Canceling of Lahore Event on 1971 Atrocities Turns Spotlight on Academic Freedom in Pakistan

An online event organised by LUMS on the 50th anniversary of the Bangladesh War of Liberation was 'mysteriously' cancelled.

Lahore: How many cancelled events does it take for a pattern on stifling academic freedom to emerge?

In April 2015, a seminar titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan’ was to be held at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). It was an important event, and word instantly spread through the grapevine about a Baloch human rights activist, ‘Mama’ Qadeer, coming especially to speak about the issue of enforced disappearances affecting the people of Balochistan.

Everything was arranged. Mama Qadeer had been in Lahore to raise awareness about missing persons; the organisers were ready. For those living in Lahore, who were underexposed to what was happening in Balochistan, whatever information Qadeer would give would have been straight from the horse’s mouth.

At the eleventh hour though, the seminar was cancelled mysteriously.

The LUMS administration told the media – off the record – that it had received ‘government orders’ to cancel the event.

According to information provided from a LUMS faculty member, ‘two men from an official agency’ had come the same evening and directed the administration to cancel the event, even though they were given the opportunity to invite speakers of their own choice.

But the men said that the conference would only malign Pakistan and so it had to be cancelled.

The students protested, but it did not make a difference. The damage was done.

In response to the cancellation, Sabeen Mahmud, owner of the non-profit, community space ‘The Second Floor’ in Karachi, invited Mama Qadeer and managed to hold the talk titled ‘Unsilencing Balochistan Take 2’. As she was going home after the event, she was shot dead by a gunman in her car.

Cut to 2021. An online conference organised by LUMS for March 23, the day the Lahore Resolution was signed in 1940, commonly known as Pakistan Day. The conference was meant to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bangladesh War of Liberation from March 23 to 27, in collaboration with the National Institute of Pakistan Studies (NIPS), Quaid-i-Azam University. The conference was organised by the LUMS’ Department of Humanities and Social Sciences and titled ‘War, Violence & Memory: Commemorating 50 Years of the 1971 War’.

The conference may not have garnered much attention if it had not been ‘mysteriously’ cancelled – similar to the 2015 event on enforced disappearances.

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When security analyst Ejaz Haider took to Twitter to proclaim that the conference had been a waste of time, his comments reeked of resentment. Once again, he blamed the liberal and progressive sections of society for ‘maligning’ Pakistan.

He did not just stop there, but went on and on.

For those who had been looking forward to the event, the cancellation was disappointing – and very soon anger began to spread.

Organisers say that the conference was meant to cover the political history of East Pakistan from 1947 to 1971, along with the struggle for democracy and the military operation that resulted in mass displacement and a genocidal massacre.

“The university administration was told in clear terms that this is crossing a red line, so they felt it would not be able to ensure the security of staff and students, and that there might be violent protests outside the campus,” says a member of the LUMS faculty. “The administration decided that it was too risky to go ahead and force the organisers to cancel the event.”

As far as this being the second incident is concerned, she says that this has now become part of a disturbing trend. “We have been witnessing this trend over the past decade in Pakistan. Educational institutions have never been free, but some people imagined that a private institution like LUMS was somehow insulated. This event and previous incidents like the cancellation of the Unsilencing Balochistan talk show us that this is not true.”

But, she adds, this is the first time in her 10 years in LUMS that she has heard of an entire conference being cancelled. “This signals to me that the space for free expression, critical discourse and academic freedom is shrinking – a sign of a very insecure state.”

Others took to Twitter to condemn the cancellation.

Filmmaker Nilofer Afridi Qazi spoke up pointing out how the establishment and government often mislead the public.

There were some on Twitter who blamed ‘liberals and progressives’, and challenged LUMS to hold a lecture on war crimes by India. “We would like to see LUMS do a conference on Kashmir and Indian Army atrocities, or what the Mukti Bahini did in 1971,” says one user.

South Asia Partnership Pakistan (SAP-PK) executive director Muhammad Tahseen says that the matter has nothing to do with India, or even directly Bangladesh, except that maybe Sharmila Bose would have been part of the conference. Instead, he says, it would have been a good chance for Pakistan to see in retrospect what they could have done differently.

“March 23 is in fact a wonderful day to understand what happened with East Pakistan,” he says. “We don’t have a single document to help us understand what happened. It’s unfortunate, to say the least.”

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He criticised LUMS, saying that it was disappointing how the top administration allowed themselves to be bullied into submission.

“If a university like LUMS is to be bullied like this, what will become of the rest of us?” he asks. “We can’t even imagine these lectures taking place in the rest of the educational institutions. Why did Ejaz Haider, who acts like an enlightened liberal otherwise – say those things he did?”

He adds that with what is happening in Balochistan today, it would have been a good chance to learn from Pakistan’s past mistakes.

“It is nothing but ad hocism,” he says. “India ko koi faida nehin hota – yahan critical thinking barhti (India would not have gained anything from it, instead we would have had a chance for critical thinking.)”

Meanwhile there are those, including some students, who believe that if the conference was held on a different date, it may not have mattered so much.

But Nuha Ansari, author of Karachi: Edge of Empire, and the daughter of Dr Hamida Khuhro (historian and politician), says, “As Bangladesh turns 50, and LUMS cancels a conference remembering 1971 entitled “War, Violence and Memory” it seems the Pakistan establishment still cannot tolerate a critical examination of their role in the atrocities committed in Bangladesh.”

Dr A.H. Nayyar, who has also formerly taught at LUMS, says that when he heard about the incident, he felt disappointed.

“I was concerned about this,” he says. “But I believe it has been since some time now, that certain elements have begun to intervene in matters that don’t concern them. There are two types of people – those who have roots of religiosity entrenched in their ideas, and those who are jingoistic and pose to advocate the narrative of the state establishment. But in the end this is a terrible trend in a place where one expects and hopes for freedom of ideas.”

Like others, Nayyar echoes that history must be understood and learnt from, so as not to repeat generational errors. It should be understood what let us to the trenches, he says about Bangladesh.

“It is time the youth of today understand the problems of yesteryears,” he says. “Especially when the aspirations of the youth of Balochistan and Khyber Pukhtunkhwa are being trampled in such a way that there is alienation to the point of no return. But the rest of Pakistan does not understand or empathise with their pain, just like during the ’71 war, when many of us were being swept away by the state narrative.”

Nayyar mentioned the way young people from the PTM (Pukhtun Tahafuz Movement) were being branded traitors without even being heard. In such a political climate how would one expect such discussions to be held?

But the narrative being hijacked is still happening, and it began happening a long time ago, when General Zia was in power, he emphasises. “The government has always been misusing the education sector for their own ideological promotion. It happened back under Zia, and now it is happening again.”

One major incident shook the belief of those who thought that devolution of certain ministries from the federal government would change things after 2010. Prior to that, PPP was in the federation and ANP was in power in KP. Textbooks containing hate material were rewritten, and the historical record was set straight. But with the current ruling political party and its alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami, all the changes made were reversed.

“That made it clear that they have hijacked the narrative,” says Nayyar. “The Islamisation that Zia brought, they are worsening it. The Supreme Court has already ordered that there must be no violation of Article 22. There must be no religiosity contained in textbooks but the government is clearly carrying on with it under the guise of their National Education Policy 2021-22.”

Xari Jalil is a journalist who reports from Karachi and Lahore. Her areas of interest include crime, society and art. She tweets at @xarijalil.