Monday, February 4, 2008

With Extreme Prejudice?


On two consecutive days, 1st and 2nd February, the staff (security personnel as well as faculty members) of Punjab College, Muslim Town have tried to deny the rights of free speech and of free association of pro-democracy activists, and members of the Student Action Committee (SAC) Lahore - even going to the extent of brutal, un-restrained physical assault. In the face of this practical demonstration of the fascist attitudes nurtured in the so-called institutes of higher education that constitute the Punjab Group of Colleges, owned and run by the Nazim (Mayor) of Lahore, Mian Amir Mehmood, the activists have shown a remarkable degree of calm and fortitude, refusing to be provoked, and yet refusing to bow down to the dictates of the civilian collaborators of Army rule.

As already reported in some newspapers (e.g. Dawn), on Friday 1st February, Raheem-ul-Haque (adjunct faculty at Punjab University, former Project Manager at Techlogix) and Saeeda Diep (a veteran political, and not merely social, activist) were distributing flyers on the public side-lane in front of the two sections of the segregated Punjab College. The flyers, published by the Students Action Committee, laid out the basic demands of the Committee and also urged students to join hands with other sections of the public in a protest demonstration in Nasser Bagh on Saturday, the 2nd. The two activists were handing out flyers to all the students, boys and girls, consistent with their belief that information and debate are as much the right of women as of men. While Raheem was distributing some flyers outside the girls' section of the college, he leaned over the chain at the exit and handed a few to some students standing there. He then continued distributing the pamphlets to other students as they left for home or arrived for class. It is important to note two things here: at no point did either Raheem or Diep trespass on the private property of the college, unless, of course, in his extraordinary legislative zeal, the President decides to declare into existence a new law against aerial trespassing, "Thou shalt not lean into, or otherwise violate the airspace of, another's property"; not a single student had actually complained against the actions of the pro-democracy campaigners.

Soon thereafter, one of the security guards employed by the College told Raheem to stop handing out the flyers. Raheem defended his acts, saying that he was well within his rights to do as he pleased in a public space and that he was distributing flyers to the girls in the same way that he was distributing them to the boys. The guard slapped Raheem. Instead of hitting back, Raheem asked him why he'd hit him. He got two more punches for his trouble - this time the guard broke his spectacles. Again Raheem tried to reason with the guard, protesting that he was not doing anything wrong. He then walked over to consult with Diep. The guard followed, and the ensuing discussion quickly heated up with the guard pushing Diep and insulting both activists in abusive language. People gathered around them, which prevented the guard from following up his verbal threats with further physical aggression. Realizing that the situation could spiral out of control, some staff members from the College extricated the guard from the crowd.

Incensed and humiliated, the two activists decided to bring this action to the notice of the larger public. Some friends and one reporter arrived on the spot in short order. At this point, the group decided to report the matter to the police. At the nearby Muslim Town police station, which is also the office of the Superintendant Police Saddar Division, the police hummed and hawed for two hours before finally announcing that they needed a medico-legal report from the nearest government hospital. The physician at Jinnah Hospital diagnosed a perforated left ear drum and prescribed some antibiotics. Armed with the report, the group headed back to the police station, where they were informed that such an injury, not visible to the naked eye, was not serious enough to be the subject of their hallowed "First Investigation Report" (FIR)!

That evening, members of the Students Action Committee gathered outside Aitezaz Ahsan's house to celebrate his release, prepared a press release and vowed to go back the following day to the same college to concretely demonstrate the strength of their resolve.

The next day, Hassan Rehman (FAST-NU graduate student) and Umayr Hassan (FAST-NU faculty member) accompanied Raheem-ul-Haque and Saeeda Diep to Punjab College. They arrived at 11.30 AM and started handing out the flyers urging students to attend the protest demonstration that would start in a few hours time. It seemed that they had proven their point and were about to disperse (in fact, Hassan Rehman had already left) when the Principal of the College arrived in his black Mercedes. Some of the security guards (there were at least ten of them in total) called Raheem to meet the Principal. Raheem and Diep - infuriated - argued with him that their guards had no right to tell them what to do on public property and that, in fact, they (the College) was illegally encroaching upon public property (the green belt between the service lane and the main road serves as a parking lot for the College). Raheem mentioned that he had taken several photographs of the encroachment. Another SAC member, Shehryar (software engineer by profession) arrived while the argument was going on.

At some point, as he leaned either to say or after having said something to the Principal, the Principal grabbed Shehryar by his collar and then told the guards to thrash him. All of the guards fell upon Shehryar, punching, slapping, and then picking him up to be taken inside the College premises. Diep and Raheem went to save Shehryar and were similarly assaulted. Diep was dragged along with Shehryar while Raheem and Umayr were slapped and pushed into the premises through another gate.

Inside their offices, the four were forced to sit on the sofa and not allowed to go out. Raheem, infuriated, railed against the teachers present, who either remained silent spectators or told the activists to shut up or taunted their professionalism or called them Indian agents/NGO people. They claimed they were puncturing car tires and instigating students inside the campus. A female teacher suggested that Diep (being a female) could accompany her elsewhere - Diep angrily refused. Shehryar struggled against the goon squad and was beaten again. The other three tried to protect him as Raheem was punched and his nose started bleeding profusely. Diep tried calling Usman Gill (SAC activist and recent graduate from FAST-NU) and while she was talking to him, the guards tried to confiscate her cell phone - Diep refused but could not complete the call. This and more went on for more than an hour, with the College personnel alternating between beating up the activists and apologizing to them. There were twenty or thirty of them in all, some staff, some faculty and some who looked like hired thugs in plain clothes, who attacked and tormented the trapped pro-democracy campaigners.

Suddenly, Shehryar fell on all fours, gasping and indicating that he had difficulty breathing. It was a clever hoax, but no one including friends realised it then and started to panic. They clamoured for an ambulance to be called, warning the administration of the trouble they would bring upon themselves were one of them to die on the premises. As Shehryar lay limp on the floor, Umayr went outside to tell someone to call an ambulance. Usman Gill was outside and Umayr shouted to him telling him to call the ambulance. As he came nearer to the College boundary wall, someone behind Umayr told the guards outside to bring Usman inside. A guard grabbed Usman by the collar and tried to push him toward the gate - Usman resisted and was released just outside the gate as the police had arrived by that time. Usman, Umayr, Raheem and Diep's driver carried Sheryar outside and laid him in Umayr's car as Shehryar and Diep were driven away to safety.

The rest of the SAC members waited for the senior police officer (already aware of the incident the previous day) to arrive while the activist and College administration argued the case with the officer present. In particular, the activists demanded that the College return Shehryar's cell phone and Raheem's camera (used to photograph the College fa├žade as well as the encroachment - hence the reason the guards to grab it from Raheem's car, as witnessed by Umayr's driver. The camera cost approx. $1000.) When the senior police officer arrived, the same argument persisted: the students demanded the retrieval of their property while the college personnel complained that the SAC members had been interfering inside their College. They now also claimed that the activists had damaged their property - a door glass was broken when the guards were scuffling inside with Shehryar. It was not clear who broke it. All parties now went inside the offices and the officer then had a word in private with the Principal. Outside, Umayr narrated their tale to a plainclothes Special Branch (police intelligence) representative. Outside, again, the officer had managed to recover the cell phone and asked the administrators to look for the missing camera asked the activists to come to the police station to lodge a complaint while his junior stayed back to look for the camera. Raheem and Usman went with him in the police mobile car.

By this time, Diep had managed to inform the SAC members attending the big rally at Nasser Bagh. However, once the activists had managed to free themselves, they sent messages to the SAC members to attend the rally which was the more important event, and to come over to the Muslim Town police station afterwards.

Shehryar and Raheem got medical treatment. Shehryar had a broken finger and Raheem had a bloody nose swollen as after a boxing match.

Around 20 - 25 SAC members had gathered at the Muslim Town police station by 4:30 PM. The SP allowed some SAC members to enter his office to take part in the discussion as the SAC lawyers presented their case and pressed for an FIR to be lodged against the staff of Punjab College. After much prevarication, during which he must have realised that SAC had a solid case and that he would have to file a report, he invited the group to go over to the College with him to talk to the College administration. Here a comic twist presented itself: the SP never showed up. He climbed into his official brand new 2.4D Toyota Hilux and disappeared. While the SAC members waited outside the College, they started raising slogans against the military dictatorship, against the Nazim and against oppression. About the same time, students started leaving for home and were quite surprised to encounter the SAC group in full cry. Some of them stopped to ask what had happened - they either knew nothing at all, or had been fed lies by the administration to the effect that the people beaten up earlier that day had been teasing female students. The SAC members disabused them of this fiction and even handed them their new flyers.

Eventually a DSP arrived and started negotiations with the SAC lawyers. At first, it seemed that he merely wanted SAC to leave the College and move to a less "disturbing" location, such as the police station. But the SAC members flatly refused and demanded that some resolution be arrived at, otherwise they were willing to stake out the premises for as long as it took. Eventually, the DSP asked that Diep and Raheem tell him exactly what happened. At this point, Diep started narrating how they were dragged into the premises and beaten by College personnel. As she was showing him the path, the College personnel got infuriated. Banking on the fact that they were employed by Mian Amir Mehmood, they took an aggressive attitude towards the DSP and virtually ordered him off the premises, daring him to challenge their authority. Humbled and humiliated,, the officer left the premises. Some SAC members were enraged at this concrete proof of the adage "he who has the stick, has the buffalo". After a brief verbal altercation with the College personnel, other SAC members intervened and defused the situation. At this point, the SAC and the lawyers conferred and it was decided that while the lawyers negotiated with the police, the SAC members would head to the Lahore Press Club.

At the Press Club, the Students Action Committee staged a small demonstration, prepared a new press release, and informed various media channels (newspapers and television) of the events of the day.

The SAC held a protest demonstration at the Press Club in support of their injured colleagues on Sunday, 3rd February.

2 comments:

nazia said...

To all SAC members
Onething you should remeber that you are standing against mafiasim of our society where typical characters of ruling mafia are trying their best to eliminate all social awareness activities.The problems always start from top.If our head of state can lockup and fire top judicary for his personal targets and while staying in UK's most luxurious hotel , he was distributing minor corruption charges against the top judge of his own country, so what would you accept from his hawaris and slaves.
No ruling mafia is in mood of allowing justice to common people as they know it will end their unlawful control in state affairs.
And now new term is being presented by our ex generals and politicans to accept mistake and say sorry to nation.Good shot first make all crimes in all senses,get all kind of benefits and then say sorry to nation.Are we really a foolish nation?

Aman said...

Question to Nazia: do you stand with us? Or are you content to watch the show from the sidelines?