A history lesson in violence

Campuses have long been the stage for political clashes

A history lesson in violence
Clashes between the Islami Jamiat Tulaba (IJT) and Baloch or Pashtun students in Punjab University have been reported for quite a long time now. The use of different weapons is common as are severe injuries.

These fights have been erupting between different student groups since the emergence of the IJT in the 1950s. By 1962 it became the National Students Federation’s (NSF) strongest and most organised opposition on campuses. The IJT is inspired by Jamaat-e-Islami’s leader Abul Ala Maududi. While the NSF was a progressive/leftist students group with no political affiliations at that time, some factions later joined Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the formation of the Pakistan People’s Party.

Clashes also took place in the 1970s when common firearms were first seen on campuses. It was the IJT that introduced the use of the latest weaponry, including AK-47s to student politics through its “Thunder Squad”.

But by 1984, General Zia ul Haq banned student unions. The Democratic Students Federation was banned earlier on but its members had ended up joining the NSF. But now progressive student organizations were not allowed to function and were targeted by the state and members of the IJT. The IJT’s parent party, the JI, had reached a deal with the regime to Islamize Pakistan. This deal bore the condition that the IJT would be allowed to keep functioning in universities and colleges.

Today we are seeing the effects of this deal. The clashes are taking place only between the IJT and Pushtun or Baloch students because before progressive student organizations were banned, Pushtuns and Balochs were a major part of them. Today, the violence is not the outcome of ideological differences but hatred for non-Punjabis among IJT members. Ironically, many Pushtuns are also members of the IJT. It is, however, still dominated by conservative Punjabi students.

In the face of the IJT’s hold on the PU campus, non-Punjabi students have started forming apolitical student councils to support each other and survive against the IJT. These councils include the Pushtun, Baloch, Sindhi, Seraiki and Gilgit-Baltistan councils among others. This weakened the IJT’s hold. The number of students in these councils rapidly increased over the years, as did the quota for non-Punjabi students in PU. These councils include supporters of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf, Pakistan Muslim League-N, Baloch National Party, Awami National Party, the PPP and the JI.

The university administration and government will have to take this violence seriously, if it has not already. This will possibly involve a crackdown on the illegal occupation of hostel rooms, punitive action against anyone found involved in violence and misconduct. Bans on student organizations and their activities is not a solution. Student unions are incubators for the leaders of tomorrow as so many famous examples have shown us: consider Mairaj Muhammad Khan. University campuses are meant to be safe havens for debate, dissent, disagreement and diversity. There should be space for any student organization to hold cultural activities with the administration’s permission without being attacked.

Attan’s history

Amina Khan

The fight at Punjab University was partly over Attan, a Pashtun folk dance that is over 100 years old. In reaction to the violence, Pushtun supporters in some cities held Attan protests as an expression of solidarity and to uphold the values of tolerance.

Scholars differ on the origin of Attan. Most of them believe it has roots in a dance mentioned in Avesta (Zoroastrian texts gathered during the 4th or 6th centuries). It was known as a Zoroastrian fire dance with fighters dancing around a fire after winning a war that represented happiness.

Some say the Pyrrhic dance started in Afghanistan during the time of Alexander’s invasion. One more interpretation is that Attan was discovered by the Afghans and originated in the areas where Pakhtun and Afghans resided.

Lecturer Dr Abaseen Yousafzai is the chairman of the Pashto department of Islamia College, Peshawar “Attan is the essence of every Pakhtun tribe,” he says. It started 5,000 years ago by the Pakhtun, with the purpose to keep individuals physically active and healthy. “As we know, the blood of a Pakhtun is strong… therefore the Attan was made as an entertaining parade for the young and old.” It is a physically intensive dance.

Attan is performed usually with a dhol. The styles of Attan differ according to the themes of war celebration, health and happiness. For Yousafzai, it is a warlike exercise but also gives a message of unity, peace and optimism. Renowned poet Ahmed Faraz once said:

Ek hath me rumal hai, ek hath mai talwar,

Pakhtun ka kirdar

Jo pyar kare, pyar mile, waar kare, waar milay

Pakhtun ka kirdar