Who is Protesting in Pakistan? Businessmen, Doctors and Academics.

Posted on April 6, 2011
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Economy & Development, Education, Law & Justice, Society
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Adil Najam

News from Pakistan (at least the television variety) is always full of protests. Everyone seems to be forever protesting about something or the other. But the protests flashing on the screens right now do seem qualitatively different.

Guess who is protesting right now: businessmen, doctors and academics.

The three protests are distinct, unrelated, and none of them is really clear-cut. And let us be honest: at this point each of the three is a relatively small protest in terms of what protests (and tolls of protests) in Pakistan can be. Small-business owners in Karachi are protesting against extortionists and law enforcement’s inability to provide protection but in the process are themselves embroiled in infighting and divisions (news here). Younger doctors in government hospitals the Punjab and elsewhere have been on strike to protest against what seems like truly abysmal working conditions and salaries but in the process have also caused much anguish to poor patients (news here). And academics have come out in support of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) and against its devolution to the provinces as a result of the 18th Amendment, but really out of the fear that this move will squander whatever benefits HEC has brought to academia and academics (news here).

The three sets of protests have no obvious connection between them, each is complicated, and none can be discussed in simple black and white terms. Yet there are at least two key characteristics of these three cases (especially when taken together) which helps to shed light on the polity that is today’s Pakistan.

First, in the context of what they are protesting about right now, these are three very unlikely sets of protesters. None of the three have a proclivity to come out on the streets in this way on such issues. Whether you consider their demands or their tactics to be justified or not (and there is plenty of room for disagreement there) you should pay attention to the fact that their coming out on the streets signifies a level of frustration within these otherwise sober constituencies. A frustration that should not be underestimated or overlooked.

Second, although all three issues have now become politicized – as everything in Pakistan’s highly charged political climate is bound to become – it is clear that none of the three is a partisan political issue at its core, or began as such. Political parties and operatives have pounced on the issues because they sense the issues to be charged, but the issues themselves began as and remain at their core issues that relate to the loss of livelihoods and economic frustrations. Politics – in the sense it is bandied about on our talk shows – is not the driver here; if anything it is the ‘driven.’

Protests over petrol price hikes or over tax proposals are also economic protests, and protests over the acts of unknown and protests over pastors sitting four continents away or over ‘outside actors’ or as acts of sectarian insolence are always happening, but all of these are are now well-rehearsed political affairs. We know who protests, why, how and politicians know exactly how to capitalize on the sentiments – which are indeed very real and strongly held – that underlie such demonstrations.

But it seems that what we are seeing in these three examples – small business owners, doctors and academics – may be something different. Maybe something less politically charged, but also more politically significant: a manifestation of rising frustration with failures of livelihoods and institutions. When unlikely actors come out to protest in unlikely ways on unlikely issues, one is best advised to sit up and notice. The impulse of political expediency will be to reap whatever short-term political benefit can be had in riding these issues. The demand of political maturity is to recognize such acts as early warning signs of what could turn into much more deep and dangerous fissures – a crumbling of trust in the institutions of state as well as of society – and to act before things spiral down any further.

One hopes that political maturity will trump political expediency in these cases. In Pakistan politics, however, that is usually not a safe bet to make.

15 responses to “Who is Protesting in Pakistan? Businessmen, Doctors and Academics.”

  1. Anis Dani says:

    I like the summation:”When unlikely actors come out to protest in unlikely ways on unlikely issues, one is best advised to sit up and notice.” One of the unfortunate legacies of ZAB is that the PPP’s governance model is that of an autocratic, one-party system. In Bush-speak, either you are with us, or against us. If they cannot co-opt any cause they condemn it. They have still not wised up to the fact the livelihood interests trump political expediency.

  2. Gardezi says:

    Worth reading by Dr. Atta ur Rahman on HEC:

    Time to save the Higher Education Commission
    By Attaur Rahman
    Published: April 5, 2011

    The writer is a former federal minister of science & technology and a former chairman of the Higher Education Commission

    There is an impending disaster looming in front of us (something also mentioned in a recent editorial in this newspaper on the matter of devolving the functions of the Higher Education Commission [HEC] to the provinces). What has been decided by the cabinet (on the recommendation of a parliamentary committee on devolution headed by Raza Rabbani) is to tear higher education to shreds and hand over the pieces to the provinces.

    What has not been realised by our policymakers is that the process of socio-economic development takes place through central strategic planning, which is intimately connected to a country’s higher education and science and technology programmes. The minimum quality requirements and the numbers of engineers, scientists, doctors, economists and social scientists needed for nation-building have to be determined through careful central planning regarding human resource requirements in various sectors. A multiplicity of standards and regulations would be disastrous. That is why the world over, including in India, higher education planning and funding is done centrally, even though universities are located in the provinces.

    All the vice-chancellors of public sector universities, on November 27, 2010, therefore, unanimously resolved that the status quo of the HEC should be maintained since it has performed exceptionally well and is completely protected under the 18th Amendment. Pakistan’s highest level science body, the Pakistan Academy of Sciences (whose members have included such luminaries as the late professors Abdus Salam and Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, and whose present members include Dr A Q Khan, Dr Ishfaq Ahmed and Dr Samar Mubarak Mand, and of which I am now the president) held a press conference in Islamabad recently, protesting in the strongest possible terms, the fragmentation of HEC. A strongly worded article protesting the dismantling of the HEC, by Dr AQ Khan, was published in The News of March 29, 2009. All this fell on deaf ears. The motivation behind the shredding is “to teach the HEC a lesson”. This, he wrote, was for upholding the principles of merit, not bowing to political pressures and, particularly, for refusing to verify forged degrees of a large number of parliamentarians as being legal.

    Pakistan made remarkable progress during 2001-2008 in higher education. There was a 600 per cent increase in scientific publications in international journals and a 1,000 per cent increase in citations in this period. Today, several of our universities are ranked among the top 500. The University of Karachi was ranked at 223 in the world, NUST at 260 in the world and Quaid-i-Azam University at 270 in the world, in the field of natural sciences. This is no ordinary achievement after decades of stagnation. The World Bank, USAID and the British Council published comprehensive reports on the higher education sector, applauding it and calling it “a silent revolution”.

    Pakistan won several prestigious international awards for the revolutionary changes in the higher education sector brought about by the Higher Education Commission. These include the TWAS (Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, Italy) Award for Institutional Development in October 2009 and the Austrian high civil award “Grosse Goldene Ehrenzeischen am Bande” (2007), conferred on me as chairman of the Higher Education Commission.

    An eminent educational expert, Professor Wolfgang Voelter of Tubingen University, paid glowing tributes to the Higher Education Commission in an article in a Pakistani newspaper on November 28, 2008 under the heading “The Golden Period”. I quote: “A miracle happened. The scenario of education, science and technology in Pakistan changed dramatically as never before in the history of Pakistan. The chairperson of the Senate Standing Committee on Education recently announced it as ‘Pakistan’s golden period in higher education’.” Professor Michael Rode, former chairman of the United Nations Commission on Science, Technology and Development wrote, and I quote: “The progress made was breathtaking and has put Pakistan ahead of comparable countries in numerous aspects.” The world’s leading and oldest scientific society, Royal Society (London) recently published a booklet entitled “A New Golden Age”, considering Pakistan to be the best practice model to be followed by other developing countries.

    India became deeply concerned at these developments. In an article entitled “Pak Threat to Indian Science” published in the leading daily newspaper Hindustan Times, India, on July 23, 2006, Neha Mehta reported that Professor C N R Rao, (Chairman of the Indian prime minister’s scientific advisory council) made a presentation to his boss and expressed serious concerns at the remarkable progress made by Pakistan in the higher education and science sectors. The article wrote that “Pakistan may soon join China in giving India serious competition in science”. The Indian leadership need not be concerned since we are ourselves hell-bent on destroying our nation by undermining the development and progress of higher education, science and technology and then being doomed to perpetual slavery.

    The HEC was created as an autonomous federal regulatory institution with the prime minister of Pakistan as its controlling authority. The composition of the commission reflects a balanced federal structure with representation from each province, as well as the secretary education and secretary science and technology, together with eminent academic and research experts. All powers and functions of the HEC defined under its legislation are covered and protected in the provisions of the 18th Amendment. But, alas, who cares about what is legal and what is not.

    Lower level education has been a complete mess, because of half-witted plans and lack of a national commitment towards education. Some of our leaders have now come up with this strategy to destroy the higher education sector as well. My plea to the government is: Please stop this suicidal madness. Something good happened in Pakistan after some 55 years of neglect. Let us not destroy this wonderful initiative.

    I hope that the president, prime minister and the army chief will intervene to stop this madness before it is too late. If ever there was a case for the chief justice of the Supreme Court to take suo motu action on, this is it.

    Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2011.

  3. Ghani says:

    Its not just these three groups. Its everyone and the frustration is everywhere.

  4. Mike says:

    Protesting seems to be a great past time in Pakistan. Some idiot in Florida burns an inanimate object and voi·là — big crowd marching in Lahore

  5. HaroON says:

    On the doctors strike, I understand that they are not being paid enough but that is no reason to put lives of so many innocent people in real danger.

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