- The freedom to think can have a prohibitive cost
By: Zainab Najeeb
When I was coming back to Pakistan after completing my masters in the UK, I was met with pitying eyes and words of comfort, as if I had lost something vital enough to be publicly mourned. The loss can typically be imagined in relation to the apparent lack of freedom of mobility, security and the general ease a woman fails to experience in Pakistan, but it honestly is far greater than roaming around cobbled streets after midnight. The loss is political which makes it all the more personal.
Young Pakistani academics who go abroad experience an unregulated freedom; their research papers circle around issues that one thinks twice before addressing among a group of friends or even social media (especially social media). It is not that foreign and former imperialists give Pakistani students a voice, far from it. What is gained is not the pen but the paper, a platform, research tools, academic rigour and peace of mind to pursue a topic without fearing for one’s life. Research in itself is not a process of aggrandisement, it is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, it is supposed to raise questions that if not asked will contribute to the ever growing fort of silence barricading local knowledge production.
A friend decided not to publish her Political Science dissertation online, despite the professional benefits, because she did not want to come “under the radar.” Another friend is endlessly pining for an international scholarship only to leave and do what he wants to do the most: write fearlessly, learn endlessly. Another friend is willing to do anything and everything to not come back after her masters from the USA because she knows her opinions will land her in even hotter water back home. After legitimising my presence nearer to the white board harboured in my prized foreign degree stamp, I stand in front of my students, giving disingenuous disclaimers or making empty jokes so that they know I am not “anti-state”, a title thrown around like the emperor’s old clothes.
According to K. K. Aziz, “The goal (of education in Pakistan) is to produce a generation with the following traits; docility, inability to ask questions, capacity to indulge in pleasurable illusions, pride in wearing blinkers, willingness to accept guidance from above, alacrity to like and dislike things by order, tendency to ignore gaps in one’s knowledge, enjoyment of make-believe, faith in the high value of pretences.”
What we conveniently label as the brain drain, the faithless betrayal of those who manage to get out to never return, can be seen as academic asylum: academic refugees displaced, listlessly knocking on foreign doors for a room of their own. I know too many students, contemporaries and seniors who treat a scholarship as a golden ticket because they know that they will be finally allowed the mental space to produce critical work without fearing for their lives, livelihoods and professional credibility. Those who choose to come back are an anomaly, labelled as naïve or adventurous, people who are put in their place by the all powerful status quo.
The deliberate de-platforming of professors like Dr Ammar Ali Jan, Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, and Muhammad Hanif from universities in two of Pakistan’s most metropolitan cities is an ode to the state-ordained wilful disengagement from critical thinking. Critical thinking is a buzzword now, ornamenting higher education institutions in Pakistan, with any attempt to practice it resulting in a slap on the wrist. Interestingly, it is a popular assumption in Pakistan that the critical thinkers, the writers, the artists, the teachers, the activists don’t have to pay the ever-growing list of bills. They will find a way to get by.
Also, harkening towards a more customary dramatic turn of events, around 80 students were arrested in Quetta for peacefully protesting against the digital divide that is literally impeding their right to education. I want to put it as plainly as possible for the ever-resistant ears of those in control: if there is no Internet there can be no online classes. If students do not have the right to raise their concerns then how else are we to move around this business of education? Do the HEC and education ministries want to pretend their way out of this mess? Or use police batons as wands to erase the stark oppression of the students’ right to mobilise? Or simply imagine that there is no digital inequality and it is every student for himself? The precedent has definitely been set after the sedition case was filed against some of the organisers and participants (including Dr Jan) following the Student Solidarity March.
When students and teachers are villanised, suppressed and silenced, it is not an unintentional consequence or a spill-over effect of a decadent education system, it is a strategic dismissal of those who do not treat education as a business but as an intrinsic struggle towards intellectual growth. It is a well-crafted reduction of the education system to a tool of propagating a specific, state-sanctioned, self-fulfilling nationalism where dissent is treason, activism is criminal and critical thinking is blasphemous.
According to K. K. Aziz, “The goal (of education in Pakistan) is to produce a generation with the following traits; docility, inability to ask questions, capacity to indulge in pleasurable illusions, pride in wearing blinkers, willingness to accept guidance from above, alacrity to like and dislike things by order, tendency to ignore gaps in one’s knowledge, enjoyment of make-believe, faith in the high value of pretences.” Those who don’t seem themselves in this checklist, seek refuge in places where they can write about what they have left behind. Those who cannot afford this privilege are criminalised for living their politics. And those who either adapt to the mores or find it exhausting to raise their hands to ask questions, become model citizens.