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Last Updated: 06/11/2013
Transforming a university conflict into a student development platform
Shahbaz Israr Khan

In this article, Shahbaz Israr Khan tells the story of how the student council of Gomal University was formed to mediate a conflict between two student societies, and eventually became a way for students to break down the barriers between them and play a meaningful role in the administration of the university.

The conflict I am discussing here is an experience that my team and I, as a president of a student council[1], had mediated and transformed at Gomal University, Pakistan, in 2008. Gomal University is located in Khyber Pukhtunkhaw (KP) province of Pakistan and receives students from all four provinces of the country and also from other countries like Sudan, Kenya, Nepal, Egypt, Syria are among few to mention. Most of the students affiliate themselves with tribes or regions and feel an honor to be identified with the name of the tribe or region. Based on regions and tribes, students have formed societies. Political parties are also influenced by tribal and regional identities. These societies are perceived to represent the culture, heritage and unity of the tribe or region. But in case of conflicts the environment of the university becomes very complex and violent as a conflict between two persons might turn into a conflict between two societies. The administration tried on many such occasions to control the violent activities of these societies but remained unsuccessful. During 2005, strict restrictions were imposed both on student political bodies and the societies. But the same year, a killing of a young boy by a security guard inside the university premises perpetuated the political student wings and tribal and regional societies to demand that the administration make security reforms and bring the responsible persons to justice. Talks transformed into strikes and then some of the dissidents invaded the administration building of the university and burnt some documents and damaged university property. Soon after, the police were called and nearly 250 students were arrested. Even after the incident, security reforms were not made by the university and little measures were taken to prevent such an incidents to occur in future.

It was clear that banning or restricting societies and political parties was simply not the solution to the issue. During the Vice-Chancellorship of Professor Dr. Fareed Khan, students tried to establish a student council to have an effective student voice for the solution of student problems and to rely on dialogic and procedural approaches. Dr. Fareed appreciated the effort and gave approval to the student council. In December 2007, I was elected as the first president of the council by a majority vote of the students.

A month after taking the office, a violent conflict broke out between the two student societies of the university, Abasyn[2] society and Punjnud[3]The director of student affairs and the administration tried to solve the conflict, but their interventions remained unsuccessful and the conflict escalated. Other student societies also tried to mediate the conflict but without success.

The student council was also keeping its eyes on the issue and, after some days of the beginning of the conflict, council members were called by the university administration to mediate the conflict. We were given 72 hours to convince the societies to stop the violence and to reach some agreement, in case of our failure, the university administration was planning to call in the security forces and to hand over the issue to the police. Student Council informed the university administration that the conflict management will take some time. But the administration, insisted to use force in case of failure in order to restore the discipline and peace of the university.

To carry out the day we had to work against the clock, but effectively and efficiently, firstly to manage the conflict and subsequently to transform it. Our first aim was to prevent any kind of violence to occur and to melt tensions between the groups, so that negotiations could begin. The council first gathered the reasons of failure of the previous interventions. According to the information collected, the reasons for past failures were:

A) In the first case, university administration was perceived by both parties[4] to be authoritative and parties had a notion that the final agreement would be greatly shaped by the university administration. Moreover, both parties would not be able to get their points across the board. So, they were recognizing some power differences that could affect the final outcome.

B) As for the interventions of other societies, the members representing the third parties were all distinguished to be leaning towards one party or another, thus losing their neutrality and their credibility to resolve the conflict.

Based upon the findings, the council nominated a team headed by the president of the council. All the members of the committee were students and had a respectable standing in the university student’s community. While nominating the committee it was considered that the committee members should be able to communicate in the Pushto and Punjabi/Sariki languages, as leaders of the primary parties preferred to communicate in their respective provincial languages.

The committee had to fast track the process. The first thing we did was to gather information about the sources and issues of the conflict from different strata in order to get a broader picture. The information gathered revealed that the conflict started between two friends (friend A and friend B) [5] who insulted each other through words and gestures. According to other sources, the two friends had done drugs together and the quarrel was drug-related. The mockery soon turned into violence, and friend A beat friend B with iron chains and stick. Friend B was hospitalized and case was filed with police. Given their different backgrounds, Punjnad perceived the attack on friend B as an attack over the whole Punjnad society and decided to take the revenge. Friend A was given refuge by the Abasyn society and they were reluctant to handover friend A either to police or to Punjnad society. Thus, a quarrel between two friends became a fight of dignity between the two student societies. Punjnad warned Abasyn that they would face consequences, and that resulted in skirmishes and threats.

Subsequently analyzing conflict with different angles, the council members approached the leaders of the societies individually. In the first few hours, both of the parties showed their reluctance to even talk on the matter. It took some time to make them realize that:

i) student council is a neutral party;
ii) members of the council are sincere in resolving the conflict;
iii) student council is not a tool of university administration, and;
iv) that mediation is in the interest of the two parties.

After few hours of persuasion, the leaders agreed to allow GSC to mediate. In the mean time, they also agreed to end any kind of hostilities against one another.

Soon after agreeing to end violence, mediation started. But both parties declined to contact directly, so the council members had to take messages to and fro between the parties. So, at least, indirect contact between the two parties was established. At a certain point in this process, the ice started melting and both of the societies come up with milder stances. Parties came up with demands, in first instance both rejected one another demands and asked to alter each other’s demands. With this, they entered into the phase of bargaining, that was a good sign. However, even during the process of bargaining, most of the time it felt as though the whole process of mediation would reverse and we would not reach any solution or agreement. But, the council members had to be patient, watchful and neutral to prevent the process from deadlock or backfire.

After a series of bargaining exchanges, the situation reached to a win-win scenario where both parties agreed with each other demands. At this threshold, mutually agreed demands led to the formation of agreement between the two parties. Punjnad society agreed to withdraw the case from police and furthermore that friend A shall not be harmed by the society. On the other hand, Abasyn accepted that friend A had committed an unlawful act of beating and that friend A would confess in front of both parties and will ask for pardon from friend B. In addition, friend A would be isolated from the society for a period of one month.

A formal ceremony was organized to announce the agreement, in which the Vice-Chancellor of university and the heads of different political and student societies participated. The terms of the agreement were shared in front of the participants and student council took the role of a guarantor. The conflict was successfully resolved and in coming days both parties fulfilled the terms and conditions of the agreement.

But the question of violent incidences in the university was still striking the head of the council. After this incident was settled, a broad strategy based on conflict transformation paradigm was devised. During the process it was identified that the students had no platform to express themselves and engage in positive activities. Moreover, a platform which could bring students of different identities together was missing. The council had to devise a multipronged strategy which could not only engage students in positive activities but also give them a sense of unity in diversity.

The student council extended its activities to the departmental level and encouraged students to take part in various activities ranging from literary contests to sports events. The structure of the council helped the students, both girls and boys, to take leadership roles at university and departmental levels. This encouraged students to work together irrespective of their identities, cultures and regions. Now the council members are representing the university on the national and even international level in various curricular and extra-curricular activities through the platform of GSC.

[1] Gomalian Students Council is officially recognized student body of the university, founded in 2007. The council is responsible for engaging the students of the university in extra-curricular activities and to organize local and national competitions and events. In addition, the council is also assumed to negotiate with the administration of the University for solution of any problem faced by the students.

[2] Abasyn is a region in KPK, mainly includes people from the areas of Peshawar, Mardan , Swat, Noshera and Dir. People here speak Pushto, official language of the province.

[3] Punjnad is name related to the province of Punjab. So, the students from Punjab were mostly related to Punjnad. Major languages spoken in the region are Punjabi and Sariki.

[4] Here by parties I mean primary parties of the conflict: Abasyn and Punjnad student societies. In this narrative I will use either the names of the societies or the word ‘parties’ (for both societies)

[5] Due to privacy I will not mention the names of the students. But for clarification, friend A is from Abasyn society and friend B is from Punjnad society.

Shahbaz Israr Khan holds an MA from the University for Peace.