Universities reel under rising student lawlessness

There was a day of lawlessness on 16 May at Lahore’s Punjab University, as members of a student organisation linked to an Islamist political party attacked the vice-chancellor’s office, broke windows, smashed furniture and roamed around campus beating up professors.

The trigger was the murder on 13 May of Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) student activist Awais Aqeel by a rival student faction. The IJT activists accused one of the professors of being behind the murder, and alleged that the university administration favoured their opponents and was failing to push for the killer’s arrest.

The turmoil continued for more than a week as academics boycotted classes, calling for the arrest of those responsible for assaulting them, and students demanded a ban on politically backed student organisations and accused the administration of cowardice.

Violence has increased dramatically

Cases of violence and clashes between student organisations at Pakistan’s universities have increased dramatically in recent years, but neither universities nor the various levels of government have given the problem serious attention.

Islamabad’s Quaid-e-Azam University appeared like a warzone in the last week of April, when students belonging to various unofficial student councils held a rally and marched on the vice-chancellor’s office, wreaking serious damage to property and assaulting a professor.

In February this year, 12 students were injured during an armed clash between two groups at Karachi University, which has witnessed a series of violent incidents in the past three years. Four students were injured last December in a bomb explosion on campus. The bomb had been planted near the cafeteria, to kill students from a rival group.

Violent activities, including kidnapping, shooting, killing, and smashing and burning university property, have frequently been reported, and in every case the universities have had to close for days.

Reasons behind the violence

Academics believe that campus violence is growing because student organisations are linked to political parties, which provide them with money, weapons and protection.

“The role of weapons has drastically increased in national politics and these young students are an easy target of politicians,” Anis Ahmed, vice-chancellor of Riphah International University, told University World News.

“They provide them with protection and resources to gain political influence. Young ones are lured into a thrilling life and then exploited for larger political benefits through illegal means,” said Ahmed.

Zeshan Hyder, a Punjab University student, told University World News that students and higher education were suffering because of “rogue students backed by political agendas”, and that university administrations were too cowed to throw them off campuses.

Arif Azeem, from Karachi University, articulated the same view, saying that its managers knew who the 'problem students' were “yet cannot do anything against them, for they fear for their own security, as the masters of these thugs are big political leaders”.

Student unions are not yet officially allowed at universities, although in 2008 the current government lifted a ban on them.

This elicited mixed reactions among academics, with some welcoming the move and others branding it an effort to politicise campuses. Many academics are in favour of student unions, but do not want them to operate on a political basis.

Islamabad-based Professor Arshad Saleem told University World News that the era of traditional student unions was past and in today’s Pakistan “weapons would be the order of the day, and universities would become arenas for political wrestling”.

Although not ‘official’, the links of many student organisations to political parties are widely known.

Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) is associated with the anti-West Jamat-e-Islami party, the People’s Students Federation is a wing of the ruling Pakistan Peoples’ Party, and the Muslim Students Federation is supported by the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League.

The Imamia Student Organisation (ISO) is associated with a religious party ideologically linked to the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and the All-Pakistan Muttahida Students Organisation (APMSO) is a wing of the national Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

The Insaf Students Federation (ISF) is aligned with the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the party led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Although the IJT and ISF are both against the US-led war on terror, they are antagonists and have clashed at Punjab University several times, including violently in January 2010, when ISF students were beaten with iron rods.

There are several other student factions associated with sectarian or language-based parties.

Politics at Quaid-e-Azam University is based on language and each student group dominates certain hostel buildings. The Punjab Students Council seized a hall of residence from IJT after an armed clash in which numerous students were injured.

Students at war with on another

The history of armed clashes at universities tells the story of politically or ideologically opposed groups at war with one another.

For example, an incident at Karachi University, in which 12 students were injured, was a clash between the People’s Students’ Federation and the Punjabi Students’ Association.

IJT accused APMSO, which is linked to a coalition ruling party in Sindh province, of kidnapping and torturing one of its activists. And IJT has itself been blamed for several incidents at Punjab University, where in 2008 police seized a large cache of weapons, including Kalashnikovs and hand grenades.

There are also some student groups affiliated to militant movements such as the Taliban or Jamat-ud-Dawa, which was behind the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India.

The Karachi University bomb explosion, which injured ISO students, was carried out by students linked to the Taliban. In May last year police said four Taliban members had been arrested, one of them a student.

There has been violence not only at major universities but also at numerous other public institutions around the country.

In April last year six students were wounded during a clash between the Pakhtun Students’ Federation (PSF) and the ISO at the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology in Karachi, where last July there was also fighting between the IJT and the PSF with seven students wounded.

Ten IJT students at Multan’s Bahauddin Zakariya University were seriously injured in May last year after being attacked by PSF activists. “Police could not do anything as PSF belongs to the ruling party and Multan is the electoral constituency of the prime minister. We cannot do anything; they are stronger than us,” said a professor, who did not want to be named.

Faisalabad’s National Textile University reported a case against 250 students belonging to two warring groups, for ransacking university property. In May last year Shah Abdul Latif University opened a case against 13 students for damaging university buses during a clash, and in the same month the University of Education in Lahore was closed for several days as ISF and IJT students clashed over control of the campus. Several students were injured.

On 7 March this year, IT student Deen Muhammad was murdered at Sindh University in Jamshoro by students belonging to an opposing faction, and in July last year 15 students were seriously injured in a fight at Karachi’s NED University.

In May 2010 four universities in Balochistan province were closed for days following fights between the Baloch Students’ Organisation and Pakhtun Students’ Organisation in which 46 students were wounded.

There are other cases. Many more words are required to tell the story of student violence in Pakistan. Some academics are calling for an official lifting of the ban on student unions, believing that formalising student politics could ease the violence.

“Former military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq put a ban on student unions in 1984 as he saw students’ movements as the crucial force behind the collapse of Ayub Khan’s dictatorship. Since then student politics has taken its own route, just like water makes its own,” Zafarullah Khan, executive director of Islamabad’s Centre for Civic Education, told University World News.

“Restoring student unions would help end violence, as students will learn to compete with one another and tolerate other groups,” Zafarullah argued.

Just about everybody in Pakistan believes that universities must be purged of weapons, teachers must be respected and student unions must be allowed on a non-political basis with a legally binding code of conduct.

* Witness a clash between the PSF and MSF outside Emerson College in Multan, on YouTube.