Clashes at Karachi university reflect city's intractable feuds

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 10:22 PM

KARACHI, PAKISTAN - Last semester ended ominously here on the campus of one of Pakistan's largest universities, with a flurry of clashes involving armed student organizations, a professors' strike against violence, canceled exams and a lunchtime bombing.

The University of Karachi began a new session last week - two weeks late - under the watch of army rangers deployed as peacekeepers. Shaken professors and students spoke of hope for a fresh start but also betrayed fear, referring to instigators only as "activists," instead of what they are - wings of national political parties that employ brutality and coercion to gain clout on campus.

In that sense, professors here say, the situation is a worrisome, if far less lethal, microcosm of the ethnic and sectarian feuds splitting this economic hub of 18 million. In Karachi, political mobsters are engaged in an increasingly deadly battle for land and the loyalty of a growing middle-class voting bloc, and officials seem helpless or unwilling to stop it. Rather than break free of those conflicts, the next generation seems to have inherited them.

"Instead of discussion, their mood is agitation," said Khalid Iraqi, a public administration professor who said he recently resigned as the university's head security officer. "No one wants to face these people."

In recent days in Karachi, at least 40 people have died in what officials described as political target killings, prompting curfews and calls for army intervention. It was the latest in a cycle of violence that killed about 750 people last year, three times as many as in 2009, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Though Karachi is a hideout for Taliban insurgents, the city's violence is rooted in a demographic turf war, not religion, analysts say. The city's long-dominant political force is the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which represents Urdu speakers who migrated after partition from India. But the MQM is being challenged by Pashtun arrivals from Pakistan's war-torn northwest and peasants from surrounding Sindh province, causing the fissures to grow deeper and the groups' gunmen more brazen.

The University of Karachi is a favorite of the city's middle class, and student politics here, as at many Pakistani universities, have long been raucous. After the government lifted a long-standing ban on student political groups in 2008, clashes left three students dead.

But professors here said they have lately perceived an even deeper-seated factionalism - one that is imperiling academic discourse.

"The students in our university are coming from the same society in which we live . . . and at every level of society, we observe this intolerance," said food science professor Abid Hasnain, a 25 year-veteran who heads the Karachi University Teachers Society, which temporarily boycotted exams after clashes last month.

In one incident, members of the most influential student group stormed a hall where administrators were selecting new teachers. The students had heard their preferred candidates had not made the cut, a prospect they deemed intolerable because it would reduce their power to demand passing grades.

The political groups cannot boast large numbers. In a student body of 25,000 - 70 percent of which is female - the main organizations each claim a few hundred members, predominantly males.

But as emissaries of national parties and the muscle behind street demonstrations, they wield pressure over administrators, many of whom are themselves linked to political parties.

"Unfortunately, we in the administration are very weak . . . and we believe that this group may help me get a higher position, and when I get a higher position, they blackmail me," Iraqi said.

At the university, as in the city, the group affiliated with the MQM is viewed as the most potent, and professors said it disrupted the teacher selection session in December.

In late December, a bomb planted under a tree exploded next to a lawn where a Shiite students' group was praying, hospitalizing four in what appeared to be a rare act of terrorism on a university campus. Last week, police arrested three students who were affiliated with an Islamic organizationwhose members are Sunni.

Shahana Urooj, one of the university's top administrators, said the university had increased the number of army rangers and private security guards after the December turmoil. She said administrators also asked the city's political parties to "control" their students. But, she said, the parties typically deny links to troublemakers.

In interviews, student group leaders described the dynamics with a blend of evasion, blame and conspiracy theories. Ali Wasif, 23, a Shiite student leader who witnessed the bombing, said he attributed it to "Zionist" and other non-Muslim "elements."

Abdul Moqtada, a leader with the Sunni group, accused administrators, calling it their policy "to divide and rule the student groups."

On a recent day, amid exams that were finally underway after several postponements, students congregated in small groups outside the political science building. They expressed only frustration when asked about student organizations, whose names they would not utter. Some called for a revival of the ban on campus politics.

Ahsan Awan, 24, heads what he describes as an apolitical group that works "for the empowerment of neutral students." Nevertheless, he said, it would be up to the administration and the army rangers to stand up to the student organizations.

"In a society like Pakistan, it's very hard to actually go against them," he said.

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