The Challenge of Change for Pakistani Youth
The talk of youth bulge calls for considering two possibilities; whether it is a boon or bane. Generally speaking a higher number of youth means increased workforce and hence an immense prospect for development. The precedent comes from countries such as China and India. But needless to say the potential of harnessing this potential is heavily dependent on the overall situation of politico-economic realities. In case of Pakistan, the favorable variables in this respect are relatively fewer.
According to UNDP, 32% of Pakistani youth is illiterate, about 10% unemployed, and less than 6% have acquired technical skills. While there is abundant talk on the need for more education, the actual steps taken are very meager. The state of the corresponding job market being worse renders the cursory efforts for education more redundant. This also paves the way for brain drain of highly skilled graduates. The result is increasing frustration among youth of all backgrounds.
This is not only the prospect of employment that troubles a young educated Pakistani. He seems deeply concerned at a greater scale about the current situation and future of Pakistan as fed to him largely by the increasing exposure to media, both domestic and global. Issues like corruption, terrorism, political stability, international interventions and Pakistan’s international image are felt quite personally, their impact sometimes surpassing the problems of education and employment. The interconnectedness of these problems has rightly sensitized the youth to look for holistic ‘change’.
The popularizing slogans for such change include change of government, end of corruption, disconnection from War on Terror, economic revival etc. Before considering the nature and implications of ‘change’ desired by the Pakistani youth it would be important to look into the genesis and constituting characteristics of such youth.
The demographic patterns of Pakistani youth are as uneven and diverse as Pakistan itself. It is divided along geographical, educational, occupational and most importantly ideological lines. Nonetheless there are some commonalities which have an overarching influence. Most of what constitutes Pakistani youth has been brought up in Zia-ul-Haq or post-Zia’s time. This has been the time when after restraining the freedoms of thought, expression and assembly, the public space in Pakistan was oriented along Jihadi, sectarian, ethnic and authoritarian lines. The indoctrination has been so thorough that from mosque to school, no institution of education has escaped it. To add to the misery, the situation has not changed much since, rather aggravated.
The Jihadi and sectarian outfits have kept on operating under official polity from 90s up till now. The Islamist elements in media and education sectors have been inflating. The opening up of private channels and internet, against common perception, has by and large fit into the grand stream of the Islamist narrative. Most of the current great opinion makers, both in print and electronic media, have gained their credibility and popularity by towing the lines allowed by the apprehensions and incentives from the junta and the militants.
The de-politicization of society initiated by Zia reached its zenith in 90s and the first half decade of the 21st century. This in turn reflects into the politics of 90s when regimes changed one after the other without much uproar from the people. The new generation, unlike the older one who had seen vibrant times of 60s and 70s, was left permanently disabled under these circumstances. The growing entertainment media and consumer culture of neo-liberal economy provided alternative to the healthy political culture. Such was the context in which the worldview of the current generation of youth has been manufactured.
Since politics proved inevitable under the increasing national crises, the late period of Musharraf’s regime sparked a motivation for new democratic setup. It was after about three decades that various professional groups, masses and students actively asserted for their democratic rights at such a massive scale. The years following the last general election have witnessed an increased youth involvement into the politics. This involvement has mostly translated into widespread desire and mobilization for ‘change’.
The ripe fruit of change is mostly being harvested by the popular Imran Khan, with some other voices disseminating here and there both towards right and left. The question remains whether Imran Khan would be able to drive this ideological confused and politically immature generation towards a coherent and forward looking future. The fact that he is already appealing to the same indoctrinated sentiments and half baked ideas which the youth has grown up with hints to half failure. He appears to decide his slogans from popular surveys, which is not symptomatic of a leader with a ‘change’. Moreover a few setbacks such as co-opting with the cronies of previous establishments, though a pragmatic choice for realpolitik, are already prematurely exposing his lack of potential for a change. Such compromises are expected to increase in the tougher situations to come.
In the presence of other major parties and a great number of their secured constituencies, Imran’s victory is never going to be sweeping which is precondition for bringing any wholesale reform. The expected frustration for youth will have unforeseeable repercussions, depending mostly on which side of the political spectrum majority of them decides to lie. The worse will come if the ideological and political divisions among youth are not reduced to a general consensus on fundamental tenants of democracy.
The nature of this dangerous division is reflected into a survey back in 2009. At that time when, despite many follies, most of the world thought Pakistan moving in the right direction i.e. a democratic dispensation, around 80% of educated Pakistani youth thought otherwise. Similar to it is the fact that in many recent surveys the percentage of those relying most on army is around two third. About an equal number thinks US as the primary enemy of Pakistan. Apart from unending conspiracy theories on such obvious atrocities as attack on Malala Yousafzai, this mindset is hatching xenophobia to an unprecedented scale. This dangerous level of radicalization is being ignored both by the ruling and opposition political parties. The latter like PTI are on the contrary fueling such ignorance by framing their slogans to appease these confused minds.
The ruling PPP is hardly in a position to affect great number of youth on these lines. It is merely striving to revive it student and youth wings in small pockets. The PML-N on the other hand, perhaps after realizing that youth vote is slipping out of their hands to PTI, has launched many campaigns for attracting youth. In heavily advertised campaigns, they have distributed laptops to university students, staged some sports galas and formulated district wise youth councils meant to deliver skills training and social work. These thinly cloaked bribes meant primarily to attract votes fail to address the core issue mentioned above. Other parties with their regional outreach are unable to affect the national scenario.
Who else can be expected for such a huge task? Unfortunately, no one. The mass media is being heralded as such an agent of change but firstly it can only be a vehicle not an engine of change, secondly it itself is under massive pressures and interests hence divided on the same lines as youth in general. The shallow perception of freedom attained by attacking weak government would not sustain dictates of the establishment or threats of the Taliban. Its role in politicizing youth is only partially true because simultaneously it acts as depoliticizing agent through spreading conspiracy theories and by invariably sensationalizing the news and then mixing it with entertainment. That is why Pakistan is one of the fewer countries in the world where news and political talk shows are more famous than the entertainment.
Amid the widely watched 24/7 breaking stories on news channels, the radicalization thrives unchecked. According to a study conducted by Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, about half of educated Pakistani youth considers Shariah as a source of a law, among other sources while about one third think it as the only source of law. This implies not only a wrong set of expectations of change for youth but also a seeping acceptance for Talibanization. And if any other version of change fails to take root, which is very likely, the Talibanization of state and society would be hard to resist.
Considering that existing efforts by the major parties to lead youth towards a change in this situation as misdirection or insufficient, there is an urgent need to review these approaches. The political nurseries at the grassroots must be revived to undo the mis-education of traditional schooling as well as news media and to provide ideals of democracy as alternate. Similarly the youth, especially the educated ones, need an introspection of their ideals for change before it is too late.
—Written By Rab Nawaz
(Published in The Laaltain – Issue 6)
‘Tareeqat—7 Elements of Living Sufism in Pakistan’ comes from Dr Kamran Ahmad who has previously authored ‘Roots of Religious Tolerance