Academia pushes back against HEC efforts to stifle debate

Updated November 09, 2014


— AFP/File
— AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Educationists, professors and leading academics have flayed the Higher Education Commission’s (HEC) attempts at stifling debate and discourse in the country’s universities by prohibiting any activities that challenged the “ideology and principles of Pakistan, and/or perspective of the government of Pakistan”.

A one-page memo – issued in the wake of the controversy surrounding the presence of a stall representing Israel at a recently-held Model United Nations (MUN) event at the International Islamic University Islamabad (IIUI) – was not well-received in academic and educational circles, with many stakeholders criticising the edict for seeking to effectively curtail freedom of expression on campus.

Several key individuals within the academic community have also called on the HEC chairman to withdraw the memo, which they believe to be an attempt by the commission to get universities to toe the government’s line.

“Universities are supposed to be places where students learn about history, politics, sociology, and science in an open atmosphere,” renowned physicist and educationist Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy told Dawn.

Educationists insist toeing govt line is counterproductive for students’ understanding of complex political issues

A closed-minded society cannot be educated, nor educate itself, he said, adding that it was particularly regrettable that the HEC issued the notification after a perfectly harmless activity, in which students were representing different nations of the world, including India, Israel, the UK, and US as well as Pakistan and other Muslim countries.

“This is exactly what our government does by sending ambassadors to the UN. The behaviour of the HEC proves that it is thoroughly infiltrated by backward-minded individuals who are clueless about the purpose and nature of higher education. HEC must immediately withdraw its notification and apologise for its mistake,” he said, not mincing his words.

Dr Khalid Aftab, former vice chancellor of the Government College University in Lahore, told Dawn categorically that there should be no ban on debates at universities. “If universities will not hold debates on the Israel issue, how will their students learn about Pakistan’s concerns against that country,” he asked, rhetorically. He said that informed debates were invaluable for students and that “simply discussing Israel does not mean that that we have recognized it, rather we are trying to learn about the background of the Israel-Palestine issue.”

A representative of the Federation of All Pakistan Universities Academic Association, a body representing teachers from public-sector universities across the country termed the notification as being in contravention of democratic norms and values. Dr Kaleem Ullah Bareach, secretary general of the association, told Dawn, “Such measures will paralyse the minds of scholars. Without debates on important issues, scholars cannot gain any knowledge. As far as the ideology of Pakistan is concerned, I believe ideology is strengthened by debating culture, not by imposing restrictions on the freedom of expression.”

Prof Tahir Malik from the National University of Modern Languages (Numl) is no stranger to controversy when it comes to personal convictions. In 2010, he was assaulted by an ex-serviceman who was also the registrar of Numl at the time, for allegedly ‘insulting’ the armed forces when Mr Malik insisted on discussing former General Pervez Musharraf’s role in the enactment of the National Reconciliation Ordinance.

A campaigner for freedom of expression in his own right, Prof Malik insists that the HEC should immediately withdraw a portion of letter, where directs universities forestall any activity which challenges the perspective of the government.

“There should be no compromise on ideology and nationalism, but as far as HEC’s directive to universities to toe the government line is concerned, this is ridiculous. Universities can’t be the organ of government propaganda,” he said, adding that universities were places where students analytically discussed the government’s policies, on economic, foreign policy and other fronts.

Aisha Amir Ahmed, president of the Debating Society of Pakistan, told Dawn, “Debate is founded on the idea of opposing sides. This memo is contrary to the spirit of all education and debate. No educational organisation has any business trying to further narrow the already-limited space for open discussion that exists in our institutions.”

It is interesting to note that in a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on October 30, just two days after the HEC edict was made public, called on the HEC to amend school, college and university curriculum to “promote the appreciation of the vital necessity of constitutional democracy... deepen the understanding of the constitutional democratic process and pluralism”.

The HEC order belies the spirit of this statement completely. In Ms Ahmed’s words, “There is no way for democratic change if you cannot question what the state is saying.”

Digital rights campaigners Bytes For All (B4A) also incorporated the directive into an online campaign to counter attempts to curtail freedom of expression. According to B4A’s Fahad Desmukh, “Our campaign has received huge support on our social media pages. It is clear that the overwhelming majority of people see the directive as a draconian measure that is in direct contradiction with the spirit of freethinking and learning that institutes of higher education are expected to promote.”

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2014