Quest for academic truth

January 12, 2020

Both the law and the society in Pakistan do not allow certain radical forms of questioning

Academic freedom refers to two things: first, the freedom to design, teach, examine and change from time to time any courses an academic may deem appropriate in the interest of the advancement of knowledge or to impart certain specialised skills to students. And secondly, the freedom to question, critique, set aside, deconstruct, discard or change received knowledge. There are, in theory, no restrictions under law for the first; there are both legally and socially certain restrictions on the second. Both the law and the society in Pakistan do not allow certain radical forms of questioning of religion and the rationale of the existence of the state of Pakistan itself.

But it is not the letter of the law which plays the crucial role in determining how academics – all the way from lecturers to full professors – actually conduct themselves. In Pakistan, they have generally practiced some form of self-censorship because most academics are middle-class people afraid of losing their jobs. Thus, as KK Aziz noted in his book The Pakistani Historian, the average academic towed the line which the state promoted. The sensitive areas were Kashmir, the two-nation theory and the high stature of Mr Jinnah. On these questions, even without there being any specific law, Pakistani academics towed the official line.

After the 1965 war, the state became even more sensitive to criticism of any kind. The campuses now came to be polarised between the right wing and the left wing. The former comprised the religious right and the nationalists. While the religious right and the nationalist right did not agree with each other on most issues, on one they completely agreed: that the liberal-left which wanted peace with India, which opposed the military’s role in politics, which favoured freedom of the press, women’s rights, the rights of minorities and of various ethnic groups (such as Bengalis, Sindhis, Baloch and Pashtuns) must be opposed. However, ironically enough, the left wing itself was polarised much of the time. During the 1970s it was led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who, while supporting the working classes and women in theory, was both a warmonger and an opponent of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the elected leader of Bengalis. So, both the left and the right joined together in creating an atmosphere in which Pakistani academics could not write candidly about ethnicity or about the 1971 war. Indeed, the nationalistic fervour produced by the 1965 war and supported by the lamentation about the loss of Bangladesh in 1971 intensified the self-censorship about wars to an extreme. Students came to these wars with fixed views about them held with such intense emotion that they were like a faith. And even if some did indulge in critical thinking about these issues in the privacy of the university canteen, they did not want to gamble their future away by actually writing a thesis on such controversial issues. They were apprehensive of supervisors, examiners and job interviewers so they shied away from the wars. The result: there was no objective study of these wars by academics till 2018 and 2019 when oral histories of Kashmir and 1971 by Anam Zakaria came out.

After the 1965 war, the state became even more sensitive to criticism of any kind. The campuses now came to be polarised between the right wing and the left wing.

During General Zia ul Haq’s rule (1977-1988), the areas of self-censorship increased. While it was earlier conceivable for a student of Islamic studies or history to take up the history of blasphemy in Islam, now it had became a taboo. Even genuine research questions such as the foundational texts that govern such issues or the history of laws about these issues in different schools of Islamic jurisprudence, and other such other academic questions came to be avoided for the fear of someone finding fault with them and getting the writer prosecuted (and persecuted) for blasphemy. Similarly, a much debated issue (see Ghulam Ahmad Pervez’s book on it) – the position of the renegade in Islam – came to be avoided. Self-censorship was not confined to Islamic studies alone. Indeed, it was most in evidence in research on politics and history. The new no-go area was the military. Academic research on the military had to follow certain permitted lines. One could, for instance, explain military intervention in politics on the theory that politicians were corrupt and incompetent. But any other theory, for instance that the military wanted political power in its institutional interest, was akin to treason. Ayesha Siddiqa’s book The Military Inc. was published but since it argued that the second theory was a plausible explanation (she refers to the business enterprise of the military), it was opposed by the military and academics supporting the narrative of the military. Incidentally, now that the military has at least six universities, the institution has power in academia as well which it never had earlier.

During the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s government, it may be argued that academic self-censorship has become more pronounced. This is not a proven theory but only an impression I have formed after seeing how students and academics in Pakistan’s campuses have reacted to what they see as the narrowing of the margins of their freedom. They argue that the present government is supported by the military (‘same page’ argument); that a number of critical journalists have been sidelined; that the mainstream media does not take up cases like the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM); that a number of student activists (Dr Ammar Jan, for instance) have been harassed by the state. This being so, their conclusion is that they should impose further self-censorship on themselves, which means that their research should be for degrees, promotion and money and not for anything like the quest for the truth.

The writer is an occasional contributor

Quest for academic truth in Pakistan