Eight years ago, on a November afternoon, I stood with hundreds of students at LUMS protesting against a military dictator. The students held placards, shouting slogans, and we were effectively having a stand-off with the police. Riot police with heavy armour, shields and batons was employed by the government to silence our voices. The police had warrants to arrest several students, and professors, on phony charges of ‘wall-chalking’ and vandalism. The scene was set for a direct confrontation.
The impasse was broken by the direct intervention of the then Vice-chancellor of LUMS, Dr Syed Zahoor Hassan. The police retreated from entering LUMS and we were allowed to safely protest away from the gates. If this happened in Balochistan, I wonder how many of us would have ended up on the infamous ‘missing persons’ list.
On Wednesday, a talk organised at LUMS featuring the Baloch activist Mama Qadeer was ordered to be cancelled. The report of the intervention from security forces has not been confirmed but the event was henceforth cancelled.
What is confirmed is that the event was cancelled after pressure from officials. Befittingly the posters of the event titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ were rechristened to read ‘Resilencing Balochistan’.
This is not the first time the state has directly intervened to curb freedom of speech in the country. The state heavily regulates the educational institutes in the country effectively acting as a censor watchdog. However, this is the first time the students protested against such an encroachment on their freedoms.
The students of LUMS protested in the university, and social media was array with protests, and condemnations to the extent that #ShameOnLUMS was trending in Pakistan.
However, I found it strange to find out that the hashtag was not being perpetuated by people criticising LUMS for buckling under the pressure and cancelling the event but rather LUMS was being criticised for inviting Mama Qadeer for the talk in the first place.
LUMS prides itself on promoting divergent opinions, debate and discourse. As a former student of the university, I have freely debated history, religion and the state of Pakistan in class rooms. My professors engaged me to think critically, and crucial to critical thinking is being open to the other side of the debate.
You may have an opinion on every single matter but that should not preclude you from weighing the opinion of others on its merits. Whatever anyone’s position on Balochistan, or Mama Qadeer specifically, might be, they should still be open to listening to his point of view.
The unwarranted intervention of the state into this debate has quashed any possibility of the debate on the matter on the pretext that the debate might “malign Pakistan”.
The idea of Pakistan is this mysterious idea that can be enforced anytime to silence anyone. The judiciary, the government, or even the constitution does not stand a chance in front of this idea. Nobody is quite sure what this idea is but we have heard it enough times to know that it does surely exist. It is like the idea of honour. You may not have it but you can use it to justify killing people in its name.
It may be coincidental that the social media outpour of criticism against LUMS for inviting Mama Qadeer comes not after the event was announced but after the event was cancelled. There is no evidence to show that such hashtags are deliberately created and promoted in Pakistan by specific organisations.
The ‘organic’ trend covers everything from the size of clothes women wear in LUMS to the size of Sohail Naqvi’s moustache, from the dance parties to the re-tweeting of opinions, there is a plethora of evidence against LUMS repeatedly “maligning Pakistan”. The fact that most of this evidence is photo-shopped is irrelevant. In the modern age, if a statement is re-tweeted enough times, it de facto becomes true.
People have taken private pictures of individuals from various universities to act as representative of the ‘LUMS culture’. These pictures include swimming pools, women in saris, dance parties, and hooli/rang parties. With a handful of tweets, the prestigious educational institution has been reduced to the very definition of everything that is wrong with Pakistan.
Suddenly, LUMS is not only anti-Pakistan but it is also ‘clearly’ funded by RAW and worships India. The debate has been hijacked from the human rights violation committed in Balochistan to the culture at LUMS. It will eventually be reduced to people abusing each other on social media, and everyone will forget about the issue at hand.
It is an effective strategy used multiple times by the state to distract the attention of the masses. Too much focus on Pakistan’s military assistance in the Yemen conflict? Let’s have PTI and PML-N fight it out in Parliament instead.
There will be more human rights violation in Balochistan, there will be more people silenced for allegedly challenging the mysterious idea of Pakistan, and there will be more freedoms curtailed in the name of security in Pakistan but with every new news story, the old one will be forgotten, especially if it is a news story concerning Balochistan.
Unfortunately, our attention spans will only be limited to the latest news story. We will focus on the controversial and confrontational aspects of the debate rather than its merits. With a few cock fighting matches, the debate will be forgotten.
If we continue to discourage critical thinking in our educational institutions, if we continue to disregard the other side solely based on our misplaced ideas of religion, or nationhood, or morality, then we will continue to live in our age of ignorance.
#ShameOnLUMS for trying to be different.
At least LUMS could attempt to hold such a discussion. If it was a university in Balochistan, you would never hear about the event, let alone its cancellation. And the organisers would not be complaining on social media. They would add to the voices you never hear but just because you can’t hear them does not mean the voices are not there, which is why it is critical to ‘unsilence Balochistan’.
If only the powers that be let us be, let us be free.