The incident I am about to narrate happened almost five and a half years ago. However, it is of extreme relevance now as it was during the time it occurred. This post will, in my opinion, give my readers an idea of how slowly but surely, liberty and tolerance are vanishing from the Pakistani culture due to the spreading of the more extreme version of Islam, a point I highlighted in one of my earlier posts.
This happened on the beautiful morning of February 14, 2009- Valentines Day. I was sitting with a group of friends (a guy and 3 girls, to be precise), around the canteen area, next to the Department of Physiology, University of Karachi, Pakistan. We were enjoying ourselves, cracking jokes, gossiping and chatting away the time before our laboratory session started.
I had my camcorder with me. I took it out and started filming, digitally capturing the moments to cherish in the days to come. Oblivious of the surroundings and lost in the moment, we celebrated and enjoyed all that life had to offer. The celebration, however, was short-lived.
A hand reached from behind and took hold of my camcorder as a stern voice commanded: “Band karo issko!” (Shut this down). I thought it was a joke by one of my friends. But as I turned around, I saw a group of guys, about 6-7, getting off from two motorcycles. These people were no campus clowns and they surely hadn’t come to join us in our fun.
They meant business and failure to comply with their demands meant broken bones and body stitches. They were the terrorists of the campus. They were students of Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba Pakistan, which is the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami.
I got to my feet and turned off my camera and then asked them, politely, what the matter was. They, however, were in no mood to talk. They just wanted to break my camera and, possibly, my bones to pieces.
One of the guy took my sunglasses and broke them. Another guy asked me to show him my student ID card as a proof that I am legitimate student of the University. When I showed him my ID card, he simply pocketed it and refused to return it.
Meanwhile, my female friends had left the scene quickly, and perhaps rightly so, as their safety was in jeopardy.
They were adamant that I should delete all the video footage. I tried talking my way out of the situation but the more I tried to negotiate, the more violent they became.
Finally one of the guys (perhaps the leader of the gang) said to his fellows, “Yeh aisay nahin man-nay ga. Toro isska camera!” (He won’t listen like this. Break his camcorder!)
He then snatched the camcorder from my hand and just as he was about to smash it, I gave in. It was, after all, a very expensive camcorder and I was left with no option but to comply with their demands. I deleted all the video recordings. After that, Jammati workers (as they are called), finally left. And I was left- broken and hurt…
One of the workers, who was a passive observer and, perhaps, the most sensible of the lot stayed back and had a proper chat with me. We sat down and I explained to him my viewpoint in detail. I said something on the lines that violence and forceful coercion is NOT the way to make your point. If you, from your ethical standpoint, believe that what I have done is wrong, then please talk to me about it in a cool, calm and collected manner. We are educated, university-going students, not ignorant savages.
I also mentioned that what I did was not unethical or morally unacceptable primarily because I did what I did with due permission of everyone. I never forced a girl to sit with me and crack jokes or threatened her to be a part of my video. They all did what they did, willingly. Therefore, as sensible and mature human beings, we must provide room for self-expression and understand that we must not force people to live their lives according to our own perceptions. Individuals should be free to do what they feel like doing provided their activities are not harmful to general well-being and stability of the environment. Surely, there is no rule in the University charter that prevents boys and girls to have some fun at the campus, during free hours. Hence, my actions were not unlawful or unethical.
Fortunately enough, he was able to see through the thicket of his beliefs and understood my point. He apologized. He also offered help in getting back my ID card, which his more belligerent party members had taken away. He left with a handshake.
This wasn’t the end. Even though I was able to get my ID card back from a friend who knew the higher ups of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba, I ran into trouble with Jamiat again exactly two weeks later. That was an even more elaborate incident, which will be the subject of a new blog entry.
Unfortunately, the situation has only gotten worse in Pakistan. Prof. Dr. Shakeel Auj, who was the Dean of Islamic Studies at the University of Karachi (my alma mater) and a really close friend of my wife’s uncle was shot at point blank range all because of his liberal views.
His death came as a shock for all of us and I have no words to describe on how I felt. At the same time, his untimely demise did strengthen my belief in the principles of peace, liberty and tolerance. It has motivated me now to be more vocal of what I truly believe in and live my life according to my views. It’s a long, hard road to freedom of expression and I have, in the words of Frost, “miles to go before I sleep.” The struggle must continue…