Pakistani College Becomes Focus of a Social Struggle

The GT Road Blog

BySteve Inskeep

In Lahore, the University of the Punjab attracts middle- and lower-income Pakistani students hoping to make better lives for themselves. But the school’s campus is also the scene of an ongoing struggle over education and Islam.

Alfred Cooper Woolner May 1878 – January 7, 1936, was a noted Sanskrit scholar and professor as well as the Vice Chancellor of Punjab University, Lahore. He died in Lahore

Many of the 35,000 students wear jeans and T-shirts. Punjab is a state school, like one of those big American universities in the Midwest. Students attend class in brick buildings, and study on lawns cut almost as short as putting greens. But life here is less peaceful than it looks.

A clash over religious traditions recently brought about the beating of a professor in his office — and forced the school to close for about three weeks.

Professor Iftikhar Baloch, chairman of the University of the Punjab’s disciplinary committee, was badly beaten in his office by members of Islami Jamiat Taliba who were upset at the expulsion of some of their members.

Conservative students harass young men and women if they’re seen too close together.

“They come and say, ‘Why are you sitting there with a girl?’ ” says Atif Rasheed. Asked if that had happened to him, Rasheed laughs as he says, “Yeah. More than 10 times.”

The conservative group is called Islami Jamiat Talaba — or Islamic students’ society. Its members are alleged to have beaten students and professors.

Conservative students entrenched themselves on this campus decades ago. Finally, the school’s disciplinary committee expelled some IJT members for beating fellow students.

In early April, a mob broke into the office of the committee chairman, professor Iftikhar Baloch.

“This office was full of people,” Baloch recalls. “And they were saying that we will not let him go out and we will kill him today, this and that. And they started beating me with the rods and all that.”

Baloch was hospitalized. Angry professors responded by shutting down the campus for weeks. Police made some arrests and are still investigating.

The university’s vice chancellor, Mujahid Kamran, says that is not enough. “I think we are now agreed on that, that we have to recruit guards, who may be former members of Pakistan armed forces,” Kamran says. “We have decided to build our own muscle.”

Kamran wants the security force to control a critically important school which, since its founding in 1882, has helped the children of farmers and soldiers go on to careers as politicians and judges.

The conservative students’ group agrees the University of the Punjab is important. Graduate student Qaiser Sharif is the IJT’s leader in this province. He calls it “shameful” that a professor was beaten.

But, Sharif says, this sort of thing happens all over the world.

“I want to say that two kinds of people live here in Pakistan nowadays,” Sharif says. “First kind likes Western civilization and Western culture, Western traditions, and second kind is very different, and likes Eastern civilization. I think, in the near future, the war of thoughts on campuses will begin.”

And to prepare for that war of thoughts, Sharif has a dream. He wants to open a chain of schools to promote his conservative beliefs. Its name, he says, would be one of the 99 names for Allah.

IJT protest at the University of the Punjab (File Photo)

Here’s the trascript of the Radio programme presented by Steve Inskeep on NPR:

STEVE INSKEEP, host: For some days now, we’ve been traveling the Grand Trunk Road, this highway beside me that stretches across India and Pakistan. We’ve been stopping in places like this crowded roadside bazaar, where you can get a cup of tea, get your motorcycle repaired, get your hair styled, just about anything you want. We’re talking with young people along the way, because that way we glimpse the future of two nations very much in the news.

Now, not far from where I’m standing, in this Pakistani district called Sheikhupura, a young woman wakes up each weekday and catches a ride on a van 25 miles into the city of Lahore. She goes to class. She is the first person from her farm village, male or female, to attend a university. As we’re about to hear, she’s also caught in a battle over education and Islam.

When the van arrives in Lahore, it pulls out of traffic and into the University of the Punjab. Students study on a closely cropped lawn. It will take a while before we meet the young woman from the countryside. She’s a little shy. Half a dozen men are more talkative at first. They’re graduate students in marketing.

If you’re all marketing students, if someone came to you and said you need to sell Pakistan to the world, what would you tell the world right now?

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, it is not fun.

INSKEEP: Tariq Makmood(ph) suggests a slogan that seems to fit Pakistan’s desperate times.

Mr. TARIQ MAKMOOD (Student): We, as a nation, can change the world if we are supported.

INSKEEP: If you’re supported?

Mr. MAKMOOD: If we are supported, then, because there’s a lot of talent in our people.

INSKEEP: Most of these young men wear jeans and T-shirts. They’re among 35,000 students here. It’s a state school, like one of those big American universities in the Midwest. Students attend class in brick buildings and study on lawns cut almost as short as putting greens. It’s less peaceful than it looks.

I understand there were some political difficulties on campus, and it was closed for about three weeks.

Unidentified Man #2: Is difficult.

INSKEEP: Atif Rasheed says conservative students harass young men and women if they’re seen too close together.

Mr. ATIF RASHEED (Student): They come and said that there is what is this? Why are you sitting there with a girl?

INSKEEP: Has that happened to you?

Mr. RASHEED: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Has that happened to you?

Unidentified Man #3: Yeah, sure.

Mr. RASHEED: But you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RASHEED: More than one time. More than 10 times.

INSKEEP: The conservative group is called Islami Jamiat Talaba, or Islamic Student Society. Its members have allegedly beaten students, which dismays graduate student Farman Ali(ph).

Mr. FARMAN ALI (Graduate Student): Because it’s said that in Pakistan, that most of the people think that slap is the only thing for the solution of good right.

INSKEEP: A slap is the only good thing?

Mr. MALI: Yes.

INSKEEP: That’s the only thing to solve a problem?

Mr. MALI: Right. But this is not the thing dialogues are the way of communicating, is the best thing.

INSKEEP: He quotes the Prophet Muhammad in support of a more peaceful view of Islam. Conservative students entrenched themselves on this campus decades ago. Finally, the school’s disciplinary committee expelled some group members for beating fellow students. Soon, a mob broke into the office of the committee chairman, Professor Iftikhar Baloch.

Professor IFTIKHAR BALOCH (University of the Punjab): Yes, this office was full of people, and they were saying that we will not let him go out and we will kill him today, this and that. And they started, you know, beating me with the rods and all that.

INSKEEP: Professor Baloch was hospitalized this spring. Angry professors responded by shutting down the campus for weeks. Police made some arrests, and are still investigating. University Vice Chancellor Mujahid Kamran says that’s not enough.

Dr. MUJAHID KAMRAN (Vice Chancellor, University of the Punjab): I think that we are now agreed on that, that we have to recruit guards who may be former members of the Pakistan armed forces. We have decided to build our own muscle.

INSKEEP: He’s building muscle to control a critically important school. Unlike the elite university we visited yesterday, this campus serves the middle class. Farmers and army majors send their kids here. Many have gone on to become politicians and judges.

Why is it important who influences or controls this university – important to Pakistan?

Mr. KAMRAN: This is the oldest university in the region. This was set up in 1882. If you control this university, then you control the minds of thousands of students, and this is the battle that has been going on for a long time.

INSKEEP: The conservative students group agrees the University of the Punjab is important. Graduate student Qaiser Sharif is the group leader in this province. He says it’s shameful that a professor was beaten, but he says this sort of thing happens all over the world.

Mr. QAISER SHARIF (Graduate Student; Leader, Islami Jamiat Talaba): I want to say that two kind of people live here in Pakistan nowadays. First kind like Western civilization and Western culture, Western traditions, and second kind is very different and like Eastern civilization. I think in near future, in Pakistan, the war of thought on campuses begins.

INSKEEP: And to prepare for that war of thoughts, Qaiser Sharif has a dream. He wants to open a chain of schools to promote his conservative beliefs. Its name would be one of the 99 names for Allah.

Unidentified Man #5: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay, thank you so much.

Unidentified Man #5: All right. Thank you very much.

Unidentified Man #6: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: So now we return to that close-cropped lawn at the University of the Punjab. We talked with students there until dark. Then I approached a young woman who’d been watching from a distance. Her name is Taiaba Fasal(ph). She is the student I mentioned before, the one who comes from 25 miles away, the first person from her village to attend a university.

You must be proud.

Ms. TAIABA FASAL: Yes, I am. I am.

INSKEEP: Are people proud of you in your village?

Ms. FASAL: (Through translator) They’re against it, coeducation.

INSKEEP: Villagers don’t like her attending class with men. Here on campus, she knows those conservative students are watching.

Ms. FASAL: (Through translator) It’s very difficult for me to…

INSKEEP: It’s very difficult, she says, and has trouble finishing her thought. She fingers her black abaya, the garment that covers everything except her face.

What was it that you said was very difficult for you to talk about?

Unidentified Woman #2 (Translator): She’s scared.

INSKEEP: A male student standing nearby says feel free to talk. I’m not a Jamiati, not one of the conservatives. Fasal tells a story then about the day when boys and girls played a game of truth or dare. Conservative students grabbed two players and beat them.

Unidentified Woman #2: After that incident, she has been very careful.

INSKEEP: What do you want to do when you graduate?

INSKEEP: She’s not sure – maybe teach, maybe go into the media. For now, getting through the day is enough. It’s grown so dark on this day that we can hardly see Taiaba Fasal’s face. She hurries for the van that will take her home to her village outside the city along the Grand Trunk Road.

Our journey across India and Pakistan continues elsewhere in today’s program. We meet women who never get to leave their rural villages, but still want an education.

6 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Education, Identity, Islamism, Lahore, Pakistan, Punjab, Religion, Women

6 responses to “Pakistani College Becomes Focus of a Social Struggle

  1. Anwar

    In Pakistan law has been on the wrong side for a very long time. So the solution to this mess is really not very complicated.

  2. yasserlatifhamdani

    Unless and untill the University of the Punjab is liberated from these Jamiat dogs …(it is an insult to dogs but hey…) … Pakistan will continue to suffer… after all it is the single largest university in Pakistan…with the potential of being one of the finest in the world… but held hostage by these crooks, cranks and madmen followers of Maududian dogs.

  3. Yasir Qadeer

    School is a place where students equip themselves with knowledge to challenge the taboos and dogmas of a society. They hold the key for progress in any nation. Sadly, this prestigious institute is being hijacked by some Mullah’s who want their own doctrines to be implemented.

  4. Zulfiqar Haider

    This university has always remained under the influence of these religious hardliners; a number of efforts by the previous government to finish this influence remained unsuccessful, but now is the time that the students must boycott all the activities undertaken by these religious hardliners.

  5. iqbal akhund

    I am entirely with PTH’s liberal orientation but sometimes you express it in excessive language. Calling opponents names does rather weaken the impact.
    The Islamist ethos is a complex phenomenon, involving religion, culture, class. It is a loser’s ethos in the long run and that may explain its violence.

  6. TR

    Why university administration is so weak to create a parallel security force from retired army soldiers. Why not expelling all Islami Jamiat Talaba from University and put ban on Islamic student society.