Thursday Oct 12, 2017
On World Teachers Day, some heartbreaking news reached us – the untimely passing away of Karachi University’s Department of International Relations’ professor Dr Sheikh Mutahir Ahmed who had spent 30 years of life at the campus.
During his student life in KU, Dr Mutahir took an active part in the progressive students’ movement, and was once the president of the Democratic Students Federation (DSF). Dr Mutahir was very popular among the students because of the space he used to give his students. Unlike some dictators in the department, who needed a captive audience in the classroom, Dr Mutahir never imposed his ideas on his students and would stop and listen to them every time.
Dr Mutahir’s passing away is a big loss for the Department of International Relations and for Karachi University. We need more teachers like him, whose teaching is not confined to textbooks but also includes frequent references to the changing socio-political situation in the country and regional and global changes. Dr Mutahir’s ideas were clear and bold. He would never impose his analysis on his students and would always encourage them to form their own opinions. He never considered his views to be the final authority. This was his key methodology of teaching, which helped generate a debate in the classroom and allowed students to exercise their right to question what has been told and taught.
If freethinking is not tolerated at the campuses and young and bright minds are not given the opportunity to experience the courage to question, how will they broaden their understanding of a complex society and its contradiction and duplicities? Dr Mutahir often talked about his times at the university’s campus, the nature of student politics and the culture of debate. Karachi University had changed in the 1990s.
A frequent wave of violence had gripped the city and fierce clashes among student groups, class boycotts and extremism had taken root. Civil strife in the city had affected academic life on campus. Dominant student groups would not tolerate new groups of student activists and many of us were denied the right to mobilise students on core political issues and ideological leanings. Fresh perspectives and progressive voices were not allowed to flourish on campus. Many of our friends were beaten by right-wing goons. The Rangers would not stop these coercive tactics.
When progressive students organised events they had to face hurdles. Students who were studying about the Middle East or Eastern Europe would find it difficult to invite external speakers to sessions. Those who dared to take such initiatives had to bear in mind the consequences: the fear of being kidnapped and tortured, which many of them later went through as well. To say that there is freedom of activism in academic discourse would be false. Students were silenced and teachers would think several times before agreeing to their ideas.
It was not the best of times at Karachi University. But teachers like Dr Mutahir and others provided their office space for discussions and debates, encouraged critical thinking and suggested books that students could read that were mostly outside the mainstream. These included the works of Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmad, Hamza Alavi, Dr Feroze Ahmad, Dr Mubarak Ali and Noam Chomsky – thinkers who viewed history and contemporary changes from a non-mainstream lens. If students are not introduced to these authors by their teachers, where else would they even hear their names?
In the 1990s, the IR department was perhaps the only space – other than the Pakistan Area Study Centre – where weekly graduate study circles were a regular feature. Scholars, visiting academics, faculty and students would share their experiences of learning. From the Kalabagh Dam to the market economy, liberalisation and the new world order came under discussion and students were confronted with diverse views to frame their own worldview. The core values of freethinking and inclusive debates and a broader awareness of historical developments were imparted to students.
We need such universities at this point. The shrinking spaces that were reserved for debate must be taken back if we are to grow as a society that encourages adults to seek the truth and believe in ideals rather than celebrate false and misleading “patriotism” and nationalism and defend failed policies.
Around 10 years after our batch graduated in the aftermath of 9/11, Dr Mutahir would say that “universities are changing; one has to exercise self-censorship while teaching in class”. What he feared a decade ago we witnessed later on as the students of the university became victims of violent extremism and our alma mater started producing jihadis. The process of radicalisation created extremists who were willing to kill for a cause that they were told to believe in.
The standards of teaching and the overall culture at universities have undergone a visible change in many parts of world over the past decade.
Academic freedom is under compromise at Karachi University. Student hostels have been under the control of the Rangers for the past two decades. Student unions have been banned. Music concerts have been banned. As a result, a suffocating campus has become a reality. The campus environment will not change until the civil society and the city’s key political forces raise their voices. False notions of stability at the cost of student political activism and freedom have failed us and have only turned our vibrant campus into a nursery for nurturing fundamentalists.
Dr Mutahir will be missed for his open-mindedness by hundreds of students. For many of us, he was the sole reason to go back to the department. With his departure, it feels as if our window to the campus has been closed.