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Promoting Narratives of Diversity, Inclusion, and Peace among University Students in Sindh

The Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) organized a two-day consultation on “Promoting Narratives of Diversity, Inclusion, and Peace among University Students in Sindh” on the 1st and 2nd July 2022 at the Beach Luxury Hotel, Karachi. The speakers comprised of a broad range of experts from the Pakistan’s academia, media, government official, and prominent members of civil society.  The consultation was aimed to discuss the growing radicalization among our educated youth and possible measures to foster an environment of open learning, inclusivity, and peaceful coexistence on our university campuses.

At the Day 1 of the consultation, students, faculty and representatives of government discussed the possible factors behind failure of university education system in creating civic sense in educated youth and key drivers of religious radicalism on educational campuses.

Dr. Naeem Ahmed, Chairperson Depanrtment of International Relations, University of Karachi, highlighted the declining role of universities in serving students’ intellectual and career building needs. He held that the general understanding of the role of university is to provide critical skills and intellectual capacity in students so they can think independently. Universities are expected to be a place where students are exposed to the realities of life and their different interpretations. Dr. Naeem believed that universities in Pakistan were founded with similar intention, and they have played a role in providing the political and social leadership to the country. However, he agreed that despite the advancement of technology that has shifted the learning methods around the world, teachers in public universitas of Pakistan have not upgraded their approach and have not become a facilitator. Instead, university teachers in Pakistan try to keep a monopoly over ideas and thoughts while students also prefer to be on the receiving end of learning rather raising critical questions.

Dr Naeem held that the key factor hindering critical thinking among youth is rooted in the structure of state. “Being an ideological and military dominated, Pakistani state does not bear any dissenting voices,” said Dr. Naeem. He linked the geostrategic location of Pakistan with its education policy. He specifically mentioned two key historical developments: Iran Revolution and Soviet-Afghan War that shaped the politics, culture, and society of the country. Education sector was no exception. During the Afghan War period, the country adopted the policy of Islamization, and as a result, our curriculum was revised to promote a very narrow, intolerant, and prejudiced worldview while glorifying Jihad and martyrdom. While he agreed that a lot has changed since then, because most of the university teachers have received education during that period, this narrowed worldview is still reflecting in their ideas. Afghan Jihad led to the dominance of right-wing political parties in the campuses. They distributed militant literature among the student and recruited educated youth for Afghan Jihad. In the 90s, with the end of Afghan War, these religious political parties and groups started using the Kashmir issue to continue their activities and launched campaigns on campuses for Kashmir Jihad. Pakistan’s involvement in US-led war on terror further aggravated the situation.

“In the post-9/11 scenario, Pakistani society witnessed a worst form of youth radicalization” said Dr. Naaeem. He mentioned how state involvement shifted Al-Qaeeda’s attention to our country who build alliances with small domestic militant organization to spread their network here. He shed light on the role of online propaganda in influencing Pakistani youth. Lastly, he held Higher Education Comission (HEC) responsible for messing with the higher education system of Pakistan. He criticized Dr. Attaur Rehman for setting quantifiable standards based on number of PhDs and research papers, while ignoring the quality of the thesis and papers produced. The policy also neglected the primary and education sectors as a large chunk of budget get allocated to higher education. Moreover, HEC prioritized managerial sciences and IT sector over social sciences, creating a disciplinary divide that still hasn’t been filled. Dr Naeem held the state responsible for development of a conducive environment for critical thinking in campuses. He also recommended reorientation of foreign policy from a pro-Jihad course and anti-India narrative to a pragmatic and geoeconomics.

Mr. Amir Rana, Director PIPS, shared that in all four consultation they have conducted so far, Dr. Atta’s policies and HEC recurringly come under discussion. He noted that students as well as faculty have mentioned several issues caused by Dr. Atta’s Higher Education Policies and yet no action has been taken for its reversal. He also noted that the lack of good-quality substantial research is also a big issue in the universities as focus tend to be on the quantification rather the quality of research produced.

Dr Fizza Batool, Research Associate at PIPS, highlighted the context behind choosing a session on civic education. She shared that during the project, it was noted that students in Pakistan, even at the university level, have never read their constitution. With no knowledge of the constitution, they build their relationship with the state on emotional foundation rather on the basis of civic rights and duties. The emotional identity gets reflected in the social behavior of masses, as they become reactive rather responsive. Youth, being at an emotionally sensitive period of life and having experienced no training to think critically, are more vulnerable to this exploitation.

Dr. Sajida Zaki, HoD, Humanities Department, NED University of Sciences and Technology, held that the concept of civil education is a misconstrued concept. It is not a subject; It is an approach towards life and a lifelong process. It must be a consolidated effort with involvement of all stakeholders be it school, college, university, family, state, and the society at large. She believes that teaching civic education as a course creates contradiction because the society does not practice it. In our society, there are several dichotomies that contradict with our teachings. She shared that the standards to test the prestige and worth of a person was character in the past, but we now have adopted materialistic standards to judge a person.

She pointed out that universities are meant to be autonomous places and cannot prosper without academic freedom and a freedom of say. Funding agencies like HEC as well as political parties have infringed upon the university freedom and in a very implied and subtle manner, universities have been deprived of their independent policy. While talking about translation of civic education through curriculum and teaching methods, she held that civil education is all about the ideas and beliefs you inculcate through your curriculum. She noted that since curriculum development has become a political matter rather an educational matter, we see absence of civic values in it. Additionally, unqualified individuals with no skills to develop and design a curriculum are appointed to do the job. “Even if we put up a really good curriculum, the final produce depends highly on the competencies of the teachers in using that template to build practical and value-based knowledge for students,” held Dr. Sajida. She shared that the analysis of current teachers’ character, core values and beliefs, cognitive and metacognitive skills and approach towards curriculum reveals a very sad state of affairs. When teachers can neither understand nor believe in the curriculum, they cannot inspire students be a responsible citizen. The onus falls on teachers and we cannot really blame students

Answering question on initiating a department of humanities in an engineering and technology university, Dr. Sajida shared that she entered the education sector at a time when globally there were calls for more liberal arts education, in the core disciplinary areas of the universities, such as engineering, technology, computer sciences, medical science and business studies. In addition, the employers were seeking to hire people with ability to innovate and think critically. Hence, I took the initiative to introduce social sciences and critical learning courses for students of engineering and technology and the data of students review of courses shows that it was the right decision.

Laeeq Ahmed, Faculty member from Department of Islamic Learning, University of Karachi, commented on the establishment of Rehmatulil Alameen Authority and a University for education on Sufism, highlighting that he views Sufism as beyond religion. He built an analogy between the role of Sufis and NGOs, claiming that that Khanqahs used to be the center of socioeconomic justice. These Sufi shrines treated all humans as equal without any discrimination of religion and caste, and hence, they became the center of interfaith harmony. He gave examples of Langar and Otaq who respectively provide food and shelter to the needy ones. He recommended that if we promote the Sufi teachings in our education, we can impart humanity in our youth.

Dr Naeem commented that such policies of promoting Sufism or any other brand of religion is not the solution for it politicize religious values. He gave example of the state policy of rewarding Deobandi groups during 1980s that resulted in rise of Deobandi extremism. Similarly, the current trend of Brelvi extremism is linked to the state intervention in a religious matter and adopting a biased policy towards a certain religious group. Dr Sajida Zaki, also added that the Sufi University introduced by government is offering diploma courses of computer science and business administration. Hence, the state is just employing sloganeering to catch audience rather doing something practical to respond to the needs of the society.

Chandan Lal, Assistant Professor, Sir Syed University of Sciences and Technology talked on the acceptance of diversity and of building a system of co-existence. He named social interaction as one key prerequisite of promoting inclusion in a society. He also highlighted the role of teachers in inculcating a tabooed views of “others” in young minds, and for limiting their exposure to people of other faith groups. He also held teachers responsible for discriminating students based on their faith. He suggested upgrading the teaching and curriculum development models with consideration to the requirement of the current period.

Dr. Zaki Rashidi, Chairman, Department of Business Administration at Iqra University, identified social, political, and economic factors influencing our education system and structure. The program, curriculum, faculty, and research topics are designed with consideration to the social, political and economic dynamics and structures. He gave example of how medical sciences and engineering used to the most demanding disciplines in the past and now we are seeing a surge in the demand of business degrees and hence, we are seeing a crowding of business schools. He believed that neo-liberalization of education has connected our degrees with the income they can produce and hence, market interest overcomes the individual choices. He shared that at least in the business schools, the approach is to follow the drive of the industry and tweak the curriculum accordingly. So instead of leading the thought process and intellectual discourse, the universities are following the demands of the industry and are mere a supplier of human resource. He shared that Iqra University has tried to deal with the issue of poor critical thinking skills among students.

Dr Nazia Bano, Director CTELI at Iqra University, mentioned that knowledge has two categories: regulatory knowledge and technical knowledge. Regulatory Knowledge overrides technical knowledge because students learn by connecting new knowledge with concepts they already know, resulting in interpretation and development of critical thinking among students. In comparison, she mentioned the lack of critical discourse and thinking and theoretical foundation among university students. Universities and the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan should introduce adequate and relevant activities to develop critical thinking among students. In Pakistan, there is a dire need for institutions and the HEC to provide quality education and encourage students and teachers to modify their discourse patterns. Though Pakistani institutions offer such courses, teachers are more focused on factual knowledge rather than developing discourse and critical thinking of the students. She further added that teaching and learning strategies should be focused on interdisciplinary approaches, including international relations, history, and classic literature so that students could develop their understanding of various scientific, social and technical disciplines.

Ali Jilani, Advisor to Vice Chancellor, Greenwich University of Karachi, explained that Pakistan lacks the vision of education, especially among the younger generation. The ongoing dynamics highlight that Pakistani students lack access to mainstream institutions of global knowledge production. Unfortunately, deficiencies in the education system create education [dividends.  in international institutions and platforms where agendas and perspectives are produced. He further emphasized reorganizing the education system as existing education system established and inherited by the British administration. The British education system, which offers lower quality education, is more focused on preparing students for government jobs instead of focusing on knowledge-base learning. He further added that in 2020 his institution established a manifesto for the young people by the young people of Pakistan. The ‘manifesto for the young people’ revolved around the following significant issues: Narrative associated with inclusion requires boosting political engagements and debate with key involvement of students. Secondly, the problem continues as the state’s narrative on inclusion is based on the weak view. This perspective of the deficit is key barrier and limits the growth and support of true values of inclusion. So, it is significant to explore what is exactly integration strategy for the youth in Pakistan within the current education system and social realities. Additionally, we need to explore the nature of inclusive educational programs in the future to integrate young people and support them to develop cooperative spirit.

Wussatullah Khan expressed his views on “If the platform for the student unions be provided, what will be its dynamics”. Mr. Khan maintained that Labour and Students Unions were the prime schools of politics, which used to enlighten the youth about the basic ethics and facets of politics. The members of the unions joined political parties as “dedicated political workers,” with the key objective to promoting their respective political parties’ vision while remaining connected with general public. Students Unions not only promoted their political allegiance but also the elected members had to ensure in front of all political parties that he is the representative of Pakistan. The leadership of the political parties used to survive due to dedicated political workers. When Zia-ul-Haq banned student unions, he considered Student Unions as a hindrance to his objectives; therefore, he eliminated them. Although Student Unions’ dismissal facilitated Zia-ul-Haq, the next generations has had to face its consequences.

Wussatullah Khan highlighted that the lack of unions has introduced an unethical and intolerant political culture, one that reacts the most, surpasses others, and is labelled as “argumentative.” He agreed that the revival of student unions would [enhance violence and conflict because the source of political training has been at a halt for the past 40 years. He further pointed out that committees that were formed in universities had members of various student unions, which promoted collective political structure. Diversity among committees created a balancing act in the university or college political structure, playing a major role in bridging the gap among students with different backgrounds.

He stated that the basis of modern nation-states is diversity, but an ideological state contradicts diversity. When the state instilling diversity shifts to a monolithic ideological system, it also has to change its political environment. Modern nation-states have to protect the rights of all citizens irrespective of religion and culture, but ideological state mainly focuses on the rights of the majority only. Critical thinking cannot be achieved in such an environment, as ideology and critical thinking cannot go hand in hand. Critical thinking initiates the freedom to question, leading to the debate. He concluded while saying certain taboos are instilled in our society that stop us from researching certain critical topics. Interestingly, he asserted that critical thinking, nowadays, would be seen in religious madrassas instead of universities.

Mangla Sharma, MPA (MQM) Govt of Sindh & Leader of Pakistan Hindu Council, stated that for counter-extremism efforts, we need to reevaluate our policies and that critical issues be addressed at the elementary level of education. Primary education or elementary education is the first stage of learning. Therefore, we need to educate young students about human rights, harmony and civic sense. Human rights education at primary level would empower young students with learning, teach them to respect diversity and develop the civic sense. These values could impact the lives of students far beyond the classroom. She further highlighted that our society actually suffers from a global inferiority superiority complex, due to which major section of society thinks “they possess the right to do whatever they desire”. While highlighting the deficiencies in education system, Ms. Sharma stated that non-Muslims have to study Islamic studies in schools. Such education policies and minority experience impact students and their academic performance.

Ghazi Salahuddin, Writer, Sociopolitical Analyst and Journalist maintained that student unions in academic institutes were used to represent politics, diplomacy, debate, dramas, political thought and the welfare of students. Student unions were banned in 1984to depoliticize and intellectualize students and emerging leaders and to end student’s participation in politics. The authoritarian government of the then was focused on establishing the distance between society and universities and wanted universities to be built away from cities.

While talking about civic sense, he counted two factors as significant: one, education and skills ensure stability in life; two, strong ties should be established between the university and the larger society because universities can effectively solve social problems.

In the second day of consultation, the members of civil society and media sat together with academics and students to discuss political apathy in students and to highlights ways through which an inclusive environment could be built in our university campuses.

Ahmed Ali, Program Manager, PIPS moderated the sessions. He started the program by recalling the key findings PIPS study on diversity and inclusion among university students. He highlighted the key problems identified during the study, including the confusion in defining their primary identity, contradiction in their political views, and difficulty in articulating their ideas. He held that they key issue we noticed was political apathy in students as they have been disarrayed from the political system through banning of student unions.

Prof. Dr Zahid Ali Zahidi, Dean Faculty of Islamic Studies, University of Karachi, pointed out that Karachi university is a microcosm of Karachi city and hence, all the problems PIPS have identified in the university students are reflective of the problems in the citizens of the city itself. Bereft of basic living facilities, the university just like the city follows the principle of might is right and this constant deprivation of basic rights naturally induce anxiety and radical thinking among the people. He held that since education has become only a means for career development, there is no focus on learning and innovation. The worth of a discipline has been attached with the monetary value of the jobs it can produce. Hence, while the departments of managerial sciences and natural sciences receives the best minds, the social sciences and humanities are left for students of limited intellectual capacity. He said that in his over 20 years of teaching in the Islamic Studies department, he has seen a constant decline in knowledge and skills of the students. Most students nowadays have no reading habits and cannot adhere to any political ideology. Religious organizations are the only ones giving them a sense of identity, so they instinctively feel attracted towards them.

Zia-ur-Rehman, investigative journalist in New York Times and The News, pointed out the public-private divide in the higher education. He said that the ruling political elite send their children to private institutions and, hence, have no care for the poor situation in the public universities. Not surprisingly, the education and health sectors are the least prioritized areas in our budget allocation. He also criticized state policy toward political activism of students: after banning student unions, state has adopted a very staunch policy towards student bodies of nationalist and ethnic political parties. The void created through this sidelining of the political parties has now been filled by the religious radical movements. Giving example of a recent program in university of Karachi where Saad Rizvi, the political leader of far-right Tahreek-e-Labbaik-e-Pakistan, spoke before the audience and was cheered by the students. The party known to create disruptions in the country through sit-ins and violence is allowed to propagate their views to the young minds in universities, but other nationalist and liberal parties have been thrown out of the campuses.

Riaz Sohail, a BBC correspondent, agreed with Zia-ur-Rehman that public universities have not received their due share of attention from our policymakers as most students in these universities belong to lower or middle class. Coming with the frustrations of the segment of society to which they belong, these students are provided with no forum to vent out their angsts. The universities also failed in providing them skills and directions to climb up the socioeconomic ladder. Consequently, they become prey of the other forces, such as radical groups and terrorist organizations, who exploit their thirst of identity and direction to meet their radical objectives. Riaz Sohail also drew attention to the high percentage of female students in public universities, particularly University of Karachi, who are the main victims of the growing radicalization in the campuses. “Research proves the correlation between radicalization and gender discrimination, and we have observed it in the campuses of the city,” said Riaz Sohail. In the past, university campuses were hub of political activism with presence of both right- and left-wing parties. Now, with the exclusion of progressive politics from our campuses we are left with only right-wing parties. Interestingly, the radical behavior has heightened within the liberal political parties as well. With unions banned in universities, and no avenues for using their energies in positive manner, such as sports and debate, radical groups are the only avenues left for these students.

Commenting on one findings of PIP study that the students lack understanding of the universality and inalienability of human rights, the Founding editor of Rise News, Veengas, pointed out that this perception of state granting or giving rights to its citizens is against the basic principles of human rights. Humans are born with these rights, and no one grants it. She, nevertheless, believe that youth could not be blamed for having this perception as even the founding father of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, in his famous speech used the rhetoric of “you are free to go.” While Quaid was talking of the freedom of belief and religion, the message received by the ones listening is that the state is giving freedom to its citizens to make their own religious choices. This was later adopted by the state as a norm, and we regularly hear the argument that we have granted equal rights to our minorities from our policy makers and even in media. Youth just echo what it hears. Veengas connected the issue of minority rights with the socioeconomic inequalities in the society. She held that there are several layers of exploitations and even a Muslim belonging to low socioeconomic class is not receiving its fundamental rights, so given that the religious minorities usually belong to lower social strata, we can get a hint of how deprived a person belonging to a religious minority would be. She recommended political parties, particularly those claiming to be progressive parties, to play their part and build a system of cohesion and equity.

HRCP Sindh Chapter Vice President Qazi Khizar talked further on the articles in the constitution of Pakistan on freedom and rights and explained the context behind this. He held that Pakistan gained independence at a time when UN was busy developing the first legal document around human rights. As United Nation Charter of Human Rights was developed, Pakistan had the opportunity to just copy paste its articles in our constitution, but we unfortunately had other priorities. Khizar also shared data of access to educational facilities in Pakistan. According to him, there is over 12 crore youth in Pakistan, a majority of which never visits a school. For those lucky few who receives primary education, the infrastructural facilities are pitiable. Over 7000 schools are without a shelter where children sit in open air with just one blackboard. Over 12000 schools are single-room schools where one teacher is expected to magically teach over five classes in one space. Talking about Karachi, he shared that while the situation in Sindh is relatively better in terms of legislation as progressive laws gets passed through the provincial assembly but when it comes to practical realities, Karachi is not better than any other city of the country, even worse. In the entire city, there are just 1500 parks. He held that we cannot blame students for radicalization because we have failed as a nation in providing them education and recreational facilities.

Prof. Dr. Sikandar Mehdi, a senior educationist, and former Chairperson of Department of International Relations in University of Karachi, shifted the blame from youth to the society. He declared the Pakistani society as dead, for it has lost its sense of identity and empathy, and this generation is the product of this dead society. “I call them “born slaves,” said Dr Mehdi. We cannot expect our youth to bring a revolutionary change while they are chained with the norms and social binaries created by us. He shed light on the institutionalization of slavery system in education where HEC sets certain rules and boundaries for universities and deprive them of open environment and independent policymaking. He held that the social failures we are witnessing at present is a failure of intellectuals who could not innovate powerful ideas and develop discourse to challenge the ones in power.

Asad Iqbal Butt, the Co-Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, talked about the different divides in the society ranging from socioeconomic division, the ethnic and cultural division, the faith-based division, and others. He held that the foundation of the identity crisis in our youth is these divisions. With no civic education and no focus on giving a constitutional identity to youth, we are creating a confused generation. He agreed with other discussants that there are no facilities for our youth to engage in positive activities and our consciousness has died already. Hence, we cannot question our youth for their behavior. He highlighted the state policy of outsourcing violence and identity formulation to non-state actors while education is being used as a tool to inculcate a typical mindset.

On the question of missing persons issues in Pakistan whereby several young political activists have been abducted, Asad Iqbal, held that he cannot quote an exact figure because most families of the abductees do not report the matter to law enforcement agencies or HRCP, fearing that it might endanger the life of their son or daughter. The law enforcement forces also misguide them at times and prohibit them from filing a case, claiming that they will soon recover the missing person. When they finally file case in the court, a few months have already passed that weaken their position in the case. He held that the missing person issue is violation of three constitutional provisions namely the inviolability of the privacy of home, safeguard to arrest and detention, and right to fair trial. He mentioned that the majority of cases reported to the Inquiry Commission on Forced Disappearance are from Balochistan and most of them are young students. He also mentioned the constant delays in ratification of the amendment pertaining to enforced disappearances.

Sohail Sangi, senior journalist and human right activist presented the concluding remarks. He clarified that Pakistan was not founded for Islam but for Muslims of the subcontinent. He also quoted Pakistan Resolution presented in the Sindh Assembly which demanded that Muslims are entitled to “have independent national states of their own” and held that the plural term “states” in the resolution legalize any national movements for independence. He held that state is directly responsible for the issues highlighted during the consultation for it is involved in persecution of individual rights. He highlighted the shift in Pakistani politics from left to right, owing to state policy of making alliances with right-wing parties to meet their domestic and foreign policy agenda. “In Sindh, I have witnessed a shift in our discourse and behaviors with progressive thinking and liberal ideas losing their grip in the society,” said Sohail Sangi. He also criticized the constant effort by state to centralize authority. He talked about students unions and shared his own experience of being a student activist. Since the students union is selected through elections, the student leadership needs to win support from a diverse body of students and must be someone accepted to most. This automatically promotes inclusion and tolerance in the student leadership. Hence, he urged the state to revive student unions in the campuses to build an inclusive environment. In the end, he rebutted the view of dead consciousness of our society and held that we are a living nation and it is just the constant propaganda by the state that has made us lose hope and see ourself as dead.