On 14 Nov. 2007 Punjab University witnessed a series of events that was unprecedented in the history of the institute. In the paragraphs that follow I shall recount the causes, dynamics and outcomes of these events.
Apart from being the country’s largest university, Punjab University also boasts a rich academic and social history. With three Nobel laureates emerging from its ranks, it has been a symbol of sustained excellence in Pakistan and a centre of anti-authoritarian and progressive student activism, with a strong culture of freedom of speech. Alumni from this institution have gone on to become leaders of this country.
However, over the previous three decades the university seems to have lost many of these traits. Academic standards are poor, bearing witness to a number of Plagiarisms. With the examination system demanding hardly anything other than rote learning, there appears to be an alarming absence of research culture and consideration of updated subject knowledge. But the most important feature of this is the repressing social policing, which strictly monitors any deviance from narrowly constructed moral and social standards. These standards often determine not only co and extra-curricular content but in some cases, the curriculum itself. With the few exceptions, most social spaces have been hijacked due to this issue.
The real problem with this environment is an apparent compliance of the administration and students, most probably owing to the supposedly ‘moral’ element of these sanctions. Basically, this compliance factor is the most important element for analysis. Is it genuine compliance or merely a tactical gesture adopted for survival? A keen observation of campus life immediately leads in favour of the latter, although for several years there used to be a sense of denial surrounding this issue. Those in government and the media perhaps felt it was an issue not worth bothering with at all. One explanation of this has been the state’s apathetic attitude towards good governance, while another is the potential threat posed by such hooligan elements. The latter has particularly affected the media, the alumni and the students in varying degrees. As a result, scores of incidents of harassment and beatings on campus by self-proclaimed moral and social custodians would seldom make the news. However a vivid and undeniable example of the Punjab university student’s version of reality became evident after 14 November 2007. The events took place as follows.
On 3 November 2007, emergency rule was declared in Pakistan. Political parties, civil society activists, journalists and students began protesting in full force and faced severe repression as a result. Against their precedent, students from Punjab University by and large adopted an attitude of indifference to the situation…but this was soon to change. The famous cricketer politician Imran Khan visited the university in hope of rallying students against emergency rule. Before he could do this, however, he was bullied, detained and handed over to the police by certain students, who thought his visit was an illegal entry into their zone. Confusion over the situation and heavy police deployment on campus hindered students from an immediate reaction, but as the facts became clear by evening; a spark was ignited in the dormant fuel of anger within the student body.
The following day, without any prior plans and intensions a group of students from Law College started chanting slogans. They were soon joined by scores of other students from the college, who together started walking across the premises in an energetic pace, their number multiplying rapidly as they continued to chant. Emotions of anger, exuberance and even fear ran like an electric current through the ever swelling ranks of the protesting students, but the participants kept on moving. The five thousand strong rally visited the whole campus to protest against the repressive atmosphere in Punjab university that they had been witness to for several years.
The day after proved even more challenging due to late night threats that had been received. Nevertheless a great number of students, estimated at around eight to ten thousand, turned out to protest with renewed zeal. The day ended with a sit-in before the vice chancellor’s office, with students demanding immediate action from the authorities. A few more days of such activity involving similar number of students resulted in the vice chancellor’s announcement that the stated demands would be fulfilled.
Some remarkable features of the movement included female participation (a rare spectacle in Punjab University), anti-dictatorship and anti-emergency slogans, a diverse array of participants ranging from conservative religious factions to communists, and fearlessness, despite the continuing threats and potential problems. It bore the elements of a typical revolt at the micro level, with traits like sudden, unplanned and fearless outbursts against authoritarianism and repression that were continually sustained till the goals were achieved. Student demands including an overall change of the campus environment, ranging from the administration’s attitude to hostel activities. All the while, of course, freedom of dissent, speech and assembly were the implied demands.
Despite its historic leading role in student activism, the Punjab University has no other example of such a mass movement. Decades of exploitation and suppression were slapped back. Those who lived the experience describe it as romantic and memorable, while those who observed from outside called it marvellous. Along with massive newspaper coverage, it invited a lot of well-known writer with direct or indirect past experience with Punjab University to express their critical views in a popular media.
As a result of the protests, immediate action was taken in the form of some expulsions and disciplinary measures. An environment allowing greater personal freedom slowly crept in. various new student organizations started working on campus, and some previously suspended co-curricular activities were restored. Most of the movement’s goals seemed to have been achieved, but this success soon turned out to be short-lived… an outcome that was predicted by some senior political activists.
After a period of relative calm, the recently activated student organizations started being victimised several incidents of beating and harassment occurred, culminating in an extremely brutal attack on a dozen students on 12 December 2008, where some of the victims were even shot in the legs. The administration reacted to these with disciplinary actions which were substantially insufficient. Since then, such incidents have once again started occurring in the University, and students once again find themselves being intimidated on campus.
Although such behaviour is restricted to certain elements and has consistently failed to gain mass support from the student body, an effective alternative platform for students is still missing. Students themselves can hardly be blamed for this, their struggle being witness to the fact that they have done more than could be expected from them despite decades of state sponsored de-politicization. Unfortunately, against all the recent atrocities, official silence over Punjab University’s situation seems to be an expression by the government of want of evidence, with the authorities being too handicapped to take note of the 14 November student protests. And so the sad fact remains that like most revolutions, the revolution of 14 November 2007 has been betrayed not by its leaders but by the state itself.
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