On 13th of April 2018, a talk was organized at Habib University regarding the ongoing Pashtun Tahaffuz movement where a panel of Pashtun journalists, social activists, and policymakers was invited to talk about ethnic violence, racial profiling, and the status of state federation. Former Rhodes Scholar, Rafiuallah Kakar, and journalist-activist Ali Arqam were amongst the panelists who were supposed to be speaking at the event.
On the very same day, just a few hours before the talk, the university management announced that the talk had to be canceled due to ‘unavoidable circumstances’. All the online promotional content regarding the event was removed, the facebook event page deleted, and all relating information was wiped out of our university’s web presence. Our guests, who had flown to Karachi for the talk were escorted outside the campus premises by the guards.
I, as a social development and policy student of the university, used to take pride in the fact that Habib University was shattering norms by talking about actual issues and encouraging an environment that promotes free thought. We really needed a university like this in Karachi. We needed a university that had the agency to hold talks and discussions, which people shy away from discussing. We needed academic spaces that could raise the issue of the marginalized sections of our society.
Of course, that was not manifested in what happened. In the new wave of crackdown on university campuses, Habib University succumbed to the state pressure. That same day, a talk on Mashal Khan in LUMS was also canceled. A few days before, Punjab University professor Ammar Ali Jan was humiliatingly fired for extending support to Manzoor Pashteen and the Pashtun Rights Movement.
As students, we consider our university campuses to be free, open zones where we can come and talk about actual issues without any fear of oppression or suppression. If such forums are closed, we have literally nowhere to go.
Regarding this state repression of university campuses, our professor aptly pointed out the following.
Free speech, when reserved only for those who populate the corridors of power, is nothing more than propaganda. Respect, when only accorded to the powerful, is nothing more than obsequious fawning. For all the paeans to critical discourse that many of our institutions like to indulge in, our inability to listen to the small and marginalised voices of our history and society means not only that we have failed our students, but that we have also failed our values and society at large.
Knowing what is going on in North Western part of the country and amidst this complete media blackout, deliberately keeping university students away from this crucial information is intellectual dishonesty.
It is needed that students of all the public and private universities stand up together to call out on the state over their imposed censorship inside university campuses. It’s a slippery slope. They’ve come after your public talk. They’ll soon come after your curriculum, your cultivated on-campus culture, and reduce them down to educational institutions that only, and religiously talk about State endorsed propaganda
Faculty members in universities throughout the country have already started uniting together on this front. LUMS professor, Nida Kirmani wrote the following open letter:
As faculty members and teachers, we are extremely concerned about the events that have taken place over the last few days at universities across Pakistan, which signal a closure of intellectual space within the country. Between April 12th and 13th four separate but related instances of repression took place on university campuses in different parts of the country.
In the first instance, an event entitled ‘Ethnic Rights, New Social Movements, and the State of the Federation in Pakistan,’ which was supposed to be held at Habib University in Karachi on April 13th was forcibly cancelled only an hour before the event was due to be held after a visit from state functionaries. This event was intended as a teach-in and panel discussion in which various new social movements emerging across the country would be analyzed and discussed by experts from the field. Not only was the event abruptly canceled, one of the guest speakers was forced off campus by the university security despite the fact that it was the university that had invited him in the first place.
In the second instance, an event that was planned to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, also on April 13th, which was a commemoration of the student who was brutally murdered by a mob one year ago at Abdul Wali Khan University, Mashal Khan, was also forcibly cancelled on the same day the event was due to be held. This event was planned in order for students to come together and mourn the loss of a fellow student who dedicated his short life to raising his voice in the struggle for peace and justice.
In the third instance, a colleague who was working as an Assistant Professor at Punjab University in the Department of Sociology, Dr. Ammar Ali Jan, was suddenly fired with no official reason given by the university administration. Dr. Jan, who received his PhD from Cambridge University, had been working tirelessly alongside students since July 2017 despite not having received any pay in order to promote the idea of non-violence and critical thinking. His abrupt dismissal was both disrespectful and humiliating. It raises serious concerns about the treatment of faculty members at all universities.
Finally, in the fourth instance, faculty and administration at Gomal University in DI Khan were paid a visit by state functionaries and questioned about the content of their courses. The faculty and administration were given a warning to not teach subjects that would encourage critical thinking amongst the students. This direct intervention on a university campus by state authorities, which is an attempt to stifle critical thought and hamper learning, is extremely troubling to say the least.
All four events are part of a wider trend that stifles critical thinking and discussion on university campuses. As faculty members, we believe the university must be a space where faculty and students are free to share ideas and engage in thoughtful analysis of pressing social issues without experiencing fear or intimidation. The function of the university is to foster an atmosphere in which ideas are respectfully shared and rigorous research and analysis is encouraged. It is only through open discussion and debate that our most pressing social and political problems will be properly understood and diagnosed. The future of our country rests on how well we train our students as thinkers and analysts. It is for these reasons that the events of recent days are so troubling. As faculty members we strongly condemn the intimidation and repression taking place in universities at the moment, and we urge the relevant authorities to take action against those responsible and to ensure that our universities remain free from outside interference in the future.
A total of 226 faculty members and academics have also signed the letter. The complete list of signatures can be found, here.
While the academics resist against state repression of universities, we can also do our bit as students. The first thing we can do to help each other out is to help Punjab University students fight against the university management and reinstate Ammar Ali Jan by using the #reinstateAmmar hashtag in your online profiles. The strength we show in numbers might just be able to overturn the decision.
*Feature Image Credit: The Mercury*