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Wanted: an independent campus force By Humair Ishtiaq

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Wanted: an independent campus force By Humair Ishtiaq
« on: April 20, 2008, 10:48:05 PM »
Wanted: an independent campus force

By Humair Ishtiaq

EVEN the darkest of clouds has some sort of silver lining if one is willing to take a blinker-free view of the scene. The recent reprehensible behaviour of the officials of law-enforcement agency at the University of Karachi and its continued defiance of orders coming from the office of the vice-chancellor is no different on this count. Condemnable to the core though they are, the events of the last few days do throw up an opportunity to finally rid a seat of higher learning of the intimidating presence of the paramilitary force.

Posted some 19 years ago — July 1989, to be precise — the rangers were supposed to control the spiral of violence that had gripped educational institutions in the wake of the military takeover of General Ziaul Haq, especially after he clamped a ban on student unions in 1984. The arguments in favour or against the decision aside, the simple fact of the matter is that the Rangers had come for a specific purpose and needed to move out — or to be moved out — beyond that point. When it was not done, someone had to pay the price, and that ‘someone’ happened to be the university, its teachers, its students and, in short, the entire atmosphere at one of the most prestigious universities of the country.

That the Rangers found their posting at the university a much more comfortable option than being in some rustic trench along the border with primitive amenities is quite obvious and understandable. They not only found reasonable housing arrangements and dining facilities on the campus, but also encroached upon buildings and houses meant for university staff. Despite having taken up the matter with relevant quarters several times, the university administration has failed to get even a single house vacated by the illegal occupants. The episode is starkly reminiscent of that fable involving the Bedouin and his camel.

But more than anything else, what the paramilitary force clearly relished on the campus was the air of authority that even a lowly sentry enjoyed because of his uniform. Being on the border, he does nothing but carry out orders day and night, right and wrong. On the campus, however, he becomes the master of all he surveys, knowing for sure that neither the students nor the teachers have the physique or the arms to challenge him. And, in any case, he can so easily claim the moral high ground in any clash because he has been posted there to control what in his view are hooligans and hoodlums, not students. It is the ability to display this haughty demeanour that the sentry apparently loves the most.

The recent episode involving the sentries and a professor that snowballed into a stalemate is a testimony to it. The poor professor was severely beaten up on the campus on March 31 when security was tightened and the campus gates were closed to outsiders after a clash earlier in the day. The professor was certainly no outsider, but was still stopped by the Rangers when he was leaving the campus through the Silver Jubilee Gate. He tried to argue his case, but a rational argument has hardly ever been the hallmark of an existence in uniform. The Rangers first misbehaved and later gave him a thorough beating.

The force initially detained and suspended a few officials involved in the horrific incident, but imperatives of perceived institutional esteem seemingly forced a change of heart and they subsequently lodged a four-count FIR against the professor, accusing him of beating up the security personnel on duty. As quoted in the media, a Rangers spokesman said the professor used abusive language and pushed one of the personnel who fell. He denied that the teacher had been beaten up at all. On the contrary, he insisted that it was the Rangers man who got injured and had one of his fingers fractured. As if all this was not enough, the spokesman unleashed a parting kick, saying that the professor was “known for his political ambitions”.

It reeks of nothing but blatant highhandedness. As anybody in his right frame of mind would testify, the chances are almost non-existent of a scholarly professor, who was unarmed and alone at the time of the incident, using criminal force to deter a bunch of armed guards intoxicated with notions of being masters of all and sundry.

The teaching process at the university remained suspended for almost a week because the Rangers went off duty without even bothering to intimate their decision to the university administration. It was a clear attempt at blackmail because the faculty had started demanding their immediate withdrawal from the university, and the Rangers wanted to show their indispensability to a jittery administration. But, as Churchill famously said, the net worth of indispensability can be seen in graveyards which are full of indispensables; the university finally resumed full-scale activity without the presence of Rangers. When nothing untoward happened on the campus, they silently returned, though partially, to their posts, saying they had been staying away in deference to the wishes of the teachers.

The manner in which the unfortunate events unfolded demands two steps to be considered and taken sooner rather than later. First, the behaviour of the Rangers needs to be seen in proper perspective. In military terms, refusal to obey orders is considered the worst form of indiscipline and seldom goes unpunished. The decision of the Rangers to first walk out of their security duties and then to refuse to return despite repeated requests is clearly an act of gross indiscipline. The force functions under the directives of the university administration and on the orders of the provincial governor, who also happens to be the chancellor of the university. That being so, the Rangers could not have refused to continue with the assignment even if they so wished. This is how military discipline works, and no exception should be made for any of the Rangers personnel involved in the ugly incident.

Besides, till they are there on the campus, they should be made to behave in a civilised manner. Arrogance and aggression are, indeed, character traits that are high on the wish list of a sergeant within the physical parametres of a cantonment, but once he is moved out, he should be mentally prepared and willing to deal with rational minds.The misplaced arrogance and sense of superiority on display might have been a little palatable had the Rangers been able to control the law and order situation not just in the university, but in the city at large. That has certainly not been the case. People have been critical, and rightly so, of the manner in which Rangers tend to behave every time there is a crisis in the metropolis; taking shelter in their dens when the trouble is at its peak, and returning to the scene hours later when everything stands gutted. The events of May 12, Oct 18, Dec 27 all bear testimony to this fact.

A security force that inspires trust and confidence is what the university needs, and this takes us to the second step that needs to be considered rather seriously by all concerned. The setting up of a full-fledged security apparatus by the university is an essential that shall not be delayed any further. Among other things, it will preempt the possibility of another blackmail in the future. For a whole week the university was taken hostage not by the much-blamed student groups, but by those whose job it was to keep it functional. It will be unfortunate if it is allowed to happen again.

The paramilitary force has to go, but their removal has to be planned and phased out. They have been there for 19 long years and cannot be shunted out in as many hours. Neither the teachers nor the students want them to be there, but the university administration looks like having cold feet at the possibility of functioning without them. Though understandable, it is time for the administration to outgrow such fears. The way ahead is to organise a campus force with similar powers that have been enjoyed by the Rangers minus the right to be whimsical and snooty.

This will be a daunting task for a university that does not enjoy a lavish financial status, but the budget being spent on Rangers can logically be curtailed to make room for the venture. Money spent on keeping the Rangers, after all, comes from the provincial budget and not from their own pockets.

The final argument in this regard, which is the main reason for the administration’s desire to continue with the paramilitary force, relates to the possibility of violence on the premises. With the government having already announced its plan to revive the student unions, it will be in the interest of the students themselves not to risk another ban by indulging in armed violence. Teachers and students are both looking forward to revival of union activities which used to be such a vibrant phenomenon on the campus till the early 1980s. A visionary decision is all that is needed. A civilised existence on the campus is still a possibility. Let’s go for it.