Posts Tagged ‘Pakistan’

Knowledge and Power

October 18, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Everyone interested in education knows Macaulay and his Minute on Education, the basis of the English Education Act of 1835, that determined to give the native population of India “a knowledge of English literature and science through the medium of the English language” because no one “could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

Virtually no one knows the views of the philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill who, for almost half his life, was associated with the East India Company. In 1836, he submitted a report titled Recent Changes in Native Education, which was approved by the Company’s Court of Directors but dismissed by the President of the Board of Control. His comments, locked away for more than 100 years, expressed his belief that it was impossible “to expect that the main portion of the mental cultivation of a people can ever take place through the medium of a foreign language”?

All the issues that engage us at this moment are there in this debate from almost 200 years ago — the desideratum of scientific knowledge, the non-availability of content in local languages, the best medium of instruction, and the process of mental cultivation.

Reading history is so humbling. Everything being said today can be found in the columns of the newspapers of those days, The Tribune and The Civil and Military Gazette from Lahore among them, debating heatedly the pros and cons of the Anglicist and the Orientalist positions.

Reading history is also so very sobering. Then, as now, when all is said and done, when all the words and wisdom have been exhausted, it is power that carries the day. What is decided on high is impervious to reason, argument, or the well-being of the recipients and driven solely by the needs of the ruling class. 

There are many fascinating dimensions to this bit of history. Compare Macaulay and Mill to begin with. Were it not for the Minute, Macaulay would be a footnote to history. Mill, on the other hand, was the most influential English philosopher of the nineteenth century whose On Liberty is still considered a seminal text today. But the ridiculous pronouncements of the former trumped the commonsense observation of the latter just as the footnotes of today override experts of the stature of Dr. Tariq Rehman.

Why commonsense? Because it takes half a minute of honest reflection to recognize its truth. Imagine a five-year old child from a village trying to understand addition in her own language or in English. Which alternative would she find easier? Imagine her narrating the day’s events in either language. In which would she be able to express herself with greater ease, fluency, and creativity?

The answers are obvious. Why then would we want the child to learn in English rather than in her own language? Is it because content is not available in her language? But what content does a five-year old child need to learn to add? Give her a pile of stones, a bunch of marbles, a few apples and she would do a lot better than reading out of a book. What content does she need to tell a story or talk about a butterfly or a frog or about the weather and when it would be time to milk the cow? And why one milks the cow in the first place and what happens to the milk after it is collected? Making five-year olds learn out of books is a poor and unimaginative choice.

What is given up when a child is taught in a language not her own? “Mental cultivation” as Mill had mentioned nearly 200 years ago. Instead of learning about things and ideas, the child is left struggling with an alien language, fearful of making mistakes, preferring silence to being laughed at, apprehensive of being tested on things that are not fully understood. This is the beginning of the road to memorization, to reproduction without understanding, to acquiescence instead of enquiry.

If all of the above is so obvious, why is it that parents want their children educated in English, the argument always cited, then and now, in support of English as the language of instruction? In preparing the Minute, Macaulay had said that “English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit (sic) or Arabic,” and that “the natives are desirous to be taught English.” 

The simple answer is easily deduced by a student of the history of education in colonial India: “By making English a necessary skill to gain access to employment in the higher levels of the Indian administration, an English education became something to which all Indians strove.”

The answer to the puzzle is obvious and lies buried in the distinction between the two functions of education — that of mental cultivation or learning and that of a passport to employment. Parents, especially those who are poor and without old-age security, invest in their children in the hope that the latter find good jobs in the market. To that end, they are willing to sacrifice mental cultivation especially when no educationist has made them aware of how high the cost is of the sacrifice.

The English had an obvious vested interest in creating a class of people who, English in all but name, would prove to be “loyal servants of the colonial regime.” But no such interest is at play in a sovereign nation where power is supposed to reside in the people. Why then do we retain English as the passport to good employment requiring such a huge sacrifice in mental cultivation of which all serious educationists have long been aware since the time of Mill? 

This is the real puzzle that requires an answer. Why don’t we just do away with the requirement of such a colonial legacy. China does not require it; Turkey does not require it; and they are considered successful countries doing far better than us. For all our English-speaking geniuses we can’t even collect our own garbage for which we need assistance from the non-English speaking Chinese and Turks.

So why do we continue to require English as the passport for decent jobs? Is it because colonialism has never really left our land? Is it because our neo-colonial masters wish to cripple the mental abilities of the people to keep them loyal, docile, and uncompetitive? Is it because power is afraid of knowledge? Meanwhile, just as in colonial times, there are Chief’s Colleges, quite distinct from the intellectually impoverished institutions for the natives, to reproduce and perpetuate the status quo. 

Surely, it should not be so in an Islamic country aspiring to the Riasat of Medina.

Quotes are from Patriots and Practical Men: British Educational Policy and the Responses of Colonial Subjects in India, 1880-1890 by David Thomas Boven, Ph.D. Dissertation, Loyola University, Chicago, 2017.

This opinion was published in The  News on October 16, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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A Radical Road to Better Governance

October 13, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Consider the state of Pakistan today. There is a crisis when it doesn’t rain. There is a crisis when it does rain. If it is not the season of drought it is the season of flood. In each, foreigners are beseeched to dole us out.

In seventy years citizens have not been provided with clean water, with decent education, with basic health, with adequate transport. Half the population is illiterate. Half the children are stunted. Half the young are jobless.

Five thousand years ago, Mohenjodaro functioned better than our cities. The sight of Karachi drowning was a disgrace. Parts of Lahore were no better. Is building new cities an acceptable response? If the old ones cannot be held together why would new ones be run better? Especially when every new cohort of managers, on average, is worse trained than the one before. 

People might invent excuses but this state of affairs is the cumulative result of atrocious governance. The Supreme Court of the country has labeled one of its governments a mafia and this charge has been bruited all over the world to leave no doubt of the intentions and actions of many of the country’s previous governments. It would be hard to find a project, big or small, untainted by a scam. Even Zakat and BISP funds have been fiddled with which should leave no doubt of the depths that have been reached.  

In situations like this international organizations recommend a regimen of Good Governance. They pretend, for reasons that suit their business, that a leopard will change its spots while they continue to lend it food to eat. This is no different from believing that if the aristocrats of France had been pampered and advised on good governance they would have given the peasants bread instead of cake. The peasants knew better.

Given that the leopards will not change their spots, what are the options for better governance? We live in the age of representative governance and there is no way we can go back to monarchy even if we can dig up a successor to Akbar the Great from under some rock. Dictatorship is not an alternative either given the immense damage that has been inflicted on Pakistan, including its breakup, under its dictators. In any case, there is no reason for citizens to yield their sovereign rights and become subjects again.

So, what do citizens need to fight for to get better governance within the framework of representative rule? The choice now is as stark as it can get. They can, as Arundhati Roy put it for India, “keep voting for the people who are leading us into penury and war, tearing us apart limb from limb,” before adding sarcastically “At least they are building us a grand temple. And that’s not nothing.” Ours will give us a new city, a flaming BRT, and the highest, longest cable car in the world that will attract millions of tourists.

They could continue to vote for the spotted leopards or they could consider fighting for something that would really deliver the promise of representative rule — transferring power into their own hands from those of predatory elites who rotate it among themselves while promising change. Once again, one has to turn to the French to see through that facade: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

It is time for citizens to make their voices heard, to articulate how they wish to be governed, to demand what they want from their governments, to take government into their own hands. The time for lying back, allowing any misfit to take over, and hoping for the best should be over.

I am an advocate of sortition — the choosing of governors for fixed terms by random ballot — a practice with a heritage going back to Rome. It is an extreme measure but it is time for extreme measures. Nothing can be worse than what we have and the hope for a miracle has been dashed too often to remain credible. God will not help those who do not help themselves.

We need to put the responsibility for governance into the hands of a set of ordinary citizens who are representative of the population. Who know what it means to drink polluted water, to be miseducated, to be denied health care, to be unable to cross a signal-free corridor without walking a mile, to be offered a job as a janitor after graduating from a diploma mill. Let them define the priorities and engage experts if they feel the need for them.

And they might be able to get there without a French Revolution if they can force the aristocrats to accept an amnesty, something the latter are very fond of when they give it to each other. Let the aristocrats take whatever they want and leave for their homes abroad. This country is rich enough to rebuild itself from scratch. Its real capital are the people whose output has been appropriated all these years. Let them work for themselves for a change. 

Once we truly have a government of the people, for the people, by the people, we can evaluate different choices to move forward. For example, given the disastrous condition of our cities, we could lease a few of them for twenty-five years to those who have shown how to manage big cities well. The Japanese run Tokyo, a metropolis of 26 million people, like clockwork; let us request them to take charge of Karachi. The South Koreans manage Seoul equally well; Lahore could go to them. The French have done fine with Paris; they could do the same for Faisalabad. An so on. As it is, we cannot even collect urban waste without the assistance of foreign firms. Why not let them deal with the entire mess.

This is not as outlandish as it might seem. The economist Paul Romer, a Nobel Laureate, has proposed the concept of a charter city managed by a guarantor administering it under mutually agreed terms and compensated from the revenues generated by the city. There is thus an in-built incentive to increase city revenues by making it more peaceful, livable, efficient, and productive.

There is also a real-life example of using competition among different guarantors to ensure high levels of performance. It was Jawaharlal Nehru’s strokes of genius, very soon after 1947, to set up a string of IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) each run by a different technologically advanced country. The success was beyond expectations. The IITs ranked with the best in the world and their graduates put India on the technology map both in industry and in academia.

This path to the future is bold, daring, and perhaps outlandish. But with our cities sinking and our lives crumbling, we have touched rock bottom. The choice now is very stark. It is between going under or having any kind of future at all. It is hardly a choice. 

This opinion appeared in The News on Sunday on October 11, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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SNC and Language of Instruction

October 11, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

Almost every account of colonialism describes how the colonists planned to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. There was one system of education for those who were to rule and their abettors and quite another for those who were to be ruled. 

This narrative, undisputed in the colonies, is not extended to the postcolonial era where the aim of native elites remains unchanged — to use education as a means of stabilizing and strengthening their rule. In Pakistan, the grossly inept, iniquitous, and corrupt monopoly on power can only be sustained on the back of an unquestioning, dumbed-down population. Hence there is one curriculum for the masses while the ruling class is reproduced by schools outside its ambit.

This starkly obvious reality is muddled by airdropping several myths into the discourse none of which can bear the weight of evidence. The first pertains to the wonders that would result from packing even more religious content in the school curriculum. It cleverly manipulates societal values while ignoring evidence that religious education is not correlated at all with any indicator of development and not even with the value of goodness itself. The outcome of the Zia experiment should be sufficient to dispel the myth. 

The second myth is that a single national curriculum (SNC) would yield an equal, stable, and peaceful society. There is no example in history of a mere school curriculum yielding such lofty dividends. As it is, the lack of any serious commitment to the goal of equality is evident at the outset by the retention of schools that can bypass the SNC. Add to that the fact that instability in the country is almost entirely the outcome of conflicts between elites educated in the same schools under the same curriculum. That should be enough to expose the emptiness of the claim. 

While the aim of the SNC — dumbing down the population the better to perpetuate the rule of Brown Englishmen — cannot be camouflaged from any serious analyst, there are among the critics some who believe that teaching everyone in English, even under a SNC, can level the playing field and enable the masses to compete with the elite. Their efforts are thus diverted into a blind alley giving the SNC a free pass. Once again, there is no evidence from history of such an outcome from everyone learning in the same language. The USA is the most striking example of the fallacy of such a belief.

On the other hand, so much evidence has accumulated over decades that the languages spoken at home are the best for a child’s early education that one must wonder what is going on in the minds of the proponents of English as the language of instruction. On what basis can they argue for the proposition in the face so much evidence, both from controlled research studies and from direct experience of countries teaching in their own languages? 

All I can think of is that this is a manifestation of a perverse contrariness — because the elite is having its children taught in English, why should the masses be deprived of that privilege? This ignores completely the welfare of the child. The elite is the elite not because it can speak English but because it was either born or has bought its way into privilege. Even a cursory probing of Pakistan’s ruling class would reveal that speaking English has no correlation with superior wisdom. The proponents of English are prepared to sacrifice the intelligence of their children to satisfy a strange sense of envy. This ‘English Revolution’ — snatching English from the aristocracy — would be our non-violent equivalent of the French Revolution. I wonder what Gandhi would have to say of this approach to gaining equality. 

The other explanation relies on Khaled Ahmed’s distinction between Urdu as the language of ‘emotive walwala’ and English of ‘reasoned discourse’ on the basis of which he favours the latter as the language of instruction. Going by this hard-to-accept hypothesis, I can only conclude that the proponents of English, although educated in the language, continue, naoozubillah, to think in the vernacular. The solution might then be to aim for native fluency in English so that everyone can actually think in it and has no need at all to be held back by the malevolent burden of native languages. What a pleasure it would be to see our ministers transforming into little Shakespeares.

The evidence on what is the best language of instruction for a child is overwhelming and considered settled. Any critical engagement that does not feel compelled to take sides would arrive at that conclusion. What remains of interest is to figure out why there still are people who are not swayed by the evidence and think it is a subject on which they can start from first principles with their prejudices as the point of departure. 

This opinion appeared in The News on October 9, 2020 is is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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A Better Way to Teach

October 2, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

The Single National Curriculum has some very laudable objectives including raising good human beings and promoting inclusiveness and tolerance. It has decided on a methodology to achieve these aims. For the sake of discussion, I am suggesting an alternative to the proposed methodology.

The chosen methodology leans heavily on religion as the vehicle for raising good human beings. Muslim children will be introduced to Ahadees, Ayaat and Quaranic injunctions in support of habits that include speaking the truth, respecting one’s elders, being kind to fellow humans and animals; and of beliefs that all citizens have an equal standing in society regardless of religion, ethnicity, language, gender and colour.

Muslim children will be learning these good things by memorizing the relevant Ahadees, Ayaat, and Quranic injunctions and will be tested on them. While Muslim children are attending the class on their religion, all non-Muslim students would leave and go to segregated classes, separate for all religions, where they would be taught exactly the same good habits drawing from their own scriptures.

Religion can be a very good vehicle for teaching these basic lessons but dividing children, who might otherwise be very close friends, into separate groups every day may not be the best of ideas. Young children would inevitably ask why some of them have to leave the class and would have to be told that it is so because they are different. The consciousness of difference would be ingrained from day one. The aim of inclusiveness would be compromised and that of tolerance would be strained.

Could exactly the same goals be achieved without sacrificing inclusion and incurring the negative psychic costs of physical separation? How about experimenting with the following alternative: All children stay together and learn together. This is possible because all controversial material has already been sensibly removed from the SNC. Thus, if the lesson is about speaking the truth, the relevant messages from all religions can be listed on the blackboard. Similarly for lessons pertaining to respecting elders, treating others with kindness, etc.

(This would also resolve the awkward problem of not knowing where to send the child who subscribes to the category now allowed on the Pakistani passport — ‘no specific religion.’ Imagine the cruel fate of a child ‘outed’ in such a manner.)

It is hard to imagine that any religion would have messages contrary to the essential traits of good conduct. It would be a huge gain if by going though such a collective exercise children learn in a convivial environment about other religions and also that all religions emphasise similar good things — they are different roads leading to the same destination.

These collective exercises could be extended by exploring what the places of worship of different religions look like, on what date the new year begins for different religions and how it is celebrated, what are the different rituals at birth, marriage, death, etc. At a certain stage students can be taken on visits to different places of worship and encouraged to engage with the caretakers to satisfy their queries.

Such an approach would encourage curiosity, prompt students to ask questions, and promote mutual understanding in a positive and not an artificial manner. It would also obviate the need to memorize anything. Anyone who has been close to education knows that memorization, especially of material that cannot be imagined, is detrimental in every way. It stunts the intellectual development of children. In particular, memorizing religious injunctions cannot make people good. Had that been the case our clerics would have been the paragons of virtue but they are just as good or bad as anyone else. 

Good habits pertain not just to conduct. Good mental habits are equally important and they cannot be inculcated by memorization. In fact excessive memorization of normative content dulls mental capacity by taking away agency and replacing behaviour based on intelligence by that based on fear of punishment. And why persist with a failed approach when Pakistan’s position on the Corruption Index shows that the fear of God has ceased to deliver good behaviour with the most blatant violators being its leaders who have performed endless umrahs.

Educationists who have kept up with the subject also know that children learn in very different ways — some respond more to aural stimuli, others to visual cues, and yet others to tactile inputs. Some love to put things together, others to take them apart. If allowed the freedom, children gravitate to what excites them most. Instead of regimenting all children into a standard format and boring most of them to tears, the first few years are the time when a teacher observes and groups children by how they learn best. Once their learning ability is unleashed they progress much faster than children raised in the equivalent of chicken coops or cattle stalls.

Let us have faith in our children and give them a chance to develop into intelligent human beings leading fulfilling lives. Yes, they will ask questions but what kind of an adult is afraid of questions children might ask?

This opinion was published in The News on October 1, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS. 

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The Political Economy of the SNC

September 6, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

As an educationist, I am appalled by the Single National Curriculum. As a Pakistani, I am disappointed but not surprised. I have articulated my reservations in a series of opinions. They have to do with the process (non-transparent and non-participatory, excluding the principal stakeholders) and the pedagogy (old-fashioned, privileging memorization over thinking). But it is equally important to explore why the SNC has taken this particular form.

I was discussing the SNC with a successful, well-educated executive and asked if she would put a child she was responsible for, say a grandchild, into a school teaching from the SNC. Absolutely not, she said without a moment’s hesitation and with a shudder of dread. I asked if, in her opinion, any senior bureaucrat in grades 20, 21, or 22 would enrol a grandchild in a SNC school. Absolutely not, she said again. She was less sure of politicians — they are such a motley bunch, she said.

This does need a survey to nail down comprehensively but I am reasonably confident how the results would come out. Successful people want their children to be successful and they know the education that can deliver achievement privileges thinking and not memorization. It is no surprise that the successful people have made sure the main plank of the SNC — equality across schools — has been consigned to the dust bin. They can now breathe easy that the O/A Levels and the IB schools shall remain undisturbed.

I don’t have any quarrel with such an attitude that is an outright rejection of the SNC. But the question that follows is why the successful don’t agitate for a similar quality of education for all children, not just their own? After all, every child is a citizen with equal rights entitled to the same set of opportunities guaranteed by the state.

It is not a given that education for poor children has to be poor in quality. Retired Chief Justice Jawwad Khawaja and his wife run the Harsukh school for children from villages around their home. They have enough confidence in the Harsukh curriculum to enroll their own grandchildren in the same school.

The only plausible explanation for the SNC is that Pakistan is not one nation but two — that of the rulers and of the ruled. The rulers need to learn how to think in order to lead while the ruled need to memorize the lessons of obedience in order to be good and contented followers. The more so, for the rulers are not rulers because of any exceptional talent or achievement on a level playing field but because they have inherited the mantle in a milieu in which all competition is effectively crippled.

A more frightening thought is the following: Forty percent of children below five in Pakistan are stunted, among the highest percentages in the world. This fact has been known to the state for decades and nothing has been done to redress it. Is the SNC then designed for children who are already doomed and cannot handle anything that requires creative thinking?

Or, is the SNC designed for the poor to further cripple the remaining competition and to mould them into pliant followers? This might also explain why people who come up with these kinds of educational programmes never ever consult those for whom the programmes are intended. They decide for them, which, in reality, means that the designs are intended to maximize the privilege of those with the power to decide.

This denial of participation is particularly striking in a country that professes Islam, a religion with such a heavy emphasis on consultation especially of those for whom something is being decided. How does one explain such an un-Islamic practice in an Islamic country except by questioning the sincerity of the Islamic pretensions of its rulers?

My suggestion to the Minister for Education is to live up to the Islamic ideal and engage in a broad-based consultation with citizens. The Minister might want to assemble the leading members of his team and engage in an in-depth debate with a set of leading experts like Pervez Hoodbhoy, AH Nayyar, Tariq Rahman, Rubina Saigol, and Zubeida Mustafa. The debates would be held in all the major district towns of the country spread over a period of twelve months with the audience comprised predominantly of parents whose children are to be the beneficiaries of the SNC. 

I wouldn’t presume to know where the parents would come out at the end but, at the very least, their silence should not be passed off as approval. It is patently unjust to decide something so momentous for others without a sincere consultation. Avoiding such a debate and rushing ahead with a show of force is a sign of weakness that undermines both the democratic and the Islamic credentials of the government.

In closing, an apt couplet from Ghalib (not all memorization is bad but no one imposed it on me before I could understand what it meant):

kyuuN nah chiikhuuN kih yaad karte haiN / miri aavaaz gar nahiiN aati
why would I not scream because I am remembered / only when my voice is not heard

This opinion appeared in The News on September 4, 2020 and is cross-posted here with the author’s permission. The writer is a former dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at LUMS.

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Rules and Discretion

January 17, 2020

By Anjum Altaf

What should be the allowance for discretion in the application of rules? This ought to be a contextual determination and one can use recent events in the worlds of cricket and politics to argue where the line ought to be drawn in Pakistan.

Healthy institutions rely on discretion to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities when changing rules would consume valuable time causing opportunities to be lost. But there is a huge caveat in this simple formulation: that discretion is to be employed for a higher purpose and not self-interest. The more upright the office-bearers of an institution, the more the availability of discretion can lead to gains in efficiency and achievement.

But what happens when office-bearers cannot be trusted to place institutional gains over self-interest? The damage from the abuse of discretion can result in losses far outweighing any possible gains from their legitimate use. In such situations, it would be best to stick to inflexible rules and sacrifice the possible gains that remain purely hypothetical in the absence of the integrity that is a perquisite for their beneficial use.

Let us turn now to Pakistan where it seems that every man has become a blind adherent of Adam Smith believing that it is the self-interest of the baker and the butcher that advances the welfare of society. This may be fine as far as the private sphere is concerned although in actuality it is problematic even there — it presumes, for example, the butcher acting within some ethical norms and not peddling donkey meat to maximize his gain. But the presumption does not hold at all when an individual is made responsible for a public trust. In such a situation, the individual is required to act in the public interest and not his own.

In Pakistan we have allegedly reached the point where every man is a butcher who is in it for himself. No doubt there are exceptions but they have withdrawn from the jungle in which only the most dishonest can survive or advance. Even if this allegation is not strictly true, as long as it is the general perception the ill-effects are bound to show up one way or another. And it is hard to deny that the general perception is precisely this, embedded into our psyches by our own leaders. As a reality check, there is one simple challenge: identify one major project in Pakistan since its creation that has not been scarred by a scam. And, in case there is one to be found, do furnish an assurance that a dormant scam would not be discovered a quarter of a century from now.

One should note that there is no lack of sanctimonious messiahs who decry the abuse of discretion when wandering in the wilderness. But just watch their actions when the very same people are entrusted with positions of trust. Therefore, the bottom line of this argument is that, no matter what anyone might say, we have to minimize discretion in Pakistan at least for this phase of our existence. We may forego the advantages of being fleet-footed but we would also not suffer the damage from being incompetent or dishonest. On balance, we would be better off sticking to some set of rules without discretion.

Take cricket, for example, where the team selected recently to tour Australia was deemed the worst ever to have visited that country. There is very little doubt that personal likes and dislikes have plagued Pakistani sports for decades and that the discretion allowed to selectors has resulted in gross injustice and heartbreak for many excellent performers in domestic tournaments. One way out of this unsavoury morass would be eliminate the discretion and select teams based exclusively on performance in first class matches. The two to three top performing players would qualify automatically for each position and be rotated in the national teams. A detailed set of rules could be specified to operationalize this process. There is no doubt that one would lose out on fast-tracking an occasional superstar like Wasim Akram but in general the team would be better off without the sidelining of scores of excellent players like Fawad Alam.

The crisis in politics from the arbitrary use of discretion is even more dangerous for the country. This is well illustrated by the recent controversy over the extension of the Chief of Army Staff’s tenure. This situation is particularly egregious because discretion has been employed in the absence of any provision to grant a legitimate extension. The judiciary has highlighted the abnormality and rightly recommended that proper rules be put in place. But, once again, given the track record of office-holders, there should be no room for allowance of any discretion in such sensitive matters. The most senior officer should automatically be appointed COAS (could anyone be actually worse than Zia ul Haq?) and there should be no provision for extension of tenure (there is no one really that indispensable).

The poor outcomes that result from the abuse of discretion are not the only damaging consequences that ensue from dishonest practice. Much more destructive is the societal ethos that takes root when discretion is routinely abused for patronage and individual gain on the basis of personal preferences. It engenders an environment in which people abandon the pursuit of merit and gravitate towards either bootlicking and grovelling for favours or the outright purchase of offices and positions. And once such a set of individuals entrench themselves in positions of advantage the malady just reinforces itself over time. No honest or meritorious person can be allowed to break into the system for fear of overturning the applecart.

Pakistan is very deep in a crisis of governance because of the blatant and unchallenged misuse of discretion over decades. The practice has been highlighted fortuitously by the recent egregious consequences in cricket and politics. We ought to take advantage of these exposures to begin to stress the primacy of rules and to eliminate room for the abuse of discretion.

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 5, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer was the dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS.

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Language and Society

May 21, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

There is something intriguing about the use of script and language in Pakistan that is crying out for an explanation. My observations of the phenomenon began in the metropolis before being extended to small cities and rural towns in the Punjab but the story is more interestingly narrated in the reverse order.

Next time you are in a rural town in the Punjab raise your eye-level from the cell phone to the shopfront and you shall see virtually all the shop signs in the Urdu script. This is to be expected as very few people in such places can read English. But look again — almost every sign is a transliteration into Urdu script of an English name. The most humble khoka is a ‘Cold Corner’ or a ‘Jus Shop’ written, of course, as pronounced in Urdu — kaarner for corner and shaap for shop. Once attuned to the pattern, you will see Bismillah Burger Point, Iqbal’s Beauty and Hair Salon, Butt Tailoring Services, Well Dress Garments, The Knowledge School System for Boys and Girls, etc., etc. Exceptions would be rare.

Shop Sign

The underlying phenomenon is the same in the small city except that names would now be written in both scripts reflecting the presence of a sizeable population familiar with English. Once you get to the posh areas of the metropolis, however, the Urdu script disappears altogether mirroring the clientele that communicates almost entirely in English. It is like being in California surrounded by Coffee Planet, Gloria Jeans and the like. Even Bundu Khan announces itself in English. The only unusual aspect in such environs, especially if you look at the billboards, is a coy use of Urdu written in the English script — slogans like ‘jeet ke jeeo,’ etc.

So, what’s going on? It needs an expert like Dr. Tariq Rahman to fully interpret the phenomenon but to a layperson like me it seems that the vast majority associates English so obviously with superior quality that even a lowly khoka senses the advantage of labelling itself a ‘kold kaarner.’ This is even more the case for services like education or training of any kind — varieties of ‘shaart’ courses are advertised all over in the Urdu script. Only the thin sliver of the population that has arrived because of its facility with English can afford the reverse snobbery of using Urdu words in its messaging.

This inference is strengthened by the observation that such linguistic practices are confined to goods and services for sale. Civic and moral injunctions continue to be written in Urdu as spoken in the language rather than rendered into more impressive English versions. There is no attempt to raise the acceptability of messages like ‘yahan peshaab karna sakht manaa hai’ or ‘namaaz qaim karo.’

(It is quite possible that the phenomenon I have highlighted is peculiar to the rural towns and small cities of Punjab and may differ in comparable localities in other provinces. I have asked a colleague to extend the scope of the observations and produce what could be a very interesting photo essay. Meanwhile, I request readers to email me any amusing signs they come across in their travels.)

Once alerted to these linguistic anomalies, you will begin to notice other things as well. When I say ‘shukria’ or ‘meherbani’ after getting the receipt at a toll booth the reply received more often than not is ‘welcome.’ I have often wondered how the power inequality in Pakistan stemming from differential access to English can be overcome. Many educational policies are framed on the premise that the mastery of the many can be raised to the level of the privileged few by making English the universal medium of instruction right from the very beginning. Alas, this is impossible given the quality of English language teaching in public and most private schools for the majority. (Pedagogical Alert: The policy is also ruinous for the cognitive development of young children — ask any expert in early childhood education.)

The realization of this impossibility may well be the reason for the radical choice of software used to provide road directions and to manage queues in offices. Both the language and the accent is American English in an environment where the majority of users are unfamiliar with either. I have become used to Multen, Mo-zang and Kasher (Kasur) roads but was completely floored recently by the instruction to turn left on Gallamandi road. For a moment I fantasized being in Italy till the illusion was shattered by a sign in Urdu pointing to Ghalla Mandi.

Our linguistic confusions are compounded by the fact that Urdu, unlike say Hindi, is very carefree with its pronunciation and use of diacritical signs. At a toll plaza in a Daewoo bus, one is always inundated with phone calls from passengers informing families that they have arrived at the ‘tool’ plaza. In this vein, many English signs written in Urdu can be a source of great amusement. I always have a silent laugh at a ‘Police Check Post’ thinking of their cheeks, silent because laughing at the police and the like is most likely a punishable offence in Pakistan.

A striking occurrence of this nature was witnessed at the time of the last elections when, looking up, I spotted an electoral symbol in Urdu written simply as BLA (Bay-Laam-Alif). For a while, one couldn’t figure out if it was really bla (as in the Shah of Blah) or balaa or bilaa or bulaa or balla or billa or bulla. Reverting as one does to one’s own language in dire circumstances, I could only worry about the cost of such sloppiness and mutter, again under my breath, jal tu jalaal tu, aaii balaa ko taal tu.

Many things are changing in Pakistan as is to be expected. Is it possible that linguistic changes of the type highlighted above are signalling a certain direction for the evolution of our society or are they just harmless epiphenomena that can be enjoyed without wasting a worry?    

This opinion was published in Dawn on May 19, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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Pakistan, Sir Ian Botham, Mothers-in-Law, and Dried Milk

May 4, 2019

By Ibn-e Eusuf

The political scenario in Pakistan is so surreal that only a seemingly far-fetched analogy can highlight its unreal realities.

Imagine the MI5 in the UK, fed up with the incompetence of Conservative and Labour politicians over Brexit, conspiring to install Sir Ian Botham as Prime Minister and selling him as the Great White Hope because he had been a hugely successful and popular cricketer. Now imagine a lady, from deep in the Yorkshire moors, emerging to declare Sir Ian Botham not only great and popular but specially sent by the Almighty to save the British nation from itself and lead it from hell to heaven. Sir Ian Botham weds the miracle-bearing lady, the union accompanied by a huge resurgence of otherwise agnostic people praying in churches for the health of the couple and the nation. A delighted Archbishop of Canterbury declares it the Event of the Millennium and Sir Ian Botham is both anointed a Saint and appointed Chancellor of Durham University to signal the blessed marriage of the sacred and the secular.

What would we in Pakistan make of above scenario?

Before we could make anything of it, in the twinkling of a nystagmus eye, a coalition of wily old foxes, sharpshooters, and eternal optimists would immediately spot the silver lining recalling that Ian Botham (then unknighted) had, during England’s 1983-84 tour of Pakistan, declared the host country “a place where every mother-in-law should be sent for a month.” Anticipating the speedy issuance of one-way tickets to Pakistan for all British mothers-in-law, since Great Men not only never forget but get more messianic with age, the coalition rubber-stamped post-haste the revolutionary visa-on-arrival scheme to signal their ever readiness for manna, or in this case mamma, from heaven which would yield an immense boost to our tourism industry flailing because of all the vituperative and fake news spread by our enemies regarding various ailing but virtuous Maulanas and their doings. Visionary images of dried milk flowing in Pakistan, accompanied, of course, by the obligatory honey given that it is an Islamic country, were plastered all over the crumbling walls and the drooling mealy mouths of TV anchors while an immensely grateful populace, including public servants on duty, redoubled their attendance at mosques to thank the Almighty for sending such wonderful sporting heroes with equally wonderful albeit mysterious spouses along with their divinely mandated handlers to our wretched world to entertain as well as to dispense justice and fair play sometimes from the tops of very mundane containers.

Allah be praised — truly no one can ever know His unknowable ways.

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The Warfare State

March 6, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan should be a welfare state. With millions of people straddling the poverty line, there is no other way forward. Those who believe the market will offer a solution are driven by ideology, blind fundamentalists in the same category as religious fundamentalists.

Only the state can cater for such destitution and the fact that a state has no interest or ability to do so does not mean that the task should be turned over to the market. The plain truth is that the market cares nothing for those without the ability to pay and there are many more in that category than should be acceptable. Not just that, without a strong state the market doesn’t trickle wealth down it siphons it up. The only viable alternative is to force the state to deliver on its responsibility and in the long run the only peaceful weapon citizens have to achieve that is the power of their votes. Let not this power be exhausted by either subverting it or ignoring its claims. The demand for bread can be fobbed off only so long with the promise of cakes.

We should pay heed to the fact that instead of moving towards a welfare state we are consciously turning into even more of a warfare state than we already happen to be. It is in this context that one should consider the most astounding decision of the cabinet delivered without any sense of irony by the Minister for Information at the time of the recent mini-budget: “The country’s defence budget is already low as compared to other states in the region, and therefore it should be increased.”

Hello, Mr. Minister. The country’s budget for everything else — health, education, public transport, environmental sanitation, you name it — is also already low as compared to other states in the region. So why just the privileging of defence? On the contrary, the budget for everything else is being reduced even further to make up for the increase.

The deficit is intended to be made up “through the generation of more revenue” but given that no elite has ever taxed itself voluntarily except under extreme duress, this burden of taxation is also likely to fall on the middle and lower classes through dubious withholding taxes on cell phones and the like.

In actual fact the deficit is being made up by scrounging around for a billion here and a billion there on terms that cannot be disclosed to citizens and by printing money like there is no tomorrow. All that the printed money is causing is inflation that is eroding the purchasing power of the helpless even further. I am sure the poor are ready to sacrifice for the nation but what does the interest of the nation entail? Is it always more guns at the cost of butter? And will the sacrifice ever be equitably shared or will one category continue to be evicted from tiny plots where they have lived for decades while others are allotted plots on which pets live better than the humans who feed them?

Where is the sense of irony in all this? Recall the out-of-the-box policy of some wizard in the Economic Advisory Committee who advocated a ban on imported cheese with the justification: “Does a country that has no foreign exchange afford to eat cheese?”

Hello, again, Mr. Jack-in-the-Box. Granted a country that has no foreign exchange ought not to eat imported cheese but can its leaders still afford to fly around in helicopters and ride in SUVs? Why doesn’t the cabinet set an example by getting to work on camels and setting up offices in tents instead of sprawling complexes with perpetual air-conditioning? And while they are demonstrating how people — all people — ought to be living in a country with no foreign  exchange, why don’t they turn off the hot water as well since that has now been declared a luxury in the New Pakistan?

Have we learned nothing from history? The Soviet Union collapsed ballooning its defence budget while making people wait in endless queues for the necessities of life. Countries that neglect the minimum welfare of their citizens and fight endless futile wars get hollowed out from within and ultimately implode. This insight was obvious even to a President like Reagan who was otherwise not a very bright man. All the US had to do was to engage the Soviet Union in an endless arms race and the latter ran out of space.

Modi is a much sharper politician and he is following the exact same strategy with Pakistan — no negotiations till the room for maneuver disappears. And we are blithely helping him along. When two countries are developing at radically different rates, every day that passes weakens the negotiating position of the laggard till the only recourse left is capitulation or the madness of mutual destruction.

Verily it is said that those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. And when they wish to destroy completely, they make them madder still.

This opinion was published in Dawn on March 3, 2019 and is reproduced here with  permission. Anjum Altaf is the author of Transgressions: Poems Inspired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz published recently by Aakar Books, Delhi.

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Miseducating Pakistan

December 14, 2018

By Anjum Altaf

Education is a big-ticket item. Clarity is needed about its relationship to economic growth and development before betting the house on it. Otherwise a lot of resources would end up being misallocated.

It is in this context that I respond to Mr. Miftah Ismail’s diagnosis and prescription presented in his opinion in this newspaper (‘Educating Pakistan,’ December 5, 2018). Mr. Ismail begins by asking why any country is richer than another and answers with the assertion that “education is probably the most important factor in determining the wealth of nations.” From this follows the prescription that the path to richness is education.

I offer some cross-country evidence using literacy rates as a proxy for education and GDP per capita as a proxy for wealth — for each country the data that follows in parentheses shows percent of adult population that is literate and GDP per capita in US dollars adjusted for purchasing power parity. Consider the pair Uzbekistan (100; $6,856) and Mongolia (98; $13,000): the latter is almost twice as wealthy at about the same level of education. Now consider Pakistan (58; $5,527) and Bangladesh (73; $3,869): the former is actually wealthier at a lower level of education. Consider Myanmar (76; $6,139) which is one-and-a-half times wealthier than Bangladesh at almost the same level of education and comparable in wealth to Pakistan despite having a considerably higher level of education. For historical evidence consider the fact that in 1700 India had 25 percent of the world’s wealth with virtually no literacy. How did that happen if wealth is the outcome of education? This share dropped to 6 percent by 2015 despite increasing education for a host of unrelated reasons that cannot be ignored in drawing conclusions about the relationship between education and wealth. It is equally important to be aware that both in 1700 and 2015 wealth in India was not widely distributed but was concentrated in very few hands.

The bottom line is that there is no simple correlation between education and wealth and it is deceptive to derive such a conclusion by looking at education levels in developed countries like Japan while ignoring the many other factors that might have been more critical like, for example, the Meiji reforms of 1868. Nor is there a simple relationship between wealth and its distribution. Leaving aside the accidents of history, many, more crucial, factors can determine a country’s development path of which the policy framework is paramount. While it is true that China invested in education, its growth dynamic was triggered by the policy changes in 1979 while earlier, despite the education, it had suffered unimaginable catastrophes during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

This last point highlights the damning inference that it is disingenuous to blame the lack of mass education for lack of development which is primarily due to misgovernance — keep in mind that all policy decisions are taken not by illiterate citizens but by the well-educated rulers. Just like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China, the policies in Pakistan to promote fundamentalism and hostility towards neighbours are solely attributable to its well-educated ruling classes. While Chinese leaders learnt from their mistakes, Pakistan’s rulers remain enmeshed in their mindless jingoism and container thought. It is naive to hope that mere education can get them out of this mess of their own creation.

The greater irony is that the kind of education being promoted by Pakistan’s elite is exacerbating and not alleviating the problems of misdevelopment. Fundamentalism and intolerance are the more obvious outcomes of an education designed not to encourage creativity but to buttress a chimerical national identity rooted in fear and arrogance. One must remain cognizant of the difference between the quantity of education and its quality.

Deep down I believe Mr. Ismail is aware that there is no straight road from education to richness because the party to which he belongs did little for education during its tenure. Go over the list of heads of educational institutions appointed during that period and it would be obvious that improving education was not the motivation. Little was done to regulate private colleges that are nothing more than diploma mills turning out graduates without any prospects of employment. And higher education remained plagued by the virus of plagiarism in which the Executive Director appointed by the government to the watchdog institution, the Higher Education Commission, was himself complicit.

Mr. Ismail has made other debatable claims in his article. For example, he has asserted that “for some reason education is not very valued by our modern culture.” This is not consonant with the back-breaking sacrifices made by poor parents to put their children through school and simultaneously pay for supplemental tuition to compensate for the low quality of the latter. This, despite the fact that returns to education are very low in Pakistan where connections matter more than knowledge or merit.

Mr. Ismail also claimed, citing Aristotle, that “if parents do their jobs and raise their children well, in one generation all of society’s problems will go away. Every citizen would be educated, decent, kind and well mannered.” How one wishes this were true. What proportion of the set of educated people in positions of authority today are decent, kind and well-mannered? The educated who routinely slap low-paid public servants, mistreat maids, and use foul language in public discourse offer sufficient contrary evidence to challenge this claim.

Good and meaningful education is a basic human right which ought to be pursued for its own sake and not for any instrumental reasons. It is essential for individuals to live fulfilling lives to which they are entitled by virtue of being born. It is a grave failure of the state to have deprived the majority of good education for so many decades. It is adding insult to injury to attempt to pass the buck for this neglect and criminal misgovernance of the ruling class onto powerless people, an allegedly apathetic culture, and parental negligence. The first step towards a better future requires the state to own its responsibility for the welter of serious problems enmeshing the country of which lack of education is only one. The problem is not that people do not value education; it is the abuse of education for patronage, profits, and political ends. This abuse needs to end before the journey to development can begin.

An edited version of this opinion appeared in The News on December 9, 2018 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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