It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness

Salman Sikandar

It was one of the same old mundane day of spring 2017 in the institution which has stood as the edifice of British colonialism for more than one hundred and fifty years. Government College University not just represents the British colonialism by its gothic structure only but also takes pride in the colonial values and structures it has preserved.

It was the first day of my classes in the second semester. Most of the courses were going to be taught by almost similar instructors who taught in the first semester except for the course of Chinese History. It was going to be taught by a PHD candidate in Cambridge University, Ammar Ali Jan. I had the habit of not attending many classes so I decided that I won’t attend his classes anyway. But one of the seniors checked my timetable and remarked “wah, kitnay lucky ho tum logon ko sir Ammar parhain gy”. At that moment I thought that maybe I should attend his class. I went to the class and was really surprised to see the class full on the first day. Then Ammar came to the class and after usual introduction, he said that he won’t take the attendance because he doesn’t believe in forcing students to attend the classes. It was something new for me because I like all other students have always been taught to study  only as a response to the stimulant of fear, fear of ghosts that prey upon children who do not study, fear of ineligibility and fear of ending up in extreme poverty.  So it was the first time I questioned the methodology of education and the reasons of education. Is education only supposed to be a means towards not ending up poor or has it a higher meaning?

From that day I never missed any of his class and I wasn’t the only one. His class had more students than any other class and even students from other classes used to attend the class and in one such class he once said “ Truth is stranger than fiction”, the words which would seem so true in the events that would unfold in three years since that day.  I am a student of literature, a subject which is supposed to invoke creativity but instead the courses only burden us with a lot of books to devour which seems impossible in a four month semester and we end up becoming best rot learners produced by this system. To our surprise, Ammar just told us to write a story in which we had to use historical references from Chinese history. For students of public university it was a new way of teaching in which we could actually use our creativity instead of just remembering history to pass the course. It was in the middle of that semester that he was told not come to GCU again because he took part in “political activities”. To name some of these “political activities” were weekly study circles on different philosophical topics so that students of this public university could also think critically, seminars about how to apply for scholarships etc. We were left with no choice but to think that we the students of public universities don’t deserve such teachers anyway. But we continued his legacy with the help of other pro student and progressive academics in GCU. That helped us create a completely new atmosphere in GCU. Soon GCU was transformed from the institution which preserved the colonial values to a university where the ideas of resistance were most common.

After two years, the students all over the country marched for their rights calling this March as Students Solidarity March. I was in Lahore and was so proud of all the collective effort we made but surely academics like Ammar had a great contribution in making students question the status quo and fight for their rights collectively. Students were roaring “ aiwano mai aag lgi hai tulba k in naaron say”. From right wing groups to the ruling party and from the parliament to the state institutions, it shocked everyone. No one could ever think, students can be united for their right to unionize. They thought students had long forgotten that they have rights. In short student’s solidarity march of 2019 was the biggest success students ever had until that moment and the state didn’t like that at all.  We never got the chance to celebrate the successful march for more time, not even a day as within twelve hours of the march our comrade Alamgir Wazir was abducted. Due to the pressure and protests, the state had to take a back foot and gave this abduction a legal cover. The deep state in its bewildering response assumed that it was only because of academics like Dr Ammar and critical thinking that students have realized that they have some rights. We soon learned that Alamgir along with Ammar Ali Jan ,Farooq Tariq(a prominent activist) and three hundred unknown students were nominated in the cases of sedition. Ironically, we were relieved that Alamgir’s abduction had changed into a legal arrest and now he was at least able to use his right to defend himself in court. This was the moment we knew that the state has decided to launch a huge crackdown on all those who dare to question.

Ammar had already lost his job at second public sector university (University of Punjab) he was teaching at. Just like other universities, at GCU things suddenly started to change for progressive students and teachers. A smear campaign was launched against Progressive Students Collective with the help of different societies while on the other hand we could see growing islamization on campus. Female teachers were being policed by right wing students and teachers. Dars e Quran was made mandatory for students and teachers to attend.

As we were busy fighting against the cases of sedition and for the release of Alamgir Wazir, one day I woke up to learn that comrade Mohsin Abdali, student of Punjab University was abducted. I knew Mohsin for three years and we had been campaigning together for different things so it was really shattering for me and all of us. We called for a sit-in the same evening in front of Punjab Assembly and a lot of students came out in his support. Students belonging to all social classes, from the students of LUMS to the students of MAO College, students of all ethnicities and genders joined that protest. We succeeded in building the pressure and he got home the same evening. The moment I learned that he was released, it was the best moment of my life and I’m sure in the lives of all of us. It was a proud moment for all of us as we announced that he is released. We hugged and wiped our bittersweet tears of joy, sadness, love and solidarity as the cars passed behind us on Mall Road. Perhaps, that moment can never be captured in words.

Yet the crackdown which started after Students Solidarity March continued. Just within weeks, another progressive and pro student academic, Zaigum Abbas was told to not to come to the university anymore. It was another saddest thing for all of us students of GCU. Zaigum was one of the very few progressive academics of GCU. He always stood up for the rights of students. The last stand he took for students was when the students of newly launched evening shift of GCU were being treated like money making machines only. They were being charged with more fees with no hostel, library or transport facilities. Zaigum voiced their concerns but instead of listening to these concerns he was told to not come again to the university citing the reason that he was “too political”. Ironically, Zaigum was a teacher of political science. Like a totalitarian regime where there is no concept of law but only execution, he wasn’t given any reason. Students were angry and it seemed that they are not going to tolerate this anymore but then the novel coronavirus engulfed all the world in a state of emergency and the campuses were closed. Yet neither the growing islamization stopped nor the crackdown against critical thinking. Fortunately Alamgir Wazir was granted bail after months of struggle. It was another moment that made our resolution for social justice stronger.

Soon, we learned that from now on no student would be awarded the degree unless he or she has read Quran with translation. Without thinking about minorities, the governor used his executive powers to force this upon students of all the universities of Punjab. Not long after that, we got to know that Dr Ammar Ali Jan has been told by the administration of FCCU that due to his “political activities”, he is no more welcome in the campus. It is the third institute which said this to the person whose only crime is that he cultivates critical thinking in students. He teaches them to question the injustices that are now so deeply rooted in our society. Sooner, the renowned physicist Parvez Hoodbhoy and Muhammad Hanif the author of internationally acclaimed novels met the similar fate.

The ongoing crackdown on the academics is not new in the dark history of this country. The process of ending the progressive thought on campus was again started some three years ago. It wasn’t only Ammar Jan who was fired from a university for being “political” but two progressive academics Aima Khosa and Aimen Bucha was also fired from Beacon house National University . If we go further down the road of our history , it is full of such instances, the worst of all during the Zia regime. We are seeing the reincarnation of that regime. Crackdown on academics, students, journalist and civil society is taking its worst form with the passage of time. The same old alliance of state with the reactionary forces is once again getting strengthened day by day.  Even though university administrations has never let go of any opportunity to carry on the orders of deep state yet the government of Punjab is preparing to amend the public universities act and bureaucratize the universities. If it happens, it’ll be bad for all not only for administrations but also for students. It should be a moment for administrations to realize the fact that without students and the support of students they don’t have any power. The more anti-students they become the more power they lose. If there had been student unions it wouldn’t be so easy for the government to take all the power in its own hands. It is time that universities support the students’ struggle for democracy on campus to save the education system.

Meanwhile, our struggle for Justice, democracy, critical thinking and society based upon the principals of love, empathy and solidarity continues. All the hurdles in our way have made us stronger than ever. All the progressives are more united and ready to resist against fascism because we know that we cannot afford another Zia regime. If it spreads its tentacles again, it will be a death blow to Justice and those who stand up for justice.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only” (Charles Dickens).

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