I wonder why Freedom of Expression has been long curbed in Pakistan, and yet very few people complain? Why can only a few people see the logic that a balanced society is one where there is a difference of opinion, and diversity is appreciated? One of the answers is that the people have been taught in such a manner that they become slaves to the system and do not challenge it in any manner. This is done mainly through educational institutes.
We see students who have studied within educational institutes fail to distinguish between the propaganda and the facts. This is because they have been educated in an environment where they cannot contradict, counter, rebut, refute, or even speak against anything the curriculum or the norms dictate.
I studied in a government college and witnessed that, unfortunately, in Pakistan, generally, the debating culture is just limited to declamations (A conventional form of speech where a memorized speech is presented in front of the audience). These declamation competitions are only organized on specific national celebrations like 14 August (Independence Day), 6 September (Defence Day), where it is expected from the students that they compete on topics of nationalism which in turn calls for the Jingoistic Narrative and patriotic stances from the speakers.
While other formats like Parliamentary Debates(the topic of the debate is given 30 minutes before the match and speakers are required to generate arguments and refutations on the spot) have been neglected because they tend to question different accounts of history, draw different outcomes, and inculcate reasoning within the students. This has created a class of students who are not ready to use their reasoning to innovate; they validate their ideas and do not stand against the taboos. But most importantly, they want to impose their point of view upon others by force. We have all seen how Malala Yousafzai has also been despised by the students even though the Taliban attacked her; she has always stood for students’ rights and even received a Nobel prize for peace. Yet there is hate where there should be love, respect, and appreciation.
I have tried to debate with such people and have failed. This is because of their conception of argument to support their point of view. We see that these arguments lack logic and are based on the emotions, the norms of society, a specific set of morality, religious beliefs, or a biased historical context.
But then a critical question is how we can change the overall mentality of the society to debate on such topics? This is not easy but requires a gradual change that must start from the educational institutes. For this, an important role can be played by the parliamentary debates. Being a debater myself, I have witnessed how in parliamentary debates there is a culture of reasoning, skepticism, and logic that is developed. In short, the Teams are required to debate either in favor of the motion(topic) or against it. They are divided into two sides, Affirmative (Government) and Negative (Opposition). Therefore, during the debate, arguments from both sides are witnessed; this allows for more diversity of thought and enables the audience to understand the logic of both sides. In turn, this helps everyone develop their own set of reasoning and hence debate on things that are thought to be sensitive topics in society.
Though some of our educational institutes have established debating societies for such purposes. But there are significant problems of these societies which are a hurdle to their development and should be catered to immediately. Firstly, proper funding is not available for such societies. Other societies within the same educational institute as Music and Sports are given funds for their activities, but less or no funding for debates. Therefore, students are forced to generate funds on their own to either organize events or to provide for their coaching. This has created an elitist culture whereby all the competition participants are required to pay a specific amount that can range from 500 RS to 3000 Rs per person only to speak in that tournament. So, students who are not very rich face difficulties and are sometimes forced to not speak in the tournaments. This culture of exploitation from the students should end. Secondly, Pakistan’s debating culture has created an image of itself whereby topics such as religion are not discussed or not given any importance. These topics must be discussed because society also does not allow us to debate on such issues. Therefore, these societies and debate competitions should be a safe place where such topics are debated and the logical lacunas within such concepts should be pointed out using logic and reasoning.
The main purpose of debates is to create a better world, where less exploitation of the poor and a better equitable society is built. We all know how there are different classes within our society. Therefore, leftist ideology like socialism which critiques capitalism must be given space within our Societies. But not only this we have also seen how people like Ali Shariati and Ubaidullah Sindhi have also presented a socialist interpretation of Islam. Such Ideas can help generate a critique against religious people who try to conform to the capitalist narrative that struggle or revolution is not needed in society.
I have concluded that trophies are not the only thing we should aim for because if by our debates no change is coming within the society, all this exercise is futile. These societies can be the breeding grounds for the people who are ready to speak up for human rights, Stand against the harassment and discrimination of women. But most importantly, unite for the fundamental student rights like the student Unions. The democratic culture has not flourished in our country because these unions were banned by Zia-ul-Haq, the dictator. These unions are the breeding grounds for the new leadership to rise. Until they are not restored, Debating societies can be another avenue for the students to sharpen their skills and at the same time create discourse.
We hear of the Government task Forces for the improvement of education, but they fail miserably. They will continue to fail because the change must come from within. We can no longer look upon the government for a miracle because education is not their priority. The students must stand themselves and force their administrations to do more. Students must strive to conduct study circles on topics the state will not. If not then the bleak future awaits.
Syed Farooq Mohyud-din
MPHIL Scholar, Debater, and a Research Fellow at GC University Lahore working with the Higher Education Commission (HEC).