Two weeks back, intelligence and law enforcement agencies arrested a student, as suspected terrorist with links to Al Qaeda, from the campus of Punjab University in Lahore. From his room in the University hostel, allegedly under the control of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT), photographs of al-Qaeda leaders, along with banned substances and ‘important’ documents were also recovered.
This arrest led to the tracing and arrest of six other members of Al Qaeda in the following week, including several who had received special jihadi training in Miramshah, having expertise in improvised explosive devices and automobile technology. The ‘handler’ (read: leader) was a ‘student’ of the Punjab University, alleged a member of the IJT, living in the university hostels.
At the heels of these developments, two more arrests were made from the University of Engineering and Technology (UET) of suspected Al Qaeda terrorists, also alleged members of the IJT. While the IJT, has been quick to deny that any of these suspects are members of their ‘esteemed’ student group, the open secret has been confessed to by the vice-chancellor of Punjab University (a liberal educationalist, on the ropes in his campaign against the IJT), who has been quoted as saying that Jihadi literature, the NATO jackets and explosive materials have been recovered in different raids at hostel rooms belonging to IJT members.
Who is the IJT? What is their mandate? What kind of influence do they exert over the universities and the student lives? How are they funded? How do they exert such damning influence in our university culture? And why is the university administration so impotent in the face of IJT powers? Does the government have any responsibility to step in and fix this rot of our educational culture? Or should we simply sit quietly at the side, surrendering the hot boiling pots of academic life to a culture of violence and extremism? In a country already at the brink of self-destruction from the menace of religious terrorism, can we allow to turn our student body – the very engine of populist revolutions all across history – into the breeding grounds of intolerance? Or do we – all of us, individually and collectively – have a responsibility and a stake in the issue?
A brief history first: formed on December 23, 1947, by an initial membership of 25 students, the IJT, as a student body, had three declared objectives: 1) “to organise students in order to serve Islam”, 2) “to produce the fondness of studying Islamic literature in students”, and 3) “to prepare students for certain field for future Islamic society” (as quoted from the website of IJT). Benign in substance and innocuous in theory, the IJT soon grew out of these stated objectives to reach into the nefarious pulse of extremist sentiment.
Having grown to a nationwide organisation by the mid-1950s, the IJT demands expanded to introduction of a complete ‘Islamic education system’ in all universities and colleges. In the years that followed, this demand, fuelled by publication of Jamiat literature and pamphlets, started to take on issues such as opposing military cooperation with the US and peace talks with India, as well as support of religious regimes in Iran, Afghanistan and Arabia. The IJT leadership, in pursuit of these ‘non-academic’ goals, started to periodically visit foreign nations, frequently with a message that was fully discordant with the stance of the government of Pakistan.
As the group developed a taste for politics and militancy, the IJT members started to participate actively the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir – and some were killed there. Simultaneously, on the domestic front, the IJT members started to use campus activities and resources to mobilise campaigns against such ‘worthy’ causes as celebration of the Taliban takeover day in Afghanistan, conducting “Amreeka murdabab” campaign, organisation of nationwide “Jehad Conference”, declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslims, banning of New Year celebration, opposing Valentine’s Day (declaring it to be “Haya Day”), supporting the ban on Youtube and several other internet websites, and forbidding progressive literature from the university libraries. Their wide membership and grassroots network (in most educational institutions) naturally encouraged banned organisations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jamaat-ud-Dawa to develop links with the militant sentiments within the IJT’s student body, providing the latter with virtually unlimited sources of funding and organisational support. And, from time to time, as claimed on the official website of the IJT, “Government terrorists” (read: law enforcement agencies) have tried apprehending such links, but with little success.
We, as a nation, can choose to shut our eyes to the ticking time-bomb. We can continue to ignore the factionalism and extremism brooding within the cathedrals of our educational empires. And wait for the day, that a generation is lost to the darkness of conservatism and violence.
Or we, instead, perilously though courageously, we can start to climb out of this darkness that has all but taken over our youth. We can decide, today – we should have done it yesterday – that while militancy may continue to exist in certain dark and despotic corners of our country for the coming decades, that we will not allow it to fester and breed in the places of our children’s education.
That while our lack of resolve may stop us from venturing into the turf of the extremists, we are not so impotent as to allow them to walk into our homes and schools, and hold hostage the entire project of national education through the barrel of a misguided religious philosophy. We can open our eyes to the fact that the destiny of our nation – that the destiny of all nations, all through history, in each popular revolution – has been written by the students and the scholars: students overthrew the French monarchy in the 1700s; it were the university and college students that trailed Jinnah and Gandhi against imperial power; it were students who followed Khomeini to his messianic assent; it were students who formed the foundational support of Bhutto and Mujeeb-ur-Rehman. And if we, today, lose our students to an organisation of conservatism and hatred, we might forever lose the chance of turning a fresh page on the tide of violence in this country.