On March 20, Khalid Hameed, a professor at Sadiq Egerton College Bahawalpur was stabbed to death by his student Khateeb Hussain, who suspected his teacher’s religious credentials. Later, the student – while in custody of Rescue 1122 staff, who bandaged his hands that were wounded during the attack – stated that his act was justified.
This cold-blooded murder reflects the pervasive mindset in our society, espousing extreme intolerance towards anything that is seen as digression from a specific interpretation of religiously appropriate conduct. Unfortunately, this trend has prevailed over the past 30 years and is reinforced after every such incident.
There is a long list of teachers who have faced similar consequences as Khalid – and many teachers continue to risk their life, liberty and wellbeing as they continue with their professional responsibilities. It would suffice to look at some incidents to understand the gravity of this problem.
In 1992, Naimat Ahmer, an Adamjee-award winning poet and a teacher in Faisalabad, smelled danger when a handwritten note misinterpreting his statement during a class was circulated. He applied for a transfer from the school. However, he was killed by his student brainwashed by a colleague jealous of Ahmer’s promotion as headmaster.
Professor Itrat Kazmi was jailed after he was accused of blasphemy under Section 295-C PPC in 1993 in Rahim Yar Khan. Professor Allah Bux of Shujaabad was charged of committing blasphemy the same year after he tried to interpret a Quranic verses in the course book, something a student of his disagreed with. Bux escaped detention and trial due to his strong connections with a religio-political party though he had go in hiding for several months.
Some female teachers were also accused of blasphemy while teaching. This includes Catherine Shaheen and Bushra Taseer in 1995 and 1996 respectively. The former had to leave the country along with her family to avoid circumstances that could be far graver than displacement.
Zahid Hussain Mirza, former principal of Government Degree College Azad Jammu and Kashmir, was charged under Section 295-B PPC, allegedly for insulting the Quran. He was kept in detention for years. He had written a book that the followers of another sect considered blasphemous, though the book had drawn admiration including that of the Imam of Kaaba. Apparently, the police had to register a case to save his life from a mob that had gathered near his house in 2000.
Dr Farooq Khan, a religious scholar and the founder-vice chancellor of Swat University was assassinated in his clinic in Mardan in 2010 for his courageous opposition to violence in the name of religion. Master Abdul Qudoos Ahmad was murdered in Rabwa in 2012.
Junaid Hafeez, a university teacher in Multan has been languishing in jail under blasphemy charges since 2013. His lawyer Rashid Rehman was assassinated in 2014 for pleading his case. Professor Shakeel Auj of Karachi University was assassinated while travelling in his car in 2014. Though the responsibility of his killing is yet to be ascertained, it is very well known that his jealous colleagues had falsely accused Auj of committing blasphemy before he was killed.
Dr Bernadette Dean, a senior educationist and member of the government-appointed advisory committee for curriculum and textbooks reforms, had to leave the country fearing for life after receiving threatening calls and facing hate propaganda in 2015.
Many students have also fallen victim to the intolerant environment in our educational institutions. The lynching of Mashal Khan of the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan by fellow students and university employees in 2017 is an example of how hostile things can get for any student exercising the freedom to learn.
In 2018, a grade-12 student, Faheem shot dead Hafiz Sareer Ahmed, his college principal in Shabqadar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, when reprimanded for skipping classes to attend a dharna in Islamabad.
These and many such cases hardly received any justice, something that only ends up perpetuating a climate of fear and intimidation in the ‘centres of learning’ in the country. Some members of the academia, aligned with the infrastructure of hate and intolerance in society, actively conspire against those professors and teachers who dare to exercise their creativity and academic freedom.
The religious biases and discriminations accumulated in our textbooks and education system contribute immensely to nurturing a violent behaviour among students. The decisions-makers in the education system, who have failed to respond to this alarming situation, need to come out of denial mode now.
A new education policy is being contemplated by the provincial and federal governments. The policy must include provisions and steps to help our youth and our teachers stay safe and away from the currently suffocating religion-based hatred on our campuses.
The writer is a human rights activist and chairperson of the Peoples Commission for Minorities’ Rights.
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