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To inquire and question

Pakistani academia is expected to be free within the ambit of responsibility whereas in the West, responsibility is secondary to freedom

To inquire and question

Freedom and the cultivation of its ‘true’ spirit among the populace in general are fructified through public instruction. Universities are the institutions where public instruction at its highest level is imparted, which brings them to the centre-stage of the debate about freedom circumscribed with a sense of responsibility. To sum it up, one may aver, freedom of speech and action is the entitlement of the most responsible.

Those qualified as ‘the most responsible’ in the Pakistani context are the ones who epitomise the convergence of the ‘rational’ and the ‘emotional‘. Arguably, a large majority of such persons belongs to the sphere of university academia. Thus, it can be argued that being ‘the most responsible’, university academics are also ‘the most entitled’ to freedom.

Pakistani people need to be made cognizant of the fact that the academia should act as their conscience, as is the case in the rest of the world. Even at the risk of being branded hyperbolic, I must reassert that the distinguishing feature between ‘developed’ and ‘under-developed’ societies is the professional worth and creativity of their University academics, but more importantly, the extent to which an independent intellectual space is provided by the state.

To nurture quality academics in a good number requires an enabling environment and milieu. There are two fundamental pre-requisites for such a milieu: logistics support like a well-stocked library, ready access to unfiltered knowledge/information produced internationally, well-equipped classrooms, and freedom to think and act.

Intellectual figures like Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Howard Zinn, who have shaped the history of thought over the last few decades, may incriminate the United States for its discriminatory policies, but continue to hold coveted positions in American academia. It is, however, of the essence to note that these academics punctuated the freedom available to them with responsibility and discretion. Their dissent did not reek of any personal interest or gain, but that is not the subject of this article.

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With no fear of retribution lurking over their heads, and free reign being available to academics to pursue their research and creative interests without restrictions, academics from the developed world get an optimum opportunity to express their latent potential. Academics, in most cases, shed responsibility when they are coerced to foment and foster the state’s agenda, which obviously is not possible without compromising their integrity as intellectuals. It is then that they tend to take leave of responsibility.

For such a rich and diverse socio-cultural tapestry that Pakistan is, its ideology would be enriched beyond measure if it embraces all these apparently incongruous social and cultural influences. Most importantly, by drawing all the diverse cultures and social traditions into its fold, the ideology will become all-inclusive.

Since I have made use of ‘responsibility’ with profusion, it warrants some clarification here that responsibility as a social virtue draws its connotation from historical continuity and cultural embeddedness. It goes without saying that all that is ‘social’ has to be rooted in the soil of the society from which it emanates. It is only then that the ‘social’ becomes culturally relevant.

It is pertinent to underline that culture, in most cases, transcends religious peculiarities, which is most imperative for a nation that is torn asunder by sectarian fissures and ethnic profiling. State-driven ideology becomes apposite and appropriate only when it is simultaneously resonant of social ethos, cultural expression(s) and historical continuity.

It is also important to highlight that in the peculiar scenario of Pakistan, freedom does not denote advocacy of an atheistic dispensation or support for gay rights. All such issues are likely to contravene the sensitivities of the general public. Therefore, in this context, the countervailing force of responsibility will have to be invoked in order to make freedom possible.

For such a rich and diverse socio-cultural tapestry that Pakistan is, its ideology would be enriched beyond measure if it embraces all these apparently incongruous social and cultural influences. Most importantly, by drawing all the diverse cultures and social traditions into its fold, the ideology will become all-inclusive.

The obvious question staring one in the eye is whether the current milieu at our institutions of higher education is ready to absorb such a shift of emphasis. A threadbare analysis of the practical situation may not yield a very encouraging response.

The travails following the traumatic experience of Partition in 1947, the saga of the Kashmir (mis)adventure, the dispute over canal waters, and issues regarding the distribution of assets have contributed to the evolution of a political imagination which is predicated more on negating the self as being composed of an Indian socio-cultural ethos, instead of asserting its own ‘selfhood’.

Ironically, the nationalist narrative of Pakistan can be summarised as an attempt to abrogate anything that it shared with India. Two wars (1965 and 1971) with India perpetuated this tendency. Moreover, in the 1970s, this animosity was etched in stone through an ideology steeped in religion.

Pan-Islamism became an anchoring force which undercut the cultural specificity of various regions within the Pakistani federation. The administrative core and peripheries could not forge unanimity over several issues of vital importance. Ideology muffled in abstraction provided an excuse to the administrative core to assert its will at the expense of the peripheries (you may read them as smaller administrative units).

The core’s bid to assert its control and muscle power vis a vis the smaller provinces became an integral part of the state narrative with its clear reflection in the kind of public instruction that is being imparted at university campuses. The true social ethos and cultural expression were muzzled relentlessly. The arbitrary selection of historical facts became the basis of the national narrative.

Ideology with a very strong religious underpinning attained overriding power in the 1980s. Ideology devoid of representative cultures, social values, and historical continuity became a repressive tool which was used ruthlessly against anybody advocating academic freedom.

To conclude the argument, in Western academia, since the university campus is the centre of intellectual activity, and the primacy of thought and idea that are embedded in socio-cultural reality are established facts, the emphasis is on academic freedom being the paramount concern of university academics. It is just that responsibility is contained within the ambit of freedom.

Contrary to this practice, Pakistani academia is expected to be free within the ambit of responsibility. To put it more simply, in the West, responsibility is secondary to freedom, while in Pakistani academia, responsibility holds precedence over freedom. This divide creates the vacuum in the generation of ideas that is the bane of existence in our society.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.


  • In Pakistan no one is free,but the affluent people and classes are free to loot and plunder beat and torture the poor when ever and where ever they like, the majority is not even recognized as human-being.So I conclude none is free in this country.Thank u for writing such thought provoking articles.

  • India is in a way similar to Pakistan: in the Indian Constitution, the right to freedom of speech is subject to “reasonable restriction”.

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