The Freedom Fighters of Pakistan

Photo credit: UJMi on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

Universities have become a battleground for freedom of speech in Pakistan. We in India need to fight the same battles.

Four years ago, when I visited Pakistan, I had the most unusual exchange with an angry young man at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). He was critical of the Indian state for treating Muslims as second-class citizens, and delighted that his grandparents chose Pakistan over India in 1947. That he had spent a good part of his life in the United States of America was another matter altogether, but relevant to the conversation.

This person enjoyed dual citizenship, and thus had two passports — one Pakistani, another American. From him, I got my first lesson about the distinction between Brand India and Brand Pakistan. He said, “When I am in the States, people often ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I say I am from India. Don’t laugh. I hate it but it makes my life easier. When they hear India, they think of Bollywood. When they hear Pakistan, they think of terrorism.” There was a smile on my face but I had mixed feelings.

This distinction is a stark one, and must feel quite real to a man from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan who is forced to live with it in a world that has altered dramatically for Muslims after 9/11. To me, however, Brand Pakistan means something totally different. It signals bravery of the rarest kind. In a country where freedom of speech is besieged by state surveillance, people regularly come out on the streets to articulate dissent and reclaim civil liberties. Knowing that intelligence agencies could make their lives miserable, people show up to demand the release of political prisoners euphemistically known as disappeared persons.

The fear of being silenced for good is always there. It has led many of the brightest minds to seek asylum in countries where their rights are better protected, and their families can live in safer conditions. Such transitions are never easy because they are born out of compulsion. They stay connected to movements back home, and amplify the voices of the ones left behind who may not have the means to leave, or are held back by a commitment to build strong democratic institutions that would survive the winds of political turmoil.

It is against this background that I understand the groundswell of solidarity among academics in Pakistan and scholars at foreign universities who have taken a public stance over threats to academic freedom and suppression of critical thinking on university campuses in Pakistan. With over 280 signatories when we last checked, the ‘Letter from Concerned Faculty Regarding Academic Freedom and Increased Repression on University Campuses in Pakistan’ has been written with reference to four separate incidents that took place in the second week of April 2018 at Habib University in Karachi, LUMS in Lahore, Punjab University in Lahore, and Gomal University in Dera Ismail Khan.

At Habib University, a teach-in and panel discussion titled ‘Ethnic Rights, New Social Movements, and the State of the Federation in Pakistan’ was cancelled due to pressure from state functionaries who visited the campus just a few hours before the event. The guest speakers who were scheduled to talk about ethnic divides and centre-province relations in Pakistan were escorted off campus by guards, and all online promotional content was deleted. The Pakistani state is scared of allowing such dialogues to happen because they expect accountability from the Punjabi establishment, which has systematically alienated the Baloch, the Pashtuns and the Sindhis for decades, refusing to honour their unique ethnic and linguistic identities as well as their rightful claim to full citizenship in the federation of Pakistan.

LUMS cancelled a meeting scheduled to commemorate the death anniversary of Mashal Khan, a student from Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, who was murdered last year over fake allegations of blasphemy. An investigation team constituted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan revealed that it was a planned murder not connected with any instance of blasphemy. Khan was killed because he spoke against corrupt practices related to appointments in the university administration, and exploitation of female students in the university hostel. Not only was he stripped naked and brutally beaten, his murder was filmed on phone and circulated on campus. His life could not be saved despite the police presence on campus. It does not take a sleuth to discern that they were actively colluding in eliminating him.

The gathering at LUMS was intended to be a collective mourning by students for a peer whose short life was dedicated to working for social justice. Though LUMS holds a reputation for being among the most progressive universities in Pakistan, it has become quite conformist over the last few years. It was here that a seminar about missing persons in Balochistan was cancelled in 2015 based on directives issued by the government. LUMS works towards creating a diverse student population by providing merit-based scholarships to people from other provinces, but it is monopolized by the Punjabi elite who live in their own bubble, dismissive of students from rural backgrounds, unwilling to question human rights violations by the military, and nursing dreams of an Ivy League education. It was on this campus that I was once reprimanded for daring to ask about the situation of Ahmadis, a sect of Muslims who do not consider Muhammad to be the final prophet, and whose freedom of religion is severely restricted under the Constitution of Pakistan.

In the third instance, Ammar Ali Jan who worked at Punjab University as an assistant professor of sociology was fired from his job for supporting the right of Pashtun students to participate in non-violent protests that demand an end to racial profiling of their community members. The study circles he ran were labelled as anti-state activities. His office was locked, and he was thrown out without being paid. He probably underestimated the challenges he would encounter at a public sector university in Lahore after growing used to the traditions of academic freedom he must have experienced while pursuing his MA at the University of Chicago, and Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge. His students have spoken out against his humiliation by the university administration, newspapers have written editorials in support of him, and his own Facebook wall is quite alive with a condemnation of the authorities and appeals for protecting universities from becoming caged spaces that stifle dissent.

At Gomal University, the faculty and administration were paid a visit by state functionaries who interrogated them about the content of their courses, and warned them not to teach any material that would encourage critical thinking among students. A few days later, the Vice Chancellor of this university issued an order barring the entry of its alumnus Manzoor Mehsood aka Manzoor Pashteen on both its campuses. Pashteen has called for the formation of a judicial commission to investigate police encounters, and for the return of thousands of missing Pashtuns from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) who have been held by the Pakistani army and security agencies. The state cannot stand him because of his appeal among the youth. He is his late twenties but already enjoys a large following in Pakistan as the leader of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which Jan is an ardent sympathizer of.

In the days leading up to April 23, when the PTM organized the Pashtun Long March to Lahore with thousands of people in attendance, Jan was actively using his social media presence to endorse the cause. What I find interesting about Jan is that he seems to be a pacifist who understands that peace is not possible without justice, which in turn requires a direct confrontation with structural violence. Far from wanting to fan tensions between Punjabis and Pashtuns, he seems to be in favour of an open dialogue that enables both to hear each other. As a Punjabi, the language used by Pashtuns is sometimes difficult for him to hear but he realizes that tone policing is not the approach to take with people who are speaking of their pain. Engaging diverse viewpoints is an important feature of higher education. It is an essential step in excavating new insights and understanding.

Although the four incidents seem disconnected, they are bound by a common thread, which has led these academics to speak in a unified voice. As professionals whose job it is to teach their students to think, examine, analyse, and debate, their freedom is at stake. For them, the university is an institution that should make possible the free expression and exchange of ideas without any intimidation. Unlike the state, their understanding of a teacher’s role is not limited to mechanical transfer of knowledge followed by assessment and certification. They feel responsible for addressing social and political issues, and want their students to be actively involved in developing a critical lens, without which intellectual growth is impossible.

Though the letter does not define academic freedom, it is helpful to refer to the Academic Freedom Statement of the First Global Colloquium of University Presidents held in January 2005:

Academic freedom is fundamental to the central values and purposes of universities, which must in turn protect freedom of inquiry and speech, without which neither faculty nor students can flourish or achieve the ends that academic freedom is designed to serve. Scholars and students must be able to study, learn, speak, teach, research, and publish, without fear of intimidation or reprisal, free from political interference, in an environment of tolerance for and engagement with divergent opinions. The teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his or her subject, and when speaking or writing outside the classroom as an individual, the teacher must be free from institutional censorship or discipline.

These freedoms have been under attack on university campuses in Pakistan for a long time. Military dictators have appointed retired generals and bureaucrats as vice chancellors. Intelligence agents have sat in on lectures to weed out views regarded as dangerous to the national security. Academics who have tried to question the status quo have been firmly put in their place. They have been harrassed, sacked, or denied permission to attend conferences outside Pakistan. The message being sent out is loud and clear: scholarly merit does not matter, sycophancy does.

Mehtab Ali Shah’s article ‘Academic Freedom in Pakistan‘ published in the Economic and Political Weekly in December 2005 provides a good introduction to the historical context in which these attacks have taken place. A more contemporary documentation that is exhaustive in its listing of incidents but has hardly any analysis to offer is a monitoring report published in 2017 by Scholars At Risk (SAR), described as “an international network of higher education institutions dedicated to protecting threatened scholars, preventing attacks on higher education communities and promoting academic freedom worldwide.” This report was SAR’s submission to the Third Cycle of Universal Periodic Review of Pakistan conducted by the United Nations Human Rights Council. It records 11 attacks on individual scholars, three mass attacks on campuses, and an attack on a lawyer who was defending a scholar charged with violating blasphemy law. These attacks have resulted in at least 110 deaths, and at least 143 injuries.

It is the most depressing report I have ever read. Academics have been killed in Pakistan for advocating women’s right to education, speaking about religious extremism, and promoting leftist ideas, even though the state is bound by international human rights instruments, which actually mean nothing in this context. When you read this, it is difficult to not think of Khan, Pashteen and Jan as heroes who are putting their lives at risk in service of a future they envision for their people. Their fight is not for academic freedom alone. It is a much bigger fight, which aims to secure the foundations of democracy itself.

India’s journey with democracy has been different from that of Pakistan but Indians cannot afford to be smug right now. The West Bengal Government led by Mamata Banerjee of the All India Trinamool Congress has proposed a new set of rules, which aim to restrict university professors from expressing their opinion about government policies in the print and electronic media. They are required to seek written permission from the Vice Chancellor to publish articles that are not directly concerned with arts, science and literature.

It has become rather easy for state functionaries and non-state actors in India to stick the label of ‘anti-national’ on the scholars and students they perceive as trouble makers. Since 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party formed the central government, there have been a spate of campus protests in India triggered by attacks on academic freedom at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Film and Television Institute of India, University of Delhi, University of Hyderabad, Ashoka University, Aligarh Muslim University, Nalanda University, Banaras Hindu University, National Law School of India University, and more. Going into the details of each context is outside the scope of this article but a Hindustan Times report from March 2017 adequately captures what might be going on in the minds of people with academic and political muscle.

In this report, S. Parasuraman, the director of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai is quoted as saying, “The student’s job is to study. If you want to engage in political issues, get out of here.” This seems no different from what was conveyed to Khan, Pashteen and Jan in Pakistan. The students at TISS were protesting against the hike in fees, the reduction of scholarships for students who qualify under ‘Other Backward Category’ (OBC), and the surveillance cameras at the institute. Some of them were also raising their voice against attempts by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad to curb free speech on campuses.

Being political is not only about pledging allegiance to a political party. It could mean a variety of things — challenging patriarchy, speaking up against caste discrimination, calling out homophobia, taking a stance against sectarian violence or hate speech. The study of social sciences is a political act. It cannot happen without analysing how power functions. Once the skills of evidence gathering, analysis, reasoning and arguing are taught, it is up to the student to decide how they want to use their critical faculties. It would be incorrect for professors to expect their students to follow in their ideological footsteps.

The Academic Freedom Statement of the First Global Colloquium of University Presidents, which was mentioned earlier, also outlines responsibilities that scholars have while they enjoy academic freedom. They are expected to refrain from prejudice and partisanship, and adhere to the standards of scholarly inquiry and teaching required by their discipline. This caveat is significant. In practical terms, it would be mean that a left-leaning professor does not have the right to demand that their student adopt an uncritical stance towards the Communist Party of India and the Indian National Congress while reserving their critical rigour only for an analysis of the BJP’s antics.Their training as academics is supposed to have taught them how to pursue ideas, how to subject claims to rigorous scrutiny, how to engage with cognitive complexity, and how to revise their conclusions in the light of new knowledge. These skills are transferable across contexts.

In Pakistan and in India, universities are battlegrounds for the right and the left — each side with its own dogma, and its stubborn reluctance to engage with the other. This results in the persistence of echo chambers, and a legacy of antagonism which reinforces the myth that there is no possible common ground. If only the right could shed off its persecution complex, and the left could step off its moral high horse, our universities would make big strides in the direction of academic freedom.

About the author

Chintan Girish Modi

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He holds an M.Phil in English Language Education, and has worked with several academic institutions including the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange.