22 May | 2024

Lahore, Pakistan

How ‘culture of violence’ turns university campuses into deadly battlefields?

Intolerance, violence, and extremism inside educational institutions have a long-standing history, but current state of affair is deeply concerning

Violence, as it is usually understood in modern psychology, is a behavior or action intended to hurt, injure, or inflict suffering on oneself, others, or property. It entails use of physical force, violence, or intimidation to establish dominance, exercise control, or cause harm. Violence can take on many different forms, including physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual acts, and it can happen in private or public settings, within groups, or in wider societal contexts. In Pakistan, public universities collaborated with law enforcement agencies to curb on-campus violence. However, legacy of the past continues to inflict distress in the present as the specter of extremism spreads within the academic institutions.

One of the most infamous cases is that of Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old student who was brutally assaulted and shot by a group of fellow students on April 13, 2017. These assailants, who were students at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, represented diverse student organizations, including those with left-leaning, ethnic, and religious orientations. The supposed ‘crime’ of the victim student was the posting of some kind of ‘offensive’ material online, which was later proven to be false. Another incident occurred on December 13, when a fight between two groups over an event at the International Islamic University of Islamabad (IIUI) resulted in the death of a student and injuries to several others.

These cases, including the fatal stabbing of a former student at Bahauddin Zakaria University in Multan on August 15, 2021, represent just a few examples of the challenges within the academic institutions. Many more such incidents remain undocumented, according to some media reports, and rights organizations. Intolerance, violence, and extremism inside educational campuses have a long-standing history, but the current state of affair is deeply concerning. At the University of Karachi, there have been deliberate efforts by some extremist groups to perpetuate violent behavior among students. At the University of Karachi, hockey sticks, cricket bats and other sport equipment were used by the students to confront rival factions.

‘Today, many universities have become ‘breeding grounds’ for extremism, linguistic animosity, and violence’

In the 1970s, ‘Thunder Squad’ was established as a group of physically strong individuals who were selected for engaging in violent activities. Their primary objective was to suppress rival student organizations and assert dominance through force. Reportedly, the ‘squad’ was affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami which advocates for transforming this South Asian nation into a ‘religious state,’ according to their understanding of the religion. At the University of Karachi, the ‘Thunder Squad’ became synonymous with tension and violence. Journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian Nadeem F. Paracha in his 2012 newspaper article wrote that the militant faction of the Jamaat, known as the ‘Thunder Squad’, reemerged on campuses with a mission to eradicate what they deemed ‘immoral activities’ within educational institutions.

The squad members frequently clashed with members of left-leaning student organizations like the National Students Federation and the Democratic Students Federation, as well as other ethnic student groups, resulting in frequent confrontations and the use of force. Initially, the students were gripped with fear as remnants of the colonial system lingered in their minds. Over time, other student groups gained access to firearms as well. Instead of relying on hockey sticks and bats, influential political parties lent support to their respective student wings. This practice is not recent but rather represents the enduring legacy of colonial brutality experienced by the people of the Indian subcontinent under the British rule.

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) established and backed the People’s Students Federation (PSF) after coming into power in early 1970s following the division of Pakistan in 1971. Interestingly, the National Students Federation (NSF) played a supportive role in People’s Party’s rise to power. Journalist, author and columnist Wusat Ullah Khan, a former member of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba in 1970s, stated that when People’s Party Chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came into power, he created his party’s student faction. But we can easily observe that presence of firearms in the university dormitories led to armed clashes between student factions, resulting in the loss of lives and the rapid spread of violence.

How ‘culture of violence’ turns university campuses into deadly battlefields?
In university dormitories, presence of firearms led to armed clashes between different student factions, resulting in loss of lives and rapid spread of violence

According to Nadeem F. Pracha, the students rarely had access to or used sophisticated weaponry in campus violence in the 1960s and 1970s. Those involved in frequent altercations relied on knives, chains, knuckle dusters, and bare fists. According to Professor Dr Moonis Ahmer of the University of Karachi, the last recorded violent clash occurred in 1989 between the People’s Student Federation and the All-Pakistan Muhajir Students Organization. Since then, paramilitary forces have been deployed at the university campus. The deployment of the paramilitary forces is a response to the violence and destructive politics of some student groups, despite the forces’ role of safeguarding the country’s borders rather than university campuses.

In Pakistan, the student groups were not always synonymous with violence or intolerance. Before 1980s, a different culture prevailed due to existence of the student unions. These unions were composed of various student organizations, representing diverse ideologies and political perspectives. Despite differences, they united to advance political and educational interests of the students, acting as intermediaries between the university administrations and the students. In stark contrast to the present, there once existed a culture of discussion, rivalry, training, and intellectual pursuits among the students. However, this progressive environment came to an end when student organizations were banned in 1984 under the military dictatorship.

This prohibition of the student unions was a response to the opposition faced by the military dictatorship from progressive and left-leaning political groups, with student unions playing a vital role in the resistance against this dictatorial rule. The ban on the unions effectively stifled students’ political activities. Noted writer and novelist Zahid Hussain, who served as the secretary general of the National Students Federation in early 1970s, explained that the politics of the time, including student politics, were driven by ideology and progressivism. In his bid to counter liberal and progressive forces, military ruler General Zia-Ul-Haq banned student unions and supported the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, thereby imprisoning students and fostering an atmosphere of extremism and bigotry.

The ban on the student unions was intertwined with other local events, particularly a US-backed ‘proxy war’ waged against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Serving as a frontline nation for the US in its conflict with the Russian Army, Pakistan witnessed the dictator’s efforts to give ‘religious touch’ to the country’s social, educational, and political structures. This process involved ‘exclusive’ laws, curricula, and literature, as the dictator provided extensive support to promote a proxy ideology at the behest of the United States.

‘The colleges are overrun with ‘fundos’ who have no interest in getting an education, so you have to go abroad’

Pakistani-American historian Dr Ayesha Jalal in her book “Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia,” describes a troubling change that has occurred in Pakistan, where extremist reinterpretations of the ‘holy war’ have replaced anticolonial and nationalistic expressions, encouraging immoral and demeaning behavior. She claims that the ‘holy war’ has been corrupted and is now utilized as ‘justification’ for seeking material goals that neglect moral precepts. Despite technological advancements, many universities in this South Asian nation have become breeding grounds for extremism, linguistic animosity, and violence. British-Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid in his novel “Moth Smoke,” once remarked, ‘the colleges are overrun with ‘fundos’ who have no interest in getting an education, so you have to go abroad.’

This sentiment resonates with the prevailing situation where stories of students falling prey to militant outfits, deadly clashes among ethnic student groups, student-on-student violence, and incidents of lynching over social or religious norms have become all too common. The roots of extremism in Pakistan can be traced back to the 1970s, although they were further exacerbated in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Groups like Al-Qaeda and Taliban romanticized violence and brutality, capturing the attention of not just illiterate youth but also educated young people. A non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution Madiha Afzal contends in her book, “Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State,” that Pakistan’s institutionalization of extremism coincided with the country’s adoption of an Americanized interpretation of the religion.

One such example is Saad Aziz, a graduate of Karachi’s Institute of Business Administration (IBA), who was detained for his involvement in the gruesome shooting of a bus carrying Ismaili passengers. It is noteworthy that militant groups are exploiting students as human shields. The fundamental cause lies in the encouragement of extremism rather than prohibition of student politics. As Wusat Ullah Khan pointed out that the state has supported and perpetuated extremism and bloodshed. We can observe that the religious extremism has contributed to the emergence of lynching mobs for several decades. However, it is not the sole factor responsible for breeding intolerance and violence.

‘We can observe that religious extremism has contributed to emergence of lynching mobs for several decades’

Renowned novelist Mohammed Hanif highlighted the increasing extremism in India and referred to it as ‘Pakistan’s murderous other’ in his newspaper article published in The New York Times. His observation holds some truth. While extremism may be on the rise in India, unlike Pakistan, India also boasts progressive student forces and activists like Kanhaiya Kumar, a former president of the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. He gained prominence for challenging India’s powerful Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and questioning actions of his government. Anyhow, violence driven by religious, ethnic, nationalist, secular, and regional sentiments turns campuses into deadly battlefields.

To pave the way for a peaceful society, the state and educational institutions must delve into the historical roots of extremism and examine the impact of a de-Americanized, de-institutionalized, and foreignized version of the religion followed by majority of the people. Only through this process, our society can adopt a path of progress towards a more harmonious and peaceful coexistence. We must remember that Pakistan is a country for all communities – either in higher number or in less number – without any discrimination.