The Privatization Of FC College: A Stand Against Talibanization In Pakistan?

The privatization of a men’s college in Lahore has raised strong feelings across the country. There are two grounds for this controversy. First, this privatization has taken place despite assurances, agreements and official memoranda from the government that more public education resources will not be privatized. Secondly, the de-nationalization of Forman Christian College is contentious because the college has been handed over to an American group, the United Presbyterian Church of USA.

The latter issue is especially critical as the establishment is trying to make this privatization an example of their policy of religious tolerance. Indeed, the privatization of FC College is being portrayed as a stand against Talibanization of Pakistani society. Just as General Zia carried out such ‘reforms’ under the guise of making Pakistan more Islamic, his successor is following the same policy while claiming to make Pakistan more tolerant! Privatization is held out to be modernization.

We are told that the elements fighting the privatization are religiously motivated and are only resisting because they fear secularism. There is no doubt that the student protests are largely organized by the Islami Jamiat-I-Tuliba (Islamic Student’s Front). Indeed, they are motivated by fear of Christian influences defiling ‘pure minds’. But, even if for the wrong reasons, they still echo the feelings of a large segment of our population who is concerned about the lack of access this privatization will entail for the majority of Pakistani youth, including the students comprising the rank and file of the IJT.

Showing blatant disregard for the agreement reached in 2002 with the protest movement against privatization of healthcare and education whereby the government had agreed to halt further denationalization without consultation, the ‘Real Democracy’ government of Gen. Musharraf decided to privatize, or ‘grant autonomy’ as the spin doctors like to call it, to the college in March 2003. As a result of this decision there were protests by students and teachers, which were brutally crushed by the police. A Joint Action Committee that had been formed as a response to the promulgation of an ordinance in 2001 stipulating the formulation of Boards of Governors in public universities and colleges as a first step towards privatization, stepped up the level of protests. Still, the government officially handed over the management of the college to the United Presbyterian Church of USA, whose claim on the college is dubious at best, on March 19, 2003.

FC college used to be one of the renowned centers of education in pre-partition India and then in Pakistan. If you enter it today, it feels as if one is entering a local police station or a mini fortress. The number of policemen on constant guard around the gate to the college exceeds 50 at any given time. All vehicles are forced to park right after entering and then begin a series of hurdles to reach any of the college blocks. The paths around the college have barricades thrown across that make it impossible for more than two people to walk abreast. The heavy police presence is reinforced by a large number of private security officers with weapons on clear display lest any one mistake them for anything other than what they are—thugs for hire. By the estimate of one official in an unofficial setting, the security presence at FC College must be costing the government close to Rs. 100,000 a day. So what exactly is happening in this so-called educational institution?

As I walked through the college to experience the new ‘conducive-to-learning’ environment being delivered by the new owners, I was initially perplexed to read chalk lettering on the roads that said ‘Go Home Peter’. As it turned out, Dr. Peter Armacost is the new principal of the FC College. An American citizen, Armacost was president of Eckerd College, Florida (a small church college) from 1977 to 2000. Evidently, he is not the most popular person on the FCC campus.

Mr. Peter Armacost is here, braving the summer in Lahore, as well as alleged death threats and attacks on his residence, because he represents the United Presbyterian Church, which claims to have been the owner of the college before 1972. In 1972 the college was nationalized as part of a policy formulated by the populist Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Some time after the nationalization the church filed a lawsuit in Pakistani courts demanding compensation and rent for the property that was nationalized. The bill currently stands close to Rs. 1 billion.

The court process remained inconclusive until 1996 when Justice Naseem Hassan Shah, one of the foremost exponents of ‘political’ justice in the country, ruled in the favour of the church. Following that, negotiations between the church and the government of Pakistan became more intense. A task force was formed during the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which has been headed over the years by several former FC college graduates including Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, the current chief minister of Punjab, to hand the college over. Almost right before officially handing over the college to the church group, the task force spent Rs. 25 million on the uplift of the college.

Since taking over, the new owners have effected several changes. One of the primary subjects of their reforms have been the lecturers. As government servants they had pension plans, seniority rights as well as spacious residences within the college that they were set to lose once the college was privatized. It is estimated that only 35% of the staff will be retained. Those retained will see an increase in their pay package as well as opportunities for international exchanges. The staff chosen for retention was evaluated in terms of their academic record as well as their distance from the protests.

The new management has already hired new staff members who are to start at the college in the middle of August, giving them two weeks for orientation before classes resume in September. In a move reminiscent of Monty-Python films, in order to appease the protestors, the government has declared that all of the teaching staff laid off by the new management will be adjusted within Lahore in a new college formulated almost exclusively for this purpose. These teachers, who are deemed unfit to teach the new wealthier students at FC college, will thus be employed to teach in a public college.

Fees for the college have risen sharply from Rs. 1800 to Rs. 2400 (depending on science or arts subjects) per year to Rs. 14,000 to 16,000. The total number of new students admitted into the college has already decreased from 1,400 in 2002 to 1,050 in 2003. The prohibitive cost is likely to close yet another avenue of higher education to a large majority of students. However, realizing that many middle class parents will mortgage and sell all they can to finance their children’s education, the college management is optimistic about attracting enough students to meet their profit targets for the medium term.

As for the quality of education, the writing is on the wall. The quality of all the premier institutions of Pakistan privatized over the last ten years has deteriorated so markedly that even the government’s spin doctors cannot claim otherwise. Graduates with top marks from Government College Lahore, once a known center of excellence, now fail Provincial Services exams. The recently privatized and up graded Lahore College University for Women (if you can get your head around the college university bit) is offering “finishing classes modeled on European finishing schools”. The list is too long and depressing to enumerate here.

How then, does the government justify the privatization of yet another educational institution? And how does it rationalize the handover to a US Church group whose claim is contested in the courts by, of all the people, the local church authorities. The Lahore Church Council of the United Church’s claim is based on the fact that in 1932 all the church missionary organizations, societies, institutions and groups, excluding Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Church and Salvation Army, were merged in the LCCUC with their properties and funds. In fact, the LCCUC managed the college until nationalization i.e. until October 1, 1972, and by rights should have been the body to regain control after denationalization.

The college is being privatized because the situation is fait accompli. Correspondence between the American authorities and the Pakistani education ministry points to the surprisingly active involvement of the US government in the privatization of a college in Pakistan. This could be explained in terms of the rather cozy relationship that is evident between various Christian fundamentalists and the Bush administration. The role that various Christian charities are playing in the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq is another example of this relationship.

FC College lies in the heart of the city of Lahore, occupying nearly 30 acres of prime property. However, more than the property itself and access to critical facilities like the Nuclear Research Center, its control provides an opportunity to influence a large section of society that is increasingly hostile to the American influence in Pakistan.

This is why the government of Pakistan gone to such lengths to accommodate and even subsidize the US church group. While other colleges have also been privatized, or handed back to the owners before nationalization, nowhere has the government actually spent Rs. 25 million on the uplift of the premises, created a new college to accommodate the teaching staff that would have been affected by layoffs in a private institution, spent so lavishly on the security of the Principal of the college who is an American citizen and provided police cover to crush any protests among students.

The privatization has nothing to do with raising the educational standards of the college, or cultivating tolerance in our society, and everything to do with accommodating a Church group with the backing of the US government. While it is true that some protestors against the privatization of FCC are motivated by religious sentiment, their protests are supported by those concerned about limiting access to education for the masses. Forcing the population to accept this change from ‘nationalized’ education to ‘globalized’ education by brute force and police repression is not going to make it more religiously tolerant.

The privatization of FCC is not about religious tolerance even though the protests are led by religious elements. It is contested because it will marginalize a large segment of the population, further lower the overall standard of education in Pakistan and provide a stronghold for influencing opinion to the dominant imperial power. In these political considerations the fundamentalists or religiously motivated student groups are ahead of the so-called progressives in Pakistan. The left-liberal progressives in Pakistan are primarily socially progressive but not politically progressive, in that they never organize to challenge the empire. Thus, it is unlikely that they can pose a serious challenge to political regression, which ultimately determines the level of social progress in a country.

Humeira Iqtidar is a journalist and commentator in Pakistan who writes frequently for ZNet and DAWN.

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