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Sindh, academic freedom and comedy

Opinion

May 2, 2018

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A recent visit to Sindh coincided with three important developments which attracted a lot of attention on mainstream and social media. Since they have educational and linguistic dimensions, some analysis and comments are in order.

The first was the protest of the academic community on Sindh government’s decision to take away all remaining power in terms of higher education from the Sindh governor. With the recent legislation in this regard, the provincial government has given all the powers hitherto vested with the governor to the chief minister. After the 18th Amendment in the constitution, education was devolved to the provinces at all levels.

As an educationist from Sindh, this writer has remained an advocate for devolution and the current changes introduced by the Sindh government do not justify any anti-devolution rhetoric. The decision of transferring gubernatorial powers to the chief minister is a step in the right direction. Sindh is one of the only two provinces that has established a provincial Higher Education Commission, the other being Punjab. The provincial HECs are the need of the hour regardless of what pro-centre academics and bureaucrats say. It is a province’s right to run its higher education in accordance with its cultural and educational needs.

However, the more serious issue is the snatching of powers from the universities’ academic councils, syndicates and vice-chancellors. Devolution from the federation to the provinces is not enough; it has to respect the academic freedom of the universities. Devolution or no devolution, academic freedom and the decision-making powers of academic councils, syndicates and vice-chancellors is of paramount importance, since universities, the world over, enjoy a very high degree of autonomy in their decision-making. Now, with the recent legislative changes, the powers that were granted to the universities in the 1973 constitution of ZA Bhutto – himself a Sindhi – have been taken away.

With the new changes, there has been a disproportionate increase in the number of government nominees in the decision-making bodies of the universities in Sindh. From now on, there will be many more bureaucrats and political favourites influencing decision-making. The vice-chancellors at public-sector universities will not be able to make decisions without the approvals of the higher-ups. The deans, registrars, and even heads of departments (HoDs) will be appointed with the consent of the Sindh government. The representation of the faculty and students has been curtailed drastically. Those who will be the most affected by these decisions will have almost no say in matters influencing their study and work.

The provincial governments need to do at least two things: one, strengthen the provincial HECs by appointing highly qualified professional educationists. And two, empower universities to make their own decisions by increasing the representation of the faculty and students in decision-making bodies. Every year hundreds of appointments are to be made on higher posts of universities – from registrars and deans to HoDs – these appointments should be made by the VCs in consultation with their respective academic councils and syndicates. The provincial government usurping these powers is not the solution.

The second point was about a notification in the University of Sindh that called for all the signboards, department names and other important communication to be displayed in English and Sindhi languages. In what some may see as strange, there was no mention of Urdu. That resulted in a barrage of condemnation by so-called Urdu-speaking (Mohajir) academics, journalists, intellectuals and even students. Belonging to an Urdu-speaking family, this writer felt rather disturbed at the reaction. Sooner or later we have to realise that all languages deserve respect. As the official language of Sindh, the promotion of Sindhi is needed direly.

Thanks to Z A Bhutto, at the school level, Sindhi language is a compulsory subject. The Urdu-speaking community needs to start appreciating Sindhi, instead of just sticking to its Mohajir identity. Nobody can bury Urdu; it is a strong language and has no threat from Sindhi or Punjabi. This mentality has tremendously harmed peace and harmony in Sindh. It is a shame that many in Sindh cannot read and write Sindhi. So is the case with Punjabi and Saraiki in Punjab; and with Pashto and Hindko in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, as well as Balochi and Brahui in Balochistan.

The said notification was immediately withdrawn by the VC of Sindh University, Fateh Muhammad Burfat, who is a sociologist and a senior academician and a proponent of harmony. In the said notification there was nothing against Urdu, which is already the language being used in the university. Nevertheless, the VC withdrew the notification – given the fact that this issue is a sensitive one for many communities – and reiterated that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, but that Sindhi has its own place in Sindh. The outcry was misplaced and out of proportion. Everyone who lives in Sindh should love and respect Sindhi and should not in any way propagate their false sense of danger for Urdu.

The third point was about Anwar Maqsood and his ‘interview with a Sindhi’. Though Maqsood has apologised and Noorul Huda Shah has played a very positive role in clarifying the matter, the whole episode needs some serious consideration. Anwar Maqsood has been a shining star of comedy in Pakistan, but his love for dictators, for Altaf Hussain and the MQM, and for Imran Khan is no secret. Of course, everybody is entitled to liking or disliking any person or policy, but when it comes from a figure such as Anwar Maqsood, it has an opinion-making influence.

The interview in question was in bad taste, bordering on a Freudian slip (in which somebody inadvertently discloses his thoughts). Anwar Maqsood has produced some of the best pieces of comedy, but never before was his tone so vitriolic. When a person exposes his own community, it becomes more acceptable. During the time of Partition in the 1940s, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh writers were exposing the brutalities of their own co-religionists. Krishan Chander, Manto and Bedi wrote masterpieces of Urdu literature – but one will not find a single incident in which they deprecated another nationality or religion.

Ethnic comedy sparks laughter but it perpetuates stereotyping and racial profiling. We may laugh at Pathan and Sardar ji jokes, but do we even realise what kind of thinking we promote by these apparently innocuous anecdotes? Interestingly, the interview mocked Z A Bhutto, Benazir and Zardari, but the likes of Ayub and Zia were conveniently ignored who actually played havoc with all provinces including Sindh. Had the interview been about a feudal landlord, it would perhaps have been less offensive, but no such precautions were taken.

Now that Anwar Maqsood has apologised, the matter should be left as it is. But it should also serve as a warning against ethnic comedy that increases psychological complexes in people, especially in the younger generation. Thank you Noorul Huda Shah for your prompt intervention, this is one of the reasons why you are loved, not only by the people of Sindh but also by the denizens of other provinces.

The writer holds a PhD from the

University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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