Pakistan’s Dark History of Student Extremists

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Pakistan’s Dark History of Student Extremists

Since the 1970s, political factions in Pakistan have armed students and encouraged them to violence.

Pakistan’s Dark History of Student Extremists

Leaders and supporters of Pakistani Islamic party Jamaat-e-Islami offer funeral prayers for three students who died in a shootout on their university campus in Karachi, Pakistan (Aug. 27, 2008).

Credit: AP Photo/Shakil Adil

KARACHI, PAKISTAN – On October 24, the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) and the Higher Education Commission (HEC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for prevention and awareness of “on-campus” extremism and terrorism.

This MoU did not come out of the blue. Many unaccountable incidents of intolerance and extremism at Pakistan’s university campuses pushed concerned authorities to take at least theoretical steps.

Perhaps most infamously, on April 13, 2017, 23-year-old student Mashal Khan was stripped, beaten and shot by a mob of students. All of the students were Khan’s university fellows at Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan city, northwestern Pakistan. The mob consisted of various student organizations: religious, ethnic, and even supposedly left-leaning. Khan’s “crime”? Posting blasphemous content online, a charge later revealed to be false.

Violence, intolerance, and extremism at university campuses are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan. This trend has a history of decades, but it has become unbearable now. This violent behavior in students was inculcated at the University of Karachi (UoK), Pakistan, through conscious planning by conservative religious leaders.

There was a time when cricket bats and hockey sticks were used in sports, but then they began to be utilized by students at the University of Karachi to beat their rival student factions. There was a group of strong men, particularly selected for unleashing violence; the group was called the “Thunder Squad.” Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) formed the Thunder Squad in the early 1970s to thrash opposing student factions and to show their power by violence.

The IJT is a student wing of the religious-cum-political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Pakistan. The socially conservative party was formed in 1941, even before the inception of Pakistan. Its main objective is to make Pakistan an Islamic welfare state governed by sharia law.

The Thunder Squad was a symbol of the fear and violence at the University of Karachi. As Nadeem F. Paracha wrote for Dawn in 2012, “The militant faction [of the IFT] was called the Thunder Squad and it reappeared on campuses with the mission to ‘cleanse educational institutions of immoral activities.’”

Thunder Squad personnel often used strong-arm tactics and regularly clashed with members of left-leaning student wings such as the National Students Federation (NSF) and Democratic Students Federation (DSF).

Fear lingered on in students initially. But with the passage of time, other student organizations also got access to weapons. Many major political parties backed their student wings; guns had replaced hockey sticks and bats.

After the disintegration of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh on the world’s map, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto came into the power in early 1970s, he established and supported the Peoples Students Federation (PSF), student faction of his Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

“Actually, Bhutto was helped by the NSF, a leftist student organization in ascending to the throne. But when Bhutto got power, he sidelined them and made his own student faction,” said renowned columnist Wasat Ullah Khan, who was a member of the IJT in the 1970s.

Unsurprisingly, Bhutto knew the tactics of using students and masses for Machiavellian politics.

With guns now present at the university dorms, armed conflict began among various student factions. It spread like a wildfire and engulfed lives. In 1981, Hafiz Aslam of the IJT was killed; this marked the beginning of Kalashnikov culture at the campuses.

“The last armed conflict was witnessed in 1989 at the University of Karachi,” said Dr. Moonis Ahmer, meritorious professor of international relations at the UoK. That clash was between the All Pakistan Muhajir Students Organization (APMSO) and the PSF.

Ahmer added, “Since then, we have the deployment of Rangers, a paramilitary force, at the University. They came here for [what was supposed to be] a short span of time but it has almost been three decades now. They are not supposed to be here but on the borders of the country. Due to the students’ violence and negative politics the force is stationed here.”

The Downfall of Student Unions and the Rise of Intolerance and Extremism

Pakistani student groups were not always hotbeds of violence. Prior to the 1980s, the culture was different, thanks to existence of student unions.

Student unions were the amalgamation of many student organizations. They had different ideological and political backgrounds but worked under one platform. They worked for the educational and political uplift of students, functioning as a bridge between students and university administration.

Student organizations would take part in the elections to form the union, allowing voters to decide who received a mandate. During elections for the union, every candidate had to come up with a practicable manifesto to attract educated voters. Unlike today, there was an atmosphere of debate, competition, training, and reading.

This environment of progressive activities ended when the then-military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq banned the student unions in 1984. It all happened because his brutal regime faced resistance at the hands of progressive and left-leaning political parties. In that struggle against the undemocratic regime of General Zia, student unions played a gigantic role.

The ban on student unions was a de facto ban on student politics.

“At that time, generally politics, particularly student politics, was ideological and progressive-oriented,” said Zahid Hussain, a renowned journalist and author, who in the early 1970s was the secretary general of the NSF. “Zia banned the student unions and patronized the IJT in order to counter the progressive and liberal forces.”

By banning unions, Zia not only imprisoned students but also sowed the seeds of extremism and intolerance.

“They banned student unions on the pretext of checking violence but violence took birth and permeated after the banning of the unions,” said Senator Mir Hasil Bizenjo, the former president of the National Party who, in the 1980s as a student leader, brought together disparate left-wing, ethnonationalist, and liberal political groups against the IJT.

“The student unions were a complete training academy. They trained students educationally, politically and professionally. Unions were like a nursery. From the unions the country got politicians, trade unionists, academicians, and journalists; when Zia wiped out that nursery, it made Pakistan infertile,” Bizenjo added.

The banning of the student unions was connected with other events in the region. At the time, American-supported jihad (holy war) in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union was in full swing. And Pakistan was the frontline state for the United States in fighting the communist Red Army.

Meanwhile, Zia was undertaking the Islamization of Pakistan’s social, educational, and political fabric. In this process, everything from laws to educational curriculum to literature was Islamized. At the behest of the United States, he supported jihadist ideology by hook or crook.

Back to the Present

Today, many universities in Pakistan have become breeding grounds for fundamentalism, extremism, linguistic hatred, and violence.

The stories are all-too common: Students falling prey to terrorist organizations; ethnic student organizations having a deadly clash; students murdering one another; students lynching others for violating any social or religious norm in Pakistan.

But there are many more danger signs that don’t make the headlines. For example, as we walked up the steps in front of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Arts at the University of Karachi for meetings with students and academicians, we had to step on the flags of Israel, the United States, and India.

The seeds of extremism were sown in the 197os, but Pakistan started reaping them after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The violence was romanticized by terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

“Our youth got attracted with this romanticism,” Hussain told The Diplomat.

It’s not only illiterate youth who are attracted by radicalized organizations; educated Pakistani youth have also joined them. Saad Aziz, a graduate from the Institute of Business Administration IBA, one of Pakistan’s top-notch private institutes in Karachi, was arrested for the gruesome shooting of a bus full of Ismaili passengers.

“Students are being used by terrorist outfits in Pakistan. It is not mainly due to the banning of student politics, but the state’s patronization of extremism,” said Khan. “Yes, the state has been patronizing violence and extremism. It can correct its previous mistakes, if it wants.”

A former student at UoK believes local educators also bear part of the blame. “First, the state role is very important, and can’t be ruled out from this. Second, the university administration is either directly or indirectly part of this student extremism,” Jaffer F. Mirza, previously the head of a religious student organization at the University of Karachi, told The Diplomat. “Third, teachers have a huge role in this regard. Like I remember a teacher from our department would change the minds of students from critical thinking to performing Namaz (Islamic daily prayer).”

Many students and politicians we met argue that if the state does not patronize and support extremist ideology, then it should restore student unions immediately.

“We demand the immediate restoration of student unions in Pakistan,” said Bizenjo. “If authorities in power want to bring back the glorious and tolerant days of 1970s, then it should revive student unions.”

The IJT Today

After the passage of decades, the IJT is still too powerful to be countered by any other student group. Most of the time, other groups blame the IJT for the violence that occurs at campuses.

However, Abdul Ahad Talha, who heads the IJT at the UoK, denies such allegations.

He told The Diplomat, “The main objective of the IJT is to have an Islamic welfare state like that of Medina and shape the students’ lives according to the teachings of Islam.”

Talha added, “There should be separate education institutes for girls and boys. Otherwise, they must follow the Islamic teachings.”

Many students believe there is no room for dialogue and debate over certain topics — for instance atheism, secularism, and religion — without resorting to violence. But Talha says that he supports dialogues on any topic or issue.

But progressive students, who are in numbers and divided, do not agree with Talha on this point. “You never know when they will label you as a blasphemer,” Lamha Kausar, a student of sociology at the UoK, said. “So I am afraid of asking questions or taking part in any debates related to atheism, secularism, and evolution, because I don’t want to be lynched.

“In today’s Pakistan, the concept of right and left has evaporated,” said Khan.

Pakistan has produced lynching mobs for a couple of decades. But it is not alone in polarization breeding intolerance and even violence. While pointing at increasing extremism in India, renowned Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif wrote in the New York Times, “India [is] becoming Pakistan’s murderous other.”

Hanif is partially right. Extremism may be on the rise in India, but unlike Pakistan, India has progressive student forces, and student activists like Kanhaiya Kumar, the former president of student union at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, (JNU). Kumar famously challenged the most powerful man in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and questioned the atrocities of his government.

“Kumar has criticized Modi for his extremist ideology. He also has highlighted the atrocities of Indian army in Jammu and Kashmir,” said Wajid Baloch, a journalist and a former student of the UoK. “Pakistan has [Islamist political party] Tehreek-e-Labbaik, rulers like Imran Khan, and a mighty military establishment but without a progressive students force. If there are [Hindu nationalist group] RSS and Modi in India, there are also students such as Kumar, Shehla Rashid, and Jignesh Mivani to confront and question the halls of power.

“I doubt it Kumar would be alive if he were in Pakistan.”

Shah Meer Baloch is a journalist based in Pakistan. He has had his work published in New York Times, Deutsche Welle, The National, The Diplomat, Daily Dawn, Firstpost, Herald magazine, and Balochistan Times.

Zafar Musyani is a blogger and researcher. He was formerly associated with Herald Magazine, Pakistan as Survey Coordinator.