Bahria University: Arsalan Bilal’s hunger for justice

Published: April 7, 2012
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Arsalan Bilal has gone on an indefinite hunger strike before Bahria University Islamabad from April 6. PHOTO: SCREEN SHOT

Public universities cannot and must not be used as the post-retirement, cushy appointment for retired bureaucrats, whether military or civil. PHOTO: ZAFAR ASLAM Arsalan Bilal has gone on an indefinite hunger strike before Bahria University Islamabad from April 6. PHOTO: SCREEN SHOT

Ask the administrators of Bahria University Islamabad, who have reportedly expelled Arsalan Bilal from the University for threatening staff members by forwarding a poem by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. It appears irrelevant to the administrators that the same e-mail was forwarded to his friends, class fellows and family members. Yet, Faiz’s poetry is a reason good enough to warrant expulsion if a teacher is added to the mailing list.

Bahria University has also declared Arsalan Bilal “psychologically unstable,” even though they are no experts in psychiatry. If so, the university appears to have set aside its responsibility towards student welfare and supporting vulnerable members of its community, and has gone about adding to his mental stress by deciding to expel him.

This should all sound very familiar. In April 2011, Professor Qamar Riaz Mahmitkhel was dismissed from Bahria University for questioning the role of retired military officials, and whether creativity could flourish in a military-style setup. The question was asked in a packed auditorium and the response of the university’s administrators was for the Director Campus Commodore (retired) Mohammad Ali and security personnel to grab him by the collar and assault him. A 100 or so students subsequently protested against his dismissal at which point naval intelligence officials harassed the protesters and the administration threatened them with expulsion.

Mr Bilal who also runs Insight News – Bahria University, a Facebook page dedicated to news related to the institution, had also questioned the role of ex-naval officials and certain faculty members policies in the university. He has been discouraged in pursuing his undergraduate research in Politicisation of Religion in Pakistan and faced discrimination as he belongs to a minority sect.

As a result, Arsalan Bilal has gone on an indefinite hunger strike before Bahria University Islamabad from April 6.

When challenged, administrators usually explain their actions by pointing to the greater good. For example, the case of women being raped in the International Islamic University Islamabad was hushed up, as the administration wanted to protect the reputation of the institution.

Universities in Pakistan, especially those of the Bahria University variety, have reduced higher education to an extension of secondary school. The emphasis is on discipline, uniform, fines for poor attendance etc. What is ignored, is the quality of teaching and the content of the curriculum, and what is emphasised is rote learning and propaganda over thoughtful analysis and evaluation. The incident involving a retired Brigadier who assaulted a lecturer in NUML University for “daring” to “say something about the army” comes to mind.

The fact is that HEC regulations are not enforced. Individuals without the prerequisite qualifications are appointed in universities based on their affiliation with either the military or the civilian bureaucracy. This is not only HEC’s failure to enforce the law, it is our collective silence that fails those students who study in these institutions.

The fact is that despite the HEC’s efforts, the quality of Higher Education in Pakistan remains dismal. We are not producing mature, analytical and creative individuals ready to take on the world. Some universities are nothing more than over glorified finishing schools where 20-year-olds are treated like children. The same administrators may send their own children to foreign universities where they are no uniforms, no attendance, and the environment lacks “discipline” of the variety they enforce on others.

Public universities cannot and must not be used as the post-retirement, cushy appointment for retired bureaucrats, whether military or civil. I am sure there are many ex-military officials who can make excellent contributions to learning in education, however, the variety that expels students for raising questions and assaults teaching staff have little to offer apart from their massive egos.

Education is far too important to be left to individuals. The key and most important stakeholders are and should be the students themselves. The HEC has developed elaborate structures and layers of bureaucracy that serve everyone but the students. Administrators are all powerful whether in the private or the public sector. Teaching staff have little or no job security and are subservient to the whims of administrators, most of whom have no background in education.

If you believe that education is more than wearing uniforms and wearing your tie correctly then it’s important to support Arsalan Bilal in his protest. If he is silenced, then the status quo will remain unchanged and it will silence anyone else who hopes to question the powers that be. Thousands upon thousands of students will receive a poor education, undeserving for an individual in the 21st century.

A university student is old enough to join the military, marry, drive, carry a weapon, yet university administrators seem hell bent on treating them as children. Things must not continue as they are.

Update: Arsalan Bilal has been arrested by the Islamabad police. Read the detailed story here.

Read more by Nadir here or follow him on Twitter @needroos
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Syed Nadir El Edroos

Nadir teaches Economics at Bellerbys College, London and is interested in Pakistani politics and current affairs. He tweets @needroos (twitter.com/needroos)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.