September 1st, 2021
By Hamid Riaz
As the Taliban begin their self-imposed reign of terror in neighbouring Afghanistan, Pakistan has been the first to bear the backlash of this development. The most immediate impact was that of Afghan refugees crossing the border by hundreds. Yet all too soon, the tentacles of religious extremism seem to have already reached one of the biggest educational institutions, the Punjab University, where the right wing religio-political student organization, the Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) allegedly lashed out at other students because of an ‘anti-Taliban’ study circle meant to be held on August 26.
As a result, on Tuesday, August 31, a protest was held outside the Punjab Assembly, by the members of the Pashtun Education Development Movement (PEDM) and the Progressive Students Collective (PSC) who voiced their concern and anger over increasing incidents of violence on the main PU campus specifically by the Jamiat.
Dozens of incensed students attended the gathering, chanting slogans against the university administration for allowing such group to operate on campus with impunity. The organizers also blasted Jamiat, whose power had peaked after every other student body was banned by the military-dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.
Rae Ali Aftab, the General Secretary of the PSC was the main victim of the clash that took place on August 26. He describes how they had been hounded by the IJT since the idea of the discussion was conceived.
“From the moment we decided to hold this particular study circle to critically analyze the Taliban takeover of Kabul, members of the IJT started threatening us,” he said while giving his statement to Voicepk soon after the clash. “But we did not back down. While we were preparing for the study circle, a few members of the IJT approached us and tried to stop us forcibly. When we stood our ground, a gang of Jamiat goons collected and began attacking us with batons. I have received several bruises on my back,” he says.
Another member of the PSC – Qaiser – informed Voicepk that their organization had tried to have an FIR registered at the local police station, but the police had refused to do so.
But an official of the concerned police station says that in fact the other group had also been pressurizing for an FIR to be registered and the police had discouraged them as well.
“We (the police) want the students to resolve their campus issues amicably and with mediation from the university’s security department,” he said.
For its part, the Jamiat, has denied any involvement in the attack.
“The students who attacked [the PSC organizers] were not members of the Jamiat,” says Hamza Hussain, the official Punjab University spokesperson of IJT. “If they can somehow prove to us that the attackers were from the IJT, we will take firm disciplinary action against them.” He can’t help but crack a joke at it.
“If it would have really been us, we would have beaten [the PSC organizers] into a bloody pulp,” Hussain quips.
Though Hussain denies IJT’s involvement in the attack, he does not hide his unwavering support for the Afghan-Taliban. He even goes so far as to assert that any attempts to build an anti-Taliban narrative would be ‘dealt with seriously’.
“Yes, of course…I proudly say that the [IJT] support the Afghan-Taliban and these students are trying to malign them on campus,” he says. “This is something we cannot tolerate. We are strongly opposed to their anti-Taliban rhetoric.”
Not the First Time
The ‘progressives’ are not the only group on campus with whom the IJT has clashed with in the recent past.
On August 27, merely a day after the scuffle allegedly between the Jamiat and the progressives, another fight broke out between the Punjab University’s Pashtun Council, formally known as the PEDM, and members of the Jamiat in the cafeteria near the International Relations’ department.
This time, the point of contention was not something political, but rather more personal. It was matter of a male and a female sitting together – one of the Jamiat’s ‘pet peeves’ and because of which campuses have often seen the worst kind of violence throughout decades. However in both the aforementioned incidents, the causes show clear attempts to push an extremist-Islamist agenda on campus.
An eyewitness of the second incident, Masoom Khan, who is a PU senior affiliated with the PEDM described what he saw.
“I had been peacefully eating my lunch at the cafeteria; the MPhil exams were approaching, because of which the space was full with students huddled together for preparations,” he says. “All of a sudden I heard some Jamiat boys yelling at some students for being ‘immodest’. A fellow Pashtun student got up and confronted the Jamiat members for their undue moral policing. That is when all hell broke loose. Our (PEDM) members and Jamiat boys were at each other’s throats.”
Khan says that there had been injuries on both sides.
“But I ask you, should we just stand by and watch these Jamiat students beat up our friends just for sitting and studying with female students?” he asks.
After the clash, hundreds of PEDM students along with other allied student organizations carried out a rally throughout the campus as a ‘warning’ to the Jamiat, and to ensure there was a conducive learning environment for everyone.
For the August 27 incident, the Jamiat did take responsibility. But they also blamed it on the hotheadedness of a few ‘greenhorns’.
“First and foremost, I want to clarify that these were junior members of the Jamiat who started this fight,” says Hamza Hussain. “Our well-trained seniors would never do something as irresponsible as this. That said, we do oppose male and female students sitting together and engaging in inappropriate actions but we never try to handle the situation through violence. Instead, our members are required to approach the administration and seek their help when they witness something immoral or inappropriate taking place on campus,” he said, justifying the reason behind the fight not so much the fight itself.
“These Pashtuns are not even students of the university. These are anti-Pakistan agents of the PTM and want to push their anti-state agenda on campus,” adds Hamza.
A Long and Violent History
Even though these fights may appear as minor clashes occurring in a campus with a long history of clashes, the rhetoric and vocabulary employed by both sides signify deep running ideological divisions mirroring the political mainstream i.e. the rejection of the progressive as anti-Islam and the rejection of the ethno-nationalist as anti-Pakistan.
The IJT’s extreme Islamist positions and their overt support for religious militants like the Taliban is not something which was born inside Punjab University’s campuses, instead, they are loyally following the political position of their parent organization the Jamat-e-Islami whose supreme leader, Siraj-ul-Haq has jubilantly welcomed the Afghan-Taliban takeover, and has openly supported the imposition of ‘Shariah-law’.
Analysts have already pointed out that the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan may boost the confidence of other religious extremist organizations in the region, and the recent episodes in Punjab University may be the first incident to prove these fears.