THEY turned out in multitudes. Many of them in their teens, they poured into the streets. Leaderless, they turned major Pakistani cities into veritable battlefields, attacking everything in their way. They looted shops, burned down cinema houses, banks and restaurants. The daylong violence left scores of people dead and injured across the country and incurred losses running into billions of rupees.
The spectacle of the mob on the rampage was frightening. Blinded by emotion they vented their anger and frustration with impunity. It was not the first time the country had witnessed this kind of madness, but the scale was unprecedented. What happened last week did not come as a surprise. It was an implosion waiting to happen.
It is not just religious fanaticism that drove the young men to resort to senseless destruction. It also has much to do with the unparalleled ‘youth bulge’ that Pakistan is experiencing and the failure of the state to turn this young population into proactive citizens.
A weak state, unable to productively utilise a large, young generation of Pakistanis, has turned into a breeding ground for violent extremism. What happened last week was just a trailer of the horror that awaits us.
Pakistan is sitting on a potential demographic disaster with more than 100 million or 65 per cent of Pakistan’s population under 25 years of age. With an extremely low literacy rate and bleak job opportunities, the future prospects for the young generation are uncertain and dark. Growing frustration among the youth makes them vulnerable to prejudices and extremism.
The gravity of the situation can be assessed by the fact that 32 per cent of our young generation is illiterate and the majority of the others are school dropouts. Enrolment rates are the lowest in South Asia.
Pakistan’s spending on education is around two per cent of the economy, about half that spent by India. Even the education they receive hardly equips them to face the challenges of the globalised world they live in, further pushing them into isolation.
Moreover, the existing three-tier education system — elite private schools, public schools and madressahs — has widened the social, cultural and economic divide, making the less advantaged youth receptive to radical Islamic views. Their alienation and marginalisation has also produced a giant underclass more prone to extremism and violence. It has created a mindset that facilitates a militant agenda. Many studies have shown a direct link between religious extremism and social and economic marginalisation.
Pakistan needs at least a six to seven per cent annual economic growth rate to absorb millions of people entering the job market every year. The population of the unemployed has drastically risen with economic growth rate averaging less than three per cent over the past five years, thus creating a dangerous situation. The instability resulting from severe demographic pressures have led to civil war in many countries. Pakistan will not be far away from that situation if the drift continues. The growing alienation of young generations and their feelings towards the government and state have been illustrated in a study conducted by the British Council at the end of 2009. The finding drew an alarming picture of a young generation deeply frustrated by the state of affairs and despondent about their future. Politically disillusioned, it was found to have little faith in the government and key institutions of the state. The despair among the youth is deep-seated given the present conditions. With no or little education and lack of economic opportunities, they have not much to look forward to.
According to the study, an overwhelming majority of young Pakistanis believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Most see themselves as Muslim first and Pakistani second. The majority of them do not consider democracy as the right system for Pakistan. Fewer are hopeful of getting jobs.
Although a very depressing scenario, such findings should have served as a wake-up call for the government. Instead, the situation has gotten worse over the last three years since the release of the report. There is complete absence of governance and the continuing downslide of the economy does not give much hope of things getting better.
Pakistan’s population has doubled in the last 40 years, a rate that is twice the world’s average. That has left the country struggling to provide for this rapidly expanding populace. With more people joining the ranks of the unemployed, the situation is explosive, providing more recruits to extremist and militant groups.
Pakistan could have used its demographic power to turn around the country’s economy, but with little investment in education and slow economic growth, the youth bulge is fast becoming a liability and serious threat to the country’s internal security. It is a nightmare scenario fast unfolding. Pakistan has never had such a high proportion of young people and its large number is the face of today’s Pakistan. This new generation is also at the centre of an unresolved ideological struggle about what sort of country Pakistan should be.
While the state has failed to channel the energies of the young generation, militant groups have succeeded in mobilising a section of marginalised and alienated youth around their extremist slogans. The bankruptcy of the administration was laid bare when it adopted the agenda of extremist groups, ceding space to the mob. The government actually joined the mob by declaring a holiday on Friday, facilitating the violence.
What makes the situation more unsettling is the escalating militant insurgency in the northwest bordering Afghanistan. That has also provided a new cause for the radicalised youth. Thousands of them from across the country have joined the so-called jihad.
Firm and decisive action is needed to put Pakistan back on the path of social, economic and political stability. The consequence of further delay will be disastrous.
The writer is an author and a journalist.