TODAY is the anniversary of our freedom from colonial rule. Aug 14, Independence Day, is traditionally celebrated with much fanfare with messages from the top leadership. It is the same this year. Why should we not celebrate? After all, under the British Raj we were denied many freedoms. If the East India Company had not been given a charter, the course of South Asian history would have been different. But this is no time for speculation, for there are so many ifs and buts to be considered that it is best to put them aside.
This is more a time for introspection and that is what all sensible people and publications, including this paper, have done a lot year after year. But nothing seems to emerge from the exercise.
When I received an invitation to participate in a webinar from a university in Islamabad to “janjhoro the jawan nasl” (jolt the youth out of their slumber), I was not inclined to accept it. Why should we be asking the youth to clean the Augean stables which they did not create? After all, we as a generation should learn to admit our own mistakes. Here I will suggest a way out to the youth who are the ones most in need of support and encouragement.
What must be remembered is that there were some freedoms we were expecting when Pakistan was created. I will mention them briefly: 1) freedom of thought and expression which the British had not allowed (remember Jallianwala) and we believed we would get; 2) freedom of worship for all faiths (that was promised by the Quaid-i-Azam in his Aug 11, 1947, speech to the Constituent Assembly); 3) freedom from exploitation, a process that colonisation is historically notorious for.
Aug 14 is an occasion to introspect, especially for the youth’s sake.
Unfortunately, we have never been granted these. You will agree if you look at the clampdown on the media — sometimes less and sometimes more but always there — and the blatant efforts made from time to time to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state, something that would inevitably result in discrimination against the non-Muslims and the minority Muslim sects. As for exploitation, one has to see the marginalisation of nearly 60 per cent (the figure might be greater now) of the population that lives below the poverty line and is denied its socioeconomic rights, leaving them with a “nasty, brutish and short” life, to use Thomas Hobbes’ phrase.
One should not despair. There is a way out. It is, however, a difficult one. Education could have been our only salvation. But it has always been devalued from the start so much that it has hit rock bottom today. Now the Single National Curriculum that is to be foisted on us has robbed us of this hope as well. It amounts to a planned decimation of education in Pakistan. The SNC will pave the way for theocracy. It will encourage memorisation rather than critical thinking.
We obviously cannot create our own education system to neutralise the indoctrination our students are subjected to. The public sector dominates all levels of education. As for the mid-level private sector, it is controlled by a handful of donors who avoid all confrontation. That is also the case with powerful elite private institutions. If they resist the government’s moves they will lose the privileges they enjoy as a quid pro quo for not disturbing the peace. Hence one cannot expect any resistance from them.
We still have a way out. Informal education. Some NGOs are already doing it. They hold lectures and workshops on issues which no university here touches with a barge pole. One of them is the HRCP. There are others too playing a similar role but as they do not have as much clout I will not name them for their own safety. If the audience is young it learns of other perspectives which are taboo at our universities. That provokes the youth to think and question. Of course, the youth could have learnt more from books. But we do not have a reading culture and the government is not helping by ruthlessly banning books.
Such organisations are, however, too small in number to make an impact. What we need are informal study circles. Even if small in size, such circles should meet regularly to provide the youth a platform to express their views in discourses on issues of public interest. Once started, this phenomenon would snowball if managed with discretion and tolerance. Participation of intellectuals and leaders of opinion periodically should encourage the youth and keep interest alive.
Another idea worth exploring is that of starting small centres with communication equipment to screen documentaries and videos on issues that are shirked by the formal education sector. The smaller and more informal these groups the more likely they are to survive and mushroom. Above all, their strength will lie in their ability to survive and their effectiveness in creating awareness among the youth.
Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2020