Balochistan University scandal underlines marginalisation of province


LAHORE: On October 14, a harassment scandal surfaced in Balochistan University in Quetta, when the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested security and surveillance officers for blackmailing students. The FIA had been asked by the Balochistan High Court (BHC) to look into the reports of harassment at the university, which were being increasingly reported.

In a highly conservative area, the security officers used ‘immodest’ footage from hidden cameras to especially target the female students. With some of the staff from the vice chancellor’s office also found to be involved in the blackmailing, the scope of the investigation eventually encompassed hundreds of staff members of the university.

A week after the scandal was first reported, Balochistan University Vice Chancellor Dr Javed Iqbal stepped down in order to allow the FIA to complete its probe into the blackmailing scandal.

Protests against the scandal gradually began taking place in Quetta. Students of the Balochistan University took to the streets as well, revealing that the blackmailing had been going on for many years.

The Balochistan Assembly formed a committee to investigate the harassment scandal. The committee was to file a report by the end of last month. The Balochistan Students Organisations (BSO) demanded a judicial commission to ensure that an impartial investigation takes place.

On October 25, students of the university participated in a meeting of the Senate’s Human Rights Committee, detailing the extent of harassment and blackmailing under the then vice chancellor’s watch. The student protests continued and by the end of last month their list of demands included the removal of Frontier Corps (FC) posts at the university.

Even so, their loudest demand was the sacking and arrest of Dr Javed Iqbal for spearheading the harassment scandal.

“Action against the vice chancellor alone will not address the problem, because much of the university staff is involved in the scandal, which saw harassment of blackmailing of students, especially the female students,” says National Party General Secretary Jan Mohammad Buledi.

On October 30, the FIA submitted its sealed report on the scandal to the BHC, with the court adjourning the hearing of the case till November 14.

Meanwhile, the continued inaction over any tangible steps to address the scandal irked the students and those rights activists that had taken up the issue. Another growing concern among the participating activists and protestors was with regards to the issue not receiving proportionate media coverage given the extent of the breach.

Many felt that a scandal of similar proportions taken place in Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi, the uproar and reaction would have been swifter and at a much higher scale.

“The problem lies in the crux of how we see and depict Balochistan in general. It is an outright kept aside region, despite being one of the biggest provinces of the country it is one of the poorest,” says Maleeha Mengal, a journalist hailing from Balochistan, currently working with Shirkat Gah, a women’s rights NGO.

“The harassment scandal made less impression on news and on social media simply because people are now selective on what they want to talk about and what they would preferably omit. Very few human rights defenders took serious stance on speaking to the students; the sad part is it will remain unnoticed and will disperse like other issues that emerged from Balochistan,” she adds.

For many, the inaction over the scandal is reflective of the province’s deprivation, which includes marginalisation in the education sector as well. According to Pakistan Education Statistic 2016-17, 70 per cent children in Balochistan are out of school, a vast majority of these being girls.

With the administration of the Balochistan University announcing a uniform for students in a November 11 notice, the officials’ strategy to curb harassment underlines how those in charge of education themselves require training in many aspects of the sector.

But perhaps the greatest concern for many in the aftermath of the scandal is with regards to the continued security arrangements in Balochistan, which can result in a disregard for human rights in the province.

“People are afraid to talk about the scandal because the FC and security agencies are involved. The cameras were hidden inside the campus, which is a complete breach of privacy and code of conduct,” says lawyer and human rights activist Jalila Haider, a former student of the Balochistan University.

“Surveillance can be done as per security requirements, but it needs to be done ethically, with the citizens being informed. This is a university, not the cantonment or the enemy front. These measures are just a part of the power structure, which needs the locals to be intimidated,” she adds.

During the November 14 hearing of the case, the focus of the proceedings centered around how the university had been ‘hijacked’ by protestors and activists and why the parliamentary committee directly wrote to the vice chancellor without the authority to do so. The hearing was further adjourned till December 2.