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Questioning South Asia

Coming back to Karachi is not always a pleasant experience. You come out of the airport on to Shahrah-e-Faisal, and apartment buildings on both sides of the road present the look of a dilapidated city with an ever-increasing number of over-flowing sewer pipes.

The peeling facades of most of the buildings and the iron-grills on balconies tell stories of confined and insecure households. The heaps of garbage strewn all over the city, from Malir to Mauripur and from Gulshan-e-Hadeed to Gulshan-e-Iqbal, are an evidence of both the city administration and the Sindh government’s complete lack of concern and responsibility.

In many cities of Bangladesh and India, the situation is no different. So is this a phenomenon peculiar to South Asia? Has South Asia failed to nurture responsible citizens and good human beings? What is it that makes South Asia so different from other regions? Can we question South Asia in its entirety, or can we understand it only in parts? These and many other questions were discussed in a recent conference at Habib University, Karachi in the first week of February. Attending the event was a rewarding experience, since not many universities in Pakistan afford such an opportunity to its faculty and students.

As an educationist, I have visited most of the private and public-sector universities in Pakistan; hence, can conclude that the academic atmosphere at both is at best stifling and at worst threatening. In this suffocating intellectual milieu, Habib University has emerged as a paramount and unique centre of learning, especially for social science and liberal arts subjects. It is a pity that in a country of 220 million people, we do not have a single university that specialises in these subjects. Of course there are departments, but most universities pride themselves on the business, IT and science and technology education.

Arguably, the best aspect of the conference was its interdisciplinary approach to questioning South Asia. All the papers presented at the conference were based on rigorous research and were not full of platitudes about religion and Pakistan, as happens in most such ‘conferences’ in the country. The Question and Answer sessions with the faculty and students showed how robust the academic preparation at the institution is. The students listened to the sessions with rapt attention and their critical approach was evident from their queries. Interestingly, rather than focusing only on history, the South Asian region was discussed with reference to its cultural, developmental and economic challenges.

Markus Daechsel, reader at the department of history at Royal Holloway, University of London, in his keynote lecture titled ‘South Asia and the Uses of History’, presented more questions than answers – a hallmark of any good academician. He rightly pointed out that “instead of arguing with and about history, South Asian politics has increasingly been guided by a desire to bypass or even undo history”. This is an important point that needs discussion. To argue about history, we need an enabling environment both culturally and intellectually.

Culturally speaking, South Asia has been a tolerant and welcoming region for thousands of years. The evidence of which can be found in its rich art and architecture, culture of co-existence and in the ethnic and linguistic composition. Our intellect has been fast declining since the 20th century, and by the 21st, there was no room left for argument. We know that when there is no argument, there is violence. And that is what we have.

The entire gamut of arts and humanities, liberal arts and history is about multiple interpretations. When a single interpretation is imposed and propounded, pluralism finds no place. No education system will be able to fulfil the requirements of the modern age if it revolves around a single interpretation. After independence, the appointment of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as the first union education minister in India, and the selection of Jogendar Nath Mandal as the first federal law minister in Pakistan, was a clear sign that both states were willing to tolerate multiple interpretations and a pluralist dispensation was still possible. Mandal survived as the law mister for only a year or so.

Maulana Azad served as the education minister for eleven years, till his death in 1958. That was one of the reasons why a pluralistic and overall secular education survived in India for over 50 years, until the BJP started unravelling it. Now, a similar trend that marred the education system of Pakistan is taking root in India too. This, to borrow from Daechsel, is being ‘guided by a desire to bypass or even undo history’. General Zia bypassed geography and history when he abolished the two subjects from the school curriculum and introduced Pakistan Studies.

This is what Aasim Sajjad, of the Qauid-e-Azam University,called, the ‘Pak-Studies poisoned’ generation. Though his paper was essentially about the growing Chinese imprint on South Asia, he did talk at length about the harmful impact the Pak-Studies syllabus has had on our youth. According to Sajjad, it is the poison spread through our curriculum that has made South Asia ‘one of the least cohesive regions in today’s world’. As South Asia gradually assumes the name ‘Sino-Asia’, as the professor called it, we once again see that only a single interpretation of CPEC is being presented, and questioning it is tantamount to treason.

Sajjad’s paper highlighted that CPEC ‘is now easily the most studied subject in the country, dominating research agendas of numerous public and private-sector institutions’. But he lamented that ‘very little research is dedicated towards potential fallouts of CPEC’. The paper’s following line deserves special consideration, “While the policy and academic debates about China’s growing role in the region are far more discerning, the interests and concerns of South Asia are nevertheless being relegated to an even more peripheral place than in the recent past”. Sajjad argued that reviving the construct of South Asia was essential, lest ‘Sino-Asia’ come to monopolise research.

The conference had at least a dozen outstanding scholars, specialising in South Asian studies at various national and international universities. For example, another brilliant paper was presented by Karen Ruffle, associate professor in study of religion at the University of Toronto. She specialises in Indo-Persian Shiism, focusing on devotional texts, rituals, and practices of South Asian Shias. Her paper, titled ‘Reimagining Shiism as an Indian religion and the Qutb Shahs as Deccan dynasts’, was perhaps the most enlightening of all the papers. She expounded the formation of Shiism in Hyderabad under the Qutb Shahi dynasty and its relationship with Safavid Iran (1502 – 1736), and the hegemonic historical narrative of Shia origins in Deccan.

In short, Habib University must be congratulated for organising such conferences where multiple interpretations are debated and encouraged. We need more such initiatives if we want to give the nation a new ‘narrative’ – though the talk of ‘a’ narrative itself smacks of singularity rather that plurality. The enriching debates at the conference drowned out the stench coming from the nearby open drains and garbage piles; my home town can only be excused thanks to its animating cultural, intellectual and literary events.

Dr Naazir Mahmood, "Questioning South Asia," The news. 2018-02-10.
Keywords: Political science , Public Sector , Academic atmosphere , Technology education , Economic challenge , Liberal arts , Private institutions , Historical narrative , School curriculum , History , Geography