LAHORE: “Coca Cola converted to Islam a year or two back apparently, but not the other beverages, well not yet”, says Khalid* laughing. “Shezan is manufactured by Ahmadis so we can neither sell the beverage nor their jams, and Pepsi is still a Jewish drink, so it is banned.”
Khalid*, a canteen salesman at the new campus of Punjab University (PU) is referring to the unofficial ban on select beverages at the university campus by the the Islami Jamiat-e-Talba (IJT) — an ongoing protest that was formulated after the publishing of controversial Danish caricatures of the Prophet (PBUH) in 2005.
The IJT, the student wing of the Jamat-e-Islami is known to interfere in the management of not just students affairs at Punjab University but the faculty as well. One duty the IJT assumes as its own is to control what is sold, where and to whom. Their control of such matters ensures that even while discussing regulations forced by the IJT on canteens, Khalid was scared of being seen speaking to this scribe or being overheard commenting against the IJT.
For years only “Shandy Cola” was allowed to be sold on campus, a drink that students found “tasteless”. Shezan a local product was also banned by the IJT because the manufacturers were Ahmadis. This ban on beverages was partially lifted in 2008, however, canteen workers, owners and students say beverage distributors pay the IJT for permission to sell specific products.
Javed Sami, Residential Officer Punjab University who is in charge of canteen contracts and what will be sold at the new campus claims “Shezan is not sold because it is not in demand any more. If you look around, many shops do not sell Shezan. That is why it is not available at the campus canteen.”
The IJT cabinet’s new President Rai Haq Nawaz says “We just represent the students, and because Shezan is owned by Ahmadis, the students do not want it on campus and that is why we do not allow it.”
Aside from banning beverages, the IJT also plays the role of moral police at PU. The reason why Muhammad Aslam* had to stop selling shawarmas at his tuck shop was because the IJT told him that “too many male and female students hang out” outside his shop and eating this food item was their excuse. Aslam, who has been running the tuck shop at PU’s new campus for 12 years says he could sense an ultimatum when given one from the IJT.
Given that he had been roughed up and had his shop closed down on more than one occasion, Aslam was forced to stop sale of shawarmas. Aslam claims that the reason he was targeted was because he asked members of the Jamiat cabinet to return Rs 18,000 which they owed him.
“They used the excuse of opposite sexes mingling to shut me up” said Aslam.
Haroon*, a BS student and former IJT member says “I remember we as a group used to go to canteens and eat as much as we wanted to, then the group told the canteen workers that our Nazim would pay, but those payments were never made.”
Haq Nawaz the IJT President refutes this. “We have to control the quality of food items being sold, so sometimes we even close down the canteens which we think are not meeting the standards,” he said.
To this end, a “Food and Price Control Committee” has been set up by the IJT. The price list with the IJT logo, signed by the current chairman of the committee Nauman Zafar, an IJT member and student at Law College is pasted outside every canteen, tuck shop and cafeteria on campus including those in the hostels.
The IJT says this price control committee is formed by their organisation, the students, and canteen workers, but the PU administration denies this.
Sami says “the IJT is lying, they are trained to lie and I say this on authority that the committee is formed by us and our representative heads it.” He adds that “the ban on beverages was lifted by the current VC as well.”
These official and unofficial authorities at the campus add to the woes of the canteen owners, who say that in order to open a canteen, they speak to the Residential Officer and then to the Jamiat as they need the permission of both.
Hanif* who works at a hostel canteen says he goes to the IJT for increasing the rates of food items or cooked dishes.
“We go to the Jamiat cabinet and request them to increase the charges because we go in loss or end up making sub-standard food. Sometimes they listen to us.” He confirms that “the canteen owners have at times paid the IJT to let them sell a particular food item.”
Haq Nawaz rejects this claim. “we are not involved in any kind of business on campus, it is part of our organization’s rules.”
It is not just the ban on select beverages, but also the control that the IJT has over administrative affairs such as canteen food which students are bothered by.
Ahmad* a student of (BS Hons) Bio Tech says “there should not be a ban on products because of a religious perspective, nor should there be a ban on Shezan because it is produced by so and so”.
Muhammad Shoaib wants the freedom to choose what he wants to eat or buy. A recent graduate of Mass Communication, Shoaib says “I don’t like that I am not allowed to buy the brands that I want because there is an organization of students, a group of thugs which does not get along with them (the product distributors) because they do not pay them the extortion money.”
Female students while complaining about the lack of choice at canteens also find the segregated canteens an inconvenience. Sehrish Mehmood says when she goes to the boys only canteen, the workers refuse to sell them anything.
Fatima Mushtaq, a student (BS Honors) in the department of Philosophy says they get caught between the VC administration and the IJT. “If they want a segregated canteen why do we even study in a co-ed institute? Why can’t the university decide who will make such decisions for us, the administration or the IJT.”
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual