Last weekend, I attended a national conference organised under the auspices of the new Inter-University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences (IUCPSS). It was a great event and many interesting talks were given and a myriad of ideas shared. At the Q&A session, a young visitor from a European country asked why there was so little concern in Pakistan about the horrendous fire in Karachi, which a few days earlier had killed hundreds of factory workers due to neglect of safety regulations. She thought there had been more attention given to a poorly-made anti-Islamic, foreign film, which it did not deserve since this was the work of a sick mind, deliberately trying to ridicule and provoke the Muslims. The young woman had a point, or at least a starting point, for further debate and analysis. Yes, it was possible to compare the two events that happened closely in time. However, if we want to analyse the events more deeply, the topics should be kept separate. In addition, each of them would have a number of sub-topics that also needed to be studied. When the direct causes of the fire has been studied, and criminal neglect considered, then we should move on to study and debate the country’s labour laws, working conditions and life of the poor working class people, who actually make Pakistan go round! At the conference I attended, one of the speakers said that the role of and debate about the labour unions in Pakistan is negligible today. That is probably true; and we could add, university teachers and researchers should join hands and help each other understand the issues and find solutions. It is a fact that workers’ rights cannot be secured, unless the workers themselves fight for them from below. And the academicians can help too. And then, the film ridiculing Islam that was recently released should, indeed, be studied and debated, but it should be done separately from the factory fire tragedy. Whatever we do to express our opinions and disgust, it should be peaceful, and I hope that religious scholars and social scientists can study the events in detail to be able to understand the causes for emotional and widespread actions. We should agree on acceptable and constructive ways of response.Since the young woman at the conference drew our attention to both the fire and the film, to a labour event and a religious event, both very tragic, let me agree with her that in some ways there’s a relation between the two events. It is also a fact that religious leaders should be concerned about the first tragedy, as I am sure they are, because the tragic event has moral and religious aspects to it. In the end, most aspects are moral and religious.The title of the conference I attended over the weekend was “The State of Fundamental Rights in Pakistan”. Sitting there, I came to reflect on the fact that it was held in the most comfortable room thinkable with the best lunch you could wish for. Nothing wrong with that, but it always leaves me with some questions. The young woman, I mentioned above, did not make any comparison between that and the poor workers and other people just around the corner, even in the affluent city of Islamabad. Of course, we can excuse ourselves and say that we discussed research, which could lead to policies and practical changes and betterment of people’s lives. We were not attending an action-oriented conference although some of the young Pakistani speakers were more militant than I have heard in a long time. Good was that, but analyses were fairly simplistic, with few suggestions for strategies for how to see a better and fairer Pakistan for all! Perhaps, social scientists must become better at their work, and perhaps, too, they must become better at taking fieldtrips and seeing the real life outside the universities? Because, focus group meetings, the recent social science data collection tool, and the least scientific, is far from enough for understanding “how the other half live”, and for learning about so many other unknown things in Pakistan’s deeply class-divided society.And then, since it was only I and the Vice Chancellor from Bahawalpur and Chair of IUCPSS, Prof Dr M. Mukhtar, who had visible grey hair, which he pointed out, I came to reflect on the issue of the age of staff in the social sciences and the rights of the elderly in society at large. One of the presentations was about how we treat old people in Pakistan, and it had many sympathetic wishes for the future. The Gujrat Vice Chancellor and Chair of HEC’s Social Science Committee, Prof Dr Nizamuddin, drew attention to his university’s large study of the elderly in Punjab. He said most of them have to fend for themselves; whereas, it is conventional wisdom that the younger members in the families still care for their older members. Well, I still believe they do; more so, in Pakistan than in my home country Norway. But even Norwegians do it, till this very day! In Norway, it is usually a social responsibility of women; in Pakistan, men have greater responsibility.And then, being on the “Norwegian topic”, at the age of 67 every citizen is entitled to his or her pension. Some of the 40,000 Pakistani-Norwegians in the country are now reaching retirement age, and for the first time in their life, many Pakistani women receive a paycheque. This right for old people in Norway is only about three-quarters of a century old. On the second day of the conference, a retired Norwegian secondary school lecturer, Anne Halvorsen, stopped over in Islamabad en route to a special education school in Kharian, where her former Pakistani-Norwegian colleague, Bashir Ahmed, stays part of the year. She told me that it was easier for her to travel now because her mother had passed away last year, at the age of 102. When they celebrated her 100th birthday, the old woman was doubtful that she could really be that old. She said that 100 years was a very high age and she suspected that her daughter and grandchildren were fooling her!The elderly is not having a prominent place in studies in the social sciences in Pakistan. But they should since the number will grow markedly in the next couple of decades. Their life and well being, and there possibility to contribute should be considered!The social sciences in Pakistan are made up mostly of young people. They are often quite inexperienced and the social sciences have in the past been less prestigious than the sciences. The conference I attended and the new consortium behind it will help improve the social sciences in Pakistan. Better skills are needed and much of that can only be obtained through practical research. I hope politicians, civil servants and others will realise the importance of social science research, and set aside funds.But there are many other factors than funds that are important to develop competent social scientists. The researchers’ own life experience and their general knowledge of the lower classes, in addition to deeper scientific understanding of society, are essential. The values and attitudes of the social scientists are essential, including their analysis and empathy about the fire in Karachi and the anti-Islamic film.We usually say that if young people are not radical and militant, then they don’t have a ‘heart’ and their own thoughts. But then, if we in older age don’t become moderate and pragmatic, then we don’t have a ‘head’ and we remain irresponsible. Young academicians have to conform. They have to learn what older colleagues know, and then they can start questioning existing truths and look for alternatives. Few seem to be able to be critical in a systematic way at an early age. We should put more emphasis on teaching students to be critical and radical, and document their arguments through facts or logical arguments. Critiquing is not synonymous with disloyalty. It is part of the responsibility of a social scientist, even if the conclusions contradict conventional wisdom. If a social scientist has stopped asking critical questions, he or she is no longer a social scientist! It is true that we don’t always have the right answers, but we shed some light on reality so that societies can be better understood and improved. Last weekend’s conference and the new consortium will help us on the way. The two tragic events can form important examples for us to study and debate - and our consideration of age-groups and their role in society, including young social scientists as well as the elderly, are also important to study. My reflections in this article, following the conference I attended last weekend, only takes up a few important issues. Many other issues about people’s rights will be included in the report, which the organisers said will be ready in a few weeks’ time. And then, tomorrow, when we mark the World Peace Day, we have another opportunity to reflect on the rights issues. The most important prerequisite for peace is ‘equality’; that we all respect and value each human being as equal - as we are in the eyes of God!
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.Email: email@example.com