The Devil’s Disciples

Intolerance and bigotry on Pakistan’s campuses are symptoms of a deeper malaise – authoritarianism, disrespect for knowledge and disdain for free thought and inquiry

Pervez Hoodbhoy Newsline

No one doubts that Pakistan’s universities are unfree, bigoted and often violent. Local newspapers have carried many stories of young killers, including several from affluent middle-class families. University graduates have planned and executed murders as well as gruesome massacres, such as those at Safoora Goth and the Parade Lane mosque. Islamic groups such as Daesh and Hizb-ut-Tahrir successfully recruit young fanatics. 

Punjab University, where the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba (IJT) has dominated student politics for over 50 years, must top the list of the world’s most fearsome educational institutions. Anti-vice squads prowl the campus hoping to smash the head of the guy holding his girlfriend’s hand or engaged in other such ‘immoral’ acts. In past years, they have forced the closure of the music department, ended dance and life drawing classes, and used torture tactics, such as holding a lit cigarette to the genitals of a captured opponent. Many murders have been ascribed to this group, but it remains firmly entrenched in power. 

Intolerance extends to other ethnicities. Being at Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) in Islamabad since 1973 has given me a grandstand view of multiple such incidents. The most recent was last month’s violent clash between Baloch and Sindhi students, leading to serious injuries and the university’s closure for several days. Sensationalist, ratings-hungry TV channels broadcast the battle blow by blow. Recorded on his smartphone by a student with a strong Punjabi accent, he can be heard squealing in delight every time a Sindhi student falls to the ground or a Baloch receives a lathi blow on his head. Only his expletives are filtered out. 

A few days later, at QAU’s popular eatery, I chanced upon separately meeting some of the Sindhi and Baloch students involved in the clash. What I learned was no more than what I had known forever – petty squabbles explode like bombs where minds are immature, youthful testosterone flows freely, and students move in wolf packs. 

But the most horrific recent example of campus bigotry came this April from Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan. Mashal Khan, a smart and energetic 23-year-old left-leaning student enrolled in the journalism department, already knew he lived in a deeply conservative, tribal environment. But still, he could never have imagined that he’d end up beaten to death by his fellow students on charges of posting blasphemous content on his Facebook page. His Pathan roommate was among the 57 students who stripped him naked and thrashed him with sticks and bricks until one student pulled out his pistol and shot him dead. Another 400 students gladly watched the spectacle, made videos of the event, and posted them on Facebook. 

When I travelled to Swabi to meet Mashal’s grieving father, Iqbal Lala – a vendor of potato chips and biscuits – he was emphatic that the blasphemy charges against his son were utterly spurious. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, because of the national attention this incident had received, had constituted a 15-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) and 13 of those investigators ruled that the blasphemy charges were unfounded. 

Mashal’s murder, said Lala, was engineered by the university administration. As a student activist, Mashal had become privy to information that could expose them. Indeed, the JIT inquiry revealed that of 330 security guards hired by the University, 220 were actually working as domestic help in the homes of powerful people. This includes leaders of the Awami National Party (ANP) – once considered a left-wing party. The administration’s earlier plan to murder Mashal one week earlier and throw his body in the river hadn’t worked out, said Lala, and so blasphemy charges were invented. In conservative Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), it appears that people don’t ask for proof. Simply levelling the charge is enough for a mob to go berserk. 

Pakistan’s universities are different from others across the world in countless ways, one of these being how seriously they take studies. Over my 44 years at QAU, I think the university must have closed down 20-30 times for a week or more. In 1997 it had completely shut down for an entire semester because teachers were demanding a part of the university’s land to be handed over to them as their private property. Compare QAU’s working record with that of the University of Paris, which, ever since opening its doors to students in 1160, has closed only thrice – in 1229 (the University of Paris Strike), 1940 (German invasion), and 1968 (student agitations). The University of Oxford, established in 1096, has temporarily closed only twice, once in 1209 due to the town execution of two scholars and in 1355 during a riot. 

Intolerance and bigotry on Pakistan’s campuses are symptoms of a deeper malaise – authoritarianism, disrespect for knowledge and disdain for free thought and inquiry. According to a majority of university vice-chancellors, deans, heads of departments, and senior and junior professors, politics has no place on campus and Zia-ul-Haq did well to ban student unions, which should remain banned forever. Academic freedom is a malicious western invention for corrupting minds, wasting time, and destroying discipline. Coeducation is a bad idea that brings immorality onto the campus and should be banned or, at the very least, a strict dress code applied. That there is no department of comparative religions at any Pakistani university is perfectly okay because we have the best possible religion. Studying music is ridiculous, and Islam probably forbids it anyway.

Courtesy Newsline Karachi