Munir Uddin belongs to Chitral and is a student of history at GCU Lahore. I met him for the first time in Nasir Bagh infront of GCU where he was attending a study circle about the history of student movements. Since then, I often used to see him sitting in front of Bukhari Auditorium where he used to sit alone and read books about history and politics.
I admired his desire for knowledge in the first semester because usually in the first semester students are too busy getting comfortable in the new environment. Soon after that semester was over there were two bad news. One was about the looming world war after the killing of Iranian general Qasem Suleimani and the other which at that time seemed less bad was about the novel coronavirus spread in Wuhan city of China. I read somewhere on the internet that the disaster seems too far away until the last moment. Then it came slowly in our country, spreading its tentacles in every city and eventually in Lahore. Universities, schools and colleges were closed suddenly. Hotels were made quarantine centers and students went back to their homes, some of them to the homes which are outside the virtual world.
The disaster was finally here. It was like an earthquake, shaking everything but only not for just a few minutes but for coming months. It shook our health care system first of all when doctors were forced to confront the virus with no protecting kits. They protested not just for the kits but their right to be recognized as human beings and not as sacrificial animals. Then the pandemic hit the education system which had no capability to continue the education process during the pandemic. Of course, while allocating the least budget to education sector in 2019-20, the government didn’t know that there will be a pandemic which will expose the historic negligence of government towards education sector among others. The government was too busy in selling a fiction to its people that this country is in danger therefore we need more weapons than students.
But then, post-colonial countries never let go a chance of mimicking the west even though they don’t have the capability and wealth to do so therefore they end up looking like fools. Particularly PTI government came into power by selling fictions to the people. Its power over the people lies in the fictions it keeps on selling time after time so starting online education was another chance of selling a fiction to the people. The fiction that the government has succeeded in educating students even in the time of a pandemic like western countries were doing. The problem with the fiction is that sometimes it’s too far away from the facts and the fact in this regard is that it has left the students who do not have internet access out of the pages of this fiction. Thus Munir Uddin who was one of brightest studetns in his batch became a part of those pages which were left out of the fiction of online education.
Two days ago he sent a voice note to tell me that he has written an article for The Students’ Herald and wanted me to have a look at it. But, the saddest thing he told me was the fact that there is no internet coverage in his area and he has to travel 60 kilometers daily to attend online classes. Even then he is afraid that some teachers could make him ineligible as sometimes he gets a bit late to reach the point where he could have an internet access. For some of us the online classes have become a luxury as we wake up moments before our first class, open our laptops and connect to the zoom meetings but for others it has become a symbol of another deprivation. Education is considered as an equalizer by the lower and middle class. It is the only hope of people of war torn areas that could make things better for families of those areas but the online education has exposed huge digital and class divide in this country. Some students have a luxury to sit in a separate room and attend the classes on their gadgets but a majority comprises of those who sit in a congested room and take classes on their mobile phones trying to connect and reconnect with having no privilege to participate in the class because their internet is too slow and that only if in the first place they have internet access.
The problem with this model of education is that it is not going to stop after the lockdown is over. We all know that this will last but we should see it as an opportunity to raise our voice against the digital divide and not online education. But, the classes should be stopped until there is no digital divide in this country. Never in my life time have I seen millions of students protesting against one thing and it’s a ray of hope for us. As a student who identifies himself with the left wing, I think that leftist student organizations should now talk about ending the digital divide in the country rather than about online classes so that online education could be used as an opportunity to further our agenda of education for all and not just a few. The pandemic has given us a rare chance to give a concrete roadmap to the things we were talking for decades.
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