There is an urgent need to revisit ideas about education in general and bring them to the centre of discussions seeking a radical altering of Pakistan’s society and economy. Among other reasons, as would be explained in this article, this urgency is warranted by the proposed cut in budget for the higher education commission (HEC). Though the state minister for finance and revenue has denied this and has instead claimed putting in an additional amount for a knowledge-based economy initiative, many within the academic circles are concerned since several on-going projects have been stalled and scholarship schemes – especially for students from Balochistan and the new districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – stand cancelled. Equally important is the need to critically evaluate the role and contribution of the HEC since its inception about 15 years ago. Recently, Pervez Hoodhboy wrote a damning critique of the HEC, its overall performance, and the way it has ruined, in his opinion, the higher education system in Pakistan. Anjum Altaf added to this debate by emphasising the need for capacity building at the school level which would only be possible by prioritising school education, improving the quality of physical infrastructure, intellectual capacity building of teachers and instilling critical thinking among students.
Since 1947, there have been various commissions and policy recommendations on reforming Pakistan’s education system. In recent years, scholars like Tariq Rahman, Shahid Siddiqi, Robina Sehgal and Tahir Kamran have offered detailed critiques of these debates and suggested alternative approaches.
The ideological indoctrination for citizen-making project and systematic depoliticisation of campuses resulted in a barren intellectual life in Pakistan. By the 1980s, Jamat’s control over campuses was firmly entrenched
What makes the present debate different is the changed context of Pakistan. After decades of intellectual stalemate, there is a certain revival of sorts within Pakistani academia. A fairly large number of Pakistani scholars, with degrees from top institutes of learning, have joined universities and taken up other professions as well. A critical mass has emerged – despite state oppression and wayward policies of the HEC – with a commitment to address Pakistan’s socioeconomic and political travails. This has paved the way for the emergence of Progressive Academics Collective (PAC) – a group of Lahore-based scholars and academics from public and private universities to come together under an umbrella organisation to promote ideas of critical thinking, and actively strive against structural issues plaguing Pakistan’s education system. Because of resource constraints and lack of organisational capacity, this forum is currently limited to Lahore-based universities, although academics from other universities, in agreement with the charter of PAC, have shown interest to set up autonomous chapters in their respective cities.
Amid all these various developments, it is important to critically revisit the idea of higher education in a manner that does not simply looks at the question of budgetary allocations, but also seeks a radical revisioning of its epistemological basis along with various other structural issues.
The Pakistani state has viewed its youth as a problem that needs to be contained. Rather than approaching it as a question of providing quality education for empowerment and social-economic mobility, the state looks at the youth as a group that must be managed
From Colonial Modernity to Postcolonial Ideological Indoctrination
Before taking up current issues and challenges faced by Pakistani universities, a brief historical overview of the educational system in the region during the modern period would enable a better understanding of the context.
The British rule in India was predicated on its claims to civilizational superiority with an attendant mission to ‘civilise’ the non-European world by introducing it to the fruits of advances in modern science and rational thought. This encounter between Western modernity and colonised India has been the subject of numerous debates and studies. Without going into the details of specific arguments, one important aspect often overlooked is how a philosophical engagement with the idea of education itself was at the heart of numerous debates which took place from the early nineteenth century onward. From the warm embrace of modernity by Ram Mohan Roy to Dr. Leitner’s passionate pleas to support indigenous forms of education, the underlying motive was to evaluate the impact of ideas in their capacity to alter the Indian society. In their own intellectual milieus, members of the ulema showed similar concerns. One comes across questions asked to Shah Abdul Aziz – the leading scholar of Delhi in the first quarter of the nineteenth century – about the permissibility of learning English. Aziz’s response emphasised that the problem was not with the language itself, but the purpose for which it was being used.
This rather functional approach towards the language was transformed into a serious epistemological question for the ulema in a few decades when many of them opposed the language outright because of its ideological content. This trend continued, despite Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s campaigns against it, well into the twentieth century. In his famous work, Bahishti Zewar (Heavenly Ornaments), Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi dismissed modern education for girls as it might adversely impact their faith. That’s where Behishti Zewar comes in as a veritable guide to life – starting from basic alphabets to do-yourself-techniques for homerun businesses, with everything in between, to enable Muslim women live a life in strict conformity with shariat. Thanawi’s predecessors, in fact, his inspiration, were the ulema who set up the madrassah of Deoband in 1866. Maulana Qasim Nanotawi – one of the founders of Deoband – and Sayyid Ahmad Khan were students of the same teacher – Maulwi Mamluk Ali. Both, however, chose a completely different approach towards education. For Nanotawi, the idea was to further entrench oneself in tradition to be able to deal with multiple challenges imposed by colonial modernity. For Khan, on the other hand, it was by learning the tools of modernity itself that one could face the challenges of colonial rule, as well as benefit from the opportunities afforded by it.
While during the nineteenth century the overall trend towards education was to think of it as a tool for reforming the community – either by adhering to tradition or selectively acquiring Western ideals – the advent of mass nationalism at the cusp of the twentieth century changed perspectives in a significant manner. The movement was led by those who themselves had been exposed to Western education – in many cases in the metropole itself. This includes people like Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Johar. At the height of the non-cooperation movement, the nationalists came together to establish Jamia Millia Islamia – a counterpoise to institutions like Aligarh College which either remained loyal to the British or, at best, apolitical during this tumultuous period. Jamia was a product of nationalist endeavour aimed at tracing the indigenous roots of education and an ideational basis that challenged Western hegemony. Gandhi invited Muhammad Iqbal to lead the university and provide intellectual guidance, but he politely refused to become a part of this project. A similar project was initiated by Rabindranath Tagore who set up a space for indigenous knowledge at Shantiniketan. In its own peculiar way, Maulana Maududi’s set up at Pathankot, financially sponsored by Chaudhary Niaz Ali Khan, was also aimed at finding an alternative vision for the reordering of Muslim society through an investment in Islamic intellectual traditions.
With such a diverse and rich intellectual genealogy, what was taken up for implementation by the government of Pakistan immediately after its independence was disappointing to say the least. The major focus was on Pakistan’s ideological basis sought in the teachings of Islam and the two-nation theory. As to how the conceptual basis of Islam itself had been transformed by colonialism and its forms of knowledge was not a question for policy makers. What mattered to them was the need to rectify biases that had been deliberately put in place by Orientalists. In the first meeting of the advisory board of education for Pakistan, held at Karachi from 7th to 9th June, 1948, the committee observed:
“The educational system of every State aims inter alia at two things: the inculcation and faith in destiny of the State in the students and the acceptance of its ideals. The educational system of Pakistan should also, in an integrated manner, inspire the student with a firm faith in the destiny of Pakistan as the torch-bearer of the Islamic conception of one world based on tolerance, justice and equality. This educational system must have a social purpose and should discourage all parochial prejudices resulting in Provincialism, sectarianism, etc.”
The twin purposes of ideological indoctrination and citizen-making, hence, are to be found in almost all policy initiatives taken after 1947.
During the 1960s, another component was added to the policy that aimed at ‘managing’ Pakistan’s youth bulge. Unlike the present-day stalemate in student politics, Pakistani campuses were politically charged with an active role played by progressive student unions. To counter them effectively, the Pakistani state sought partnership with Jamat-i-Islami, even though it was ideologically at odds with them; in fact, it persecuted their top leadership. But, Maulana Maududi’s crisp writings and oversimplified, distorted summaries of Marxist thought were an effective tool in countering leftist influence.
To use Dr Ammar Jan’s argument, the Pakistani state has viewed its youth as a problem that needs to be contained. Rather than approaching it as a question of providing quality education for empowerment and social-economic mobility, the state looks at the youth as a group that must be managed. For this purpose, universities – especially since the 1990s – in Jan’s words, act as spaces of internment, where young men and women, brimming with energy, can be kept, ostensibly for a degree program, but it does not impart any technical skill, nor prepares them to meet the challenges of the practical world.
During the Cold War, an additional challenge was that even ‘internment’ on campuses was dangerous as students could still be exposed to radical ideologies. Other than using Islami Jamiat Talaba – Jamat-i-Islami’s student wing – as a counter force, the state actively pursued a policy of pushing campuses out of urban centres to disconnect them from city life. This is why new university campuses were set up in in the outskirts of major cities. The argument was not just that there was no space in the old city, but explicitly mentioned in policy documents as a tactic to depoliticise students. The bureau of national reconstruction, set up by General Ayub Khan as part of his pet project to ‘modernise’ Pakistan, recommended that the “University of Dacca should be moved away from the city…So long as the student community remains concentrated in Dacca City, it will continue to influence the thinking and sections of the Government in power, with the result that Government’s decision will not be dictated by considerations of national welfare but by the desire to please the student community.” In more cruel measures, student activists were targeted, expelled from universities or put in jail.
The ideological indoctrination for citizen-making project and systematic depoliticisation of campuses resulted in a barren intellectual life in Pakistan. By the 1980s, Jamat’s control over campuses was firmly entrenched. Whatever was left of progressive student politics, died down during the 1990s. With the end of the Cold War, even Jamat’s utility or nuisance value suffered. As Amjad Ali Shakir points out, Jamat’s fortunes declined sharply as its intellectual investment had primarily been in countering Marxism. With Marxism no longer posing a threat, Jamat’s politics was at a quandary as well. Its services were no longer of any use, so its political fortunes have, since then, continued to plummet. Its student wing still exists as an effective disruptive force in Punjab University – Pakistan’s oldest and biggest university – but no longer has the same vigour. It does not even have an ideological agenda any more other than the self-appointed role of enforcing ideal ‘moral conduct’ on campuses.
This article is the first in a two-part series. The second article will appear next Friday.
The writer teaches history at Lahore University of Management Sciences