By Zubeida Mustafa
THE problem with the policymaking process in Pakistan is that it receives very little intellectual input. In an authoritarian system, decisions are taken arbitrarily by a dictator or his coterie and that is why these are regarded as flawed.
But in a democracy, as we claim to be, it is unforgivable that the government should ignore the advice of those who “engage in critical thinking, research and reflection about society and propose solutions for its normative problems”. Wikipedia terms such people as intellectuals.
It would be valid to ask how many such intellectuals we have in Pakistan. Not many, it would seem, given the paucity of facilities and opportunities for research in the social sciences in public-sector institutions of higher education and the elitist approach of the private universities many of which also restrict freedom of expression causing students to live in a bubble.
How many intellectuals do we have in Pakistan?
The think tanks that carry out research on many social issues are generally funded by the government or foreign donors. That means that they are generally tuned in to their sponsors’ agenda. They can, therefore, not produce intellectuals as thinking people are born only in an atmosphere where thoughts are not chained.
Yet it would be wrong not to acknowledge the contributions of the few men and women of learning who think and apply their knowledge to seek solutions to the multifarious problems that beset our society. We, however, need them in far greater numbers to be able to mould public opinion and advise policymakers.
It is in this context that I write today about the Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences that has recently elected a woman scholar of history — Dr Huma Ghaffar — as its chairperson. This is significant. For the first time, a woman who is much younger than the previous leadership will lead Irtiqa. With a PhD in history, Huma has been a member of the executive committee since 2011. What qualifies her for the post of president? It is her commitment to inculcate among younger people the spirit of inquiry and curiosity that is a prerequisite for conducting research.
The Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences was formed in 1991 by the merger of the Irtiqa magazine and Sangat. Its aim was to create awareness among people with social, political and economic problems at the local and international levels and to help them understand the exploitative nature of power.
The institution was to be non-official and would have absolutely no links with political parties. For this purpose, it organises talks, seminars and short courses. Two lecture series have been held since 2001 without a break to commemorate the services of Hamza Alavi and Hamza Wahid, two eminent academics. Hundreds of seminars and talks have also been organised, while three short courses on sociological, economic and political issues have been arranged. Study circles and film screenings are also held.
To give its activities an academic orientation, Irtiqa has been placed under the umbrella of the National Council of Academics.
This experiment in the intellectualisation of people has certainly come a long way from where it started in the 1990s with talks and group discussions in a small apartment on University Road that was acquired at a very low cost from one of my colleagues at Dawn, Ghayurul Islam. Another member, Waqar Jafari, donated a huge amount for its renovation.
In those days, Ghayur Sahib would pass a plate around for us to drop in some cash to fund the institute’s modest but serious work. Today, the institute is more structured but has so far managed to barely sustain itself by collecting membership fees and nominal charges from course participants.
With younger members in the executive committee, Irtiqa has been revitalised. The new chairperson is confident it can make an impact. Some contemporary burning issues of the day have been taken up and are discussed freely in an atmosphere that is not intimidating. The aim is to set up a people-oriented think tank In keeping with new methods of disseminating information digitally, videos of lectures are uploaded on its Facebook page and talks are live-streamed. The growing traffic of visitors on these sites testify to a very positive response.
It would, however, be wrong to believe that it will be easy sailing for the institute all the way. Kaleem Durrani, the general secretary who joined the institute in 2013, activated Irtiqa by his dynamism. But he is more pragmatic and can foresee obstacles. He says he has met with resistance from obscurantist elements in society who are pathologically opposed to critical thinking and left-leaning ideas. The institute’s strength lies in some old-time progressives (many of them members of the Democratic Students Federation in their students’ days) and the younger idealists like Huma and Kaleem who form the hard core of the institute.