No education, no democracy

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE event organised in Karachi on January 9 by the family of Dr Sarwar to commemorate the legacy of the students’ movement of the 1950s proved to be inspiring beyond all expectations. It was after a long time that people turned up in such large numbers to remember the past. That itself was something remarkable – people are too busy trying to cope with the present. They have no time for anything else, least of all for kal, aaj, kal (yesterday, today, tomorrow). The idea was to create a link between these three phases of our lives, as Rahat Kazmi who hosted the show put it pithily.

The real challenge of capturing and channelling the huge reserves of youthful energy released came the following day. The roundtable conference hosted by the Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences and the Friends of Dr Sarwar, which brought together about fifty intellectuals, as they were described, were asked for ideas on “What should be done?” There are no easy answers to this question and if proof were needed it came in the brainstorming that followed.

Dr Jafar Ahmad of the University of Karachi, the convenor, had circulated a well-written paper summarising the crisis Pakistan faces today. This served as a starter and two sets of opinions clearly emerged. One felt there was no way out of the morass except taking the political route. There were calls for forming a political party – a new one or merging some existing ones to revive them. Even a common platform to give a direction to their ideas would not satisfy those demanding a party of the Left. The other view, held especially by the activists engaged in community programmes, staunchly advocated work at the grassroots to organise people.

This symbolised the split that characterises our society today. Power rests with a small elite class – the privileged ones who have wealth, education, economic clout, social standing and control over the system. The huge majority lacks all of this – at least sufficiently. And worst of all there is a disconnect between the two sides. Although we claim to be a democracy now where numbers should count, it is an irony that the majority that has the numerical strength is silent and has no voice. The political minority that is supposed to speak on behalf of the masses is not interested in establishing this link. Why should it when it can enjoy all the privileges and advantages it does without burdening itself with the responsibility of acting as the spokesman of the people it is supposed to represent?

The fact is, as pointed out by 17 writers in a booklet Making Pakistan a Tenable State that was published last year, the country is ruled by the government of the elites, by the elites and for the elites. Since governments have been the representatives of the privileged class and vested interests helped by an imperial structure of governance they will never change the system. After all, it has been developed for the profit of the classes on whose behalf the rulers are in power.

In such a system will a political party that espouses a liberal political ideology of the Left be able to make its way to the centres of power in Islamabad to effect any change in our system? Our salvation lies in empowering the people of the country. Since General Musharraf’s exit from the corridors of power and the restoration of the forms of democracy, a lot of space has been created for various sections of society that are active in multifarious areas of life so long as they do not upset the status quo at the government’s level. With those at the helm too busy playing their own power games and governance in a state of paralysis, civil society has been left to fend for itself.

This is a time that provides an opportunity for the empowerment of the people. True empowerment should take the route of education that not only creates political awareness but also equips a person to take optimum advantage of economic/income generating activities.

Of course political organisation is important and must take place concurrently but this should be a long term goal. Political empowerment will inevitably follow economic and social empowerment that cannot take place without education. With the strong trend towards the privatisation of educational institutions and the decentralisation of the education system, it is relatively easy to loosen the grip of the state on schools.

The number of private schools is on the rise. Most of these institutions are not the up-scale ones and would be classified as small and medium ones that cater to the children of the lower middle and lower classes. Yet they are open to liberal and secular ideas. They can, if provided some support and direction by the liberals, produce people with the kind of education that would qualify them as empowered voters. Remember what John Strachey, the British Labour Party minister, a champion of socialist thought, said about the pre-conditions of democracy. He spoke of the importance of a large, highly literate and highly intelligent middle class which participates in public life effectively and actively.

That is missing in Pakistan. It needed an educationist who understands the true value of education to seize the opportunity provided by the event celebrating the legacy of the students movement to make a meaningful proposal. Zakia Sarwar, one of the founders of Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers (SPELT), suggested that a committee be formed to see what can be done to provide support to the schools that are striving in their own way to teach the children of Pakistan to read, write and think.

A critical mass of educated individuals devoted to a cause is essential to sustain a movement. The students who demanded lower fees and better hostel conditions in 1953 were educated and from the middle class. It needed the might of the state to put them down. A similar movement may succeed in the changed circumstances of today. But where is the educated middle class that is the essential pre-condition Strachey spoke about?