Desertification of the campus

March 26,2017

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A photograph of a group of young men gathered on a street was published in an English daily on Wednesday. You see a few of them holding thick sticks. They look unruly and in a state of agitation. The impression you get is of a mob looking for trouble.

But who were they? It would be interesting to pass the photograph around at a dinner party, without its caption, and ask the guests what they see. I think that it would be very difficult to correctly identify the individuals caught by the camera because they do not look like who they are supposed to be.

Well, the caption tells you that they are students of Punjab University, standing on their campus. The report is about a clash between two groups of students in which at least 10 people were injured. According to the officials, activists of the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) had tried to disrupt a cultural show organised by Pakhtun students.

While skirmishes on campuses do not generally make big headlines, this confrontation attracted a lot of attention. This was possibly because of its ethnic undertones and a sense of exasperation with the heavy-handed domination of the IJT in Punjab’s student politics. A contingent of the police arrived on the scene and fired tear gas shells to disperse the violent students.

The incident was widely commented upon in the media. But I have my reasons for making it the peg of this column during a week in which so much else, of apparently larger significance, has occurred. On Thursday, we celebrated Pakistan Day with ceremonial grandeur and popular involvement. The elaborate and potentially contentious project of the census has been set into motion. And there is no respite from politics, with this breathless anticipation of the Supreme Court verdict in the Panama Papers’ case.

This was also the week in which the season changed in a formal sense. Nauroze was celebrated on Monday to mark the spring equinox. This is the time, meteorologically, for new beginnings. Across the plains of South Asia, though, the long, hot summer is about to change the rhythm of life with its blistering discomfort.

Still, I detect an entire range of issues in the mirror of the clash that took place in Punjab University. As is usual, there are conflicting versions of what actually happened. The IJT claimed that Pakhtun and Baloch students had attacked their rally first. A committee has been constituted to investigate Wednesday’s clash.

However, we need a serious study of how the academic and extra-curricular environment has deteriorated on the campuses of our public universities and what its implications are in the context of building our human resources. In that sense, thoughts prompted by Pakistan Day should include a review of the state of higher education in the country.

The campus, I have always thought, is where the hope for the survival of Pakistan truly resides. We have the example of what the major universities in developed countries have contributed to their societies in terms of ideas and scientific innovations. Our struggle against extremism, intolerance and obscurantism also prescribes an active participation of our university students in rational debates on national issues.

I have often argued that the crisis of Pakistan is not so much economic or political, as it is intellectual and moral. The quality of education in Pakistan, apart from a small number of high-priced institutions – that otherwise breed a dangerous class conflict – is very poor. The graduates certified by our colleges and universities over the years are unable to justify, in a collective sense, their existence. Consequently, there is a serious dearth of capable individuals and increasing unemployment.

When I worry about the sad state of affairs on our campuses, the University of Karachi stands out as my point of reference. Even when I eagerly seek opportunities to speak to the youth of Karachi University on mainly the importance of reading fiction, every attempt has broken my heart. I will not go into the details of this sad story but just imagine what a body of around 25,000 students could do if it were intellectually and socially alive and committed to changing their society.

One may resort to statistics and the census is sure to give us some credible figures but we know that Pakistan is, demographically, a very young country. We keep talking about the youth bulge and what it means. The educated and skilled young people can be Pakistan’s redemption. We are encouraged by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent exhortations to build a progressive and enlightened Pakistan. How would this be possible when there is no glint of enlightenment on our campuses?

It all begins, essentially, at the primary level. Again, the figures that we have are heart-rending. Just less than half of our little children are said to be stunted because of poor nutrition and other deprivations. Their cognitive capacity will be thwarted. But they must grow up and become adult citizens in a society that is unable to cater to their basic needs. Hence, our youth is a burden that continues to grow. Let us see what our census will tell us about our population and its characteristics.

One acknowledged fact is that only a limited number of young boys and girls are fortunate enough to make it to the university level. Percentage-wise, this number is the lowest when compared to other countries in the region. This means that those who loiter on campuses of our public universities are greatly outnumbered by young people of the same age who are bursting out of the social fabric of Pakistan.

Yes, there are so many of them with exceptional capabilities and potential for excellence. Only some of them are able to make their mark. Yet, the environment in which our young people, particularly young women, have to live their lives is socially and intellectually very repressive. And it is pitiful that not much attention is paid to their legitimate grievances.

Let me conclude with another headline from this week that may not be considered important. On Tuesday – the day of the campus clash in Lahore – the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2016 was released and in its Human Development Index, Pakistan was placed at 147 out of a total of 188 countries that were surveyed. This was also our ranking last year. In the 2014 index, we ranked at 148. Simply, the sixth most populous country is 147th in its human development.

The writer is a senior journalist.



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