Assaults on higher education continue unabated in South Asia

India, Pakistan and Afghanistan are among dozens of countries around the world where higher education has come harshly under attack during the last two years, according to the Education Under Attack 2022 report published last week. Universities in Afghanistan suffered 25 attacks perpetrated by militant armed groups.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are among 11 countries around the world where girls and women were reportedly targeted in attacks on education because of their gender.

The report, released on 1 June by the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), identified more than 320 incidents of attacks on higher education in countries profiled in the study.

The incidents included 240 attacks directed at university students and personnel, and some 80 attacks targeted university facilities during the reporting period of 2020 and 2021.

GCPEA researchers found that prior to COVID-19, the total number of reported attacks in these countries was slightly higher, with 340 incidents in the previous reporting period of 2018 and 2019. This indicated that COVID-related lockdowns, rather than improvements in the situation on the ground, were behind the negligible decrease in reported attacks on higher education.

During the past two years, India and Pakistan were among four countries with the highest reported numbers of people harmed because of attacks on education, including arrests or abductions.

The case of Afghanistan

Some 130 attacks were carried out against schools in Afghanistan, while 25 incidents of assaults on universities were perpetrated by militant armed groups including the Taliban and Islamic State, which fought for control over Afghanistan during and after the withdrawal of the United States and allied forces in August last year, when Kabul fell to the Taliban.

Out of 25 incidents of attacks on higher education in Afghanistan, 16 were on higher education students and staff and nine on facilities.

Attacks on higher education increased in Afghanistan in various parts of the country, including a high-impact facility attack on Kabul University in November 2020. Explosives were detonated followed by gunfire, killing 22 students and injuring another 22.

The report found that targeted killings of professors in Afghanistan appeared to rise in 2021 compared to 2020, and identified an increase in reports of threats against female scholars and students after the Taliban took control of the country.

Higher education continues to suffer in Afghanistan, with bans on women in education and threats to the lives of academics, the report said, quoting Scholars at Risk.

The case of Pakistan

In Pakistan most attacks on education involved the violent repression by security forces of education-related protests in 2020 and 2021, while armed groups also continued attacking education, particularly girls’ education.

Although Pakistan experienced a smaller number of attacks on schools in this period, mainly due to COVID-related closures, the impact in terms of fatalities and damage to facilities was greater than in the previous reporting period of 2018 and 2019. State highhandedness against school teachers and students remained at the same level during both reporting periods.

There were at least 18 attacks on higher education in Pakistan during 2020 and 2021 in which four female vocational trainers were killed and more than 140 students and personnel were reportedly arrested.

The report found a slight increase in incidents compared to 2018 and 2019. The majority of attacks on people in higher education were to suppress peaceful demonstrations by university students, staff or faculty members raising their voices for salaries, fee reductions, promotions or for other employment- or education-related demands.

The attacks by security forces on people in higher education also involved thrashing, beating and arresting Baloch students from the restive southwestern province of Balochistan, where security forces are facing an insurgency.

The case of India

India is also facing insurgency in the Jammu and Kashmir region, where security forces have used coercive powers to quell demonstrations by university students. According to the report, attacks on higher education in India appeared to decline in 2020 and 2021 compared to a peak in 2019, when India revoked the special status (autonomy) of Jammu and Kashmir.

Education remains under attack in other insurgency-hit areas in central and eastern states of India. Assaults on educational facilities by the Maoist Naxalite rebel movement have been reported, followed by the use of state force against the leftist groups.

Education Under Attack 2022 mentions at least 55 attacks on school pupils, teachers and other education personnel in India in 2020 and 2021, mainly to suppress education-related demonstrations.

GCPEA identified approximately 65 reported attacks on higher education in India in the last two years, in which the police reportedly detained or arrested more than 500 students and education personnel and used excessive force against students.

Attacks on higher education in India involved repression of protests rather than attacks on academic facilities, apart from cases of university students fighting forces in Jammu and Kashmir and in India’s eastern states.

Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, professor of international relations at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, told University World News: “India, Pakistan and Afghanistan should start a dialogue to jointly address the common issue of attacks on higher education.

“India and Pakistan share a border and have the long-standing issue of Kashmir, while Pakistan and Afghanistan also share a border and have the long-standing issue of cross-border infiltration by militants. A joint security dialogue by these three countries should help in decreasing attacks by militants on higher education.”