Saturday July 20, 2024

A freedom lost”: Part - I

By Dr Naazir Mahmood
December 17, 2023

Formulating laws and creating rules from above – without broader consultations – is not a good idea. Of course, you cannot consult criminals while legislating against them but other than that, when any law or rule is going to affect a certain segment of society, that segment has a right to ask for their representation in the process.

This was the subject of discussion at a conference titled ‘Academic Freedom’ organized by Szabist Karachi on December 12-13. Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Imtiaz Kazi, and Dr Riaz Shaikh were the moving spirit behind these two important events held in collaboration with the Tareekh Foundation to discuss academic freedom and share the findings of the state of peasants’ rights in Sindh in 2022 by the Hari Welfare Association.

The image shows a discussion at a conference titled ‘Academic Freedom’ organized by Szabist Karachi on December 12-13. — Facebook/szabistofficial
The image shows a discussion at a conference titled ‘Academic Freedom’ organized by Szabist Karachi on December 12-13. — Facebook/szabistofficial

The 23rd history conference on academic freedom jointly organized by the department of social sciences at Szabist University and the Tareekh Foundation Trust was perhaps the first-ever conference in Pakistan on academic freedom.

Dr Mubarak Ali is an octogenarian actively leading the Tareek Foundation in its struggle to present history from a people’s perspective. He was the first speaker in the conference and set the tone with his detailed historical background of freedom of expression in the Subcontinent.

Since it was under autocratic and monarchical rules for a long time, India – just like other medieval kingdoms – also had its share of court historians and writers who did not have much freedom to criticize those in power. Still there were authors and poets who risked their lives to pen independent accounts and even managed to produce humour and satire in their creative writings.

Dr Mubarak Ali cited numerous examples of 18th-century poets who wrote ‘Shehr Ashob’ (The City’s Misfortune), outlining the abject conditions of the country at that time. Sauda – a prominent poet of that era – mocked the condition of the Mughal army which was ill-equipped and poorly trained, hardly able to fight a war to victory.

Emperor Farrukhsiyar executed the poet Jafar Zatalli as he had written a satirical piece that incensed the emperor. Dr Ali brought the discussion to present day by highlighting the impediments to academic freedom that he had personally experienced while teaching at the University of Sindh in the 1970s and 80s.

Dr Sarah Francis Deborah Ansari is a British professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London and is also the editor of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. She talked about how academic freedom is being compromised the world over and even in the UK the academic atmosphere is influenced by changing trends in business, education, and politics that have come to play their role in the 21st century.

She cited examples from numerous incidents that have taken place recently in various universities in the UK that changed the academic freedom discourse.

Dr Harbans Mukhia is a former rector of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He is an Indian political historian and professor of medieval history at the Centre of Historical Studies. He lamented the declining levels of academic freedom in India under the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014.

It has been nearly 10 years that the BJP government has been targeting independent and left-wing authors, historians, and lecturers. Nearly all progressive and secular activists and thinkers have faced the onslaught of the right-wing Hindutva-promoting academics and administration in a majority of educational institutions across India.

Dr Tauseef Ahmed is the retired chairperson of the mass communication department at Federal Urdu University, Karachi. He narrated the sorry tale of academic freedom in Pakistan right after the country’s inception.

The first vice-chancellor of the University of Karachi ABA Haleem was not fond of free speech and writing even in academia if it did not align with his ideology of nationalism and religion. Then onwards, most universities in Pakistan became a personal fiefdom of the head of the institution who mostly followed a conservative and parochial agenda and even had spy networks of their own.

Rewriting of history was the topic of Dr Wiqar Ali Shah, a retired professor of Pakistan Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University. To him, most of the history textbooks that we use in Pakistan are full of inaccuracies, and if any lecturer or professor tries to give a different perspective, the management springs into action and issues show-cause notices and warnings not to deviate from the prescribed path of history teaching.

He gave examples of the Mughal emperors Akbar and Aurangzeb Alamgir who are portrayed in history classes and textbooks as diametrically opposed personalities: Akbar being ‘anti-Islam’ and a deviant king while Alamgir gets all the undue praise as a staunch Muslim.

Dr Jaffar Ahmed, the dean of faculty of social sciences at Sohail University, highlighted the significance of academic freedom for nurturing creative and critical thinking. He shared with the audience an example of how in a curriculum-development meeting even the syllabus of Urdu had its primary objective of promoting religious thought rather than teaching of Urdu language and literature.

When he resisted, most of the committee members outvoted him. A vast majority of curriculum developers and textbook writers are not independent thinkers and do not believe in diversity of opinion as the core of academic freedom.

‘Academic freedom at public-sector universities in the context of Balochistan’ was the topic of Dr Aurangzeb Alizai who teaches at the University of Balochistan. His main contention was that academic freedom is essentially to protect the truth and to encourage creativity but without having any freedom for dialogue in society at large, academic freedom is a pipedream.

In the universities of Balochistan, there is hardly any knowledge-production that can be beneficial for society. Universities are short of cash to pay salaries, let alone any research and development. “Knowledge is disconnected from people’s issues and problems in Balochistan.”

‘Culture of silence’ was dissected by Dr Rashid Mughal of the University of Peshawar. He observed that a culture of silence has engulfed academia in Pakistan, and it is having its harmful effects on learning. Diverse perspectives and open dialogue have become a thing of the past as now academics and students are reluctant to engage in critical discourse, and this legitimizes the narrative of the ruling classes.

Alternative viewpoints flourish in a free flow of ideas but the culture of silence impedes that flow by marginalizing and sidelining all critical narratives.

Dr AH Nayyar, an eminent educationist and retired professor at QAU, Islamabad, dealt with the concept of academic freedom versus freedom from academic demands. In his observation there are many teachers who think about themselves like ‘oceans of knowledge’ and as a result they become immobile and static, expecting their students to access that ’ocean’ while the ocean remains aloof.

Such teachers misconstrue academic freedom as being able to show irresponsible attitudes towards teaching, missing classes, coming late and leaving early in the name of ‘freedom’. Students suffer from this misplaced ‘academic freedom’ that is more of an administrative negligence.

Finally, Dr Fared Panjwani, the dean of the Institute of Educational Development (IED) at the AKU, was the chair of the last session of the conference. With his interdisciplinary approach, he narrated the history and philosophy of academic freedom in Muslim societies citing examples of heated debates among Muslim scholars of yore.

From Imam Ghazali and Razi to Ibn Rushd, he quoted numerous incidents in which diversity of opinion was the name of the game. Dr Panjwani’s speech underscored that in Muslim cultures, academic freedom must prevail as dialogue and discourse are the only way forward.

The credit for this dynamic and stimulating conference goes to Shahnaz Wazir Ali, Imtiaz Kazi, and of course Dr Riaz Shaikh who keep the light of social sciences glowing in Karachi.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets/posts @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: