Why Did Political Activism Die On The LUMS Campus?
We sat in Ahsan’s dingy small room. Its formerly whitewashed walls were stained with grime. Eight evidently disturbed Baloch students lined these grime ridden walls. I tried to hide behind Ahsan, as others in the room took turns in telling what had happened to them. Urdu was spoken with a thick Balochi accent. I listened attentively to make sure I didn’t add to their frustration. These students had come from far off places in Baluchistan. These are places that we only hear about when a gas pipeline explodes there or when a natural disaster warrants some news coverage.
They were far from home and Lahore had refused to accept their burnt white skins and their black flowing shalwars. It had reneged on its tradition of embracing students from far-off lands like these Baloch and had turned its goons against them.
They told me they came to Punjab University because students who enrolled in Quetta University made it to watch-lists and were followed regularly wherever they went. That year the government had allocated more funds for the mammoth PU than it had for the whole of Quetta. So who wouldn’t want to come here? These students had come on a special quota reserved for Baloch students, and it was the negligible fee that had allowed them to be here. But to their dismay, the persecution hadn’t stopped when they crossed over into Punjab from Baluchistan. Here the university administration ran the check-posts where men in uniform ogled at their IDs and asked humiliating questions. Here they were beaten by Jamiat goons, their hostels taken hostage, their belongings burnt in small heaps in the corridors. All of this and the VC had registered FIRs against the protesting Baloch students. Terrorism charges were pressed against them and their friends were arrested – more than a hundred of them. These six young men were of the few who had escaped and they were trying to be out of sight for as long as they could.
Auwn had introduced me earlier. I was the only Punjabi in the room and being from LUMS signaled that my family would have some connections which, if used, could provide some relief. I gave assurances, made a few calls and promised to be available if any help was needed. On the ride back home I had several thoughts buzzing around in my head. This meeting had made me realize a lot of things all at once. Suddenly my brown skin seemed like an advantage.
I found myself on this platform of privileges I didn’t know I occupied: I was Sunni, I was Punjabi, I was from a class that could afford a top-notch private university. A university which did not treat me like a criminal, where my ethnicity and my accent weren’t reasons for discrimination, where I wasn’t targeted by rabid bands of religious fanatics because of something I had said in class, where I could critique openly, where I was shown both sides of the coin, where Marx and Hegel and others like them weren’t brushed away for being too heretical, where I worried about my studies and not my survival.
My peers at LUMS share this with me, some of them perched at even higher pedestals, sharing amongst themselves a different kind of class consciousness, a culture bred on exclusivity, on entitlement and on a sense of being the most desired commodity on the market. The amber that holds everything as it is, would be the political aloofness that our students display as a cultural trait. Once a place of considerable political activity, LUMS has become ever more cocooned in what some call the LUMS bubble, a term used to describe the disparity that exists between the culture at LUMS and the culture outside its barbed walls. The bubble is said to give students a burning ambition to prove themselves and a complimentary sense of entitlement, but this bubble also makes one numb to the political climate outside.
A campus that dissects and analyzes politics in lecture halls but maintains its distance from it, like scientists peeping into lab experiments from behind a glass wall, the department of social science at LUMS peeps into the country’s political melting pot – silently making notes, remaining apolitical and passive to what’s going on beyond the bubbly glass wall. This political desensitization helps maintain the tranquility on campus which, as I like to argue, among other things is a product of the class that most of the students at LUMS belong to. A comfortable life, with a more than comfortable environment at the university, does not provide any impetus for these students belonging from middle-class to elite backgrounds to raise their voices for people whose material reality is drastically different and completely irrelevant to their lives.
You can refer to the day’s headlines to gain some handy class participation points, you can throw around political jargon, bash the military establishment in the safety of your class and even attend talks on controversial political topics but that is about it. To wander further is unheard of.
You may discuss politics, but you shall not bore the mood by talking about real political action. Activism is uncharted territory, or it is thought to be, fraught with dangers of being “picked up”, yielding results that cannot be observed against a measured level of effort, a problem for those accustomed to mathematical certainty. Activism also makes little sense when you have several avenues to express yourself and have few restrictions on expression at least within the confines of the campus. The LUMS fraternity usually responds to any political turbulence through a few immaculately punctuated Facebook posts, under which petty skirmishes and contests of who made a more convoluted point ensue. Some memes are thrown around as the issue gets a little less recent and with that, we resume our pledge of silence.
Something to note here is that the short burst of political noise is always a reaction and never preemptive – subsiding quickly and never culminating in anything meaningful. Another standard response that I have observed over the years is the practice of holding vigils to mourn human tragedies. Students light candles, pay their respects and say sanitized words weary of prying eyes and listening ears. No one wants to point any fingers, name any names. No that will not be. You cannot draw the link between the victim and the assailant, the crime and the criminal. Your concern must be dead human flesh and not the throbbing structure of oppression that bring death and foster injustice. Those who do not wish to express themselves find easy distractions, they do not let the state of affairs get to them, they are safe in their haven and must not be perturbed.
An incident that epitomizes this disconnect and holds much historical resemblance to bourgeois behavior in times of turmoil is when Lahore was brought to a standstill by TLP protests back in October. Leaving many students stranded on campus and unable to venture outside. Capitalizing on this, some students decided to throw a rave which quickly caught the attention of a sizeable crowd. I stood in a friend’s dorm window, party music blaring in the distance. I wondered; a city burns outside, many lose their livelihoods tonight. But rave we must, against the dying of the light?
But to say that activism in LUMS has died an unnoticed death is to say that it was once alive and kicking. There was, in fact, a fair amount of political activity on campus and it was recognized as a force outside of campus. On the 7th of November 2007, the police barred students from entering the LUMS premises because a certain anti-Musharraf protest on campus ballooned out of control and soon all of the adjoining neighborhoods could hear the students chanting slogans against the military regime. In the wake of the state of emergency imposed by Musharraf, an anonymous blog started making the rounds on campus. It was an ingenious way to vent out frustration and coordinate efforts on campus without the fear of surveillance.
On the 8th of April 2015, white shalwar-kameez-clad men entered the campus and demanded Ali Khan to cancel a talk featuring Baloch rights activist Mama Qadeer. This infringement of the right to free speech incited enough anger in the student body that an organized student movement emerged within LUMS, many members of which are still very active in the student politics of Lahore. You can make the case that these incidents were one-offs and happened in extraordinary circumstances, or that student political activity during that time remained largely confined on campus and were focused on “constitutional demands” i.e. seeking the restoration of democracy in the country via constitutional means.
This implies that students never wanted to challenge the status quo per se. They may not be huge fans of capitalism but they wanted to play by its rules and did not look beyond their declared goal. But it is also a fact that political activity during that time reached a point where national leaders like Benazir Bhutto wanted in on what was going on. LUMS student politics may have been docile and without a greater purpose back then, but it was better than having absolute silence. And as a former activist friend of mine once told me; nothing in this world is apolitical, especially not silence. It is manufactured for beneficiaries, silence too has winners and losers.
This decline in a collective interest in politics could be because of many reasons. Class is a constant factor in this regard but in making that argument one has to remember that LUMS has always been exclusively elitist. It was a stable of elite thoroughbreds in 2007 and it remains a stable of elite thoroughbreds in 2019. Hence the class factor cannot be the sole reason for this growing disinterest.
Looking for answers, we can begin by dissecting the claim that the reason we do not have a culture of politics is because LUMS is a private enterprise and thus students face a real threat of expulsion in getting involved.
This presumption quickly falls flat on its face once you talk to activists from GC or PU. According to them students in PU and GC face a similar if not greater threat of being separated from the university. Upon admission, all public university students sign an affidavit surrendering their political rights to the university. In the said public universities the perils are far greater: instructors and departments make it a point to impede such activities with all their institutional leverage. Students are singled out and spied on. If a call to the parents does not work, HoDs have been known to sabotage students’ final-year projects to set the right examples. Therefore, the argument that students mobilize better in public universities compared to private ones because rules are lax and institutional control is weak does not hold up in light of the evidence. Consequently, It is saddening to note that our institution despite being administered by a relatively light-handed group of individuals has not become a “cherished space” for political debates and organization whereas institutions where the administrations maintain strict control on student mobility and activity have given us vibrant movements such as the Progressive Students Collective and the Women’s Collective.
But can the lack of pressure on student freedoms be, in fact, a reason for the observed political aloofness? Has the absence of an ideological opposition, be it in the form of the administration or other student groups, made our liberal folk from LUMS too comfortable to care? To answer the question, let us first venture outside of LUMS and observe the factors that have led to the emergence of student political groups on other campuses.
One of the many factors that have pushed students to join politics is the presence of student groups like Jamiat on campus. They have been ever present, enjoying the support of the admin and patronage from mainstream politicians and easily disguise themselves as evangelists, parting with their political goals whenever it suits them. Jamiat’s control of campus life and proliferation of their Islamist ideology makes life difficult for those who are either not attracted to the social capital that comes with being in Jamiat or have mildly dissenting views. These nonpartisan groups are then cornered into forming opinions which mostly happen to be the exact opposite of what Jamiat espouses, thus leftist and ethnic politics thrive as reactions to Jamiat’s control and ideological hegemony. An observation that establishes this hypothesis is the popularity of leftist and ethnic politics amongst students who have come to PU from rural backgrounds. These students fall prey to Jamiat’s harassment as they are the most vulnerable, due to their on-campus residence and weak social links in Lahore. They turn towards leftist groups and ethnic councils for protection and resistance. In contrast, LUMS does not have a Jamiat problem. There are no physical or ideological threats to student freedoms. Instructors feel free to impart their progressive ideals without having to care for organizing along the same progressive lines because of the simple reason that these progressive ideas are protected, echoed and ironically taken for granted on our campus.
Batches upon batches of supposedly progressive students have come out of LUMS, perfectly atomized, ready to be put on assembly lines to manufacture goods, ideas, policies – you name it.
But apparently progressive or not, cogs work the same in giant corporate machines. And so one wonders what good are these labels of LUMS being a progressive and a liberal varsity when its students remain completely disorganized and passive – and when the biggest challenge for students to organize is that there are no challenges!