The University of the Punjab is not new to clashes between rival student groups. Only this time, things are a tad too violent
I recently visited the University of the Punjab, my alma mater, which had just seen an incident of violence where rival student groups clashed with each other, leaving up to 18 people injured, including 10 security guards.
According to one account, in the afternoon of February 28, the students of Sociology Department were celebrating Culture Day at the close of the annual sports gala, at the Institute of Social and Cultural Studies (ISCS), Quaid-i-Azam Campus of PU, when those affiliated with Islami Jamiat Tulaba (IJT) and Pashtoon Education Development Movement (PEDM) got into a fight. The following day, the university administration suspended 14 students from classes for their alleged involvement in the brawl.
The purpose of my visit was to look for details and an explanation for the incident. As I entered the ISCS, I tried to talk to the students about the clash. Most of them, especially the female students, didn’t seem forthcoming. Those who did speak to me put it in cautious terms. I ended up with sketchy ‘third-person’ accounts. Amna, a gender studies student, said she was on leave when the incident happened but “I came to know that the female students were forced to lock themselves inside the department till the matter was resolved.”
Another student said that things got out of control after the leader of a group was attacked with a dagger by someone from the opposing group. “He suffered a deep cut in his hand and was seen bleeding. Another boy was beaten with iron rods. When his friends came to rescue him, the violence turned uglier and many more people, including the security guards got involved.”
The PU, one of the oldest public-sector educational institutions in the country, attracts students from varying backgrounds and ethnicities. On the varsity’s annual Culture Day, many had turned out in traditional outfits and put up stalls that represented their respective cultures. The day’s activities began at 9 in the morning and ended at 12 noon. According to a BS student, who refused to be named, the IJT had warned the rival group against playing any kind of music at the event, but the Pashtun students went ahead with their traditional song and dance routine. This got the goat of the IJT boys and led to an exchange of hot words.
He further said, “Since it was Friday, the IJT students went away for Jum’a prayers. When they returned, there was another encounter, and some of the students came to blows with one another. The security guards tried to intervene but they were also attacked.”
A security guard told me on condition of anonymity that his roommate was badly hit in the incident. “He was rushed to the hospital with head injuries.”
The guard also spoke of “another senior colleague [who was] harmed too.”
Dr Muhammad Khalid Khan, the PU registrar told me, “It was the first time in the history of the university that our security guards were attacked. Several arrests were made after the FIR was registered by the university administration against those [students] involved.”
He said that “such fights are typically ‘staged’ at the behest of ‘hidden elements,’ around the time of admissions, in order to scare off the undesirable applicants, or when a university’s ranking has improved, so that the [varsity’s] image can be tarnished.”
Waqas Khan, the PEDM president, denied that the Pashtun students had beaten the guards: “After Jum’a [prayers], we were in the canteen when the IJT students passed derogatory remarks about our cultural event. This infuriated us, and we confronted them. They attacked us with daggers and iron rods they were carrying.”
“Ethnic politics will continue at campuses until the students are allowed to form proper unions. As they say, violence can be pre-empted through dialogue”
Khan, who was injured in the incident, claimed that when the Pashtun students “tried to protest peacefully in front of the vice chancellor’s office, the guards did not let us [do so]. In fact, they [guards] attacked us. As a result, three students were badly hurt. Later, at night, we gathered at the Campus Bridge to stage a demonstration for the media but an FIR was registered against us and some students were arrested.”
He blamed the PU administration for siding with the IJT: “We are the victims. What happened to the FIR we moved against the IJT? The IJT boys still roam freely on the campus. The CCTV footage provided to the media only covered us, to create the wrong perceptions. What about the footage of us being attacked?”
Khan said Pashtun students faced racial discrimination at the hands of the IJT: “They dub us ignorant, tribal people. They are not ready to accept our existence.”
The IJT, on the other hand, would have you believe that the incident was not linked to cultural differences. To quote Muhammad Shahbaz, the IJT information secretary, “Two of our boys were attacked by the PEDM at the Sociology Department cafeteria. Later, when we were returning from Jum’a prayers, they attacked us again, next to the Faisal Auditorium. The violence got out of hands and the security guards and police had to be involved.”
Shahbaz says that out of the five IJT students present on the occasion, two were seriously injured while the rest managed to escape injury. “The PEDM boys can be seen throwing chairs and attacking the security guards in the CCTV footage.”
He alleged that some of the PEDM people routinely “raise anti-state slogans. They distribute Mazoor Pashtin’s pamphlets, and arrange meetings on PTM call.”
Naveed Ahmed Shinwari, the founding chief executive of the Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme (CAMP), attributes the situation to the increasing trend of violence and mob politics resulting from the War on Terror. He told me, “In Punjab, the student wing of Jamaet-i-Islami has always enjoyed a hold on campus politics. The Pashtun [students] have never had it easy. They want space for their cultural activities which the IJT isn’t willing to let them have, either in the name of nationalism or religion. This has resulted in the kind of disruptions we now see so frequently.”
It may be recalled that in December last year, the PU administration suspended nine IJT students as well as the Punjabi Council for their alleged role in a clash at a welcome party on campus.
A teacher at the ISCS summed up the situation in the following words: “To some extent, our security is threatened. It’s frightening to think that the IJT can get violent without recourse to weapons. We have seen students attacking their opponents armed only with tree branches. We fear that tomorrow they’ll come for us too”
The teacher said that there was “a lack of political will on the part of the authorities. Otherwise it can’t be too difficult to get rid of such elements.”
So where does the PU stand now? Is there anything that can be done to avoid such clashes in the future? “We are taking necessary steps towards peace,” said Dr Khan. “Immediately after the clash, we convened the meetings of the Deans’ Committee and the Academic Committee. We also consulted the heads of departments and the hostel administration. We are planning activities through which the students can be engaged full well.”
Mercifully, both the IJT and the PEDM are willing to call a truce. As Mohd Shahbaz put it, “We are ready to sign an agreement in order to make the [university] environment peaceful.”
Waqas Khan also seemed to agree: “Many issues can be resolved through dialogue. I am sure we can do that too.”
For Shinwari, the restoration of student unions is the answer: “Ethnic politics will continue at campuses until the students are allowed to form proper unions. Over the years [since the ban on student unions], we have seen how different groups take certain positions. Their interaction with one another and, correspondingly, their understanding of one another remain limited. No wonder they turn violent every now and then.
“A platform for dialogue is completely missing. Therefore, the ban on student unions must be lifted. Violence can be pre-empted through dialogue”.