Let’s talk about overstepping boundaries. Earlier this week, the International Islamic University of Islamabad (IIUI) hosted a Model United Nations (MUN) event, where some students were tasked with representing Israel. Israel is an active and important member of the United Nations, and with the omission of the policies it advocates and influences, any MUN event would be an inaccurate version of reality; a redundant learning exercise for students. The presence of the Israeli flag at a small table (popularly dubbed “stall”) alongside representative symbols of the state (legally, Pakistan has never recognised Israel’s statehood), enraged groups on campus and kickstarted a national campaign against Israel. No problem, because this kind of overstepping is expected and cyclical. If you have a group of politically motivated students on campus, they will have opinions and some of them will act unreasonably upon them. It is the disappointing responses first by the IIUI and now by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan, that present real causes for concern.

The IIUI reacted by absolving itself of any knowledge of the act. Instead of addressing the problem wisely, it hastily tried to remove responsibility from itself. The problem is inherent to the university’s line of defence: “We don’t know what happened. We are innocent. The students are guilty.”

The HEC went many steps further. In a self-righteous act overriding its jurisdiction, the HEC wrote to all heads of private and public higher education institutions with words of caution. This cautionary note, which makes references to staying in line with Pakistan’s ideology and principles, is a serious overstepping of the duties of the Commission, is irresponsible and ill thought out. The problem lies in the text and interpretation of the letters: what, after all, constitute the ideology and principles of Pakistan? Is there any place for the “ideology” of Pakistan in the pursuit of serious education, in art, the humanities, literature, politics and film? Where do institutions draw the line? How “non-controversial” should students be, while still challenging the status-quo, and making choices about the world? At a time when students should be encouraged and applauded for their boldness and intellectual honesty, the Commission charged with helping the country’s bright minds reach their utmost potential has let loose a tirade that sounds like a page out of Zia’s National Education Policy. If the higher education institutions of this country play into the socio-religious narratives that have corrupted the public intellect, then hope is lost. The heads of all institutions would do well to respond to the cautionary letters in a befitting manner: by a quick hurl into the bin.