The iron hand

April 2, 2017

The Islami Jamiat Talaba is in the news for a familiar accusation -- causing violence on the University campus

The iron hand

Name five things that are associated with the name of the Punjab University and Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) is certainly one of them. While the IJT boasts of working for the welfare of students, such as solving their academic problems on the campus and holding yearly functions for them; to its critics, the group is another name for violence on university campuses, segregation of students on the grounds of gender, and an attack on their freedom of expression.

The latter’s concerns recently came into the limelight as the two groups -- the IJT and Pashtun and Baloch students -- fell out over the holding of a Pashtun cultural event on March 21. The incident drew a lot of flak from the students as well as the civil society, leaving much to be explained by the IJT members.

Believed to be active in the Karachi University since the early 1960s, the IJT also grew in strength and influence in Lahore over the next decades, especially in the 1970s and ‘80s in the Punjab University.

Back to the present day, the IJT members say their ‘activities’ at the university campus are often the result of university administration failing to act on their complaints and requests. "When the university administration does not listen to our complaints for the redressal of students’ issues, such incidents are very likely to happen," says Usama Ijaz, Nazim IJT, Punjab University, pointing to the recent incidents of violence at the university campus.

"Our only aim is to guide students and help solve their issues by pointing them out to the PU administration," he adds.

"One can take a look at our yearly activities to see if we are creating problems for students or helping them. That we initiate violence is all mere propaganda to malign us," he claims, citing a list of yearly and periodic functions the IJT organises on campus.

The IJT participates in a three-day book fair in May every year which, it claims, has millions of books on display. The group organises a "talent gala" every year where students come and display their projects of science and engineering. Nelaam Ghar is IJT’s yearly quiz competition. Annual cricket tournament is organised called the Pioneer Premier League, Annual welcome parties are organised for students before the start of new sessions. Besides, "Haya Day" is celebrated on February 14 to stop "vulgarity" and "unethical relations among genders".

"I see no change in IJT’s ideology over the years and the way they operate. They use violence on the university campuses in Punjab, we have all seen that recently and many times before, because they have had the support of the country’s establishment and the university’s."

But, to IJT’s critics, all the apparently positive activities of the IJT at the Punjab University are just one side of the picture that eclipses the other side. According to Husain Naqi, a senior human rights activist who has seen the IJT from close quarters, first as President of the Karachi University Student Union in 1962-63 and later as a political and human rights activist. "I see no change in IJT’s ideology over the years and the way they operate. They use violence on the university campuses in Punjab, we have all seen that recently and many times before, because they have had the support of the country’s establishment and the university’s."

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"Even today, they seem to have the support of the country’s establishment and its agencies," Naqi believes.

But times were not always the same, according to Naqi. "In the early 1960s, when I was the President of Karachi University Union, they couldn’t dare disrupt any of our functions, including a musical concert, because they knew they would face the consequences if they did that."

Naqi has a recipe to control IJT activities, "In fact, they behave only when they are paid in the same coin," he says.

Naqi believes the recent violence will politically damage not just the IJT but the Jamaat-e-Islami itself. "In my view, with general elections 2018 not very far away, Sirajul Haq, Ameer Jamaat-e-Islami, must have admonished the IJT for creating an issue out of the cultural event as political parties have already started the election campaign," he says and adds, "People like Farid Piracha and other leaders of the JI are doing damage control because the timing of this incident is not right."

Farid Piracha, senior leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, and former President of the IJT from 1973-75, says that there are certain things the IJT must be given credit for. "It goes to the IJT’s credit that student union elections were regularly held at the campus. Students would vote us in because they had trust in us for our love for Islam and Pakistan," he says.

Before Jamiat took root in the Punjab University, Piracha says, "negative activities like celebrating April Fool and music concerts were held at the campus. It is because of the IJT efforts that today the PU has over 50 buses for students." Piracha admits though that "there have been some instances where the IJT dealt with an issue rather sternly. For that very reason, in the past we have expelled our own IJT members and office holders as disciplinary action was taken against them for crossing the limits. We understand that it is not Jamiat’s work to impose anything on others."

To Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais, senior political analyst, and an observer of the IJT since 1971-72 as student and later as teacher from 1975-78, this damage control does not hide the past and present of the IJT, "I have seen them grow from an organised group of radically disciplined students into a militant group. They were able to keep the progressive voices, like the PPP, at bay from the university as they were the favourite boys of the Zia regime back then," he says.

Rais briefly scans the last 3-4 decades of the IJT, "Over the last 30-40 years, some of the IJT members became teachers themselves in the university. Since the IJT is ideologically motivated, it is not possible for them to accept the new realities of today. It is for this reason that the relatively new voices at the PU, such as the Pashtuns and Baloch, feel threatened, and have reacted."

He believes that "if a Vice Chancellor of the Punjab University wants to change all that, he will have to do it with the imposition of the rule of law at the university to promote pluralistic culture," he adds.

The iron hand