Pakistan’s Youth Moment
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February 10, 2012
For three days, February 3-5, Oxford University became a venue for a major event on Pakistan: ‘Pakistan Future Leaders’ Conference’, which was attended by some 300 student delegates hailing from around 50 universities and colleges across the United Kingdom. The event was organised by Oxford University Pakistan Society, in collaboration with the Pakistan Societies of Cambridge University and School of Oriental and African Studies as well as the prestigious Oxford Union.

Such a large gathering of young Pakistanis in Oxford was reflective of the same ‘youth moment’ that has increasingly started to determine the course of our politics in recent months or years. What was perhaps so special about the event was that its young participants were willing to rationally debate the various political, social and economic problems facing their homeland, and come up with a number of pragmatic solutions in each case. They also extensively discussed the different challenges and opportunities concerning the country’s foreign policy.

The delegates were divided into different committees, dealing with subjects ranging from internal affairs to foreign affairs, as well as law, finance, education, health and environment. The discussion was moderated by two delegates, which were chosen with consensus by the committee members. Each committee also had a couple of experts who themselves, in most cases, had divergent views about the subject under discussion. Thus, for two days, each committee of delegates and experts critically evaluated Pakistan’s major challenges and their possible solutions.

Consequently, each committee, through a democratic process, was able to finalize concrete proposals or recommendations—which were, in turn, voted upon by all delegates in a joint session on the third day of the conference. This was followed by a GEO TV debate, with representatives of student delegates from each committee sitting on one side and some prominent Pakistani leaders, including Asma Jahangir, Serdar Assef Ahmed Ali, and Imran Farooq, sitting on the other.

All three of these leaders had earlier individually addressed the audience during the three-day conference. Their speeches and the TV debate took place in the historic hall of Oxford Union, which has a sizeable portrait of late Benazir Bhutto hanging on its wall, in recognition of her being the first woman President of the Oxford Union, the premier student body of the University.

Scores of substantive issues depicting Pakistan’s current reality were critically evaluated by our youth studying in various British universities. In the internal affairs committee, the focus of the debate was on the problems of religious extremism and Balochistan. Continuity of the democratic process led by the country’s mainstream national and regional parties, without interference by the army and interruption by the judiciary, was considered crucial for the country’s political stability. Stabilisation of the national policy was, in turn, regarded as the main pre-requisite for tacking the challenges of extremism and insurgency.

On the issue religious extremism is concerned, the urgent need for adopting essentially economic and social measures was emphasised in the conclusions of the internal affairs committee. The gravity of the Balochistan problem was duly acknowledged, and among the immediate steps required to solve it, was a recommendation calling for the renewed governmental approach to bring on broad all the estranged groups in the province by offering them due incentives guaranteeing greater provincial autonomy.

I attended the foreign affairs committee as one of the experts. The debate focused on Pakistan’s relations with the US, Afghanistan and India. Another controversial issue, Pakistan’s approach towards Israel, also came up for discussion, and a consensus was, indeed, achieved on the subject during the committee proceedings. However, the joint session of all the conference delegates later decided not to approve the resolution concerning Pakistan’s Israel policy.

Interestingly, the foreign affairs committee’s two other resolutions, one on the country’s relations with the US and Afghanistan, and the other concerning its ties with India, marked by essentially pacifist considerations. Regarding the US and Afghanistan, it was proposed that Pakistan’s role should be to facilitate the smooth withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan. Its support to an Afghan-led reconciliation process was identified as an essential pre-requisite in this regard.

As for relations with India, the need to recognise its traditionally conflicting course was emphasized—which, in the collective view of the delegates of the foreign affairs committee, necessitates that the country should foster a different, cooperative path in its ties with India. For the purpose, Aman Ki Asha and other civil society initiatives were identified as important means. There has to be greater people-to-people interaction, besides the progressive steps that aim to build upon the visible achievements already made in the field of bilateral trade.
The resolutions of the finance committee also emphasised the need for a national economy that is driven by international trade rather than merely being foreign aid to the country. Accordingly, Pakistan was required to re-shape its current policy of exporting mostly raw materials to a new approach of exporting value added items. Obviously, that requires overcoming the aggravating energy crisis facing our nation. To overcome this crisis, the finance committee recommendations included provisions about exploring alternative means of energy generation in the long run and tackling the immediate issue of ‘circular debt.’
Taxation, including the imposition of wealth and agriculture tax, and land reforms were considered essential for generating the necessary national revenue for the purpose of overcoming the energy crisis. This should set in motion the required industrialisation process aimed to generate value-added exports, thereby enabling Pakistan to compete effectively in the regional and global consumer markets. The curtailment of defence expenditure and ensuring its parliamentary scrutiny were a couple of other finance committee’s conclusions aimed at generating the revenue for developmental sectors.
The committees for law, education, health, and environment, likewise, came up with tangible solutions to the problems facing Pakistan in each of these domains. Among other issues, the law committee debated the issue of blasphemy. One specific solution to the issue that was approved in the form of a resolution was to reform the current blasphemy law, where the accused is presumed guilt merely on the basis of an alleged act of blasphemy. Whether the accused intended to engage in blasphemy is an issue that the current law does not cover. Nor does it include any provision about instances of blasphemy pertaining to faiths other than Islam. The recommendation of the committee was, therefore, essentially about re-adopting the blasphemy law that had been in place prior to General Zia’s regime.

The committee on education reiterated what has been a long-standing concern of the country’s liberal community: that of revising the curriculum of the state school textbooks on Pakistan Studies, which glorify Muslim warriors and portray India as ‘Hindu’ and Hindu as ‘the other. Projecting hatred against India through education, besides the role of the popular media in the process, was also an issue of concern in the foreign affairs committee deliberations on Pakistan’s relations with India. Consequently, the need on the part of the governments and medias of both countries to reform their respective approaches was underlined.

In terms of what Pakistan spends on education, and what others in the region do, the urgent requirement of curtailing defence spending in the country was considered crucial. The committees on health and environment suggested the solution to Pakistan’s problems in the two fields through a significant increase in development expenditure and the creation of a number of provincial, inter-provincial and federal level institutional mechanisms.

All of these conclusions were then put be delegate representatives to the leaders attending the TV debate, to be broadcast by Geo TV on Sunday. In that lively but critical debate, the concerns of one side representing the ‘youth moment’ were as clear as they expectations from the country’s old and merging leadership.

To conclude, the Oxford University Pakistan Society deserves due recognition and appreciation for organising such a important event on Pakistan in a Western country, where the existence of a million-strong Pakistani community, apart from other factors, necessitates consistent efforts aimed to project the country’s correct image.

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