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May 7, 2015

The right to speak


May 7, 2015


I was invited to speak at a seminar at Karachi University entitled Baloch Missing Persons and the Role of State and Society on May 6, organised by Dr Riaz Ahmed of the ‘Teachers Against War and Oppression’. The other speakers on the panel were to be Mohammad Hanif, Nazish Brohi, Mir Ali Talpur, Farzana Majeed and Mama Abdul Qadeer of the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons.
The invitation from the ‘Teachers Against War and Oppression’ had been sent out two days before the murder of Sabeen Mahmud. The last three in this list had all spoken at T2F. ending their discussion a few minutes before she was murdered.
The seminar was to be held in the university’s Art’s Auditorium, but the Karachi University disallowed the holding of the event there. It was eventually held, with fewer speakers but still well-attended, in the Art’s Lobby. The invitation from Dr Riaz Ahmed had come after LUMS had refused permission to a similar event to be held amongst its students.
When I was asked by Dr Riaz Ahmed to speak, I did not hesitate at all and told him that I will not speak on the missing persons, for there were far better and more competent people on the panel to speak on the theme, some who had firsthand experience of what was happening in Balochistan. I told him that I did not at all agree with the LUMS decision and that I would speak about the right to speak, and on free expression in academic and public places.
I agreed to speak about the right to think and speak, not simply because I think every individual ought to do that, but because I also had partisan motives. I have been associated with Karachi University since 1983 and consider it my ‘home’ in terms of my identity. I have only held one permanent job, which was at Karachi University for many years, and I have kept going back as often as I can. I am currently an Adjunct Professor at the IBA and prefer to teach at its Karachi University, or Main Campus, rather than at its City Campus, because

the Main Campus is situated within the larger confines of Karachi University.
In the 32 years that I have been teaching, I have always asked my students difficult questions in class. Whether this was in the days of the military dictator Ziaul Haq or his lighter, more lifestyle liberal, junior Pervez Musharraf, I, and many of my other colleagues as well, always questioned their policies – not just economic policies, but their illegitimate positions as military rulers ruling the country, their programmes of social engineering, their foreign policy and other interventions. We always discussed what some would consider ‘controversial’ topics in class. Classrooms were, and are, sacred places for knowledge, debate, criticism, engagement and disagreement. If students don’t learn in class, where else can they be given an education?
I currently teach Pakistan’s history to students who have been made to take this compulsory (and hence, boring) course at the university level, which every single one of them has already taken at A-Levels or Intermediate level to be able to get their degrees. However, at a university, the level, nature and scope of even mundane themes can be treated very differently from the rote-method which is forced on them in school.
One can question Partition itself, or why the history taught in our schools and universities is only about something called the ‘Freedom Movement’ and never about the people living in Pakistan (including the Baloch), or whether Mr Jinnah established himself with all the credentials liberals seem to have anointed him with. We even question military interventions and especially martial law, recognising (and explaining) why it is that economic growth happens to be higher under military rule, and why civilian governments struggle.
We even (how can we not) talk about East Pakistan and the brutal military action which took place forty years ago. Since the Taliban are a living reality, how can we not talk about the war on terror and its consequences on our society and economy?
There is nothing taboo in the classroom and the purpose is to open the minds of students, to offer them an alternative way of seeing things. They are taught that less than to pass judgement on what is right or wrong, they should learn to distinguish between the two themselves. Most importantly, they should be able to think for themselves and, that they must always ask the right questions.
It is not uncommon for universities to disallow talks on so-called ‘sensitive’ issues as the Karachi University did with the Baloch Missing Persons and the Role of State and Society, yet as academics and intellectuals, it becomes our duty to stand up and protest such decisions and actions of the state or whoever wields some authority in its name.
With the state increasingly controlling the media, our academic institutions are the few places left where we can, and must, be able to think about and debate issues. As it is, we all complain about our society becoming increasingly intolerant and about the closing of our minds or that all public spaces have been shrinking. Yet, as individuals and most importantly as anyone who has any relationship at all to education, we have to be able to assert our right to speak.
The author is a political economist.




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