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Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba’s Stranglehold


By Irfan Aslam

April 9th, 2017

The contradiction could not have been starker: .if the urbane, sophisticated side of the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba is represented by former stalwarts such as Hafiz Salman Butt or Javed Hashmi, its violent, uncouth ways are manifested in the ugly events that transpired on March 21, 2017.

On the day, two days before Pakistan Day, Pakhtun and Baloch students of the Punjab University (PU) were celebrating Pakhtun Cultural Day on the new campus of the university under the auspices of the Pakhtun Students Union (PSU). Pashto songs were being played and male Pakhtun students, donning their traditional dress, were doing the Attan dance. No women were dancing, however, as they watched the Attan from the sidelines.

Out of nowhere, club-wielding activists from the IJT suddenly appeared at the event and started uprooting the tents erected and throwing chairs around. Pakhtun students started running helter-skelter as the attackers chased them out of the venue. After some time, they regrouped and retaliated, forcing the attackers to run away. Till then, the lawns around the venue of the event had turned into a battlefield with both parties pelting stones at each other.

The clash left at least 10 students injured; Asfand Khan, vice chairman of the PSU, claims that 21 of their fellows, including 17 boys and four girls, were injured in the clash. “Fourteen of the injured students remained hospitalized for days. Some of them who had fractures or head injuries have not yet fully recovered.”

The PSU’s retaliation to IJT’s antics elevates it into a unique position: it is perhaps the only student organisation in Punjab that has stood up to the might of the Jamiat in PU in the recent past. Even Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) chief Imran Khan was manhandled in 2007 in the throes of the lawyers’ movement when he had attempted to enter the university to help build an anti-government student’s resistance. The IJT not only roughed up the PTI chief but also handed him over to the police, who Imran Khan was evading at the time.

“This is not the first time that the IJT had attacked us,” claims Asfand Khan. “On February 9, some Pakhtun students were busy in group study. But just because there were girls in the group, the IJT boys tortured the Pakhtun boys.”

Matters went to a boil the next day as the IJT again beat up 12 Pakhtun students. This led to a clash between both groups outside Hostel No 1 of the university. “IJT members called up these Pakhtun boys’ homes and issued death threats to their parents,” alleges Asfand. “An inquiry was launched into the incident by the PU administration but no details of the investigation were ever revealed.”

The IJT, according to PSU officials, cadres, and members of other student groups, is a sacred cow that is left untouched by the administration. “Even right now, there is an element of fear among Pakhtun students,” narrates Asfand. “What’s worse is that neither the police nor the PU administration took any action against those behind the March 21 attack. The main culprits were identified but they move around on their motorcycles with impunity. The administration asks only us to remain restrained.”

This theory is given credence by a rally organised inside the university by the IJT on March 31 after Friday prayers to show its power. Although some PU teachers deny reports and claim that the rally never took place, Asfand says that letting the IJT stage the rally and then not owning up to it points at the lenient approach of the administration towards the Jamiat.

In the aftermath of the March 21 violence, PU banned all students organisation rather than just the ones causing trouble. In other words, both the victim and the attacker roles in the violence were painted in the same light.

What gives the IJT such power on campuses?

Genesis And Growth

In his book Vanguard of Islamic Revolution: Jamaat-i-Islami of Pakistan, Iranian-American scholar Vali Nasr traces the origin of the IJT to December 23, 1947 in Lahore when 25 students, most of them sons of Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leaders, officially formed the IJT. Its first meeting was held later the same year and was addressed by JI chief Maulana Abul A’la Maududi. Although IJT cells were formed in other cities of Punjab, the organisation was headquartered in Karachi.

The IJT was conceived as a missionary (daw’ah) movement. “Its utility lay in the influence it could have on the education of future leaders of Pakistan which would help Mawdudi’s ‘revolution from above’,” argues Nasr in his book. But the IJT got involved in politics more than religious training — this was an attempt to counter the rising influence of the left-wing Democratic Students Federation (DSF) and National Students Federation (NSF), both of whom were associated with mainstream progressive politics.

A battle of ideologies often spilled over to the street, violently in certain cases, as in 1952 and 1953 when Jamiat clashed with DSF and NSF. It was in the same era that the JI shifted the centre of IJT to Lahore, with the idea being that its proximity with the party leadership could allow it to be controlled more effectively.

The IJT remained active at campus level and on the streets, be it for the anti-Ahmadiyya protests and violence in the 1950s or the enforcement of sharia law campaign in 1975. Its role was also crucial to the politics of the Pakistan’ National Alliance (PNA) — a coalition of nine parties that was formed against Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as well as the General Ziaul Haq-supported Nizam-i-Mustafa Movement in 1977. Nasr points out that the IJT was also involved in violence that led to the fall of Dhaka in 1971 as its Nazim-i-Aala, Matiur Rahman Nizami, had formed the al-Badr and al-Shams militias at the Dhaka University to spread terror among Bengali citizens. It is no surprise that when Bangladeshi courts sentenced JI-Bangladesh’s leaders to death for their war crimes, Jamiat and JI activists in Pakistan took to the street in protest.

From 1977 till 1984, the IJT was patronised and promoted by the Zia regime which wanted to counter the pro-Bhutto Peoples Student Federation (PSF). General Zia’s slogan of Islamisation was best suited to the JI whose main force among the youth was the IJT. Teachers at the University of Karachi (KU) allege that the culture of guns on campus was introduced by the IJT during this time. This state of affairs continued until General Zia discarded the JI as an ally since he had no more use for them. Before the divorce, however, the IJT was ruling over at least 20 universities across the country including PU.

Empowering The Disempowered?

Despite its antics, the IJT is undoubtedly a force that draws great support from towns and villages across Punjab. Part of the reason is its name: the ‘Islami’ creates a facade of it being the most pious or religious — a factor that holds great significance to the many entering the university from conservative backgrounds.

“Most PU students — both women and men — hail from rural areas,” explains Dr Rana Ejaz, assistant professor at the PU Department of Political Science. “Many of them have a repressed upbringing and no say in the family. When such students are provided with a support system and given importance by the IJT, they get megalomaniac and get involved in excesses, especially when the administration and teachers also feel helpless before them.”

This modus operandi helps the IJT achieve greater penetration on campus. According to Dr Ejaz, the disempowered are often handed important positions in the IJT, such as that of hostel nazims where they have total freedom and control over others.

Students describe that as newcomers arrive to the university, IJT members often intercept them and take them to their camp to have them registered with Jamiat. Sometimes they are also coaxed to join by taking them on a round of the hostels. The benefits of them joining the IJT are portrayed to be manifold: power on campus and inside hostels, connections inside the administration and faculty, good grades, Islamic co-curricular activities, and even protection from other groups.

In practice, however, male anxieties about powerlessness are exploited by the Jamiat to reinforce their vision of the world and recreate it on campus. The IJT’s politics on campus are not a far stretch from the everyday caste politics and violence in rural Punjab — only this time, the power lies with the disempowered men, irrespective of whether it comes through the barrel of a gun or the swing of a baton.

Even in the aftermath of the March 21 violence, IJT accounts on social media claimed harassment of their women comrades. This evoked a certain kind of male anger — IJT protests emerged from various universities and colleges across the country in defence of their ‘sisters.’ As is their modus operandi, any repressed anger at the ‘system’ is allowed to be expressed through such events — sometimes with violent consequences.

Dr Ejaz considers teachers responsible for the uncontrollable attitude of Jamiat members at the university as he argues that there is still some penetration of the student union in the faculty. “The list of Mansoorah-backed teachers had ended in 2014 but there are still teachers and even deans in the university who either have been or are still members of the JI. They have gotten promotions and lucrative posts at PU due to their proximity with JI leaders.”

Defenders Of Pakistaniat?

In the recent past, the JI and IJT have both portrayed themselves as the vanguard of Pakistaniat — ironic, given the JI’s opposition to the creation of the state. Their vision of what it means to be Pakistani is, however, limited to their conception of Pakistan. In rejecting a certain kind of Pakistani as not Pakistani enough, the IJT not only exhibits its exclusivity but also undertones of racism in its politics.

PSU’s Asfand Khan, for example, does not rule out the element of racism behind the whole episode played out on campus on March 21. The IJT narrative on social media in the aftermath of the violence castigated the Pakhtun students as ethno-nationalists, whose activities were not Pakistani enough for the IJT two days before Pakistan Day.

“There was a Baloch event some days ago but members of the IJT members themselves participated in it and danced to the music too,” narrates Asfand. “They did not attack the Baloch students’ event but they attacked Pakhtun celebrations. This means that they have some [bias] against the Pakhtun race.”

Rejecting allegations that Pakhtun students were targeted due to their ethnicity, IJT Nazim Osama Ijaz remains adamant that the Jamiat’s position is aligned with Pakistani nationalism. “The Baloch cultural day had been organised just a week ago, what was the need of another such cultural day on March 21?” he argues.

To a question about whether the IJT had become active due to approaching general elections, he replied in the negative: “The IJT has got nothing to do with the politics of JI with whom it has only an ideological connection.”

But Shafi Mengal, a history student and representative of Baloch students at the PU, agrees with Asfand. “They certainly did not have an issue with music and dance alone,” he remarks. Mengal himself has suffered from the excesses of IJT activists in his hostel. He considers the IJT as persistent troublemakers as its members disturb every cultural or sports activity happening on campus. If any man and woman are found sitting together, they tend to disturb private conversations and harass them into stopping.

“There are around 700 boys and girls students from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan at the PU but none of them even moves around with the IJT,” claims Mengal. He says it’s wrong to call Pakhtun and Baloch students’ coming together as a ‘union’ as they only help out new students who are not familiar with Lahore or university life.

“The university administration is using tactics to make us go on the back foot and reconcile with the IJT but my question is that what’s the purpose of the reconciliation?” Asfand rhetorically asks. “The university issued a notification of shifting all Pakhtun students to PU’s Gujranwala campus just to force us to shut our eyes to what the IJT is doing to us. They just want to sweep everything under the carpet.”

Mujahids Of The IJT

In a column titled Dawn of Dark Ages, Punjabi scholar Dr Manzur Ejaz describes the influence the IJT wielded at the PU in the 1970s when he was a teacher there. He writes about a clash between teachers supported by the IJT and those against it — this tussle broke out during Dr Ejaz’s campaign to get elected as the secretary-general of the university teachers association. His opponent, being backed by Jamiat, was none other than Mujahid Kamran, the vice-chancellor of the PU until recently.

Dr Ejaz makes the claim in his column that about 70 teachers were made ‘permanent’ from ad hoc positions in those days. Most of these teachers were either aligned with JI or with the IJT. With faculty on their side in their numbers, it is no surprise that the IJT managed to exert as much influence as it did on campus.

“One of my male students in the Criminology Department was beaten up for buying a burger for a woman classmate,” narrates a woman teacher in the PU Psychology Department. (The teacher relating the incident requested anonymity, indicating the fear of the Jamiat among non-IJT faculty.) “This student had already received warnings from the IJT against mingling with the young woman. After beating him up in public, the IJT goons took him to a hostel and tortured him some more. That episode left him altogether a different man, he never really recovered from it.”

Policing morality is one of the key tasks assigned to IJT activists. It is an undertaking that is also generational since the IJT’s members are often adjusted inside the university after they graduate. “Since the JI is backing the IJT, those who join Jamiat as students don’t leave it when they join the teaching faculty,” argues the psychology professor.

Jamiat of course follows JI ideology when it comes to cultural events on campus. “Its members have the same mindset and agenda,” she explains. “IJT members become active when it comes to parties or functions involving any kind of celebrations. Our department has a male-female ratio of 10:90, and whenever there is an event in the department, male members of the IJT from other departments join in and take seats to monitor the situation. A couple of years ago, they gate-crashed a dinner on the lawns of our department and beat up the boys.”

For the psychology teacher, the behaviour of IJT seems to differ from department to department. She claims that its members come out more openly in departments where they think they have more sway due to various reasons, especially the response of the department chairman.

“While the IJT creates hullabaloo over mixed cultural events and music on sports events etc, they have a laid back approach regarding some departments,” she says. “They don’t seem to have any say in the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), Department of Sociology, Institute of Communication Studies and Department of English.”

What is common to these departments is that they are social sciences and those which the IJT has historically avoided. Their focus tends to be more on natural sciences and computer sciences — whether at PU or other public sector universities.

nother teacher, this time from the PU’s Institute of Languages, has seen worse than what her colleague from the psychology department has witnessed. In 2009, she received a call from the university staff to inform her that her office had been attacked and its windowpanes shattered by IJT members.

“On another occasion, IJT members tried to disrupt a meeting of teachers with the VC at his office,” narrates the linguist. “They were making fun of teachers and shouting abuses. Some of their mates had been rusticated from the university and they wanted them to be reinstated. The guards kept IJT members out of the office but still, it was something disturbing.”

For the linguist, the last vice chancellor, Dr Mujahid Kamran, did a lot of work to control the IJT and weakened its hold over the university. “Teachers who were earlier Jamiat members are retiring. Dr Mujahid Kamran checked the record of any new hirees — no teacher who had had any contact with the Jamiat or JI was hired in his tenure.”

Politics professor Dr Rana Ejaz, however, refuses to give as much credit to Dr Mujahid Kamran. “It’s a completely baseless claim. General (retd) Arshad Mahmood actually did the work. When I joined the PU in 2006, there was no sign of Jamiat. It could not be seen anywhere at the university. When Mujahid Kamran came in 2008, the IJT started showing signs of resurgence.”

Dr Ejaz alleges that Dr Kamran used to play the IJT card whenever his term was about to end and the matter of an extension to his tenure was brought up. “He’d play the IJT card just to show that his presence was necessary to control the student union,” he claims.

According to the political sciences professor, the March 21 clash between Pakhtun students and the IJT was “exploited” by the former vice-chancellor. “It could entirely be possible that after the departure of Dr Mujahid Kamran, other aspirants for the post of the vice-chancellor might have caused the clash in an attempt to bring down the incumbent vice-chancellor who is on provisional charge.”

Dr Ejaz recalls that the Jamiat had lost most of its power after 2006 but they get involved in departments where they are allowed to exert influence. Other student groups have surfaced to some extent, including the Insaf Students Federation (ISF), he explains but warns against fighting violence with violence. “The influence that the IJT used to wield three or four decades ago is no more, for whatever reason. Jamiat has lost space due to its own policies that were not popular among the students.”

Dr Mujahid Kamran refused to comment on the situation of the IJT at the PU, saying he is keeping himself away from such “controversies.”

To Politicise Students Or Not?

The experience of violence that is associated with the Jamiat has seen other campuses keep student politics at an arm’s length. In Lahore’s private universities and colleges, including the Lahore University of Management Sciences for example, politics is anathema and students can immediately be rusticated for any political involvement.

The same line has become popular among other public universities and colleges. There is no student union or student wing of any political party at the Islamia University Bahawalpur (IUB). This did not happen on its own; the university administration put in serious efforts to depoliticise the campus after the university saw large-scale violence in February, 2010, when members of the Anjuman-i-Tulaba Islam (ATI) and students of the engineering department clashed.

Saim Hussain Shabbir, who completed engineering from the IUB last year, says that he did not witness any student union during his four years stay at the university. “We only heard stories of violence involving the ATI and the engineering students that had happened in 2010,” says Shabbir. “There is no student group influential enough to have any impact on the atmosphere inside the university.”

A similar situation exists at the University of Gujrat (UoG) where there is no student union or the student wing of any political party. In February this year, there was a large protest by UoG students over the issue of cumulative grade point averages (CGPA). Students reportedly roughed up the vice-chancellor and as a result, 18 assailants were expelled from the university. However, the protest, despite its size, was not organised by any student union as there are no political union at the university.

“There is no union at the university, but there is a teachers’ committee which resolves the students’ issues in an amicable way,” says Khawar Tirmizi, a teacher at the university. “The vice chancellor himself takes interest in it.”

On campuses where the IJT does exist, however, the situation is not as undisturbed. Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) in Multan is one such institution. The now-infamous case of young professor Junaid Hafeez being embroiled in blasphemy allegations is a case in point — those inside his department allege that the allegations were made to remove Hafeez from the picture so that a more pro-Jamiat professor could take his place.

“Jamiat and the PSF are both working inside BZU but there is nothing like what happens at the PU in Lahore,” claims PSF South President Arif Shah. “It’s not easy to work here since the administration has tightened its noose around student union activities. The students are issued notices or they are expelled from the university if they take part in any political activity.”

Is The IJT Hurting The Politics Of The JI?

There was a time when student unions were the nursery of mainstream politics. This era was marked by ideological politics: left versus right, communism versus capitalism, public versus private. Leaders were trained at the grassroots, educated in ideology, and sent among the masses with populist agendas.

As the era of ideology exited during the 1980s, it was replaced by ethnicity: the Pakhtun, Baloch, Sindhis, Mohajirs, even Seraikis and Hazarewal all congregated around parties and groups that safeguarded their ethnic identity and rights. Among those arguing for religious politics and Pakistani nationalism were the IJT and the Muslim Students Federation (MSF) of the Muslim League, both of which remained largely Punjabi phenomena.

But while the era of ideology saw ideological wars and debates, the era of ethnicity witnessed a surge in violence. In fact, more than argumentation, violence became the primary modus operandi of those in the political sphere. Student unions weren’t spared of this phenomenon either — armed skirmishes at the University of Karachi, for example, between Jamiat and the All Pakistan Mohajir Students Organisation (APMSO) became routine. All this while the parent parties of both student groups engaged in battle on the street.

Perhaps it is the violent streak of the IJT that prevented its strength on campus being reflected in national polls. The party was unable to bag even a single seat in the National Assembly from Lahore in the 2008 polls. In 2013, the JI was represented in the Punjab Assembly by a single member. Despite IJT proclamations to the contrary, its antics seem to be defining the perception of the JI.

“Common people do not differentiate between the JI and the IJT as they don’t know that these two are totally different organizations with different objectives,” argues JI spokesperson Qaisar Sharif. “Any nasty incident [involving the IJT] directly affects the JI and harms its vote bank too. The JI leadership is also aware of this.”

“The IJT has damaged itself by the kinds of the activities its members have been involved in,” argues PU’s Dr Ejaz. “The IJT is alive only in slogans such as ‘Jamiat Zinda Hay’ [Jamiat is Alive].”

For the political sciences professor, Jamiat played a positive role some 40-50 years ago when it focused more on the religious training of a student. “That role is no longer there perhaps because the JI is no more interested in it.” Citing an example, he says that just some time back, JI emir Sijrajul Haq held a public rally at Minar-i-Pakistan and its announcement was being made on the PU campus with speakers mounted on a vehicle — a political act that is banned by the university. “I am sure Sirajul Haq himself is aware of such activities. Such tactics harm the JI itself. There are still some good leaders in the JI, they should take care of such uncalled for activities.”

JI spokesperson Sharif, however, claims that the JI never uses the IJT for its political campaigns or politics. He says that the recent clash at the PU is being probed by a committee of the IJT itself to find out the facts and affix responsibility. “Even though the IJT is important for the JI due to their ideological affiliation, the party does not have any influence on the decision-making or any other matter of its student wing,” asserts Sharif. “The IJT has its own Majlis-i-Shoora, constitution and election process.”

Dr Rana Ejaz thinks that the Jamiat can be tamed if the government makes a sincere effort in the right direction. “The former vice-chancellor always had complaints against the police for not cooperating with him to control the situation. This showed the law enforcement agencies’ reluctance to take any serious steps in the right direction. There should be a ban on the entry of students who are not enrolled at the university. Currently, the IJT or any organisation can bring students from outside university.”

The teacher at the psychology department of the PU differs. She does not think that controlling the IJT was possible due to the almost five or six decades-long history of the IJT at the university. “It does not look possible in the near future that Jamiat will go away anywhere,” she says. “It has deep roots in the institution and it’s here to stay. It is more a case of co-existence in some mutually acceptable way.”

Irfan Aslam is a member of staff.