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The assault on academic freedom in Pakistan

Campuses should be nurseries of academic debate and critical thinking. Sadly, that's not the case

The assault on academic freedom in Pakistan

Forman Christian College in Lahore. (Photo supplied)

One of the premier Christian colleges on the subcontinent made headlines last week for all the wrong reasons.

“I sadly announce that I will no longer be teaching at Forman Christian College (FCC). Earlier this year, my contract was changed to visiting faculty from the position of assistant professor. Now I won’t continue as a visiting lecturer either,” stated Professor Ammar Ali Jan, an activist and member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement, a democratic pressure group, in his June 20 tweet.

According to the academic, “unknown people” began putting pressure on the administration of the Lahore college to fire him.

“I was called in by the rector, who told me to quit all public activities as FCC is in a sensitive situation and cannot become controversial. I felt university administrations should amplify the concerns of the students/teachers rather than mimicking the paranoia of a dysfunctional state. I was wrong, and I was told I either stay silent on the case or leave,” he said.

“It appears that the academic journey for me in Pakistan might be over. It is clear that those who run our beloved country cannot stand it when people leave the places assigned to them. They cannot bear a teacher sympathetic to students, students sympathetic to each other beyond ethnic, religious and gender differences, or faculty and students who take a stand on taboo topics.”

Last November, Jan was charged with sedition — a case still pending — after a Students’ Solidarity March that saw more than 50 demonstrations from seaport Karachi to federal capital Islamabad. I was also among more than 800 protesters in Lahore who held red banners reading “Stop militarizing education campuses” and "Drop smog levels, not the education budget.” 

I was surprised by the student leaders naming and shaming professors harassing female students. The loudspeakers also shouted phone numbers of the accused academics. I remember Jan coordinating the students, sitting at the top of a truck loaded with two dozen speakers. To an outsider, he just looked like any other student demanding education reforms and student unions.

The state accused him of being an instigator. He has been forced to resign from top universities in Lahore. All of them cited national security as a reason. One of his former students is presently in jail. 

FCC last week also refused to renew the contract of nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, citing “overstaffing.” A vocal critic of government policies, Professor Hoodbhoy was similarly fired in 2012 from Lahore University of Management Sciences, ranked among the top 300 universities in Asia.

Academic martial law

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Human rights activists have termed this pattern "academic martial law." One of the demands of protesters on the student march was to end interference by security forces and the release of all arrested students involved in political activities. Students at universities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces have been complaining of forced "policing" and moral regulations that limit their academic freedom.

Last year 17 students at the University of Sindh in the southern province were arrested on sedition charges for demanding water facilities. Earlier this month, Professor Sajid Soomro of Shah Abdul Latif University in Khairpur in Sindh province was arrested on charges of blasphemy and sedition. The list goes on and on. The plight of such professors is detailed in my recent feature.

Universities should not look like military units. Distancing campuses from liberal academics will push our society further toward intolerance and apathy. Insecurity of academic jobs will further weaken the search for truth and reason. Instead of instilling fear, the campuses should be nurseries of academic debate and critical thinking. Sadly, that’s not the case.

Last November, I was assigned by an NGO to mobilze and strengthen student societies at a university in Lahore. The organizers sternly warned me against criticizing government, state agencies or targeting any faith.

Despite documenting hundreds of cases of misuse of religion, my lips were sealed. Still, I took the opportunity of being the only Christian mentor to share the good news of the Gospel in the garb of peace journalism.

Banners are flying high today in Lahore congratulating the speaker of the Punjab Assembly for passing a bill to stop blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. The assembly recently passed a resolution against books containing blasphemous material. Under the law, religious textbooks and religious materials for schools will be subject to approval by the Punjab Textbook Board and Muttahida Ulema Board.

Besides making the blasphemy law stricter, budget cuts are used to dismantle higher education in Pakistan and support opponents of dissent in society. A press release issued by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) stated that Pakistani universities are already under enormous financial stress because of the squeezing of their budgets over the last three years.

The Public Sector Universities (Amendment) Act 2020 envisages the appointment of retired judges or bureaucrats as heads of respective syndicates of the universities.

“Nowhere in the world has the quality of education improved without full autonomy of universities. The effort to undermine universities is not only against universities but also against Pakistan,” stated the HEC resolution.

Whether they are part of an institution or working independently, the academics of Pakistan will always be in disagreement with maulvis (clerics). They will continue challenging unknown entities who violate the law with impunity. Though painful, the termination of professors is a just a temporary setback.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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