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Pakistani College Becomes Focus Of A Social Struggle

In early April, professor Iftikhar Baloch was assaulted and nearly killed in his office by members of Islami Jamiat Taliba, who were upset at the expulsion of some of their members from the university.
John Poole
/
NPR
In early April, professor Iftikhar Baloch was assaulted and nearly killed in his office by members of Islami Jamiat Taliba, who were upset at the expulsion of some of their members from the university.

In Lahore, the University of the Punjab attracts middle- and lower-income Pakistani students hoping to make better lives for themselves. But the school's campus is also the scene of an ongoing struggle over education and Islam.

Many of the 35,000 students wear jeans and T-shirts. Punjab is a state school, like one of those big American universities in the Midwest. Students attend class in brick buildings, and study on lawns cut almost as short as putting greens. But life here is less peaceful than it looks.

A clash over religious traditions recently brought about the beating of a professor in his office -- and forced the school to close for about three weeks.

Conservative students harass young men and women if they're seen too close together.

"They come and say, 'Why are you sitting there with a girl?' " says Atif Rasheed. Asked if that had happened to him, Rasheed laughs as he says, "Yeah. More than 10 times."

The conservative group is called Islami Jamiat Talaba -- or Islamic students' society. Its members are alleged to have beaten students and professors.

Conservative students entrenched themselves on this campus decades ago. Finally, the school's disciplinary committee expelled some IJT members for beating fellow students.

In early April, a mob broke into the office of the committee chairman, professor Iftikhar Baloch.

"This office was full of people," Baloch recalls. "And they were saying that we will not let him go out and we will kill him today, this and that. And they started beating me with the rods and all that."

Baloch was hospitalized. Angry professors responded by shutting down the campus for weeks. Police made some arrests and are still investigating.

The university's vice chancellor, Mujahid Kamran, says that is not enough. "I think we are now agreed on that, that we have to recruit guards, who may be former members of Pakistan armed forces," Kamran says. "We have decided to build our own muscle."

Kamran wants the security force to control a critically important school which, since its founding in 1882, has helped the children of farmers and soldiers go on to careers as politicians and judges.

The conservative students' group agrees the University of the Punjab is important. Graduate student Qaiser Sharif is the IJT's leader in this province. He calls it "shameful" that a professor was beaten.

But, Sharif says, this sort of thing happens all over the world.

"I want to say that two kinds of people live here in Pakistan nowadays," Sharif says. "First kind likes Western civilization and Western culture, Western traditions, and second kind is very different, and likes Eastern civilization. I think, in the near future, the war of thoughts on campuses will begin."

And to prepare for that war of thoughts, Sharif has a dream. He wants to open a chain of schools to promote his conservative beliefs. Its name, he says, would be one of the 99 names for Allah.

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