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Making the campus a violence-free zone

Campus Voilence April 2008: The historic announcement of restoring student unions in Pakistan has been received well by stakeholders across the country. However, there may be certain downsides to this issue.
A few ugly incidences of violence erupted at the Punjab University last month where several students were allegedly thrashed and brutalised by goons of the student wing of a major religio-political party. It was reported that the vice chancellor of the varsity was also a witness to this avoidable episode but no firm action regarding the matter was taken by the administration. This reflects the tight grip exercised by the student factions of political parties at major campuses all over the country.

There have been similar episodes at the Federal Urdu University and the Sindh Medical College and it is at times like this that the depoliticisation of campuses along with a total ban on student politics is seen as the only solution. The matter, however, asks to be seen objectively if rational options are to be reached.

Campus violence ruptures usual academic life. Besides losing precious academic time, the situation causes a terror-laden milieu, fears of re-lapse of violence and a sense of helplessness among the academic staff as well as the students. The perpetual support of political parties to their student wings, availability of arms, inability of varsity administrations to institute discipline and the connivance of some academic staff with student wings for their own ulterior motives are the obvious factors leading to the problem.

A small but powerful minority is able to hold hostage the entire campus for prolonged periods of time. Neither are the perpetrators of these criminal deeds rounded up nor are the clandestine hands that support them ever tied although some campuses, through the strict resolve of their administrations, have been able to develop some worth emulating examples of enforcing discipline while extending a congenial environment for carrying on with the academics.

No academic pursuit can be realised without peace. The University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore and the NED University of Engineering & Technology in Karachi have successfully maintained peace on their campuses by rooting out all external and internal miscreants from their jurisdiction.

The penetration of armed elements and their supporters in the campus thoughout the country is a direct outcome of the dictatorial policies of the Zia regime since 1978-79. It was a time when fire arms were used freely to settle union matters in universities. Afraid of pro-democracy movements, the regime, imposed a ban on the unions, leading to a strong rudderless reaction. New fascist-style student wings were created, many of which had the support of the regime. Sectarian, ethnic and factional groups planted their student agents in the campuses. This tide soon entered the colleges too.

Successive regimes with a limited administrative capacity at their disposal, have failed to curb this menace and the trend continues. Disgusted with this convoluted backdrop, many quarters consider the institution of student unions as the cause of the problem, which may not be so true.

It must be understood that the participation in student union activities are very healthy for the campus population. But these unions must be allowed to evolve from within the institution itself.

Participation in union management enables the students to learn and practice leadership skills. It also extends opportunities in the organisation of co-curricular activities that help in personality development. Student weeks, literary circles, dramatic societies, environmental campaigns, debating clubs and sports are just a few of the pursuits managed by student unions. Other functions include social work, activism, support to pro-literacy initiatives, coordination with alumni and professional groups.

Competence in the future generation in this century can only be enhanced by stretching out the options of self development. All the institutions of higher learning in the developed world have very active and performing unions. It is high time that university managements here too take cognizance of the situation to carry out appropriate measures that will ensure peace, enabling an environment for healthy student activities.

By Dr Noman Ahmed (Dawn)
The writer is professor and chairman, Department of Architecture and Planning, NED University, Karachi.
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