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In service of power

April 07, 2017


TWO years ago, a friend and colleague, teaching at a US university, wrote to me asking if one of her doctoral students working on education issues in developing contexts could work on Pakistan and if I would be willing to guide her in her fieldwork. I thought that having a doctoral student look at leadership issues across gender would be good since there was little local research on this. So I said I would support the student.

The student decided to come to Pakistan. She asked me for a letter of support so she could apply for her visa. She submitted her visa application about four months prior to when she wanted to be in Pakistan.

One day I got a call from someone who said he worked for an ‘agency’ and wanted to come to interview me about some American ‘girl’ who had applied for a visa and who had a letter of support from me. I asked him to come by. Our conversation is worth reproducing.

After asking me about what I did, where I taught, what I taught, and if I had any suggestions about how to improve the economy, the gentleman came to the point. He asked me how well I knew the ‘Amreeki girl’. I gave him the context. He asked if she was connected to the CIA. “Not to the best of my knowledge,” I said. He asked me if I could vouch for her ‘good character’. I told him that I had no idea of what he meant by ‘good character’ but I had no reason to believe that the student had any character flaws that precluded her from doing doctoral work in education. He asked me as to why I was interested in getting the student here. “It is a good idea for advanced students to do research on and in Pakistan.” He did not seem convinced by my answer.

In Pakistan, rules are made to serve the powerful and strengthen their hold.

He wanted to know all the places the student would visit. I told him that I knew the districts and the schools she had in her sample and could share the list. But the gentleman wanted to know about all the places the student would visit in the evenings. I said I had no idea about that.

He asked me if I would ‘guarantee’ the safety of the student. I mentioned all the arrangements we were making for her accommodation, transport, help with logistics, and hiring of interpreter/research assistants. “This is all fine but do you guarantee her safety?” By this time I was a bit annoyed. So I said that when I cannot guarantee my own safety and you guys cannot guarantee the safety of citizens of the country, how can you ask me to ‘guarantee’ the safety of another? Again, the answer did not convince him.

He then asked me to provide documents about myself, the organisation I worked for, the kind of research we did, the partners we worked with and even copies of research papers we had written. And then, the final straw, he asked me where I lived and told me that he would come around and interview my father. I had had it by then. I told the gentleman to leave, to give whatever report he wanted to give about the issue but he would not be entertained at my home. He left.

The student did not receive any answer to her visa application for a long time and getting the not-too-subtle hint, decided to work on another country. She is now finishing her thesis write-up.

We have had an unknown number of CIA officials working in Pakistan and we have had, allegedly, Indian nationals working in sugar mills in the country. We had entire air bases given to Americans, had drones flying from there and, apparently, even had a programme where US citizens could come into Pakistan without clearances from Pakistani authorities. But when we want to have an academic come over for a conference or have a colleague come over for joint work, the hurdles in the name of national security are insurmountable.

Even doing research on our own is not easy. I work in education. Every time we have to do household surveys and/or school surveys, we have to get an umpteen number of letters of support and/or no-objection certificates (NOCs). If we want to do positional tagging, so that we can identify and revisit households or schools later, it opens up another Pandora’s box of NOC requirements. If I am going to state schools, it makes sense for me to have permission from the education department, but if I am going into households, I should only be required to have permission of the households in question. Why do I need the state’s permission to visit a citizen at her house? But we do: logic is not one of the strong points of a lot of these requirements.

The issue here, clearly, is power. Rules are made not to serve the larger interest; they are made to serve the powerful and strengthen their hold even further. Were agencies incompetent to the extent that they did not know CIA operatives were coming into Pakistan and some might still be here? I hope that is not the case. They knew. It was just that power interests were such that they wanted to allow these people to come into the country.

“Squeezed elbow room and shrinking leg space is the narrative of Pakistan in our times,” writes Harris Khalique in his new book Crimson Papers. He goes on to say: “It is about demanding a dignified physical space to live, a respectable economic space to earn a decent living, a free intellectual space to think, and an uninhibited artistic space to create. Together, it is all about political space.” So the question really is: can we imagine a different future?

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2017