In May 2017, Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) Islamabad — ranked as one of the top universities in the country — was shut down for few days on account of student violence in which more than 30 students were injured. The fight which broke out between the two student groups, comprising of members of ethnolinguistic councils in the university was recorded and shared widely on social and electronic media. The viral video showed hundreds of students running wild on the roof terraces of the university hostels, trying to hack each other with sticks, with the clouds of smoke out of tear gas shelling to disperse the student in the background. It looked like a scene straight from a theatre of a civil war. Sadly, it was enacted at an institution of higher learning in Pakistan.

QAU has a total of 8,000 students out of which almost half hail from Punjab, approximately 16 percent from Sindh, 12 percent from KP, four percent from Balochistan and two percent from GB. In the absence of a student union, Quaidian Student Federation (QSF) is a democratic body of the students, which oversees the student councils — elected bodies of students — based on ethnolinguistic affiliations. These ethnolinguistic councils emerged on the scene in the 1990s in the years after the student unions were banned on the orders of President General Ziaul Haq in 1985. In the last fifteen years, the students’ affairs are represented through the councils, which take care of the student curricular and co-curricular activities, including life support services, almost independent of the university administration.

The activities of the ethnolinguistic councils have led to the development of liberal ethos, free from sectarian ideologies, and a heightened cultural consciousness among the students. For instance, the traditional Pashtun folk dance, Attan has become a part of campus rituals, so is the Ho-Jamalo dance by Sindhi students, which is becoming a hot favourite among students irrespective of their gender, ethnic or linguistic affiliations. In 2016, under the banner of QSF, a ceremony was held on campus widely attended by students without any gender segregation, where all the ethnic council’s representatives exchanged their headgears. In a country ridden with sectarian and linguistic conflicts, students’ affirmation and respect for each other’s cultural identity is a good omen for the nation.

The activities of the ethno-linguistic councils at QAU have led to the development of a liberal ethos — free from sectarian ideologies — and a heightened cultural consciousness among the students

In the aftermath of the violence at QAU, however, it has been suggested by the authorities that ethnolinguistic councils should be purged from the student body as it is seen as a conspiracy to divide the nation in the name of provincialism. There is some merit in the suggestion given the fact that a set of feudal, patriarchal and parochial norms have been promoted in the society in the name of cultural identity, reinforcing, caste and gender oppression. However, instead of throwing the baby with the bath water, we need to reform our cultural value system by reinventing the cultural traditions. Instead of romantic attachment with the tradition, we need a critical interrogation of the traditional culture. Unfortunately, we believe in worshiping the artefacts of culture rather than nurturing them.

After the 18th amendment, culture and education have been devolved to the provinces to allow them the opportunity to develop their own roots for quality education which is integrated into cultural education. The provinces need to understand that our school education system is producing a culturally alienated youth. A feigned ignorance to cultural practices has become a norm among the younger generation. Our children have developed a fondness for foreign food and drinks as they develop an aversion for local cuisine. They feel inferior in conversing in their national languages, but speak foreign languages with pride.

There is a greater need for a federal university to inculcate an intercultural literacy among the students so that when they go back to the provinces to serve their people, they have a meaningful understanding of various shades of Pakistani culture. There is room for reform in the ethnolinguistic student councils. The councils need to be reorganised to gain optimal benefit out of cultural capital. In the process, the teachers of the QAU have a greater responsibility as they must mentor the student councils and act as mediators in case of conflict. Secondly, despite the fact that girls constitute more than half of student body, especially in MSc and MPhil programmes, their representation in the student councils is completely absent. It is high time those female students of QAU should be given a fair share of their numerical strength so that a gender-balanced nourishment of culture can take place on campus.