit. We want justice.” He adds that the Pakhtun students who were injured were beaten up and tear-gassed by the police. On March 22, the police picked up 22 students of the university, 18 of them IJT members, and registered an FIR against 200 unidentified suspects. News channels announced that the IJT’s days were numbered as the government had vowed to end its ‘reign of terror’. But sitting next to Mengal, Haji Jan Muhammad, who heads the Sindhi Students Council, smirks. “It’s impossible to end IJT’s influence at the university,” he says. “They can try, but this group has dirt on several high-ups at the university and they will resort to all kinds of tactics to maintain their influence. Eliminate IJT from Punjab University? It just cannot happen.”Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2017.

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