Saturday May 28, 2022

The Naya Pakistan University

December 24, 2018

Some weeks ago, we witnessed the auction of old cars and young buffaloes in the sprawling lawns of the PM House. And last week, the Prime Minister’s House itself was transformed into a brand new public university.

Knowledge has replaced power in Naya Pakistan and if the PTI is to be believed, the ancient symbols of colonialism are being demolished without mercy. Can there be a bigger reason to rejoice?

Prime Minister Imran Khan, during the ceremony to hand over his official residence to the new seat of learning, linked his decision to his disdain for colonial symbols of power. This symbolism, as he explained, was meant to draw a line between the rulers and the ruled, and keep natives in their place. He also spoke of poverty in Pakistan, which presents a stark contrast to such opulent displays of power and wealth.

There is plenty of colonial symbolism in Pakistan, perpetuated by the ruling elites, and there is no dearth of elite symbolism either. However, many of these symbols existed long before colonialists arrived here. In fact, British tried to emulate the rituals of the Mughal court and the lifestyle of the Indian ruling elite.

As historian Bernard S Cohn writes: “The forms of these durbars was a model derived from court rituals of Mughal emperors and used by eighteenth-century Indian rulers, Hindu and Muslim, and then adapted by the British in the early nineteenth century with English officials acting as Indian rulers.”

British colonists did try to reorganise Indian society on the lines of their own social hierarchy. However, India’s own system of exclusion, based on the caste system, was much uglier than anything the British could have imagined or invented. The colonisers only ended up adding an extra layer of exclusion and reinforcing the existing systems of exclusion.

However, symbols of class must be differentiated from state symbolism. The prime minister cited Britain as a model in his speech. In British society, state symbolism is mainly represented through the office of the monarch. The grandeur of her office and the opulence of her lifestyle are beyond any comparison in the contemporary world.

While in Pakistan such symbolism has been associated with the office of the president, the prime minister represents the authority and the will of the people. There is hardly any colonial symbolism associated with his office. The parliamentary system makes his/her position quite tenuous, and contingent on having a majority in the lower house. S/he enjoys no legal impunity and often receives no mercy from other institutions of the state. The PM House that has now been converted into a university is hardly any grand building, though it occupies a wide area.

The new university is the fourth public place in the twin cities that can be associated with Pakistan’s prime ministers. The earlier PM office was converted into a university by Nawaz Sharif who gifted the historic building to the newly formed Fatima Jinnah Women’s University in Rawalpindi in 1998. There are also two other public places that can be associated with the office of Pakistan’s prime minister, and neither of them holds any colonial symbolism. Liaquat Bagh is a public park where two prime ministers were assassinated and another place where a prime minister was hanged is now an entertainment complex.

However, since it was an electoral promise of the PTI, the party should go ahead and make state officials abandon all colonial-style large official residences for smaller and less expensive buildings. In cities, it can promote a culture of apartments and high-rise buildings.

However, symbolism does not mean much if it is not accompanied with substance. Selling buffaloes has not coincided with any decrease in current expenditure, which has in fact gone up at the federal and provincial levels. While a new university is being set up at the PM House, the expenditure on higher education has only gone down in the PTI’s first year in office.

The prime minister has just added a new university to the capital where dozens of institutions of higher education already exist. Pakistan’s largest public-sector federal university, Quaid-e-Azam University is located at a distance of only five kilometres. Any new faculty could have been easily added to this already existing university spread over 1700 acres of land or more resources could have be invested to improve education here.

In the last 20 years, we have seen an exponential growth in private and public-sector universities. Most of these universities serve only one social purpose – bestowing prestige of higher education upon middle-class children at state expense, without contributing much to their knowledge or the skill set. The contribution of most of these universities to the national economy is negligible. Why does the capital, or the country, need a new university while the existing universities are failing to deliver quality education?

Higher education is important. But it cannot be improved through new institutions alone. Pakistan must revisit the way it imparts literacy and education to its children. While Pakistan has promoted low-quality higher education, it has neglected literacy, primary education and skills-based education. Only half of the schools destroyed in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake have been reconstructed so far. In the Kohistan District, which is a part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, ruled by the PTI government for more than five years, 354 schools remain without a building. This situation is harming the education of 30,000 to 40,000 students every year.

Colonialism in Pakistan lives on in this discrimination – where the PM House is being converted into an elite university for middle-class children while millions of poor children remain without basic education guaranteed by the constitution. Lack of skills-based education means that poor children have to work as child labourers to become tailors, electricians or mechanics.

If Imran Khan can look down from the hill where his office is located, he will be able to see sprawling slums that lie between the new university and Quaid-e-Azam University. Maybe someday he should visit one of the schools in this area to have an idea of what poor children go through in the name of education. Converting the PM House into a school for these children might have showed us his commitment better.

If the PM wants to go after a truly colonial institution, he should demolish his own alma mater in Lahore. A state that fails to provide drinking water, blackboards and chalks and toilets to its schools has no right to operate such schools for the elite. Just by selling the state land that this school occupies, he can build all the schools in Kohistan that his government in KP has failed to reconstruct in the last six years.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan