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Is Pakistan clamping down on liberal academics?

Mona Kazim Shah | Aasim Saleem
April 25, 2018

A prominent academic has been accused of "spreading violence and ethnic tension" and was recently removed from his post. Critics say this is the latest example of official crackdown on liberal voices in the country.

Symbolbild Pakistan Militär Soldat
Image: Reuters/A. Soomro

In yet another incident of liberal voices being targeted in Pakistan, Dr. Ammar Ali Jan, who is an assistant professor of social sciences at the Punjab University, has gone into hiding fearing arrest. Earlier in April, Jan was accused of spreading violence and ethnic tensions on campus, and was barred from teaching at the university.   

The university, however, contended that Jan was removed after failing to complete employment paperwork, despite having taught there for over a semester. It also specifically pointed out that Jan was "not being disengaged due to his political views," but for administrative reasons.

On April 17, students from the Institute of Cultural and Social Sciences and other departments at Lahore's Punjab University protested his removal, prompting the university's administration to release a statement that Jan was barred from teaching "as the administration had received information that he was fanning anti-state, ethnic and extremist ideas." Jan claims that he was also accused of instructing Pashtun students to continue their protests.

'Culture of silence'

The South Asian country has recently witnessed a wave of demonstrations by the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which is demanding security, equal rights and accountability for its ethnic Pashtun minority.

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The Pashtuns have endured violence, destruction, and displacement for more than 15 years due to the country's "war on terror," with thousands allegedly having disappeared or targeted in extrajudicial killings. Military commanders, however, accuse the movement's leaders of trying to destabilize the country.

"For some time now, we have been facing a situation where any kind of criticism or discussion about human rights is regarded as a threat to the state," Jan told DW. He said that a culture of silence is deliberately being created across the country. "The state is afraid as it has run out of options. It is a sign of a weak establishment, an incapable government and inept politicians with no possibility of voicing your concerns even on legitimate matters," Jan added.

Chaotic political landscape

Pakistan is witnessing an extremely chaotic political scenario as it prepares for general elections to be held in July this year. It started last year with the ouster of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a corruption case. The fallout from Sharif's dismissal has continued into 2018. Meanwhile, critics say forced disappearances of liberal bloggers, activists and journalists have gained momentum.

More recently, Pakistan's largest and most watched news channel Geo was taken off air. Another example is the lack of coverage of the PTM in almost all the mainstream media outlets. Be it Sharif's ouster, Geo's blackout, disappearances or efforts to undermine a civil movement, critics hold the country's powerful military and its agencies responsible for all of these developments.

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Despite the allegations, it has yet to be proved that the military establishment is behind the recent events, said Kamal Siddiqui, director of Center for Excellence in Journalism at Institute of Business Administration in Karachi. "Nobody has come forward and said that he or she acted on the army's or intelligence agencies' behest," he told DW.

Hasan Mujtaba, a New York-based Pakistani journalist and political analyst, told DW that there was once a situation in Pakistan when even using the word "Bengal" was prohibited. He was referring to the time when Bangladesh secured independence from Pakistan in 1971.  

"Sadly, we are in a similar situation today," said Mujtaba, adding that the PTM and Jan have both become victims of such censorship. "The state is confused. The way this movement has been endorsed by the masses, has actually highlighted the gap between democracy and dictatorship," said Mujtaba.

Meanwhile, questioning Jan's apparent removal and the ensuing controversy, activist Salman Haider said, "If there can be no discussion on social, political or economy related matters in the universities, then where else can it be discussed?"

Haider said that if the military establishment feels that a university is not a suitable place to talk about a political movement, then it is only trying to send the message that it should be allowed to do whatever it wants and that the intelligentsia should not question it. "No religion or society works this way," said Haider.

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