As we were packing our bags to return to Pakistan after completing my five-year stint as Allama Iqbal Fellow at the University of Cambridge, many of our British friends showed great concern about our well-being. Pakistan was constantly in the news for all the wrong reasons. It created perceptions about Pakistan as the most dangerous place on earth. Suicide bombing was rampant which was orchestrated by ‘Islamists’. State installations were attacked including schools and universities. The APS attack on children in Peshawar had just taken place. It was, undoubtedly, a heinous act of brutality and one must not deny the scars the incident has left on the collective psyche of Pakistanis.
As a post-colonial state and society, we experience heart-rending traumas; obviously Pakistan is not the only victim of such brutalities. Unfortunately, Pakistan gets a far bigger share of the blame and negative projection than other countries in the region. Similarly, the general perception about Pakistani women as being subjected to tyranny and discrimination is articulated in a totalising way by many, as if Pakistan exists in an era prior to ‘humanisation’.
Academics have dwelled on the miserable plight of minority groups. This plight is the outcome of an over-crystallised and over-arching role of religion as an identity marker in the society and polity. Sectarian militancy has also found deep roots in the social fabric precisely because of the overriding importance accorded to religion in Pakistani society.
Some of these problems were handed down to us from outside. Then a handful of people took a few decisions to perpetuate their own interests. The pernicious effects of those general decisions created a ruptured society. Zia ul Haq’s joining of the Afghan jihad and his policy of Islamisation are two such self-serving policy decisions by a ruler that disintegrated the very fabric of society.
All of these were examples and contexts that my friends in Britain evoked when they tried to convince my family not to return to our homeland. My interjections to my friends — that Pakistan is not what is being projected on news channels — usually fell on deaf ears. Pakistan’s negative projection appears to be a major problem and no one, unfortunately, cares for that.
We packed our bags, bade farewell to Cambridge, came back to Pakistan and got on with the struggle to settle down in Lahore. The process of settling down was gradual but steady and obviously not very smooth. I resumed my job at the Government College University Lahore in the History Department. Once a premier institution of the country, GC University now is a shadow of its own past. Scarcity of resources is the biggest challenge that it has had to endure for the last many years. So, we thought of reaching out to the international market in search of students interested in studying at the GC University. The idea behind this was that they would pay us in foreign exchange, and, more importantly, it would make the academic culture at GCU more strenuous; the closed academic environment would open up, we believed.
Some doubts and a few probing questions from our peers and colleagues at the outset irked us but our resilience and resolve did not break. The Higher Education Commission and the Foreign Office were taken on board. All of us involved with the planning felt ourselves proud Pakistanis when everything started falling in place. No red tape or bureaucratic snags posed any obstruction. Students applied from different countries including Australia and the United States. Donald Trump’s America refused to give clearance to the students aspiring to come over to Pakistan.
We realised that if smaller countries were targeted, our universities could recruit a large number of students. In that endeavour, kudos is due to various Pakistani Embassies that disseminated the message diligently and issued visas to the prospective students at the earliest possible. The intake of international students was far more than we could handle. Thus, many were put on waiting list.
In the first year of opening up to the market of international students, GCU, Lahore enrolled seven students in different disciplines including History. Most of them belong to Nigeria. Ojo Olusola Bamindele from Nigeria and Byungmin An from South Korea came to History as PhD students. Both of them want to do comparative study between the countries of their origin and Pakistan.
Ojo Olusola is a qualified medical doctor who also has a degree in public health. He had offers to go to Australia or Canada but he preferred to come to Pakistan. Many of us think that Ojo is essentially an adventurist; otherwise no one in this day and age would prefer the South Asian region over any part of the Western-developed world. Ever since he has come to Pakistan, Ojo is being badgered by everyone with the same sort of questions that I was asked while leaving Cambridge. His wife is mostly at her wits’ end because she reads Pakistani newspapers. Mercifully, English newspapers do not sensationalise things to the extent that our electronic media does. Nevertheless, she finds sufficient material in the English newspapers to worry herself exceedingly. Ojo tries to placate her by projecting Lahore and Punjab in general as being quite peaceful.
The point worth emphasising here is how perceptions vary. If viewed from outside, Pakistan seems the epicentre of trouble .Things are absolutely inverted when one is close to reality and does not rely on media, print or electronic.
The problem that Ojo finds with Pakistan is that of poor projection. In order to be a part of the international community, Pakistan must do something to set its image right. News channels invariably go overboard in sensationalising events to get a higher rating. Hence the image of Pakistan is ruined. This also leads to increased polarisation in the socio-political realm. At times, one is led to think whether electronic media even serves any good purposes in a country like Pakistan. Overtly engaged in political or religious debates, people at large are being drawn into a useless polemics by electronic media.
Within a democratic dispensation, electronic media has actually increased the space for non-political actors to become part of the mainstream. Thus, news channels have become the biggest instrument of politician-bashing. That bashing is not directed against policies but against personalities. The priorities that various channels have set for themselves, hardly contribute in improving the image of the country. The rest of the world forms a negative, and mostly false, impression based on these projections.