Pakistan’s feudal demon

By Sohail Salahuddin

THIS is a good time to redirect our analysis before the next series of social explosions in Pakistan. The time to build socially is now to survive the coming storms. Why? The facts don’t support the paradigms being used till now to describe civil society actions, the lawyers’ movement, media views or businessmen’s predictions.

Despite references to groups, this is a nonpartisan scientific analysis for all parties and segments.

Facts: Fifty to 100 citizens have been killed; orphans and mentally challenged children were abused in an Edhi welfare village; thousands remained stranded at railway stations in the country; and people were terrorised by stoning all over the country. Public property that serves the poor and working classes has been damaged to the tune of billions of rupees; railway stations, trains, buses and over 1,000 cars have been attacked and burned. This is just a limited count in two days of mayhem.

This came in the wake of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. Many television reporters include all this as part of the protests in the same series as the lawyers’ protest and the ‘civil society’ agitation in support of democracy.

Analysis: But these facts don’t fit the motivations and theories put forth by different social segments for demonstrations in the last few months. There is no protest by lawyers against human rights abuses. Locking up workers in a factory and burning them is a heinous crime, worse than anyone losing a job. But no one is asking for foreign police to come and investigate.

NGO groups are not demonstrating at the Press Club against the killing or the abuse of children. The sick and ailing prevented from going to hospitals for three days is not an issue. These facts support the paradigm that recent struggles by these groups want to ensure that the right to life and property is only for a few elite people. The rest of society is just fuel for this cause.

Businessmen and economic experts interviewed over the last year projected no such explosion. Else they would have stockpiled mineral water from before rather then stampeded the stores for hundreds of bottles. Many told me the media is very sophisticated in this country when I said last year that I could not watch the daily business TV coverage for more than a few seconds.

Television commentators are not clamouring for investigations into destructive protests nor calling them rights abuses. There is no eulogy for those killed nor any tribute being paid to them, nor three days of mourning. And this time there are no Taliban to blame nor the military. Nor are those killed considered shaheed or martyred.

End-game: This could be the last call for all of us to accept that something more fundamental is wrong with us than just the presence of external extremists or a Musharraf. If the upper echelon believes that the right to life and property and health is just for a few elite defined by wealth or a particular caste or zaat then get ready for more explosions.

Getting rid of Musharraf or the Taliban will not rid us of our own internal contradictions. There will be new demons. The big demon of Hindus was removed 60 years ago so that Muslims could live in peace. That argument has changed completely. The country’s leaders are proclaiming that really the demon is now coming as Muslims in the form of Taliban extremists!

How many such demons will we destroy senselessly before turning to the contradictions within our own society?

An alternate paradigm that better explains the current crises is that feudal values ingrained in our society are inconsistent with any form of the western market paradigm that would lead to economic growth. Capitalism and free markets are based on free flows of labour and capital and land that cannot coexist with a feudal process and values.

Production and consumption thrived in the West because they allowed labour to work and produce regardless of caste, class, gender or religion. Getting rid of these discriminations is also a necessary definition of democracy.

Feudalism allows a few to have billions in expenses without producing any goods or services. They can have palaces without investing in real plants and machinery.

In our era, systems with rights for a few have been overthrown in South Africa. Legends like Gandhi and Martin Luther King garnered millions to walk with them and overpower the separation of rights and services created by race and class. In contrast, a major event recently invoked hereditary feudal rights to establish the leadership of a party and its billions in assets.

The right to food and water is a human right but the staple wheat is missing in the local market. Lentils and rice are being sold at prices beyond the poor man’s reach. Free drinking water is gone for most. Doctors and tests cost thousands of rupees. Imported goods have dollar prices.

But drivers, maids, waiters and the emaciated carving out those marble stones for the big houses in Karachi’s Clifton and Defence localities are making Rs5,000 a month. Consumer prices have doubled in a short span but not wages.

People with feudal values see nothing wrong with this because its fits with their traditions and habits. Injecting feudalism in analytical frameworks explains what is happening in the country better than just assuming this is an industrialised society that can be fixed by removing one president.

The notion that we have had a functioning judicial system serving all classes is not supported by any evidence or study on Pakistan.

Many current laws in the books were written by the British during their rule, some as far back as 1880. Possibly the oldest law bookseller in the city remarked, “Why do you need law books written when everything can get done using money?”

The big contradiction is that the rest of the world has moved on and ordinary Pakistanis can see that. Global values of respect for the rights of all classes have seeped in through television and other modes of communication. Civil society needs to adapt and accommodate the 98 per cent banished to the ‘other’ group, or perish.

Friend, not master

By M.P. Bhandara

THE Bush administration often behaves like the proverbial bull in the china shop. The bull was badly mauled in Iraq. The same type of jerky, ill-informed and ill-advised action was planned by Washington to get Benazir Bhutto, ‘the liberal’, to support President Musharraf in his fight against the Islamic extremists.

In politics, quite often, one plus one may not always equal two, but zero; and this is exactly what has happened — the president has been diminished and Benazir Bhutto physically eliminated. A naïve Washington has yet to realise that there is no political nexus between Pashtun Talibanism and our internal politics; one does not influence the other. The Taliban agenda is to bloody the US till they are forced to leave Afghanistan and to enforce the rule of Sharia according to their interpretation.

The pluralistic political spectrum in Pakistan has little to do with this. The manifestos of our political parties focus on democracy, justice, women’s rights and so on. Even Nawaz Sharif, who once introduced the Fifteenth Amendment to enforce Sharia, has not since his return as much as mentioned it, to the best of my knowledge.

I have little doubt that the Taliban would make mincemeat of any political government, particularly one headed by the PPP, which they see as a pro-US entity.

The contours of the Bush-Condoleezza Rice deal are now well known. A PPP government riding on the back of a general election was planned to be installed in Islamabad. Benazir’s price for the deal was legal forgiveness of the corruption cases in Pakistan and other countries where she and her husband were charged with money-laundering.

Spain has already buckled under. Mr Banos, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office in the superior court of Valencia, declared early in December that the case (for money-laundering and asset acquisition) had become unsustainable after President Musharraf’s government took the decision not to proceed with it. The Swiss reportedly are a harder nut to crack. Benazir’s name has been removed after the assassination from the prosecution in the SBS bribery case, but not Zardari’s. Whether or not the National Reconciliation Ordinance can be sustained in the high courts is another matter.

Apparently, the US ‘deal’ has self assumed a ‘de facto’ licence to interfere in our domestic politics by means of dispensing gratuitous advice supported by a red carrot and visible stick policy.

A spate of intrusive statements have been made in recent days by US public men about our affairs. For example, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, recently stated that the government was “indirectly complicit in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto” because of its failure to provide adequate security. In passing so harsh a verdict, was the senator aware that Liaquat Bagh where the public meeting was held had been combed? That the assassination took place not at the meeting place but on an open road?

That Benazir Bhutto was a target was only too well known; she was not supposed to expose herself in an unprotected area. Security securement on an open thoroughfare is well nigh impossible. The vehicle can be secured against a bullet or a bomb attack but a visible target simply cannot. In a way, the assassination was similar to that of JFK’s in Dallas: in both cases an easy target was provided on an open road; the simplest security rules were thus ignored. One can, however, understand the compulsions of a populist leader to respond to crowd ovations impulsively.

In any case, what business is it of Biden as a responsible person within the US hierarchy to make uncalled for remarks, before an enquiry can establish the facts?

Likewise, the ambiguous comments of Hillary Clinton prompted Newsday to remark that ‘Pakistan troops might have killed Bhutto’. With friends like Hillary Clinton and Biden, does Pakistan need any enemies?

US public officials are not entirely to blame. Our political leaders are prone to running first to the US media and politicians with their complaints, ignoring the statutory bodies in Pakistan. International press exposure is the adrenaline. Both the PPP and the Nawaz League used it against one another to devastating effect in the 1990s.

Benazir was supposed to present a 160-page dossier on alleged rigging plans to two US Congressmen on the very day of her assassination after the fateful meeting. Let us assume for the sake of argument that the allegations in the dossier are correct. Has PPP forgotten the general election of 1977 which was rigged by them? What happened? The people of Pakistan came out in their multitudes and rejected the results. Today, the media is freerer and far more effective than in 1977. The rigging methodology in elections is too well known to contestants and observers for it to be repeated on a wide scale without impunity.

Would it not be better for the parties to sit with the Election Commission and hammer out an acceptable vote count procedure? This penchant of our politicians to ride their complaints on the back of the foreign media needs to be remedied by law. Good or bad, our sovereignty does not permit foreign intervention in our domestic affairs. Neither China nor India permit their politicians to resort to the foreign media or governments to serve as a ‘de facto’ court of appeal.

Once the US is made to appreciate that Pakistan has the option to opt out of the anti-Taliban war unless the sovereignty of Pakistan is fully respected, US attitudes will become more respectful.

We need America to be our friend not our master. What matters to the US is always the immediate objective. The history of a relationship is of little consequence to the US. Contrast this with the Chinese foreign policy not only towards us but other Asian states as well. Has China uttered a word about our domestic situation?

Pakistan should seriously consider opting for neutrality in the anti-Taliban war, which is a war of Pashtun nationalism against the West in Afghanistan, and Talibanism in Pakistan is the blowback. Our role should be of mediators in the conflict not combatants. Some day this realisation will dawn on the US — particularly after its allies drop out of this war in 2010, but, by then it may be too late.

The writer is a former member of the National Assembly.

How to reform

By Pervez Hoodbhoy

A KEY challenge for any new government in Pakistan will be to sort out, in all areas of public policy, the facts on the ground from the intricate fictions offered over the past eight years by Gen Pervez Musharraf’s regime. As argued in my previous article (Jan 2, 2008), the claims for sweeping improvements in the public university system are false.

Dumping yet more money into the university system will not solve its basic problems. We can see that the record-setting increase in the budget for higher education — which shot up from Rs3.8bn in 2002 to Rs33.7bn in 2007 — has led to little beyond cosmetic changes. So, what can be done? Solutions are needed at three distinct levels — determining correct funding priorities, implementing approved plans and projects responsibly, and, most importantly, inducing changes in values to promote and enable real learning.

Current spending priorities are the haphazard expression of individual whims, not actual needs. For example, most Pakistani students in higher education (about 0.8 million) study in about 700 colleges. These colleges receive pitifully small funding compared to universities.

During 2001-2004, the funds annually allocated to colleges averaged a miserable sum of Rs0.48bn and the spending per college student was only one-sixth that for a university student. Subsequently, this has become worse. It is no surprise then that public colleges are in desperate shape with dilapidated buildings, broken furniture, and laboratory and library facilities that exist only in name.

Meanwhile, many public universities are awash in funds. They have gone on a shopping binge for all kinds of gadgetry — fax machines, fancy multimedia projectors and electricity-guzzling air-conditioners. But it would be hard to argue that any of this has served to improve teaching quality even marginally. Worse, the availability of “free money” has led to the pursuit of numerous madcap projects such as the HEC’s hugely expensive, but failed, attempt to bring in hundreds of fearful European university professors to teach in a country where suicide bombers kill at will.

The beggarly treatment of colleges compared to universities is often justified on grounds that universities perform research while colleges do not. But, notwithstanding a few honourable exceptions, this “research” has added little to the stock of existing knowledge as judged by the international community of scholars. Nevertheless, in 2005/2006 university research funding totalled a whopping Rs0.342bn. Past experience shows that much of the money will be used to buy expensive research equipment that will find little if any real use.

Instead of continuing to pay for dubious research, funding priorities must shift to improving teaching quality, especially in colleges. Pakistani university and college students, as well as their teachers, are far below internationally accepted levels in terms of basic subject understanding.

As one indicator, the performance scores of Pakistanis on the US Graduate Record Examinations, which test subject basics, are miserably poor compared to students from India or China. For example, of the 56 MPhil and PhD students who recently took the physics exam from the best physics department in the country — that at Quaid-i-Azam University — none was able to get even a semi-respectable score in this entry-level exam.

Because bad teaching quality largely comes from having teachers with insufficient knowledge of their subject, it is important both to have better teacher selection mechanisms and to create large-scale teacher-training academies in every province. Established with international help, these academies should bring in the best teachers as trainers from across the country and from our neighbours.

It is hard to see any trainers coming from western countries, although one should try to get them. This effort will cost money and take time — perhaps of the order of a billion dollars over five years. These high-quality institutions should have a clear philosophy aimed at equipping teachers to teach through concepts rather than rote learning, use modern textbooks, and emphasise basic principles of pedagogy, grading, and fairness. They should award degrees to create an incentive for teachers to go there and to do well. Until a sufficiently large number of university teachers can be generated by the above (and various other) means, the senseless policy of making new universities must be discontinued.

The HEC prides itself in almost doubling the number of public universities over six years. But there is nothing to be gained from a department of English where the department’s head cannot speak or write a grammatically correct non-trivial sentence of English; a physics department where the head is confused about the operation of an incandescent light bulb; a mathematics department where graduate students have problems with elementary surds and roots; or a biology department where evolution is thought to be new-fangled and quite unnecessary to teach as part of modern biology.

Better academic planning and management at the national level — which costs very little — is crucial to having higher education institutions that actually function. Major quality improvements could result from using nation-wide standardised tests for student admission into higher education institutions; teaching teachers to use distance-learning materials effectively; and designing standardised teaching laboratories that may be efficiently duplicated across Pakistan.

But the implementation of even the best plans comes to naught without good management at the institutional level. Unfortunately, Pakistan has a patronage system because of which unqualified and unsuitable military men, as well as bureaucrats, are often appointed as vice-chancellors, principals, and registrars. Therefore, vital tasks remain unimplemented. These include enforcement of academic ethics; creating the culture of civilised debate on campuses; encouragement of community work; etc. The harm done by badly chosen senior administrators cannot be undone by any amount of money.

Sixty years of consistent failure force us to search for reasons that go beyond fiscal and administrative issues. What sets us apart from the developed world, or even India? In Pakistan, the dead hand of tradition stands squarely in the way of modern education and a modern mindset that relies on critical thinking. The educational system, shaped by deeply conservative social and cultural values, discourages questioning and stresses obedience.In seeking change, it will be important to break the tyranny of the teacher, a relic of pre-modern social values. Even today, students memorise an arbitrary set of rules and an endless number of facts and say that X is true and Y is false because that’s what the textbook says. (I grind my teeth whenever a Master’s or PhD student in my university class gives me this argument!)

To develop thinking minds, change must begin at the school level. Good pedagogy requires encouraging the spirit of healthy questioning in the classroom. It should, therefore, be normal practice for teachers to raise such questions as: How do we know? What is important to measure? How to check the correctness of measurements? What is the evidence? How to make sense out of your results? Is there a counter explanation, or perhaps a simpler one? The aim should be to get students into the habit of posing such critical questions and framing reasoned answers.

Reforming higher education in Pakistan has a chance only if it considers the totality of problems, such as outlined here, and if solution strategies are pursued with honesty and integrity. This task has yet to begin.

The writer teaches physics at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008


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