Trivialising the formal occasion that a convocation was

The speech at the convocation is supposed to be a scholarly disquisition, punctuated with humour. Every word uttered in that address has to be carefully pondered upon.

A convocation is a degree-awarding ceremony that every university and college takes pains to hold in a dignified and appropriate atmosphere. Apart from acknowledging the academic worth of the graduates, in a ceremonial fashion, the most important component of the convocation has traditionally been the address by the chief guest.

Until the 1970s, the question that people connected with universities were most curious about was who the chief guest would be at the annual function. It was considered a unique honour for someone to be invited as the chief guest at a convocation. The person’s worth was usually ascertained by their ability to make a thrilling, effective speech that could inspire new graduates.

The speech at the convocation was supposed to be a scholarly disquisition, punctuated with humour. Every word uttered in that address had to be carefully pondered upon. Not only inspirational in its tone and tenor for the youth in attendance, it was also expected to be imbued with literary worth.

Since the convocation as a ceremony emanated from the religious performance in monasteries, a lot of formality is associated with it. An extempore speech at convocations was unheard of. Ironically, it has become the norm now.

The speeches of Justice Rustam Kiyani may serve as the best prototype for those aspiring to be chief guests at convocations to emulate. His books Not the Whole Truth, Half Truths, Some More Truth and A Judge May Laugh are mostly collections of his speeches.

His book Afkar-i-Prishan, too, makes a delectable read. I earnestly suggest to the aspiring chief guests to read them since learning is a lifelong process. Here it will not be out of place to mention that one of the premier universities in the private sector, invited eminent writer, (late) Mushtaq Yusufi, as a guest a few years ago, a step worth our commendation. Yusufi’s address, available on YouTube, shows how a convocation speech should be delivered.

Extempore ramblings from politicians, catapulted by sheer accident(s) of history, to the position of a governor or a minister of higher education, have gone on to trivialise the occasion, every step of which otherwise epitomises formality and scrupulously calibrated protocol. They probably do not consider learning from others worth their effort.

In view of these considerations, a suggestion to invite people like cultural icons Zia Mohyeddin, Sharmeen Chinoy, Anwar Maqsood, or philanthropist-cum-businessman, Syed Babar Ali, was appreciated by the people at the helm of the university where I currently work, but a bizarre hitch came in the way. Either the Chancellor/Governor or someone he chooses has to preside over the convocation. This is apparently an official requirement. What high-handedness! Instead of bringing our youth in contact with people who can instill a sense of higher purpose and inspire them to go for achieving higher goals in life, they are condemned to listen to dull, boring and clichéd regurgitation of an unimaginative lot, hoisted on our heads to our bad luck.

Another unsavoruy aspect is the inanity demonstrated towards the preparation of the speech. Justice Kiyani is known to have invested considerable time and effort in writing his speeches. The process entailed several drafts. All this serious investment into his speeches made Kiyani one of the best English prose writers of Pakistan. But ever since government officials have assumed the mantle of presiding over convocations, the writing of speeches has been outsourced.

Thus, the convocation address is generally prepared by someone at the host institution and sent to the prospective chief guest. The expectation of the university faculty even in such cases is that the chief guest would spare some time to read through the prepared speech. Unfortunately, the chief guests do not even bother to do that, with the result that they end up making a fool of themselves.

On top of it all they seldom realise the harm of the negative impression that they leave on their audience. Former Punjab governor, Rafique Rajwana, was one such example, who guffawed when he came to GCU, Lahore as a chief guest. The tragic fact is that the governor is the chancellor of the universities which have been granted charters by the provincial government.

Shahbaz Sharif, too, did not have an enviable record to speak of. On the solemn and serious occasion of the convocation (particularly at GC University, Lahore which is Shahbaz Sharif’s alma mater), his performance as chief guest exuded nonchalance. He did not have any compunction even in withdrawing his commitment (to come to the GCU), at the very last moment on a couple of occasions. That was how important higher education was to him.

As far as public speaking is concerned, that art has virtually died out, particularly in the political realm. There has been a marked and consistent deterioration in the art of public speaking among our political elite since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Benazir Bhutto and Abida Hussain may be treated as exceptions. Unfortunately, public speaking hardly matters in determining the course or the trajectory of Pakistani politics. Consequently, public figures like Aitezaz Ahsan and Raza Rabbani, much better speakers than the rest, have become somewhat inconsequential.

Reverting to convocations, I reiterate that they are supposed to be extremely formal events, well choreographed from the start to the finish. All that formality and protocol are set aside when the chief guest’s arrival is delayed by several hours, a practice that has become a routine over the years. Then to the dismay of many, the chief guest is quite eager to leave the venue in a hurry, pretending that he has more important work to do.

To my reckoning, it is symptomatic of the insecurity that overtakes political office-holders. Thus, we must reassure these politician chief guests that Pakistan’s academics do not possess any frightening attributes and pose no threat to any government or state functionary. They have insecurities of their own.

While concluding this column, my suggestion (though unwarranted) would be that universities should be granted the freedom to choose whoever they want to preside over their convocations because Pakistan’s politicians have hardly anything worthwhile to say on such occasions. Thus, let’s not thrust that burden on them. That’s what sanity dictates.

Pakistani universities should have freedom to call people at convocations because politicians have hardly anything worthwhile to say on such occasions