Battleground of ideas

Rasul Bakhsh Rais April 25, 2010

Of late, students of Jamiat assaulted Professor Iftikhar Baloch at the Punjab University for convicting their activists for some offences and a group of students attacked and killed a fellow student in the University of Peshawar for listening to music. These are not occasional instances of violence and show how violent groups have captured our universities and try and stifle dissent and diversity.

As we live in a pluralistic society, we need to keep all social and political spaces free and open for diverse views. Regrettably, we have not done that even in critical institutions like our colleges and universities that play a vital role throughout the world in promoting diversity and pluralism of ideas and social attitudes. We had that diversity in our public colleges and universities for the first three decades of our independence. In our days, these institutions represented intellectual pluralism; Islamic, liberal, regional and progressive outlooks co-existed and competed for acceptance among young students with a spirit of tolerance.

Gradually, we lost the liberal academic heritage of the universities. The Zia regime and its Islamist associates in the religious political parties and conservative social groups essentially thought of higher education and universities as a battleground of ideas but instead of fighting the battle of ideas through dialogue and discussion, they captured the institutional, physical and intellectual space by force.

How did they do it? They captured the institutions by appointing vice-chancellors and principals more for their slavish mind-set and political loyalty than merit. The administrators in turn obliged the regime and religious parties by selecting faculty not on the basis of academic merit but ideological conformity. This eventually created space for militant student groups to appropriate the role of policemen to maintain social order and peace by subjecting their ideological rivals to violence.

As the Islamist student groups captured universities and key colleges, the academic tradition of free debate and intellectual pluralism died out. They established an informal intellectual totalitarian regime that struck hard at the heart and spirit of liberal educational philosophy. Production of knowledge in humanities and social sciences and creativity in arts suffered gravely. So did ideological plurality on the campuses.

How can we restore freedom and openness to our colleges and universities? Only by liberating them from militant student groups and their institutional and outside political allies. This is a basic condition for creating an open atmosphere that is a primary responsibility of the governments at the provincial level.

However, if some of the provincial governments have an ethnic character and governing political parties extend patronage to militarised student organisations then what can we do? At least, not allow them to destroy our institutions for their skewed and narrow political interests. Awareness of this grave loss in the media, civic engagement and persistent civil demand for educational reform are the starting point.