Saturday, May 21, 2011

ANALYSIS: FATA University — a long way to go —Farhat Taj

Daily Times
ANALYSIS: FATA University — a long way to go —Farhat Taj
FATA stands excluded from the formal legal framework of Pakistan, including the fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution of Pakistan. Will the state authorities, civil and military, based in FATA allow genuine freedom of thought and expression in the area?

Reportedly, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has approved the establishment of a university in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The estimated cost of the project is three billion rupees. The university will be constructed in the frontier region (FR) of Kohat, a part of FATA.

One should cautiously welcome the move. This is a long overdue development. A university and other institutions of higher education should have been established in FATA decades ago. But there are some important issues in the way of the coming into being of the university as well as its functioning as a seat of learning, if and when it comes into being.

In the near past, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government made a move to establish two universities in FATA, one in the Sunni-dominated town of Sadda in Kurram and the other in the Shia-dominated town of Parachinar in Kurram. The then vice chancellor of the Islamic College, Peshawar, visited both towns in connection with the ongoing work for the establishment of the universities. Two government buildings, one each in Parachinar and Sadda, were acquired and staff was recruited. Even the students' admission process began on both campuses. Suddenly, the FATA secretariat refused to hand over the government buildings in Parachinar and Sadda for university purposes. The tribal leaders from Kurram said that due to pressure from "vested interests" in the FATA secretariat, the government abandoned the whole plan. Keeping in view this event, one wonders whether the newly announced university will ever become a reality.

The new university is in the initial stages of paperwork. A PC-1 has yet to be produced and the site for construction has to be arranged for in the region. It may take a long time before it is built. But the biggest hurdle is the poor security in FATA. The Taliban as well as Pakistan Army have bombed countless schools in FATA. The two have also occupied the buildings of educational institutions in the tribal areas that have been converted into bases for the security forces or the Taliban. The Government Degree College in Darra Adam Khel has been occupied by the security forces for the last three years and no educational activity has taken place since then. The most precious state property in FR Kohat, the Kohat tunnel, built with Japanese cooperation, has been attacked more than once by the Taliban. 

It may take some years before the university building is constructed. One may like to hope that by that time the security situation would have been improved in FATA and, consequently, the university will not be harmed. Unfortunately, this hope seems to be very frail at least at this point in time. The insecurity in FATA is not merely a function of internal tribal dynamics. It is caused by and linked to powerful external factors concerning the ongoing war on terror in the wider Af-Pak region. There are no clear prospects of the end of the war on terror at this point in time. Will the university be established even if security does not improve in the years to come? Economically, it is not a viable idea to build the university to be bombed by the Taliban or the security forces, or occupied by one of them and the subsequent misuse of the building. Above all, with many, if not most, people in FATA living as internally displaced people (IDPs) outside the tribal areas, who will study in the university?

Freedom of thought and expression are part and parcel of productive scholarly activity in a university. Dr Pervez Hoodhboy, a well-know scholar and social activist in Pakistan has been arguing that the Pakistani educational system, shaped by deeply conservative social and cultural values, discourages critical thinking. This is largely because of the systematic state encouragement of narrow religious ideas at the cost of critical thinking at all levels of the state, including public educational institutions. State encouragement of narrow religious ideas has always been one step ahead in FATA due to its strategic location near Afghanistan. 

Moreover, FATA stands excluded from the formal legal framework of Pakistan, including the fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution of Pakistan. Will the state authorities, civil and military, based in FATA allow genuine freedom of thought and expression in the area? They have been encouraging bigoted religious thought by suppressing any alternative ideas. In the last few years, some people from Bajaur told me that they had been stopped by the political authorities from starting a monthly magazine from the area to spread human rights and secular ideas. It would be, thus, appropriate to end the legal isolation of FATA before the university began to work. This would remove the unchallengeable powers of the state authorities to hinder freedom of thought and expression in FATA. 

One must note that non-Muslim (Sikh and Hindu) and ethnic (Kurram Punjabis) minorities have been peacefully living in FATA for generations. This suggests that, historically, the people of FATA have had a tradition of peacefully coexisting with other ideas and value systems. Moreover, Ghaffar Khan's non-violent movement, that aimed to unite the tribes on the lines of modern social organisation, has also had an impact on FATA. These two attributes of the tribal areas stand intact, although violated in the ongoing militancy. These indigenous attributes, if bolstered by a supportive state environment, would hopefully encourage freedom of thought and expression leading to critical thinking in the proposed tribal seat of learning.

The third issue concerns all the universities in Pakistan and will affect the would be university in FATA as well if the appropriate academic considerations are not taken care of. Dr Hoodhboy has long been elaborating that university education in Pakistan is far behind international standards. Most of the research papers written by Pakistani authors have zero citation in the global research community. Teachers and students of Pakistani universities are considered backward by international standards in terms of basic subject understanding. 

In this dismal context, it is important that the educational authorities in FATA make all necessary allowances for better academic planning and management in the proposed FATA University so that it becomes a high standard seat of learning rather than just another public university in Pakistan that counts for nothing significant in international scholarly circles. 

The writer is a PhD Research Fellow with the University of Oslo and currently writing a book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban

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