An international conference at Oxford University on May 10 looked at the possible opportunities that may arise out of the multiple crises that Pakistan currently faces. During proceedings and presentations, the 27 speakers — including those from Pakistan, the US, Germany, Canada and the UK — dilated on the security, economy, sociology and foreign relations of Pakistan. Much of the talk centred around the crisis of governance, insecurity, energy issues, ethnic and nationalistic conflicts and Pakistan’s policy discord with India, the US and its skewed policy towards Afghanistan. Ironically, even relatively optimistic speakers predicated their projections on several ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.
Convened by the Quaid-e-Azam fellow at St Anthony’s College, Oxford University, Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed, the conference drew prominent intellectuals from all places mentioned above, aiming to generate interest to re-engage Pakistan’s challenges at the intellectual, academic and policy level.
Pakistan’s disparate education system and the sociopolitical distortions it has brought about also featured prominently in the discussions, with Mosharraf Zaidi and Professor Saeed Shafqat underlining that the near abdication of quality and values’ education by the state had stymied public sector educational institutions’ progress.
The mantra of private schools being the panacea for the education sector’s ills must be dispensed with, Zaidi said, underlining the need to regularise all private schools and introducing a unified and harmonious curriculum, at least on religion, history and language.
One of the formidable challenges for Pakistan, as speakers pointed out, is the change of guards in the capitals of Pakistan’s eastern and western neighbours. They cautioned that with the possible elevation of Narendra Modi as the Indian premier and with a new president in Afghanistan, the Pakistani civilian and military leadership needed to review its existing prism on both countries and come up with a pre-emptive, bold and forward-looking policy of constructive engagement.
Based on his own research and interactions with Pakistani and Indian experts, Hannes Ebert of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) argued that a lack of boldness on the part of the Indian leadership is one of the core issues that dogs bilateral issues as the leadership wants to talk but not negotiate.
Ebert added that India-Pakistan relations have been frequently beset by shocks like the Kargil conflict 1999, Brasstacks in 1986, attacks on the Indian parliament building in December, 2001 and the Mumbai attacks of 2008.
Unfortunately, even shocks and external pressures, such as those by the US, haven’t caused any major reorientation in Pakistan’s India policy which, he said, is not likely to change in the short run. Bad news for Pakistan’s long-term interests, other speakers pointed out.
Pakistan’s lacklustre and incoherent response to terrorism, militancy and radicalisation also came under sharp focus. Chairman of the Forum for International Relations’ Development (FIRD), Toaha Qureshi, argued in favour of the UK model of counter-radicalisation which was rooted in principles of containment and engagement in which the community at large participates.
Following on the themes propounded by Zaidi and Shafqat, Qureshi also dwelled on the dire need for good education, saying that “radicalisation is to be tackled by education, dialogue and firm rehabilitation rather than military and war-like action”. This approach involves a social and religious mentoring process, involves free education, skill-based training and employment and enterprise opportunities.
Interestingly, nearly all speakers, including Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais, underscored the need for enforcing rule of law as the primary pre-requisite to take on the many crises that afflict Pakistan today. Crises can turn into opportunities only if the rule of law and a strict focus on education can move in tandem. The ruling elites have to make that conscious decision today, speakers emphasised. Quality education today, or doom tomorrow, was the unanimous message.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 14th, 2014.