Higher education in South Asia has been largely influenced by populist political ideologies. The region’s elite class’s use of populism as a political practice in education and the dissemination of various discourses through curriculum related to national interests, social and cultural values and ideological beliefs have deepened the region’s already ingrained ideological and political factionalization.
Such interventions by the political and religious groups have been justified either in the name of safeguarding students interests, mainly of those which come from middle and poor economic backgrounds, or to promote a range of political and ideological beliefs where emphasis is usually placed on patriotism and nationalism.
In Bangladesh, during the early 1970s, Mujib-ur-Rahman’s appeal to Bengali nationalism, which while gave him a new country, became a reason for his downfall when he applied the same rhetoric to crackdown against his own political opposition. Similarly in India, unlike the Congress’s secular appeal, the BJP constantly harps about the need of a “more Hindu India,” making it a populist demand which even the party’s critics find hard to challenge. However, the BJP’s fundamentalist appeal to Hinduism has started to foment anti-Islam hysteria with violence and ideological polarization growing rapidly in the country. In Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto introduced populism by appealing to the need of a future that is based on the values of “Islamic socialism.”
“Since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 which resulted in Pakistan and India becoming independent countries and the eventual independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the use of education in the creation of antagonist identities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been common”
Each political party and group categorizes its intervention in the realm of populist appeal, if not vigorously then passively, which as a result has created deep polarization and divisions not just around campuses but also drawing red lines regarding what is acceptable in curriculum in terms of nationalism and antinationalism. Besides domestic political and ideological divisions that continue to plague the higher education of the respective countries, the state of curricula and textbooks in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh is such that the early education in all three countries begins with disseminating hate towards each other, if not on political levels than on ideological levels. Since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947 which resulted in Pakistan and India becoming independent countries and the eventual independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the use of education in the creation of antagonist identities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been common.
Tariq Rehman, a prominent Pakistani educationist while commenting on the abundance of hateful literature in the country’s social studies textbooks, says that “textbooks in Pakistan cannot mention Hindus without calling them ‘cunning’, ‘’scheming”, ‘deceptive’ or something equally insulting.” In Pakistan’s literature, India is usually advertised as an enemy and students as young as belonging to Class II and III are taught that “Mohammad Ali [Jinnah] felt that the Hindus wanted to make the Muslims their slaves and since he hated slavery, he left the congress.” Similarly, in India, Muslims are often considered outsiders which mean they are often “portrayed as invaders of India who systematically assaulted Hinduism during their rule.” “The curricula have most egregiously failed to provide students with the information and education they need to initiate reconciliation.” Instead, both countries, in their history syllabi and textbooks have perpetuated negative nationalism and enmity inwardly and outwardly,” notes another research study.
The popularized narrative of hatred which political interests have been able to introduce as the accepted and logical account, presents a challenge not only for educational institutes but for teachers as well, for any debates beyond the accepted narratives normally draw violence and violent attitudes.
Higher Education institutions play a key role in developing and reforming the democratic culture in any society or community. In South Asia, universities have an extraordinary responsibility to shape the identities, ideologies, policies, and practices of public for the better through independent inquiry, free exchange of ideas, the importance of evidence, and the common wealth of knowledge. Democratic education that pushes the academic institutions to go beyond the ‘subject-matter’ instruction and focus on nourishment of life-experiences is the need of this region.
“One may think that years of poor planning and mismanagement in universities has dilapidated the very roots of higher education in the region and it is not impossible to recover from this abyss”
Now more than ever before, there is a desperate need for improvement and growth of higher education institutions in South Asia. The issues, as discussed earlier in the paper, are severe and there are no simple solutions. If we do not address these challenges with adequate planning, creative thinking and progressive ideology, the higher education institutions may compromise their resourcefulness and credibility. Doing the needful would require the collective wisdom and collaborative efforts of policy makers, university leaders, faculty, students and non-teaching staff. One may think that years of poor planning and mismanagement in universities has dilapidated the very roots of higher education in the region and it is not impossible to recover from this abyss. It is, however, important to realize that no matter how serious and problematic the rhetoric of misguided populism and parochial nationalism may be, it is definitely not insurmountable. We need a clever and well-thought out strategy to strengthen the higher education system.