An unequal society

September 17, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE PTI government wants to deprive politicians accused of corruption of facilities in prison. The latest announcement was hardly a bolt from the blue; the government has said this time and again. The prime minister himself told expatriate Pakistanis in the US that he would take away Asif Ali Zardari’s and Nawaz Sharif’s air-conditioner and television.

The announcement by the information minister over the weekend was perhaps just to reassure PTI supporters that he had not forgotten his promise to continue punishing those who had looted the country’s money.

Alongside the story of this announcement, Dawn also carried an article headlined, ‘Decoding prison class system’.

Explaining the various categories of prisoners (regarding facilities), the story stated that the 1978 law on the issue classified prisoners as superior class, ordinary class and political. Undertrials, on the other hand, are either ‘better’ or ‘ordinary’. According to the story, the better or ‘A’ class of prisoners are “casual prisoners” who by “social status, education and habit of life” are accustomed to a “superior mode of living”.

The quaint phrases suggest that some of the language has been used as it appeared in the law, which in turn may have been based on the laws introduced by the British prior to 1947. (For truth be told, the Brits did not have to pretend that all — native — citizens were equal, and hence would have catered for social difference even in prison.)

We continue to live in an unequal and class-based society, but prefer to pretend otherwise.

At present, unfortunately or fortunately, we continue to live in an unequal and class-based society, but prefer to pretend otherwise — hence, the moral outrage when pictures of servants being seated on different tables at restaurants surface, or parks put up signs banning domestic servants from entering the premises. If an outsider were to see the remarks and the outrage, he or she would never be able to guess that many of those tweeting or protesting come from homes employing domestic servants. And few employers treat them as family members. Domestic servants tend to be seated on different tables at restaurants because they are usually not allowed at the dining table in homes either.

But there is outrage because we like to believe in equality — at least in public.

In truth, we live in an unequal society with a strong class system. And this class system allows our prison system to differentiate between prisoners based on their background and education where — as in the rest of the country — one prisoner is allowed to get another to serve him.

The politicians tend to benefit from it as do others who are used to “a superior mode of living”. And it seems as if Khan, and the rest of the PTI, would rather ignore the larger picture and only focus on the corruption of political leaders and the comforts they enjoy in jails because they have little else to offer right now. With governance proving to be a challenge, and with little money to spend, the prime minister has to keep reiterating his tough stand on corruption to assure his supporters; this is how this air conditioner/ television nonsense is unpacked by those watching.

However, this is not the most worrying aspect of the PTI’s behaviour — not only is the party naïve when it comes to the larger inequality present in society, it also thinks state-imposed rules and laws can change complex realities.

The education policy is a case in point. The education ministry is working hard on creating a uniform curriculum which will be applicable to all schools — public and private. The government has set up a committee of experts — a favoured approach — to figure out how to do this.

There are few details available so one cannot say what the government will finalise and implement, but the officials concerned argue a uniform education is essential — why should those studying in private schools have an advantage due to their language skills and school pedigree over their less fortunate compatriots?

Lofty thoughts indeed! The way the government puts it, it appears they think a uniform curriculum will provide the same advantage to all and sundry. But a curriculum and language are simply one aspect of our unequal society and the unequal education system. Even with the same textbooks, there is so much else which determines grades: school facilities, quality of teachers, extra tuition and so on. Most of this costs money. And money can and does make a difference everywhere; expensive, private schools exist even in places such as Canada which boast of a good public-sector education system.

This is not to say the government should not make such efforts. However, those working on such reforms should be aware of how much impact they can have. And how it should be packaged and sold so as to not disappoint those who are listening. The focus should be on improving the standards of the government education system.

Instead, the government is arguing that the private and public streams give rise to two different classes; creating the impression that the school systems create inequality, while in reality the inequality has led to the different systems.

In both their promises on education and prisons, the PTI seems to be under the impression that steps such as a single curriculum or withdrawal of facilities for politicians will address the larger issues plaguing our society — be it the class differences or corruption.

Withdrawing air conditioners or televisions from those accused of misusing state money will not eliminate corruption (or class differences). If the PTI were serious about the issue, it would focus on strengthening the state’s ability to prosecute — to give a single example — rather than harping on about facilities in jails, which is a provincial subject.

One can only hope that they realise the difference between the simplicity of slogans and the nuances of policies. The former works well during elections, but once in power, it is essential to grapple with complexity.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2019