Tuesday February 27, 2024

Reclaiming universities

April 20, 2017

What happened to Mashal is the nightmare of almost every right-minded, curious, thoughtful or inquisitive mind in our universities – nay in our society. The worst thing human societies have been doing to non-conforming or questioning members is mob lynching or public executions, followed by the refusal to perform their last rituals.

The dawn of modern civilisation witnessed a sharp decline in the use of such barbaric practices as its very foundation was laid on eulogising the act of questioning. The popular fad ‘question, not conformity’ brought forth all the amazing wonders that are the fruits of the era of enlightenment. 

Societies like ours that lag behind modern civilisation are not, however, ready to adopt the foundational principle of modernity – questioning – although they love to benefit from the fruits of modern civilisation. Here propaganda masquerades as knowledge. In the dark ages, two authorities were beyond questioning: the Church and the King.

The dilemma with an inquisitive mind is that it questions conformity. That’s what led Mashal to his most unfortunate fate when he questioned the university establishment.

Mashal’s murder is marked for its brutality. Extreme brutality attracts exemplary punishment and that apparently will follow for certain reasons. One, Mashal was confronted by challenges experienced by thousands of university students, many of who are now in the media. And the media is the institution that took the lead on the issue.

Two, social media did the wonder again. The video of the nauseating act went viral in hours and everyone knew the reality before spin masters of different hues could get to work. Three, public anger has forced those who might have cheered the gruesome act in private to distance themselves. They are now trying to spin it in a way that highlights that Mashal did not do what he was accused of – implying that if the accusations were correct there would have been no harm in lynching Mashal.

The tragedy has reminded us of a long-neglected problem: our public universities. Currently almost all public-sector universities have turned into dens of terror where student bodies have been divided along different religious and political lines. The existence of student bodies of different parties, especially the religious ones, may harvest short-term gains but that comes at the cost of making varsities places to be afraid of instead of places one loves to be at.

Our universities are not places of learning. This is because learning requires a free environment: free from propaganda, free from fear, free from biases, free from baton-wielding hordes and, in the current context, free from allegations of being a traitor or blasphemer. If universities are meant to be places of learning truth that only suits and perpetuates the interests of our ruling elite and religious vigilantes, they are better shut down. In this way huge public recourses will also be saved.  The universities that cannot challenge and discard old ideas, and give birth to new ones are not worth the land on which they are established.

Now the question of how to reclaim our universities from the clutches of the enemies of knowledge and inquisitiveness arises. A few measures may help. First, there has to be a complete ban on or even criminalisation of student bodies divided along religious and political lines. Limited student politics and elections sans affiliations with outside religious and political organisations may be productive if these limitations can be effectively imposed.

Moreover, moral or religious vigilantism should be banned, criminalised and handled strictly. No one other than the university administration should have the right to curtail the freedoms of students – and that too within the constitutional and legal parameters. The self-assumed right of imposing extra-constitutional and extra-legal restrictions by some religious groups on campuses need to be tackled with an iron hand. The model of establishing societies and clubs, as in Government College University Lahore, for channelling the energies of students in a positive way needs to be emulated in other universities.

Furthermore, our universities need to be cleansed of faculty and staff that belong to political and religious bodies and have wreaked havoc on campuses.  Last but not the least, creativity and not conformity should be adopted as the motto of our public-sector universities.


The writer is a former diplomat and currently practises law.