One week on, we see that what should have ideally been a normal academic interaction between a prime minister and university students has instead been dubbed the October 30 ‘saniha’ (tragedy) and seen intense vitriol targeted at the students while being coopted by multiple stakeholders for their own ends in the current war of narratives in Pakistan’s political realm. Amid all this brouhaha, what everyone seems to be ignoring is how the talk was a glimpse of the deeply rooted resentment and frustration that is engendering in society’s youth towards the status quo.
That this happened is not surprising, as the country’s political media circus continues to stoop to lower lows each time and ensnares everything it can to extract maximum political mileage or TRPs out of it. It is, however, unfortunate that even university students have not been spared that dehumanising process.
To recount what happened, caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar visited the Lahore University of Management Sciences and fielded questions from enquiring young minds for almost 1.5 hours. Broadcast on public media for all to see, in contrast to the heavily clamped former army chief’s own visit and interaction with the university’s students last year, the event soon created a storm that propelled it to near mythic proportions as videos of the premier being ‘roasted’ by the questions tossed at him and seemingly left befuddled for answers circulated on social media.
One party, in particular, took the ball and ran with it, contrasting the response to PM Kakar’s visit to its own leader’s reception among the youth and blasting the photographs of some students everywhere.
The blowback was no less fierce, with the students labelled by some quarters as PTI supporters while others castigated them for being badtameez or rude and ill-mannered. It was disappointing to see such commentary from even the media, as one editorial called the students “superficial, rude, and ill-informed” and criticised their line of questioning.
Unpacking the questions
Admittedly, the questions could have been more substantial and focused on the interim premier’s alarming policy statements in the past, such as on missing persons or highlighted his many public gaffes at this point.
Apart from a question on the treatment being meted out to Afghan refugees and a few others, most of them were not plugged into recent events and were rote questions, the answers to which are open secrets.
It is also true that some of them were a touch inappropriately phrased and allowed emotions to seep in. But perhaps this points to larger problems or trends present in our society.
The hard line of questioning points to the youth’s frustration and estrangement from a political system that has denied them a voice or a stake, while clamping down on a party which more so than others, enjoys broad popular youth support.
This also follows in line with the brutal state crackdown witnessed after the events of May 9, which saw resentment fester in society due to many being caught up in the state’s heavy-handedness. A LUMS professor was assaulted by law enforcement agencies for protesting outside the university with his family.
That resentment and anger were provided an outlet on Oct 30 through a man widely considered by some to be a representative of the establishment.
The raw and unrefined nature of some of the questions also points to a larger dilemma in academic institutions where they lack similar avenues and outlets for students to apply critical theory and discourse taught in books and lectures to real-life scenarios, especially when engaging with political leaders and stakeholders since those opportunities are far and few with heavily controlled discussions.
The PTI factor and the party’s popularity among the youth certainly cannot be ruled out, as the party’s discourse was apparent in some of the questions.
Analysing the counter-reaction
However, while all of the above can explain the media frenzy, vitriol and harsh counter-reaction, it cannot rationalise or justify it.
Breaking it down and seeing the entire video of the interaction, no one was ‘roasted’ despite what screenshots of the premier’s facial expressions posted online by the PTI might lead one to believe. PM Kakar handled himself well in front of a crowd not exactly warm to him and exhibited a clarity of thought which sometimes seems otherwise missing in his media interactions.
That is not to say that the premier was in complete control — his answers to several questions either skirted around the topic like completely avoiding the question about the Jaranwala incident or were bafflingly inappropriate coming from the premier, even if only an interim one, such as his response to the issue of poll rigging and how there is no need to make a “fuss” about it.
Instead of making excuses for the problems afflicting our society or avoiding giving clear answers, the premier should have adopted a policy of honesty and clarity in talking to the next generation, since it more so than the previous generation, has little tolerance for those talking down to it or underestimating it.
Though it did seem that the situation got to him — to a certain extent at least — as demonstrated by his backhanded replies to some questions, which came off as condescending and talking down to his audience, as well as his ‘quips’ to some zingers. His response to a question on his tardiness smacked of society’s dismissal of young people’s points of view, especially by older people who refuse to admit mistakes and continue practices that hold us back.
Tardiness, despite some in the media calling it an “unfortunate but trivial matter”, is a chronic issue in Pakistan society which affects everyone from the lowest to the highest level. That the next generation realised this and pointed it out to the prime minister should have been a moment of appreciation, a simple apology and affirmation to do better instead of justifying it and belittling the student. How can we expect the youth to grow and learn from their mistakes when adults are so reticent to admit to their own?
A person of the premier’s stature should rise far above provocations and have the composure to resist losing control. However, to give credit where it is due, the prime minister taking the incident lightly in a subsequent interaction and defending the students is a commendable step.
Of course, more than that, there is the larger debate of why an unelected caretaker prime minister felt the need to even conduct this exercise in the first place or share his long-term vision, as he is only supposed to be present in a short-term capacity to oversee elections and the affairs in between.
Those piling on to the students for the depth of their questions and bemoaning their content need to realise that this was an academic interaction, not a press grilling so there was no burden of responsibility on the students to stay plugged into minute-to-minute political developments to tailor their hard-hitting questions.
The students were not being paid to probe the prime minister, so there was no compulsion on them to ask the questions that society, journalists or political circles deem appropriate.
Presented with the rare chance to interact with one of the country’s highest constitutional offices, they asked that which was relevant to them and their lives as evidenced by the queries from students from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who raised questions about the lack of development in their areas as well as the state’s confused policies regarding militants.
People need to realise the students were under no compulsion nor did they owe anyone anything in asking what they did.
Those in the media complaining about the questions or the conduct of the students would do well to reflect on themselves and the dismal state of their own landscape where shouting matches pass for political dialogue and debate on talk shows instead of civilised discourse.
Are the resentment, disappointment and condemnation aimed at the students from those in the media actually a reflection of their own internal admission of guilt and culpability?
Most importantly, this preoccupation with painting the students as rude, uncouth and ill-mannered presents a fundamental flaw and misunderstanding in Pakistani society. Questioning older people and people in positions of authority and holding them to account is not rude or inappropriate behaviour but the very foundation of a robust and democratic society.
How to formulate and ask questions from those in positions of power should be a fundamental skill taught to level the playing field instead of being considered an affront to personal honour and dignity.
That is considered so is a reflection of society’s authoritarian and patriarchal mindset and attitudes where dissent or inquiry are clamped down on and considered threats, to be silenced instead of placated through rational and logical responses. This is all to preserve the status quo and maintain the hegemony of the power elite by preventing the youth from speaking out, even in a respectful manner.
The conflation of questioning authority and undermining it is a national affliction that results in the kind of brutal clampdowns on rights movements that we so often see in our country.
Authority is never absolute and unquestionable, if discrepancies are present in the conduct of those authorised with power, then it is the job of the people to hold them to account. If the previous generation failed at it, that is no reason why it should project its failures onto the next generation and stop it from charting its own path.
Even if the youth were abrupt in their questioning, that too is no reason to blow them off or harshly rebuke them. The passion of the youth should be allowed more outlets to express themselves and stumble and fall, and rise back up again to do better the next time. They are students, they are supposed to err and learn and become better versions of themselves.
Ironically, amid all the media frenzy and venom directed at the students, the prime minister’s own words of advice from earlier in his talk ring true when he said, “Don’t be afraid of making the wrong choices…We may end up making a bad choice but that is part of the learning process. If you do not make mistakes…how are you going to learn?”
Furthermore, all the discourse about supposed rudeness or the conduct of students is mostly based on soundbites and short clips going viral, which do not reflect the true picture of how the talk went.
Watch the whole conversation yourself beyond the media’s exaggeration and spin-doctoring to see what was asked and how it was responded to and then come to your own conclusions.
The most important takeaway from all this for policyholders and those in the corridors of power was that the youth’s resentment and frustration witnessed during the talk was only a drop in the ocean and is symptomatic of the feelings of all young people in the country.
The interaction has important implications for policymakers in how the next generation of voters views them and the level of anger present at their shenanigans that have deprived the youth of agency, stake and future in the country.
With over nine million new youth added to the electoral list for the upcoming polls, all stakeholders would do well to bow to the winds of change and rectify what has gone wrong in this experiment to win them over lest ‘rude’ questions spill out into something else entirely.
Lastly, the PTI’s antics and how it has capitalised on the encounter to forward its own political interests and narrative is nothing short of deplorable, given its callous disregard for the safety and security of the students with their mugshots plastered everywhere.
We are all aware of the sensitive and turbulent times the country is going through, and using the youth in such a situation for your political mileage while jeopardising their safety by risking the state’s retribution is a new low.
There are already reports circulating of the students whose faces and questions went viral being “surveilled by tinted vehicles”, causing fear and paranoia to spread in the student body. If true, this in direct contrast to the premier’s own assurances during the talk where he assured them freedom to talk about “anything”.
That we cannot allow our youth and students to even ask questions from a political leader without it becoming a headline event to be used for each stakeholder’s own agenda in the ceaseless war of narratives or inviting risk to their personal selves is a new low for our society. It also encapsulates why the adults of this country have failed the next generation and show no signs of stopping.
Let students be students, let the young be young, let them ask questions and hold authority to account. Not everything is supposed to be sacrificed at the altar of political, state or media interests for the sake of those old and past their prime while depriving the youth of its voice.