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A gloomy prognosis

January 14, 2013

WHEN I was in school, the day would start with row upon row of shiny early morning faces attending assembly, singing the national anthem.

Because I lived in Islamabad, I especially remember those mornings during the winter, when the air would become cloudy with the vapour exhaled by so many shivering chests, and the recital would assume something of a teeth-chattering note.

In modern-day Pakistan, though, trends seem to be changing. A report some months ago in another newspaper, saying that several private schools in Karachi had banned the singing of the national anthem, caused something of a furore.

Pretty much all the schools named in the report sent out clarifications that of course the national anthem was not banned, which it wasn’t. What they did concede, however, was that it was not ritualistically sung every morning. This is the case with several of the handful of top-tier, English-medium schools in Lahore and Islamabad too.

These schools argue that a recitation once or twice a week, or at special occasions such as sports day, is sufficient. (The good old shaad baad tradition is alive and well, though, in government schools and not-so-expensive private schools, which numerically would form the overwhelming majority.)

With the owners of a couple of such Karachi schools, and with some parents of school-aged children, I got into a dialogue after I wrote a column on the subject last year (‘Sing, sing or else’, May 7). A couple of school management representatives argued that there was no point in having students stand in the heat or the cold every day, merely for a ritualistic sing-song. Also, some schools pointed out that they didn’t have access to spaces large enough to assemble a sizeable section of the student body.

More tellingly, though, several people pointed out that given the damage that has been done to Pakistanis by the unthinking jingoism that has been force-fed to students for several decades (the mischief-making and in some cases, simply misinforming components of the Pakistan Studies curriculum being a case in point), why repeat the mistake?

Makes sense, of course it does. So why am I nevertheless left with the uncomfortable feeling that in such circles, the issue at root is Pakistanis’ problem of self-loathing?

From the outside, Pakistan looks like a place where most of the population is reflexively defensive about the country and belligerently patriotic. And that’s true.

At the same time, however, for growing numbers of people this is an increasingly hostile place, with circumstances and in some cases, policies, that are hard to defend.

There’s plenty to like about Pakistan, but there’s also a lot not to like, from terrorism and militancy to poor administrative management of sectors ranging from power to disaster mitigation, to our inability to effectively address a whole range of issues from children’s vaccination to population growth.

So I would postulate that for many who live here, there’s something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome going on.

And could it be that among some well-off sections of society — ironically, comparatively the ones most insulated from the horrors of everyday life in this country, and numerically few but economically strong — emphasis on the anthem is falling because it feels silly to be teaching children about this “blessed land”, as Hafeez Jallundhri wrote, while also having to explain to them the headlines?

I find it disturbing that when it was suggested to the principal of one such school in Karachi that a special programme end with the anthem, she shrugged it off as something too proletarian to do within the hallowed halls of this elite establishment. And, she said in passing, in any case what was the point in singing it since none of the children would understand it.

It could be pointed out that it might be considered the school’s job to teach children the anthem as well as what it means. Yet the hard fact is that the anthem is no longer the fashion in many top-level schools.

In other words, a tool that would create in young people a strong sense of collectiveness and collective responsibility — we’re all in this together, this country is our joint project — is not being employed. Certainly, we don’t need meaningless or jingoistic nationalism. But we do need nationalism. So how are the elites instilling that in their children?

Another fact: amongst the upper classes, Urdu seems to also be falling into disuse. There’s the dimension of the script, as I wrote a month ago; increasing numbers of people are more comfortable writing Urdu in the Roman alphabet than in its own script. But additionally, bookstores in the malls and shopping areas frequented by the well-off no longer prioritise carrying books in Urdu.

In many of them, in fact, one is met with a sneer when one asks for a qaida or a Chacha Chakkan kahani. One must assume that there’s either no market for Urdu literature at such retail points, or it is imagined as not existing.

Again, it is important to underscore that, as in the case of the anthem, it’s not that Urdu books aren’t being printed or aren’t available; of course they are. It’s just that they aren’t available where those that live in prime properties shop routinely.

Shops at such retail outlets do carry an extensive range of well-presented and readable material for children on the subject of religion, though. Child-friendly stories, parables, translations from the scripture, the tenets of being Muslim — all in English, primarily published in the UK. And over the years, from what I’ve observed, the availability of this sort of literature has increased, indicating a growing market.

On the basis of these observations, then, it would seem that in the upper-most echelons of society, religiosity is growing but Pakistani-ness is reducing. That does constitute a gloomy prognosis, especially in this country’s particular context.

The writer is a member of staff.