Ochlocracy (mob rule) has been on the march. In the last two months, we saw two incidents of mob vigilantism. Both happened in mainstream universities with students’ lot at the forefront. On March, 21, 2017, a group of Islami Jamiat Talba students, equipped with canes and sticks, ambushed peaceful cultural festival organized by Pushtoon students in University of the Punjab, Lahore, with the logic that such festivals are not at one with their ideology. On April 13, 2017, a group of students, incensed by rumors, as it is now unfolding in the news, against a student named Mashal Khan, studying Journalism and Mass Communication in Abdul Wali khan university, Mardan, for committing alleged blasphemy, ruthlessly murdered him in broad daylight, thinking that his sin was too grave that he should not be given a chance to live any more. There is an underlying message to both these episodes of students’ led vigilantism that academia has utterly failed to invoke a sense of pluralism among students; in other words, the incidents have made bare our students’ inability to live in agreement with disagreement.
The fact that the mob violence took place in both mainstream universities should make us introspect about the discourse that is being dispensed to our youth upon which so many hopes are pinned for coping up with all challenges that Pakistan has been facing, among which the outstanding challenge has been terrorism, which is an offshoot of extremism. Universities in Pakistan, though, provide diverse academic milieu in the sense that students from different areas and from opposite sexes come to study together, but, unfortunately, the discourse dispensed sans critical thinking, makes them antagonistic towards difference of opinion. In such an academic milieu, when there comes a point that they have to prove their point in the face of diversity, the only option that comes to their mind is to resort to violence. One resorts to violence when one has no arguments and lack of argument shows the level of intellectual rigidity. The growing number of cases in our mainstream universities, in which students latch on to violence right in the first instance for when they are confronted with any difference of opinion, speaks volumes of grooming they get in their universities with respect to dealing with views that they do not believe in.
The essence of academia lies in learning, unlearning and relearning. This means that anybody subscribing to academia, be it student, teacher or someone in any other capacity, in order to tap the essence of academia, should learn, put into question what has been learnt and then relearn after critically analyzing what has been learnt. Unfortunately, the academia in Pakistan hardly works in this way. What happens is that students, while stepping into academia, stand by what they have already learnt in society so blindly that they hardly create a room for imbibing something new or putting in question what their social upbringing has made them understand. A case in point is the ambivalence pervasive among students with respect to women empowerment in our society. Because the way modern discourse is being dispensed is not challenging in its nature, in the way that it compels students to think in multiple ways or in a broader perspective with respect to what they believe in; thus, academia has been churning out a host of graduates every year whose inability to cope with diversity makes them more defensive and more violently assertive for what they believe in. Unknowingly, by not catering to intellectual inertia pervasive in its academia, Pakistan has been cultivating a crop for all those extremists to harvest against which it has started a crusade.
Mashal’s episode has made Pakistan face a serious question, and that is, in its fight against extremism, if an inclusive approach was not applied, that needs complete overhaul of academic discourse being dispensed at the moment, beacons of change, youth, might give into the narrative of those who are against that change; extremists, which is reflective from their mob vigilantism, something which does not make them different from extremists. For Pakistan, in its fight against extremism, its ray of hope is its youth, especially that youth lot which is currently enrolled in universities. In order to stop the onslaught of extremism, which has now made its way to all those venues, a befitting reply was expected from academic institutes, but unfortunately our academic institutes are providing conducive environment to this plague. It is high time for a shake-up in both academic discourse being dispensed and those who are dispensing it. Critically sound academia can provide a befitting reply to the menace we are dealing with at hand.