PAKISTAN: Taliban steps up university attacks

After the military, shopping malls and mosques, universities have become the latest target of the Pakistani Taliban, sowing terror among faculty members after a number of killings and kidnappings of prominent academics in the north-western region of the country.

Azmat Hayat Khan, Vice-chancellor of the University of Peshawar, told University World News: "We cannot run universities in a proper manner when our lives are not safe. We leave our homes to go to impart knowledge to students but do not know whether we can get back home, always fearing abduction or death on the way."

After many killings and a spate of kidnappings, university teachers have demanded better security from the government in order to perform their duties.

The most recent kidnapping was that of Ajmal Khan, Vice-chancellor of Islamia College University (ICU) in Peshawar, who was abducted by the Taliban in September. The Taliban released a video on 7 November of the ICU vice-chancellor in captivity.

"They have told me that they would kill me by November 20th and I request the government to do something for me. I am a heart patient and I cannot bear this captivity for long," Khan pleaded in the video broadcast by local television stations.

On 15 November, in a third video, representatives of the government-banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan announced that the deadline for killing Ajmal Khan had been extended. Their demands had not been fulfilled and the kidnappers apparently did not want to lose their 'bargaining chip', the vice-chancellor, who is related to an affluent government politician.

Many academics were shocked by the video, prompting the closure of universities in north-western Kyber Pakhtunkhwa province in early November.

Peshawar University's Azmat Hayat Khan told University World News: "We urge the government to act swiftly for the safe recovery of the abducted vice-chancellor and request the government to provide us security as our lives are threatened and it is very difficult to run universities fearing death all the time."

In November 2009, the vice-chancellor of the new Kohat University of Science and Technology, Lutfullah Khan Kakakhel, was kidnapped by the Taliban and remained in captivity for eight months before being released, reportedly in return for 60 arrested militants.

The vice-chancellor of the newly established University of Swat, Muhammad Farooq Khan, was shot dead while in his home town Mardan on 2 October 2010. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, saying he was involved in propaganda against them.

Farooq Khan, a religious scholar, was well known for his reformist views and he opposed the Taliban's suicide attacks doctrine.

The University of Swat is situated in the scenic Swat Valley, 144 kilometres from the federal capital Islamabad. It was there that the Pakistani Taliban emerged in July 2007, setting up its own government, police stations and even courts.

One of the first 'laws' passed by the Taliban forbade female education. All female education institutions in the Swat valley were ordered shut down. The Taliban also issued a warning that all schools across Pakistan where female teachers were employed would be bombed.

The panic forced the authorities to close all public and private schools for a week until the schools could employ security guards, adjusting the burden of their salaries in pupil fees.

Although Pakistan's army regained control of the Swat Valley in 2009 and girls resumed their education, bombing of girls' schools continues although with less frequency. According to government figures the Taliban has destroyed 1,000 schools in the north-west areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Girls' schools were the main target.

The schools' fate makes the current threat against universities very real.

The female campus of the International Islamic University in Islamabad was rocked by two suicide bombers in October 2009, which killed four female postgraduate students. That incident created panic resulting in a week-long closure of all academic institutions across the country.

"Women should be an integral part of the education system, being students and being teachers as well for national advancement. Progress cannot be achieved without their participation as women constitute more than 50% of Pakistan's population," Professor Syeda Farhana Jahangir, Vice-chancellor of Frontier Women University in Peshawar, told University World News.

"I don't think the environment is safe for university teachers in Pakistan to perform their academic duties and we urge government to realise its responsibility for taking measures to end the sense of insecurity among the academics in the country," she said.

Peshawar University's Azmat Hayat Khan said lecturers were being targeted because they were agents of moderation in the country, and extremists wanted to silence the voice of reform.

Without appropriate security measures by the government, lecturers are being effectively silenced, as many teachers leave their jobs for fear of their lives.

One glaring example is Kohat University of Science and Technology's Lutfullah Khan Kakakhel who, after his release from Taliban captivity, quit his job. He refused to comment publicly, except to say: "I cannot tell you in words the agony and mental distress I suffered during captivity."

Many university teachers have also been killed in Balochistan, which neighbours Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Afghanistan, and now no university teacher will accept a transfer to the area. Some have quit their jobs.

Muhammad Ashfaq, Vice-principal of the Pak-German Technical Training Centre in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, was gunned downed in May this year while he was going from his home to the centre for a lecture. Ashfaq had migrated from Punjab to Balochistan for his academic career.

In April, Nazima Talib, a woman professor of mass communication at Balochistan University in Quetta, was sprayed with Kalashnikov bullets when she stepped out of the university gates to go home. She was also originally from Punjab.

On 5 November 2009, Professor Khurshid Ansari of the University of Balochistan was killed by unidentified gunmen as he left his residence in Quetta to go to the university. On 25 October the same year, provincial education minister Shafiq Ahmad Khan was assassinated.

Azmat Hayat Khan, a dedicated academic, expressed a resolve to carry on teaching. But he appeared helpless about how to combat threats to academics: "What can we do to save our lives? Go [on teaching in] secret? But how can seminars and lectures take place secretly? Academic activities and individuals' movements cannot be confined."

A fine article which reflects the nonsense acts of the Taliban. One must lament the killings of professors in the universities of Baluchistan who are from Punjab province.

Is this a reaction by Baluchs whose students are abducted and after extrajudicial killing, their dead bodies are thrown in the streets or hills of Balochistan?

In the past two weeks about 65 Baloch Students and activists of Baloch political parties have faced this dreadful action by intelligence agencies of Pakistan.

In fact, Punjabis are promoting violence in their country and the circle of violence rotates around. Professors of all the universities of Pakistan should protest against the killing of Baloch students and stage a hunger strike to win the hearts and minds of Baloch students.

Khan Jan Baloch