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No room for diversity

Publication Date : 17-12-2013


Pakistan has become an excessively bigoted place. We suffer from striking levels of intolerance across ethnicities, sects, faiths and so much else that we now seem inclined to sacrifice human life needlessly.

The state and much of society is preoccupied with trying to figure out how to deal with the Islamist violence that engulfs us. One can’t really disagree with this priority. But focusing solely on what is only a manifestation of a much deeper set of problems leaves the real disease intact.

We ought not to forget that violence is born of intolerance and the lack of ability to appreciate and live with diverse views. If we want to rid ourselves of violence permanently, we have to tackle the hatred and antipathy various segments of society have for others across countless fault lines.

Sadly, not enough attention is paid to devising coherent policies to tackle these deeper problems.

The state uses its coercive and persuasive powers but much of this is aimed at dealing with active violence. There is also some investment in civil society initiatives — both from the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum — to bridge the divides but one hasn’t seen the sum total of these amounting to much either.

The permanent fix to the problem lies in altering the way we shape our young minds and the socialisation experience we provide them within our society. The focus of the policy interventions to achieve this will principally have to be on the multiple education systems operating within the country.

Much is said about the education system’s failure — but not nearly enough about how the dynamic between the public, private and madressah schooling — our three parallel education systems — plays out to create conditions for an exclusionary Pakistan that is anything but tolerant of the diversity in our society. These education systems are stratified along socio-economic, ideological, and qualitative dimensions.

While admittedly reality is more nuanced and complex, by and large madressahs cater to children from the poorest segment of society; the majority of public school and non-elite private school students belong to the lower-middle to middle socio-economic groups; and elite private schools apply stringent socio-economic screening and are reserved exclusively for the rich.

These three cohorts operate in complete silos — herein lies the socialisation problem. Think about it: at what stage of their schooling or their adult life do students from these three systems engage intellectually with each other? Beyond the rich interacting with children of their house help, is there another urban experience in Pakistani cities that allows for cross-pollination? Rural areas make for somewhat better showing but not by much.

Gone are the days when middle-class families sent their kids to public schools; or when the rich felt their country was safe enough to let theirs play street cricket; or for kids from across the divide to mingle in parks; or for the elite to put their kids on public transport.

The discrimination carries itself into adulthood as only the elite private school kids are well prepared to compete in the job market. This perpetuates the socio-economic divide. I’d still live with this if the schooling systems taught their students to respect everyone’s points of view.

The reality is anything but.

Again, glossing over the nuances and exceptions, whatever research is available suggests that kids from the three systems diverge starkly on their world views. Children of the elite are dismissive of their Urdu medium counterparts and rural youngsters from lower socio-economic backgrounds. A sizable segment from within this cohort considers itself superior to and more progressive than the rest.

Madressah students from the lower socio-economic strata blame the elite for having robbed them of necessary resources and causing hardship for society. Their sense of alienation and deprivation is shared by the public school, and to a lesser extent the non-elite private school students. (The one issue where they seem to converge is in their opposition to US foreign policy in the Muslim world.)

Ultimately, these disparate visions make it virtually impossible to forge a consensus on a national narrative in Pakistan. In fact, frustration, alienation, internal discord and polarisation are built into this mechanism.

Very little is being done to work in this space with any conviction. We need to consider mandating enrolment from all socio-economic strata in the private schools. Mandatory regular interaction across school systems through intellectual debates, sports, interfaith trips, and the like are also crucial. Most importantly, we need to mandate opportunities for the elite to experience the less fortunate realities that the overwhelming majority of Pakistani kids live with.

Of course, benefits will be very slow to accrue but they will be permanent. When they do, we’ll stop threatening to fall back into cycles of violence even in periods when we are peaceful.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C.




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