Irrespective of what the doomsayers are persuading you to believe, a lot of good things are also happening in Pakistan. I A Rehman is right when he says that there is no need to lament the irreparable loss of Asma Jahangir; of course, there cannot be a another Asma, but Rahman makes us hopeful that there will be many more bold and courageous men and women who will carry the torch forward. If two recent events held in Islamabad in mid-February are any guide, you may rest assured that Pakistan is an intellectually vibrant country that will resist all attempts to keeps its people in obscurantism.
Pakistan Mother Languages Literature (PMLL) Festival at Lok Virsa and International Conference on Research and Practices in Education at Allama Iqbal Open University were both enlightening and successful. They attracted dozens of scholars and writers, with hundreds of participants who were keen to engage in lively discussions. The atmosphere at both events was conducive and enabling for open debates, where the presenters were grilled by the audiences with an enquiring spirit and pleasant overtones. The quality of discussions and the questions raised made you feel like an interlocutor in the dialogues for understanding present-day Pakistan especially focusing on languages and education.
The idea of mother languages festival was conceived in 2015 by three social activists: Fauzia Saeed, Naseer Memon and Niaz Nadeem belonging to Lok Virsa, SPO, and Indus Cultural Forum respectively. With various literary festivals already in the run, what was the rationale behind this mother languages festival? Well, according to Niaz Nadeem the other festivals were overwhelmingly English medium with only a sprinkling of some Urdu, and almost no coverage for any of the local languages or mother tongues spoken across Pakistan. There was a need to talk about languages other than English and Urdu, hence the mother languages festival.
Interestingly, this year two of the founding members of the festival i.e. Fauzia and Naseer were no more in key positions at Lok Virsa and SPO, so the Indus Cultural Forum led by Niaz Nadeem had to take up most of the burden. Luckily, Fauzia Saeed, before being removed, had already done most of the spadework on behalf of Lok Virsa, and Saleem Malik, the new CEO of SPO, showed the required zeal for this festival. This year bulk of the funding came from Open Society led by Dr Saba Gul Khatak, and Heinrich Boll Foundation.
Sadly, except the Sindh government, no other provincial government took any interest in the festival. The Sindh Department of Culture led by Sardar Ali Shah and Akbar Leghari not only facilitated the scholars and writers from Sindh to attend the festival but also sent their recent publications on Sindh to be displayed and sold. According to Niaz Nadeem, every year the organisers of the festival send letters to all provincial governments but none bothers to respond except the Sindh government that has been a great supporter of such initiatives.
The Punjab government’s apathy is understandable as it has a single-minded obsession with roads and shows least interest in other languages, but the lack of response from AJK, Balochistan, GB, and KP governments is disappointing to say the least.
In the two-day festival around 20 sessions were held with literary stalwarts such as Jami Chandio, Fatima Hasan, Noorul Huda Shah, Hameed Shahid, Dr Fehmida Hussain, Adal Soomro, Ahmad Naveed, Riffat Abbas, Farnud Alam, Dr Salahuddin Darwesh, Safeerullah Khan, Saadia Kamal, Aamir Hussain, MazharArif, Harris Khalique, Sabir Badal Khan, Ahmed Saleem, Dr Tariq Rahman, Dr Arshad Waheed, Dr Ravish Nadeem, Wahid Buzdar, ZubairTorwali, Luke Rahmat, Ishtiaque Ahmad Yaad, Rehana Shaikh, and many others.
The second event was at the Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU) organised by the Faculty of Education. International Conference on Research and Practices in Education was a brainchild of Dr Shahid Siddiqui, AIOU VC, and Dr Nasir Mahmood, dean of faculty. Ambitious in its scope and coverage, the conference was truly international as it attracted a number of scholars from abroad including well-known educationists such as Dr Christopher Rasmussen from Maryland, USA, Prof Peter Sinclair from Murdoch University Australia, and Alastair Creelman from Linnaeus University, Sweden. In all, over 120 research papers were presented followed by discussions.
The keynote address by Dr Rasmussen highlighted the importance of collaboration in leadership and governance to advance learning and effectiveness. He underscored the difficulties in achieving collaboration with various stakeholders. In a country such as Pakistan, even at the student level collaboration becomes difficult due to the culture of competition rather than supporting each other. Right from the school, students are more interested in scoring high marks on their own and in doing so they mostly study alone, develop their own notes and while trying to take advantage of others’ work keep their own efforts in secret.
The same applies to faculty members who form a group of two or three to publish their papers but collaboration at a broader level is shunned. Universities are vying for higher rankings without learning much from each other. The recently held meeting of the deans of education at Pakistani universities organised by the AIOU is a step in the right direction. According to Dr Rasmussen, unless a shared sense of responsibility is developed, individual efforts will produce only marginal results. In this process a collaborative decision-making process is a prerequisite, for arbitrary decisions create more resentment than collaboration.
Alastair Creelman carried the discussion forward with his keynote lecture about enabling collaborative online learning. He rightly pointed out that most education services tend to be reactive rather than proactive. Applying to Pakistan, we can see that rather than proactively seeking to create new opportunities, most educational institutions respond to the needs identified by the top management, and in this any feedback mechanism is hardly established. As new global and technological imperatives emerge, broader educational collaboration is needed by promoting online learning. Creelman highlighted the importance of generic cognitive and social skills such as critical thinking, innovation and creativity.
In the third keynote speech, Prof Taylor from Australia talked about research as transformative professional development for the 21st century. His main thrust was on the challenge of designing modern curricula and teaching methods so that young people can participate successfully in the emerging economies. The problem with the developing countries is that their young generation has the access to digital and mobile technologies but in the absence of an open culture of discussion and research such technologies are creating more problems than solutions. Pakistan is mired in one-sided narratives and even faculty members gloat in their own sense of holding absolute knowledge.
Dr Atta ur Rahman was the chief guest but as usual he spoke about his achievements. He has done some good work as a scientist and as the founder of HEC. In his speech, most of the time he repeated his own accomplishments and how he has been hailed the world over. He concluded his talk by presenting some new developments in science and technology.
Dr Atta is a strong proponent of a presidential system of government and thinks that a bunch of technocrats can overhaul the system, in that he was full of praise for General Musharraf who appointed him the chairman of HEC with a ministerial status.
The conference at the AIOU could have been much better if the number of papers had been curtailed to not more than 50 in two days. Accepting more than 120 papers for a two-day conference is compromising quality; now the AIOU should focus more on quality that quantity. In most thematic sessions time was short and not many papers could be discussed in detail. Despite this, the dean faculty of education, Dr Nasir, must be congratulated for the huge success of this conference.
To conclude we can stress again that research should be used to create competing narratives so that the young minds are not fed with rotten ideologies, but with constructive criticism with an evaluation of our current state. Both events were a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale intellectual atmosphere of Islamabad.