As Ishtaiq Ahmed mentions in a recent blog post on the annual Pakistan Future Leaders’ Conference, held in Oxford earlier this month, Pakistani students in the UK have definitively shown that progressive thought is alive and well within the Pakistani community. For example, this student-driven event was unafraid to pick up sensitive issues such as the Balochistan separatist movement amply demonstrating the capacity of young Pakistanis to be fearless and independent in their thinking. Students vowed to work towards making Pakistan a progressive, truly democratic state where people of all creeds can enjoy the fruits of freedom and liberty.
Dr. Ahmed, covered numerous topics in his piece; but I want to highlight a few areas in more detail. As mentioned above, students showed special concern over the ongoing nationalist movement in Balochistan, demanding an immediate halt to all military and paramilitary operations in the province. They urged that all authority should be handed back to civilian institutions and elected representatives. Moreover, the students demanded the release of missing persons and demanded that state security and intelligence agencies investigate alleged human rights abuses. Showing growing concern over the rising tide of religious extremism, students suggested a wholesale reform of the Pakistan’s history curriculum to eliminate discrimination against minorities and other disadvantaged groups so as to undertake a holistic and long-term effort to eliminate the scourge of intolerance from society.
Relations with the US were a key topic. Those assembled demanded an immediate halt to American drone attacks in the tribal regions, a severe violation of human rights and international law. Relations with the US should be based on a mutual understanding of respect, transparency and openness. Pakistan must change its stance too, of course. Diplomacy has become too bogged down in security matters. Students recognised the need to bring Pakistan’s foreign policy formulation under civilian control so as to establish relations with the country’s neighbours on a paradigm based on shared development and people-to-people contact. There was a prevailing sense that progress in Pakistan is impossible to achieve without peace with its neighbours. Students passed a resolution (with an overwhelming majority) for a No War Pact with India.
Discussions also focused on energy and environmental issues. Given the severity of recent natural disasters, notably the flooding in 2010, delegates looked at disaster management strategies and ways of mitigating the country’s chronic power shortages. This calls for a shift in energy production from natural gas to renewable energy and encouraging public-private partnerships for energy distribution and transmission projects. The committees suggested setting up a national climate change adaptation program to empower communities by using local, indigenous knowledge to help decrease disaster risk and support recovery efforts. It was also proposed to include disaster risk management in the national curriculum with compulsory training for medical and nursing students. The Committee on Health, meanwhile, proposed forming an independent, centralised drug regulatory authority and called for the formation of an inter-provincial health co-ordination committee.
Like many developing countries, Pakistan government is highly centralised, and there was a widespread recognition that the issue of power devolution is crucial to the survival of the Federation. There was a consensus towards the formation of new provinces in keeping with the spirit of taking governance down to the grassroots level. Genuine power devolution and resource control is a crucial factor in addressing the concerns of the Baloch population and there was overwhelming agreement on bringing them back into the mainstream through meaningful political dialogue.
These are only a few topics covered. In a way, however, the conversation came back to students. Participants advocated for the revival of student unions and student politics on campuses across the country so as to foster the next generation of non-dynastic, democratic leadership for the country. Ideas such as those discussed above, with their overwhelming emphasis on a pro-people polity, represent a very refreshing break from mainstream national discourse in Pakistan. Such proposals not only provide the hope that the next generation of Pakistanis has waken up to the limitations of a security state but are also indicative of a growing polity which is prepared to indulge in introspection for both sources and solutions for the country’s ever growing list of problems.
Ayyaz Mallick is a research student at the Free Speech Debate Project at the Dahrendorf Centre for the Study of Freedom at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. He graduated from Oriel College, Oxford in 2011.